Who’s to say what qualifies as sport? Modeling could be considered a sport: it’s performance-based, highly competitive, demands an elite physique, and is a billion-dollar industry. Let’s say you buy into that idea (which, now that we’re thinking about it: Olympic modeling?), we could then say that 19-year-old model Kate Upton ranks among the top athletes in the world. That, and she’s also a five-time equestrienne champion for the American Paint Horse Association.
Born in Michigan and raised in Melbourne, Florida, Upton’s town’s claim to fame is professional surfer Kelly Slater, who also grew up there. But it wasn’t the local bro sport that enticed Upton. “While I was growing up, I wasn’t a great swimmer,” she says. “But my sister and I were obsessed with horses. We took lessons and kept getting better. We kept going to the next level.” After being discovered by a model agent at the young age of 12, Upton evacuated the stables to become a show pony herself.
Eventually she moved to Miami, and, like any athlete with that innate, destiny-implicating gift, she was booked every day for two and a half weeks, convincing her mother of her potential success. She finished high school via online courses. “People were always like, that’s a lot of responsibility, how could you start so young?” she says. “But I had my own horse, I mucked its stall every day, it was my responsibility. So taking care of myself or another animal was my daily routine.”
Looking after herself proved to be advantageous in the long run. On her 18th birthday, she signed with IMG, scored a spot in Sports Illustrated’s coveted swimsuit issue lineup, and a couple of days later a Guess campaign. “It was a good week,” she admits with a smile.
Upton functions like a seasoned vet who is accustomed to rigorous travel. “This week, I worked in Belize, then flew to L.A. for a job, then took the red eye to London and got off the plane and went immediately to work,” she says. “But I’m 19 and I’ve seen the whole world, and that’s awesome.”
With her modeling career thriving, and the life of a burgeoning celebrity settling in (paparazzi and dating rumors abound), Upton is certainly ready for her close-up. Her test drive in the world of moving image, a cell-phone video of her doing the Dougie at a basketball game, brought in over three million views on YouTube. Not surprisingly, the competitive field of acting has welcomed her with open arms. Upton had a cameo in Ben Stiller’s comedy thriller Tower Heist, and she’ll play an oxymoronic sexy nun in April’s reinvention of that classic trio of oxlike morons, The Three Stooges.
“I’m not scared about anything,” she says. “I feel like I can overcome any kind of pressure. As long as I know who I am and I stay that way, then I can tackle anything.”