Riding with Chrissy Teigen

On a crosstown trip with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cover girl as she catcalls cops, bemoans Red Robin's hiring practices, and ponders life after modeling

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Chrissy Teigen, in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, New Zealand on Oct. 29, 2013.
James Macari / Sports Illustrated

Chrissy Teigen, in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, New Zealand on Oct. 29, 2013.

Tap, tap, tap, go the cop’s knuckles on the passenger-side front-seat window.

It’s just after 3 p.m. on Tuesday. We’re idling in a white Lexus SUV on 43rd Street, just past Seventh Avenue, and this, we expect the cop to tell us, is not OK. Our window rolls down. “How long are you gonna be? My boss says you’re going to have to move soon.”

Then the backseat passenger-side window rolls halfway down. A young, slender, tan woman peeks her head out and says, “Hey there, handsome.” The cop — pale, muscular, with crisp features and a shaved head — moves along, but he lets us stay.

The young woman gives the rest of us in the car her read on the situation. “He’s almost like a cop stripper, isn’t he? He’s a little too cool to be a cop.” She drops her voice a couple octaves. “Turn down your music, laaaadies.

Another cop approaches, the boss. He’s older, stockier, and he hustles us along coarsely — “move your f–kin’ car.” But the young woman is in no mood to be picky. “God, so many strippers!”

She cackles. “You know how you feel so hyper when you’re so tired? That’s me right now.”

The young woman is hyper and tired because she is Chrissy Teigen, one of the three women Sports Illustrated put on the cover of its 50th anniversary swimsuit issue, which landed on newsstands Tuesday. As the swimsuit issue has grown from a quirky edition of an offbeat title (in 1964′s debut swimsuit issue, SI‘s masthead listed contributing nature and yachting editors) into the 260-page behemoth it is today, so too has the promotional campaign attending the thing.

Teigen and her cover-model compatriots, Lily Aldridge and Nina Agdal, were awake Monday morning before 3 a.m. Pacific to do the Today show. By day’s end they were on a red-eye to New York, and come Wednesday, they’ll be in Miami. A whirlwind, filled with appearances in most every media outlet up to and including Charlie Rose. Yes, Charlie Rose. Teigen’s excited about that appearance, because the studio allegedly offers a full food spread. And all she’s ingested today is a mimosa and the innards of a tuna sandwich. At least on Monday she had a big breakfast and an IV full of undetermined vitamins.

(A few words of disclosure here before proceeding: TIME and Sports Illustrated are owned by the same company, Time Inc. Occasionally the two titles collaborate on ventures, including my employment. But I had no involvement in the swimsuit issue, as a photographer, writer, editor or model.)

At 28, Teigen is the oldest of the three on the cover, and the most tenured, making her fifth appearance in the magazine. Yet she makes no show of being the most mature: When her makeup artist needs to slide past a reporter — the reporter says, “let’s just switch positions” — she cracks up. “That’s what she said!”

She makes fart noises and sings little songs she makes up on the spot. One was called “Hair Removal Tactics.” Its lyrics were simply, “hair removal tactics,” set to a shifting melody. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I’m married? Somebody married me?’ I act much younger than I am.” (Teigen married the singer-songwriter John Legend in 2013.)

Her demeanor, she says, has doomed her in the world of high fashion. “I’m not good at” — and here she involuntarily guffaws — “taking pictures. I can’t give a good face. I crack up.” But it has made her something of an icon in the swimsuit world, where charm and approachability work in a model’s favor. It helps that Teigen broadcasts her silly sensibility almost endlessly on Twitter, where, as of last count, she has shared over 45,000 tweets with nearly 360,000 followers. All but two or three of them, it seems, were about Bravo reality shows.

Teigen takes herself not at all seriously, viewing her career as something of a happy accident considering she once couldn’t land her dream job at a chain restaurant. “TGI Friday’s, Applebee’s, Red Robin, I applied everywhere. I was dying to work at Red Robin.” She was working retail at a surf shop in Huntington Beach, Calif., in her senior year of high school, when a photographer told her she might have the goods to model. She did workaday stuff, catalogs and pamphlets, including one where she posed as a scientist. (She’s mortified of that one surfacing someday.) She climbed the ladder, and then, lo, she was here.

Here, that is, on the cover of a big magazine, on a screen in Times Square, crisscrossing the country. But her dreams are ever-shifting. She’s miffed she never had the chance to have an office job: “If — well, obviously not if — when the day comes that I will have to bow out of being in the issue, I told everyone that I still want to be able to come over to Time headquarters.”

“Hey, I could work there!” she says. “I wanna pack those gift bags that we got every year. I love packing things! I’m very organized! And I would bring things to the office! I love to cook!”