MY WEEK: Coaxed at last into getting cheek to cheek with my bare bottom

MY WEEK – FIONA WALKER

After 35 years Athena’s tennis girl has agreed to be seen alongside the iconic poster

As told to Audrey Ward
27 March 2011
The Sunday Times

I’M SHY, HONEST Quite a few people knew I was the girl who flashed her bottom in the Athena tennis girl poster. I don’t regret doing it and I’m certainly not embarrassed by it. In fact I’m quite proud to have been asked to model for the image. Over the years I’ve been asked many times to be photographed alongside the poster, but until now I’ve always declined. Although I scratched my bare bottom for the camera I’m quite shy. But when the Barber Institute of Fine Arts asked me to help promote its exhibition of lawn tennis art — the first of its kind — I felt the time was right to reveal myself. I studied art illustration at university and I’ve always been passionate about art. Last Tuesday morning, before the press conference, I was feeling a bit anxious about it all but it was too late to back out. Seeing the picture again made me smile and I was happy to see it take its place in the history of tennis.

THE DOG HELPED TOO The picture was taken in 1976 by Martin Elliott, my boyfriend at the time. He was a photography graduate and having just started his own business he decided to shoot a girlie calendar with his colleague — they were all the rage back then. He got girls to adopt cheeky poses for some sporting images. I was helping him, sourcing props and standing in for test shots. We had been together six months when he asked me to pose for a picture in tennis gear. I didn’t have any aspirations to be a model but I thought it would be fun and I trusted Martin. I was 18 at the time and confident about my body. I wasn’t a keen tennis player so I had to borrow my father’s plimsolls. The dress came from a friend of a friend and the tennis balls belonged to my dog.

LOOK — NO KNICKERS! The picture was taken at the tennis courts at Birmingham University. Luckily they were in a secluded spot so I didn’t get caught jumping in the air with no knickers on. I don’t remember much about the day but I do know the sun was shining and I was feeling carefree. Martin wasn’t satisfied with the first shots, so I suggested I hitch up my tennis dress. I could never have imagined that my future father-in-law would put a copy of the poster on his wall, along with 2m other people. The poster went on to become one of the bestselling of all time. It’s the light that makes the image so appealing and it’s an innocent picture, the kind that a grandmother could give her grandson when he is off to college.

PROUD PARENTS I’m not sure what month of the calendar featured my picture but I think it was probably June, given that Wimbledon takes place then. I didn’t tell my parents, but a year later when the poster went on sale I came clean. My mother still has a faded copy of the image in the study. I think they were both quite proud. Martin and I broke up a few years afterwards and then I met my husband. The whole thing amuses him and there have been plenty of wisecracks. Once, while on holiday, we spotted somebody who had the image printed on the back of his T-shirt. My husband announced, “Oh, I need to get one of those T-shirts because my wife is always on my back.”

LADS’ MAGS LOVE ME I’ve never had any negative comments about the picture but I remember being at a party a few years ago and overhearing a snooty old lady say “I don’t think it’s her” as she looked me up and down. My twin daughters and my son get a good laugh out of the fact that their mother is the girl in the photo. When my son was 16 he came home from school and told me that a lads’ magazine had done a feature on the 100 sexiest images and I had been included. My friends don’t make reference to it at all because I think they worry they’ll embarrass me.

HOUSE OF MIRRORS Standing beside the image again made me feel reflective. Martin died last year after a long battle with cancer. We didn’t keep in touch after we broke up but I know he would have been thrilled with the exhibition. His death brought home to me how much time has passed. I’m 52 now and my bottom is not as pert as it was. I don’t have any mirrors in the house because my possessions are packed away until we move into the new home we’re building. My body has changed but I’m still happy with the way I look. In the new house I shall have plenty of mirrors.

As told to Audrey Ward Caught on Canvas: Tennis in Art takes place at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts May 27-September 18. barber.org.uk