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On Saturday night, Linda Graham invited a few friends over to her family's south Lincoln home to watch the “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2016 Revealed” special. And then she tried her best to act like she didn't know the big reveal already. 

A few hours before three of the 21 SI models on the show were told they would grace three separate covers of this year’s Swimsuit Issue, Ashley Graham had called her mom to say she’d be one of them. On newstands today, you can find Ronda Rousey, Hailey Clauson and Ashley, a 28-year-old Lincoln Southwest grad with a coveted IMG contract who’s been modeling since she was 12. 

"I'm insanely speechless," Graham, a size 16 model, said in an SI press release. "I cannot comprehend how I feel right now. This will go down in the books forever. It is a historic moment. Not only is this the first time that I'm in the issue, but I'm on the cover and sharing this honor with two of the most stunning women. This is for all the women who didn't think they were beautiful because of their size. This is for them."

Linda Graham took the call from her daughter Saturday at the SouthPointe theater, where she was watching a movie with some friends before the show aired in Lincoln. They gathered that something might be up after she spent about 30 minutes of the rom-com “How to Be Single” crying into her phone in the hallway of the movie theater.

By the time the special came on, it was no surprise to Ashley Graham’s mom that she was an SI cover model. And by the time Ashley was in the running for it, there was no question to her mother, and to the modeling world, that she belonged in contention.

"There's no denying that Ashley Graham brings something different to the table," SI assistant managing editor MJ Day said on the magazine's website. "It's exciting to meet someone who can totally handle this moment, take it, and amplify it, all because of who she is and how she celebrates herself."

Ashley Graham already has a portfolio of achievements, including magazine covers, a 30 Under 30 selection by Forbes, a New York Fashion Week runway appearance and a TEDx Talk about pushing past what others thought of her body to become confident in herself and an activist for others.

To make the SI cover, though, is a “game changer,” Linda Graham said.

“(Ashley) goes, ‘I didn’t know if Sports Illustrated was ready for this, because it is a leap,’” Linda Graham said. “So she was kind of prepping herself in case she didn’t get it. But you know, that confidence you see in her, that’s her. And that’s always been her.”

In Linda Graham's home, there's a picture in the living room of Ashley beaming at age 12, with her two younger sisters Madison, now 24, and Abby, now 22, flanking her. Ashley Graham was discovered that year during a trip to an Omaha mall and signed an international modeling contract at 13. Until she was 16, her mom traveled everywhere with her, but said she offered little help along the way. She wanted her daughter to go to the airline ticket counter, to find the route on subway.

“I needed to know that when I wasn’t there, that she could do it,” she said. 

Ashley Graham's gone on to release her own size-conscious lingerie line and co-found ALDA, a group of models "that represents beauty beyond size and challenges conventional notions within the fashion industry," as her website, ashleygraham.com, describes it.  

On Monday, she made the media rounds in New York, where she's lived since she was 17, finishing a day of TV appearances and magazine interviews with an appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” in a custom dress.

With the Swimsuit Issue cover comes new offers, opportunities, Linda Graham said. Some people might not know what to. Her daughter does. She wants a talk show, her mom said.

“She wants to be able to help kids, teenagers, people who feel so bad,” Linda Graham said. “If you look at her Twitter, Instagram, all the comments, it’s a lot of women saying: ‘You’ve empowered me. You made me feel better about myself.’ If you can make someone feel better about themselves, that’s when they start making a lifestyle change.”

Last February, Ashley Graham made headlines for a two-page advertisement in the Swimsuit Issue for Swimsuits for All’s #CurvesinBikinis campaign. In April, she flew to Valencia, Spain, to give her TEDx Talk. But a few days before that, she spent a day walking around New York with her mom. And she started asking her questions.

“She wanted to know how I was growing up, and if I had -- she was exploring the body issue thing,” Linda Graham said. “(Ashley asked) what insecurities did you have, or why didn’t you have insecurities?”

Linda Graham said hers were minimal, and credited growing up in Henderson. 

“It was more about hard work, and work ethic than it was about what you looked like,” she said. “You wanted to impress my parents, it would be (because) you’re a hard worker. And I said to her, if anything, that’s what I wanted to pass down to my kids is a work ethic. And she’s got it, definitely has the work ethic.”

Linda Graham said she didn't know when they were having that conversation that her oldest daughter would weave parts of it into her TEDx Talk that's been viewed over half a million times on YouTube. 

“As a curvy woman, it was the assumption that I should look up to Marilyn Monroe or Jennifer Lopez mainly because they were two of the most notable curvy women in the public eye who were being praised for their curves,” Ashley Graham said on the TEDx stage. “But these weren’t my role models. In reality, the woman I looked up to the most was my mother.

“She told me I was beautiful. And she never devalued herself, so why would I? She told me and taught me that true beauty comes from within. And that validation and self-worth must also come from within. In my lowest moments of insecurity, this is when I realized that I had to reclaim my body and its image as my own.”

On Monday, Linda Graham went straight from work to Barnes and Nobles to pick up the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. It hadn’t hit the shelves yet. (It should be there Tuesday.) She tried the Walgreens across the street. Not there either. And then she decided it could wait a day. She was happy with how things had unfolded so far.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7438 or cmatteson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSMatteson.

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Features reporter

Cory Matteson is a features reporter.

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