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Model Who Posed As Ill-Fated Swimmer for Iconic Jaws Poster Preaches Shark Protection

Sharks aren't exactly cuddly puppies, but they're also not evil eating machines whose sole purpose is to snack on humans.

By Josh Weiss

We'd be willing to bet that when you hear the word "shark," the poster art for Steven Spielberg's Jaws is one of the visuals that quickly flashes before your eyes. That indelible image of an ill-fated swimmer about to be chomped on by a great white rising from the darkest depths of the ocean is enough to trigger a thalassophobia attack in even the saltiest of sea dogs.

But the woman who posed for the iconic artwork doesn't want the public to come away with the wrong idea about sharks, those fearsome predators of the deep, whose attacks on humans are extremely rare. 

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“You should always be cautious when you’re in the water. If there’s some apex predator there, you have to be careful, but basically, they’re not there for you," professional model turned devoted conservationist Allison Maher Stern explained on a recent episode of the WCS Wild Audio podcast. "They’re there for a seal or whatever their food source is."

Her advice? “Don’t dress like a seal."

How the famous Jaws poster was created

Stern also related the story of how she got the modeling gig for the Jaws artwork, which was initially commissioned for the paperback edition of Peter Benchley's bestselling novel of the same name. The opportunity, she said, came to her "out of the blue" not long after she'd moved from Ohio to New York City in the summer of 1974 for a job with the Wilhelmina modeling agency.

"They requested me for some reason," Stern remembered. "I already had it, I didn’t have to compete with anybody, so that was great. Since it was one of my first first jobs, [I said] ‘Yay, I’ll take that.’" The photo shoot took place at a studio on Fourth Avenue, where she was asked to lay "on a couple of stools" and pretend to swim. Artist Roger Kastel, who would be rendering the snapshots into the eventual cover art, provided directions like "‘Swim faster!" or "Look out, shark!’"

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“That was for the book cover and then the book cover became the poster for the movie and the billboard and the T-shirts and everything else," she continued. "It kind of grew from there.”

And while the young model did not have a direct hand in the production of the 1975 blockbuster, she did get to meet Mr. Spielberg years later once she and her husband, Leonard, became involved with the director's Shoah Foundation (a non-profit committed to preserving the testimony of Holocaust survivors). "He was a perfectly lovely, wonderful, nice guy. He autographed a poster for me."

The Jaws poster model met an actual shark in the wild

Richard Dreyfuss (L) and Robert Shaw holding ropes off a boat as a shark approaches.

As fate would have it, life imitated art while Stern snorkeled off the coast Guana Island in the British Virgin Islands with her brother and nephew.

"There were a billion little bait fish in the water. And all the sudden, I realize I’m swimming in a cloud and I said to myself, ‘I really shouldn’t be swimming in the food chain. That’s not a good plan.’ As I kicked my flipper, all the fish parted and I was eyeball-to-eyeball with this huge shark … He brought his tail to his nose and shot over my shoulder when he brought it back. That was really eye-opening."

RELATED: Steven Spielberg 'truly' regrets demonization of sharks and harmful sport fishing caused by 'Jaws'

While promoting The Fabelmans late last year, Spielberg confessed that he feels an incredible amount of guilt over how Jaws created a stigma of sharks. “That’s one of the things I still fear. Not to get eaten by a shark, but that sharks are somehow mad at me for the feeding frenzy of crazy sport fishermen that happened after 1975," he said on the BBC's Island Discs program. "To this day, I regret the decimation of the shark population because of the book and the film. I really, truly regret that."

Jaws (and its three sequels) are available to purchase via Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Want even more creature features? Head over to Peacock for movies like Van Helsing, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Golem, Piranha, The Void, and more!