Gayle King, 69, Brings ‘Tasteful Cleavage’ to SI Swimsuit Cover: ‘I Thought I Was Being Punked’ (Exclusive)

The ‘CBS Mornings’ co-host tells PEOPLE all about her initial reaction to being asked to pose for the magazine before being surprised on air with her cover

Gayle King is reigning supreme on the 2024 cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit

The CBS Mornings co-host, who turns 70 later this year, says she thought she was “being punked” when she was asked to be in the 60th Anniversary Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue out May 17.

“It wasn’t something I dreamed about,” King tells PEOPLE of the honor, “but it was one of the highlights of all the things I’ve done because I never thought this would be possible.”

King was surprised with her cover spot reveal during a live on-air segment of CBS Mornings on Tuesday, May 14, with Hunter McGrady and Kate Upton — who also have solo covers — handing King her issue. (Chrissy Teigen also stars on a solo cover.)

“Ahhh! I’m on the cover,” the journalist screamed with excitement, holding the issue. “They told me I was just going to be on the inside! It’s not a dummy cover? This is going to be on the newsstands? Oh my God! Oh my God!”

“I’m floating, I’m floating, I can’t believe it,” she said, noting she didn’t think she’d ever be on the cover. “Never in my wildest dreams! Never, ever, ever.”

MJ Day, Editor in Chief of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, says of King’s moment in the magazine, “Gayle King, a first-timer who, like her co-cover models, not so gently reminds us that women are limitless and control their destinies.”

King tells PEOPLE that before saying yes to the photo shoot she used her family as a sounding board.

“I consulted my kitchen cabinet, which is daughter, Kirby, son, Will and Oprah,” she says, “And Oprah was like, ‘You and I have two very different ideas of fun always,’ but she said, ‘But it seems like something you would really enjoy.’ And Kirby and Will were like, ‘Go for it. Go for it.'” 

For her cover moment King wears a chic, printed one-piece swimsuit and cover-up by Evarae.

“I wanted tasteful cleavage, and they delivered on all of that,” King says of the swimsuits in the issue.

King tells PEOPLE she didn’t go crazy dieting and maintained her regular exercise routine including cardio, strength training.

“The day before, I did have a cheeseburger,” she shares. “It’s one of my favorite things. I did think that I would reduce my eating, but I didn’t even do that.”

King adds that the whole SI Swimsuit team, including editor-in-chief Day, made her feel comfortable in her skin almost instantly.

“I said to MJ, ‘God, now I’m going to have to start starving myself,’ and she said, ‘Absolutely do not do that. We don’t want you to change anything that you’re doing.’ I said, ‘Really? I don’t have to starve myself?’ and she said, ‘Please, we want you to do exactly what you’re doing.’ I said, ‘Well, is cottage cheese good on thighs?’ She goes, ‘Yes, Gayle. Actually, it is,’ because I was very worried about that.”

Photographer, Yu Tsai, was also the ultimate hype person on set during King’s photo shoot in Cancun.

“He made me feel like I was Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Halle Berry all rolled into one,” she tells PEOPLE. “I felt so comfortable and cared for that I didn’t even have time to feel self-conscious.”

Because four knockout covers aren’t enough for a big anniversary issue, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit is launching three additional collectible covers to celebrate its 60th Anniversary Legends shoot featuring 52 of the magazine’s past and present icons including Brooklyn Decker, Christie Brinkley, Kate Love, Leyna Bloom, Lily AldridgeMartha Stewart, Maye Musk, Molly SimsPaulina PorizkovaTyra Banks and Winnie Harlow. King also joined in on the fun, telling PEOPLE being in the same room with that much star power and talent was “a fun experience from beginning to end. “

“You realize when you’re around models who know what the hell they’re doing, it really does require a different kind of skill set — you can tell the difference between their poses and mine,” she says. “Theirs are so natural. Tyra, by the way, was showing me how to pose. I liked having a personal lesson from Tyra Banks.”

She’s Back! Tyra Banks Comes Out of Modeling Retirement to Cover ‘Sports Illustrated Swimsuit’ 2019

King adds that she’s happy brands like SI Swimsuit exist to encourage future generations to embrace their inner confidence.

“We all know that beauty comes from within, but I also know people see you first with their eyes,” she says. “I think looking good and feeling good matters. But I also think when you feel good, you look good. I don’t have hang-ups about my age. I really don’t.”

The 2024 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is on newsstands May 17.