Once More Unto the Beach

updated 08/23/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/23/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN CHERI BRAND WANTS TO REMEMBER what she was like as a toddler, the Ocala, Fla., health club manager need look no farther than Miami's 1-95. There, greeting commuters from the side of a downtown warehouse, hangs the likeness of Brand in all her pig-tailed, bare-bunned glory. "Everyone has baby pictures in their family album with their diapers falling off," says Brand. "I just happened to have mine on a billboard."

And on a few million bottles of sun-tan lotion: In 1959, Cheri posed for the snapshot that would inspire the long-running Little Miss Coppertone ads. Decades later, the picture still haunts her. "When people find out, the next thing they say is 'Turn around' or 'Prove it,' " she says. "I look a lot of leasing about having the world's most famous tan lines."

The drawing, a variation on an earlier local campaign, was created by Cheri's mother, Joyce Ballantyne Brand, a commercial artist who also drew the Pampers baby in 1977. Joyce (who has another daughter, Coby, 47, from a previous marriage) was paid $2,500 for the job and based her work on snapshots she'd taken of a 3-year-old Cheri in the backyard of their Bronxville, N.Y., home. (The dog, based on a neighbor's cocker spaniel, was added later.)

Before long, Cheri was on billboards around the country and in thousands of magazine ads. In 1991, Miami preservationists even proclaimed one of the billboards a historical landmark. "It's amazing that 'I can be part of something that the public is out there protecting," says Cheri, who is divorced and lives with boyfriend John Kleehammer, 25, in an apartment above her mother's. (Her father, Jack, died in 1984.)

While Joyce, 75, admits she doesn't understand the billboard's appeal ("It's just another damn baby," she says, slightly irked that the ad is her most famous work), Cheri is proud of her part in it. "People tell me how they used to see it on the way to their summer vacation, that it was a symbol of summer," she says. "Girls tell me they would dress up like the baby, in pigtails. A man I met at a party said, 'I had a crush on that little girl.' When people talk about how they relate to this piece of Americana, I realize it's more than just another old painting."

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