NEW YORK, United States — Starring Lena Waithe, whose only other cover has been for the niche LGBTQ magazine Out, wearing imperceptible makeup, a plain white crew neck T-shirt and delicate double-strand necklace, her dreadlocks casually strewn about her shoulders, Vanity Fair's new cover is the opposite of male-gaze-oriented sex appeal that has traditionally covered the magazine and still dictates the look and casting choices of so many glossies — including women's titles — as part of a calculus driven by newsstand appeal.
Amplifying Waithe's beauty, understated sexiness and star power are minimalist, almost retro-looking cover lines. Where just about every other magazine cover is screaming at you with cleavage, tight satin and tawdry, oversized type, the new Vanity Fair invites you into its world with invigorating minimalism, and the rare famous face the average person can still learn something about. Its competitors have been getting ready for days; Vanity Fair woke up like this.
Radhika Jones, the title's new editor-in-chief, certainly surprised traditionalists with her first cover pick. The New York Post accused Jones of shunning the Hollywood elite and called Waithe "almost as unknown as she is." I'm not sure in what realm Waithe qualifies as "unknown" when she's the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing for Netflix's "Master of None," in which she co-stars. She also created Showtime series "The Chi" and has a highly engaged Instagram following of 280,000. In the broader media landscape of the internet, where activism-tinged inclusivity and the unexpected are rewarded with virality, she's an absolutely brilliant choice, even if the average "Big Bang Theory" viewer who buys hamburgers and sunbathing reading material at Wal-Mart doesn't know who she is.
Don't get me wrong, the choice of Waithe is shocking for the print world, even if she shouldn't be. After decades of the same, mostly white, heteronormative faces, a lesbian woman of colour who may be talented and popular, sure, but remains "untested" in the world of newsstand sales probably qualifies as a "risk" to the executives pouring over spreadsheets on their office couches. But fans of Waithe or "Master of None" or "The Chi" will delight in, if not buying the issue, sharing this story online, or regramming or tweeting the cover for their social followers. The cover is a bald acknowledgement that trying to appeal to a newsstand buyer the way editors traditionally have makes no sense because, thanks to that thing everyone has called a phone, there may as well be no newsstand buyer.
It makes sense to use a magazine's dwindling resources for content that will challenge people's expectations of that brand and drive online engagement.
According to the Alliance for Audited Media, average single copy sales of Vanity Fair fell from 158,687 in the second half of 2016 to 127,365 in the second half of 2017 — down from an all-time high of 738,929 for a September 2005 issue featuring Jennifer Aniston. Now, it makes more sense to use a magazine's dwindling resources for content that will challenge people's expectations of that brand and drive online engagement, whether it performs on newsstands or not.
Cover subjects for mass consumer titles tend to be chosen after editors and their talent bookers hem and haw for a while over who will sell. A tragic number of interesting, diverse celebrities and up-and-comers are dismissed because editors assume they won't, either because they haven't been on a cover before or an editor hasn't heard of them personally or they didn't perform on their last cover. Playing this game is as futile as chasing traffic from Facebook, and informed by far less data than internet editors use. (Some editors, to be fair, will check web traffic to assess a star's popularity before booking them, which seems smarter than just looking at old newsstand sales numbers, but I'm not sure of any title where this has become standard practice.)
Once a cover subject is chosen, a shoot takes place and a story is written for the magazine, then a web video and social requests are tacked on, and the print package (or at least part of it) will hit the website. Some magazines still withhold some print cover story material believing this will help to sell more physical magazines (it never does). It's a top-down approach to publishing where print is the top and the web is the down. It's why magazines still make "behind the scenes at So-and-So's cover shoot" videos which almost never go viral and BuzzFeed makes videos of A-list stars playing with puppies that go viral every time.
But in a world where print magazines sell only tens of thousands of copies at newsstand a month versus the tens of millions who read their websites (according to Similar Web, Vanity Fair's site attracts over 20 million unique users a month), this makes no sense. It's downright absurd, when you think about the money going into these shoots, to invest this much in a story that may or may not even make it online in full, where it may or may not perform, and therefore only reach tens of thousands of readers total across all platforms.
It's also downright absurd that a cover star like Waithe is such a surprising pick. As an out black woman making it in the sexist, racist film and television industry, she's exactly the kind of celebrity who should be on lots of magazine covers. She's a voice that will speak to a younger generation in 2018, when explosive youth-powered social activist movements fighting sexism, sexual harassment, racism, gun violence and a host of other issues will continue to draw front-page headlines. If magazine media wants to survive, it's this risk-taking, highly vocal generation that brands need to start attracting. And it doesn't seem like push-up bras and the same two dozen women who have always been on magazine covers are exactly doing that.