On Covers of Many Magazines, A Full Racial Palette Is Still Rare
Halle Berry, in her role as the sexy superspy Jinx in ”Die Another Day,” helps James Bond save the world from certain doom. But Ms. Berry may be performing an even more improbable feat as the cover model of the December issue of Cosmopolitan magazine.
Ms. Berry became only the fifth black to appear on the cover of Cosmopolitan since the magazine began using cover photographs in 1964, and she is the first since Naomi Campbell in 1990. Ms. Berry is evidently one of a tiny cadre of nonwhite celebrities who are deemed to have enough crossover appeal to appear on the cover of mass consumer magazines.
There are signs that the freeze-out may beginning to thaw, as the continuing explosion of hip-hop has pushed many black artists into prominence, and as teenagers’ magazines that are less anxious about race are bringing more diversity. But in many broad-circulation magazines, the unspoken but routinely observed practice of not using nonwhite cover subjects — for fear they will depress newsstand sales — remains largely in effect.
A survey of 471 covers from 31 magazines published in 2002 — an array of men’s and women’s magazines, entertainment publications and teenagers’ magazines — conducted two weeks ago by The New York Times found that about one in five depicted minority members. Five years ago, according to the survey, which examined all the covers of those 31 magazines back through 1998, the figure was only 12.7 percent. And fashion magazines have more than doubled their use of nonwhite cover subjects.
But in a country with a nonwhite population of almost 30 percent, the incremental progress leaves some people unimpressed.
”The magazine industry has been slow and reluctant to embrace the change in our culture,” said Roy S. Johnson, editorial director of Vanguarde Media and editor in chief of Savoy, a magazine aimed at black men. ”The change is broad and profound, and in many ways is now the mainstream.”
The absence of cover-model diversity could reflect the industry’s racial homogeneity. Four years ago, the trade publication Mediaweek found that only 6.1 percent of the magazine industry’s professional staff was nonwhite.
”We do not see ourselves in magazines,” said Diane Weathers, editor in chief of Essence, a monthly magazine for black women. ”Considering what the country we live in looks like today, I think it’s appalling.”
The women’s category has seen the most profound changes, largely as a result of O, the Oprah Magazine, whose cover repeatedly hosts Oprah Winfrey and has a large white readership.
Both Cosmo and O are published by Hearst magazines. As a newsstand giant, selling two million copies a month, Cosmo uses a near scientific blend of sex and Middle American beauty on its covers — a formula that does not seem to include black women. O magazine, in contrast, transcends race with a new, spiritually based female empowerment.
Publishing is a conservative industry, one that has been known to define risk as using a cover model with dark hair instead of blond. But a wave of Latina superstars like Jennifer Lopez, along with genre-breaking athletes like Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters, have redefined what a celebrity looks like. And the audience is changing as well. In the last five years, the nonwhite audience for magazines has increased to 17 percent from 15 percent, according to Mediamark Research Inc.
Yet, even as black and Hispanic women slowly make their way onto the covers of magazines of various genres, black males still find themselves mainly confined to a ghetto of music and sports magazines.
”When it comes to magazine covers, my client, who is one of the busiest guys in Hollywood, can’t get arrested,” said an agent for an A-list Hollywood actor who declined to give her name or the name of her client for fear of making a bad situation even worse. ”Magazines are in trouble and they are fearful of offending their audience of Middle Americans,” she said. ”But those same people are buying tickets to his movies.”
Daniel Peres, editor of Details, a men’s magazine owned by Fairchild Publications, said there was pressure to stick with outdated conventions because newsstands now display so many more titles competing for the consumer’s attention.
”Everyone is terrified of a misstep,” he said. ”While most people in the business would prefer it go unspoken because they are horrified at being perceived as racist, it is a well-known legend that blacks, especially black males, do not help generate newsstand sales.”
Christina Kelly, now editor in chief of YM, a teenagers’ magazine owned by Gruner & Jahr USA, recalls a struggle with the circulation people when she worked as an editor in 1993 at the now-closed Sassy magazine.
”We wanted to put Mecca from the band Digable Planets on the cover because she was huge at the time and gorgeous,” she recalled. ”The circulation guys hated the idea, but we just went ahead and did it. The magazine was bagged with a separate beauty booklet, which was usually placed in the back, but this time, it was bagged in front. It just happened to have a picture of a blond, blue-eyed woman on it.”
Today, magazines like Teen People and YM feature cover subjects of a variety of hues. In the last year, YM has had covers that included nonwhite artists like Ashanti and Enrique Iglesias. And in August, Teen People chose Usher, a black R&B;singer, as its No. 1 ”hot guy” and featured him on the cover.
”Race is a much more fluid concept among teens,” said Barbara O’Dair, managing editor of Teen People.
Magazines for teenagers, because of their reliance on the heavily integrated music industry, use 25 percent nonwhite subjects on their covers. If white teenagers are crossing over to embrace minority artists, many artists are meeting them halfway in terms of style.
Fashion, previously a very segregated world, has become transracial, with young white women adopting street fashion while black artists wear long, flowing tresses. Certain totems of beauty — blond hair, among other things — can now be seamlessly situated on almost anyone regardless of race. The singers Shakira, Beyoncé Knowles, and Christina Aguilera, all nonwhite, have at times worn blond hair that is indiscernible from that of Britney Spears.
”There is virtually no stigma attached to black celebrities changing their hair as there has been in the past,” said Leon E. Wynter, author of ”American Skin: Pop Culture, Big Business, and the End of White America” (Crown Publishers, 2002). ”The hair thing is completely over.”
And race itself has become more complicated and less definable, said Mr. Wynter. He suggests that many of the Latin superstars like Jennifer Lopez are often seen not as minorities by young white teenagers, but as a different kind of white person. Very few of the breakout artists featured on covers are dark skinned.
The growing acceptance of nonwhite cover subjects is not restricted to teenaged girls. Men’s magazines, for example, are not as racially monolithic as they once were. GQ, which has a nonwhite readership of 18 percent, has always had more diverse images by featuring minority athletes and actors.
But a newer generation of men’s magazines seem to find ethnicity sexy. In the last year, 5 of the 12 women featured on the cover of Maxim, the spectacularly successful young men’s magazine owned by Dennis Publishing USA, were other than white.
”It doesn’t stem from any political motivation,” said Keith Blanchard, editor in chief of Maxim. His readers, mostly white young men, ”are listening to Shakira and Beyoncé. They are cheering for Lucy Liu kicking butt in ‘Charlie’s Angels.’ And I think there is a certain attraction to exotic women.”
But there are those who would argue that equal opportunity objectification of women does not represent progress. ”What is attractive is socially constructed,” said Robin D. G. Kelley, a professor of history at New York University who has written extensively about race and black culture. ”I think that race still matters, and many times what is happening is that these poly-racial figures are used to fulfill fantasies. It’s the Jezebel phenomenon.”
As for the December Cosmopolitan, Kate White, the magazine’s editor in chief, said Ms. Berry was on her cover simply because she meets all the criteria of a typical Cosmo girl. ”She is beautiful, powerful, successful, and she can open a movie,” Ms. White said, suggesting that Ms. Berry has the kind of wattage that can draw people into a movie, or to buy a magazine. Ms. White said the absence of nonwhite women on the cover of Cosmo reflected the celebrities that Hollywood produces, not the magazine’s preferences.
Still, when the magazine uses a model instead of a celebrity, it almost invariably chooses a white person. ”We choose models who have already started to gain critical mass, regardless of hair or eye color,” said a Hearst spokeswoman in response. ”We want the reader to have a sense of having seen them before.”
It probably helps, in terms of both newsstand and advertising, that Ms. Berry’s face is everywhere now that she has been selected as a spokeswoman for the cosmetics company Revlon. There are important business, as well as cultural reasons, why after so many years that black, at least in some magazines, may be beautiful.
”Part of what is going on is that the beauty industry woke up and realized there was a big market there,” said Roberta Myers, editor in chief of Elle, a women’s fashion magazine that is uncommonly diverse in cover selections. ”The old assumptions that there was only one kind of beauty, the typical blond, blue-eyed Christie Brinkley type, are gone.”
While editors sweat over the consequences of diversifying their cover mix, they may fall behind a coming generation of young consumers who have decided that race is much less important than how hot a given celebrity’s latest record or film is.
”The list of who is acceptable or hot is slowly expanding,” said Mr. Wynter. ”In the current generation, there is an underlying urge, an aspiration, to assert one’s common humanity. You can’t see it in the magazines that are on the shelves now, but it is coming to the fore.”