PEOPLE ARE TALKING ABOUT…: Vogue is getting lots of buzz for its decision to put NBA star LeBron James on the cover of its April Shape issue — but perhaps not the kind it was hoping for. James, the first African-American male ever to appear on the magazine’s cover, is shown with his mouth open in a hulking pose while holding model Gisele Bündchen by the waist. But the image has been compared by some to King Kong sweeping away a helpless white damsel in distress and triggered debate on “The Today Show” on Wednesday morning as to whether it is offensive. James, meanwhile, said in Sunday’s Cleveland Plain Dealer that he was fine with the photos, and a spokesman for Vogue said: “The Shape Issue celebrates athleticism from start to finish. LeBron is on the cover with Gisele because he is a basketball star and he was photographed in that spirit. We think LeBron and Gisele look amazing together on the cover.”
But several African-American editors and critics polled by WWD were more critical. Men’s Fitness editor in chief Roy Johnson was taken aback by James’ image, but also reflected on the larger issue of the lack of sensitivity at mainstream magazines to stereotypes. “It’s a reminder that as African-Americans, we have come very far to have an African-American male featured on the cover of Vogue, but we have very far to go to continue to educate people within our industry regarding the power of images and the potential impact they can have on their readers.”
Emil Wilbekin, editor in chief of Giant, also said he felt the cover didn’t accurately reflect the athlete, describing him as “cool” and “gentlemanly.” Wilbekin just finished a yearlong consulting project with Microsoft as a reporter and blogger for James’ Web site, lebron.msn.com, and followed the player through the NBA finals, to China and various events such as his appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” “The fact the best NBA ballplayer is on the cover of women’s Vogue is a step forward,” Wilbekin said. “But when I saw the image, I was a little disappointed.”
Bethann Hardison — who has mounted a campaign for more diversity in fashion — also believes the cover reflects a lack of judgment on Vogue’s part in deciding to use that image. ‘”Him, there with his mouth wide open, there could have been another shot. There are enough people talking about it that find something about it uneven.”
This story first appeared in the March 27, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Helena Andrews, a culture editor for Politico.com and contributor to TheRoot.com, also wondered whether there was someone at the magazine who could have questioned the imagery before choosing the cover. “It’s not something that people are going to start picketing Vogue for, but it brings up the question of whether people are asking these questions in the editorial meeting of doing the sorts of images that conjure up those sorts of [feelings]. It’s clear no one raised their hand during the editorial meeting and said, ‘Wait a minute.'”
James is the second African-American celebrity on Vogue’s cover in recent years that has been captured in what some see as an unflattering pose — last March’s Vogue cover of Jennifer Hudson with her mouth open, baring heavy cleavage was frowned upon by some media observers. “That raises my eyebrow as to how African-Americans are portrayed on mainstream magazine covers. You would not show Charlize Theron or Scarlett Johansson screaming,” said Wilbekin.
“Every photograph that they’ve put of a dark person in recent years has never been good. Jennifer Hudson has her mouth wide open. LeBron James had his mouth wide open. We have other expressions,” added Hardison.
Though the debate has been brewing for more than a week and had been covered by the Associated Press, USA Today and other mainstream media outlets, when WWD called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for comment, national spokesman Richard McIntire said it was the first time he’d been contacted about the issue. After seeing the cover, McIntire added: “In some ways, it’s obvious that Kong poster type image is there. But I think that this is almost a generational thing where some younger folks who don’t have that exposure may not even know what the King Kong movies were, may not get that. Some in their 40s or older or a movie buff might be aware of that. Or someone wearing race-colored glasses might pick up on that as well. The thing we found most interesting is that the other images of LeBron James are nothing like this. They are the typical cool, laid-back, smooth image that LeBron often portrays. But we know that magazine covers try to be provocative, and that’s what’s going on here.”
As for a national outcry against Vogue, McIntire said, “We haven’t had phone calls. So I’m not sure how much of a debate there is. We are keyed in on much weightier issues.” The first African-American President, perhaps? — Stephanie D. Smith
SOON TO BE A PH.D. THESIS: When writer David Samuels introduced his panel guests Wednesday — among them, the proprietors of paparazzi agency X17 and American Media editorial director Bonnie Fuller — as “the new editorial staff of the Atlantic,” it was a particularly inside joke from the man who wrote the Atlantic’s current cover story on Britney Spears and the mechanisms of celebrity gossip. Since the panel was also under the auspices of the NYU graduate school of journalism, where Samuels teaches, the questions about the Britney economy were properly thoughtful, and his own wife, The New York Times television writer Virginia Heffernan, was also on the panel for some gravitas. On the impromptu celebrity videos that populate TMZ and YouTube, she said, “The stars are giving away their best performances in these films. The video of Britney shaving her head — John Cassavetes couldn’t have had a better scene.” She also contrasted the hyper-posed and retouched shots of, say, Tom Cruise and family in Vanity Fair to the brutally “natural” shots of the celebrity gossip mill.
François and Brandy Navarre of X17 looked the part of Los Angeles visitors, tan and trim, and cheerfully defended their photographers and the level of discourse on their Web site. “People want to see everything,” said François. “I tell my guys, ‘Shoot the celebrities from the back too, not just the front.'” Brandy said she thought paparazzi style was permeating other aesthetics, pointing to a DKNY ad that she saw as aping the format. She also argued that photographers were doing real reporting by getting out there and asking questions without publicists around that “Oprah and Matt Lauer would be dying to ask….We can get the first interview because we’re the only ones there. We just go and do it.”
Page Six’s Richard Johnson and Fuller were compelled to admit their news gathering was made harder by the round-the-clock competition, but denied there was any wane in interest in prurient gossip itself. The recent death of pagesix.com, Johnson said, was due to being “two or three years too late. We missed the boat.” (Indeed. At one point on the panel, he said, “The new thing [in gossip reporting] is going to be video.”)
And while Los Angeles has long been at paparazzi saturation point, the Navarres were using their New York visit to craft a “plan of attack” on the East Coast. “This city’s so empty! It’s easy, we can do this!” Brandy quoted her husband as saying. New York, you’ve been warned. — Irin Carmon
SWITCHING SHIPS: At the same event, Atlantic president of consumer media Justin Smith let slip that he’d hired a new publisher, Jay Lauf of Wired. That title, which like WWD is owned by Condé Nast, has seen some business-side reorganization: in July 2006, then-publisher Drew Schutte was given oversight of both the magazine and its Web properties, followed by a January 2008 reorganization that sent Schutte to The New Yorker and gave group president and publishing director David Carey responsibility for Wired Media.
“We’re in this period of Darwinian shakeout in this industry, and wherever you go, you’d want to go to a brand that has a strong connection to its audience,” said Lauf, who said he’d subscribed to the Atlantic for about a decade. Smith said he was drawn to the broad advertising base, from consumer luxury to business-to-business that Wired draws, a model he’d like the Atlantic to emulate as it moves its business operations from Washington to New York. — I.C.
STILL ON THE CARDS?: Tishman Speyer Properties’ bid of more than $1 billion for Manhattan’s West Side rail yards won out Wednesday, which means an end to Condé Nast’s desire to eventually move its offices there — or does it? Condé Nast was attached to the Durst Organization and Vornado Realty Trust’s failed bid, but some wonder whether the magazine publisher might change sides now and possibly has a shot at office space under Tishman Speyer’s plan. Morgan Stanley also is reportedly still interested but did not return calls for comment. A spokesman for Tishman Speyer said it’s premature to comment on any companies that could be involved, and a spokeswoman at Condé Nast had no comment. — Amy Wicks