THE COMPETITION FOR CELEBRITY COVERS HAS GOTTEN INCREASINGLY INTENSE AS EDITORS JOSTLE EACH OTHER FOR A SHOT AT A HOT STAR.
Byline: Louise Farr
LOS ANGELES — Look at it as a skirmish in the escalating battle to get celebrities on entertainment magazine covers.
It’s now October of 1997, and according to Movieline editor Heidi Parker, she’s just been pitched young actress Natalie Portman for a story timed to the release of the next movie in the “Star Wars” series. The piece would be for a May cover. That’s May 1999.
“Her publicist made it seem like I have to make a decision now,” says Parker, sounding harried. “I’m not ready to think that far ahead.”
Parker and her Movieline colleagues do think eight months in advance, however, schmoozing, keeping abreast of the latest news and lining up subjects.
“If you make your agreements early on, you sleep better at night,” Parker says, naming David Duchovny and Harrison Ford as 1997’s big cover hits for the 275,000 circulation Movieline, an upstart pipsqueak compared with Entertainment Weekly, US, Premiere and Vanity Fair — all jostling one another as well as the news weeklies for cover subjects in an era of over-the-top star worship in America.
Portman’s publicist, Kelly Bush, insists Parker approached her. She’s not even sure she wants her client — who is cast as the future mother of Luke and Leiea Skywalker in the new “Star Wars” — on the cover of Movieline. Nevertheless, she admits, she is already suggesting Portman to a number of editors for May 1999.
“I’m a firm believer that it’s never too soon to start jockeying for position,” she says.
Entertainment Weekly’s managing editor, Jim Seymore, acknowledges that competition is more intense: “It’s been getting more intense for 20 years. People magazine started the whole thing. Now it seems every magazine in the U.S. wants a celebrity on the cover.”
And now, with fashion magazines entering the picture, the stakes are raised for magazines competing for stars who are sometimes thrilled to pose in fancy clothes instead of unburdening their souls to a nosy reporter. And when it comes to wooing Hollywood, few magazines are beyond pulling out the big guns.
“If Anna Wintour and Liz Tilberis both want a celebrity, they’ll come after the publicist tooth and nail and romance them,” says Simon Halls, of Huvane, Baum, Halls, who represents Anne Heche, Woody Harrelson, Jude Law, Billy Crudup and Joan Allen. “These people didn’t get where they are without being extremely bright and tenacious. When they go after something they want, they’re as aggressive as a cub reporter.”
But nobody wants just any celebrity. Stars who sell movies also sell magazines, and Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Nicole Kidman, Madonna — and perhaps more surprising, Gillian Anderson of television’s “The X-Files” — are the names that drop off editors’ tongues when they talk about their favorite cover subjects.
“Young and attractive sells better than being old and unattractive on covers as well as in life,” says Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter, suggesting that he’s grizzled enough to be able to say that.
But even though they go for young and attractive, no one could accuse Vanity Fair of consistently playing it safe.
Renee Zellweger had no September movie, but there she was, squinting out from that month’s VF, all cheekbones and cleavage. In October, a neurasthenic rather than glamorous Nicole Kidman gazed balefully at potential readers as if daring them to open the magazine. And for its November power issue, VF shuns movies (which it does three issues a year) and runs a sensitive cover portrait of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, with Carter’s knowledge that a political cover’s going to turn off 50 percent of the people — a disquieting notion considering Vanity Fair’s newsstand sales run between 400,000 to 600,000 a month out of a total circulation of 1.09 million.
Still, he hopes the Clinton issue “doesn’t drop off the planet.” Even if he doesn’t expect it to do as well for VF as Nicole Kidman always does. Or “extra well,” like Madonna.
“Nothing against Hollywood stars, but any month you can put out a cover without one is a good month as far as I’m concerned,” he says, nonetheless mentioning that he feels in competition with news weeklies, fashion magazines and newspapers. “I think we’re probably first to get offered them,” he says about stars and new faces. “Whether we’re quick enough to pick up on them is something else. Sometimes other magazines are faster off the mark.”
That quest for the latest, hottest personality has even begun to shift the traditionally antagonistic relationship between publicists and editors — and publicists and studios.
“It’s a push-me, pull-you situation,” says Rolling Stone managing editor Sid Holt. “When you’ve got a hot commodity, you’re in a position to push.”
“We’re considered part of the whole strategic process,” says Simon Halls, who now finds himself brought into studio meetings. For good reason, he thinks.
In order to get opening weekend box-office results for Jennifer Aniston’s movie, “Picture Perfect,” his partner Steven Huvane got Aniston on the cover of People, TV Guide and USA Weekend — which she normally might not have done. “The movie opened because of her face out there,” says Halls.
“We’re much more dependent on publicists to aid us than before. We can’t afford to alienate them completely,” admits US editor in chief Barbara O’Dair. “This isn’t a comment on them personally; it’s a rule of the game.”
But publicists’ new clout also gives them more opportunities to protect their clients. Or at least try to. Rolling Stone, US and Vanity Fair insist on time and access from cover subjects. And once in a while Entertainment Weekly, which does project stories rather than profiles, will go ahead with a cover piece without cooperation.
Like O’Dair, Rolling Stone’s Holt bemoans the change from the Seventies, when writers and their subjects hung out together for weeks. Now a writer is lucky to get a foot in the front door, let alone meet the lover or the kids.
“We try to avoid the usual restaurant [setting], picking at a Caesar salad for an hour. That’s all too common,” says O’Dair. Pointing out that the magazine’s motto is, “We get closer,” she crows about an upcoming story that has a young subject in her pajamas with her mother cooking breakfast for the reporter. “Not that that kind of thing can’t be manipulated. There’s such a thing as forced casualness.”
Editors also worry that publicists’ coddling of stars can lead to slacker journalistic standards. At other magazines, of course.
“Really, you don’t have to put up with any demands,” says Graydon Carter. “Sometimes they walk. I’m not going to put a gun to their heads.”
“You hear tales. Somebody said it was OK to let the star see the pictures and vet them,” says O’Dair, pointing out that US won’t go along with publicists’ requests for photo or writer approval, off-limit questions or axing on-the-record comments.
“On the other hand, it doesn’t make sense to put [a star] together with someone with whom they have antipathy,” says O’Dair, who’s comfortable negotiating location, hair and makeup. “We’ll listen and often put them together with stylists they request. But that person has to have a relationship with our magazine. Just because you’re someone’s best friend from childhood doesn’t mean you’re acceptable to us.”
“I can set it up,” brags Kelly Bush, about negotiating the best possible situation for clients. “If a writer is suggested, I look at all their clips. If they’ve been mean or nasty, I go back to the editors.”
Naturally, other publicists have their own beefs about journalists, and Cari Ross of Baker-Winokur-Ryder is happy to air them.
“I can understand why you can’t be on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue in one month. I can understand GQ and Esquire. Vanity Fair is the problem,” she says, claiming to be puzzled that the magazine has to be first and getting an exclusive. “Vanity Fair is big — but not big enough. If you’re a major movie star and you have a $50 million movie to open, one magazine’s not gonna cut it.”
Brad Pitt made it to the cover of Time and Premiere in one month, both timed to this month’s release of “Seven Years in Tibet” with Premiere’s approach a bare-chested poster boy look, and Time’s focus on America’s interest in Buddhism.
“I think it was very clever of them,” says Entertainment Weekly’s Seymore. “Twenty years ago, they would have used a golden statue of the buddha.”
“I thought it was about as shameless as a news magazine gets,” says Premiere’s managing editor, Jim Meigs, who says he expects the Premiere Pitt cover to do extremely well for the 600,000 circulation magazine. Inside the magazine, Pitt wears Calvin Klein and Dolce & Gabbana, and Meigs points out that for Premiere’s popular Jodie Foster “Contact” issue — planned a year in advance — they took Foster out to the desert and dressed her in Versace.
“Movies and fashion are closely linked. When you dress Jodie Foster, her clothes say things that the reader really picks up on,” says Meigs, who recently hired a fashion editor. “In the case of Brad Pitt, it’s how you undress him.”
Most editors won’t admit to being burned by stars who promise to be on covers then switch to other magazines at the last minute. Entertainment Weekly’s Seymour does.
“That happens all the time. We get very angry,” he says. “Sometimes we retaliate. We’re very leery of working with those people again.”
Yet, in spite of the growing competition, EW projects only six months ahead and doesn’t get serious about its covers until three months beforehand.
“The danger is that we’ll find ourselves locked out,” admits Seymore. “We didn’t have a ‘Men in Black’ cover, because the other magazines had committed a year in advance.”
Still, the 1.3 million-a-week circulation EW plans to continue playing its covers close to the margin.
“Hollywood doesn’t really like us very much,” says Seymore, “but they need us as much as we need them.”