This year's round of September fashion magazine issues had a lot of firsts. Beyoncé's American Vogue cover was shot by 23-year-old Tyler Mitchell, the first black photographer to shoot the cover in the magazine's 126-year history. Rihanna became the first black woman to be on the cover of British Vogue's September issue, which also marked the first September issue for Edward Enninful, the first black editor-in-chief in the magazine's 102-year history.
But Beyoncé and Rihanna aren’t the only black cover stars this September: a pregnant Slick Woods is on the front of Elle UK; Tracee Ellis Ross is on the cover of Elle Canada; Glamour’s cover star is Tiffany Haddish; Kanye, North, and Saint West share the subscriber's cover of Harper’s Bazaar; Jaden Smith and Helena Howard both get Dazed covers; Zendaya fronts Marie Claire; Adwoa Aboah and Naomi Campbell are on the cover of Love; and Lupita Nyong'o graces Porter. This year's lineup is in stark contrast to 2017’s September issues, which featured white-led covers across most US editions.
“When I first started, 21 years ago, I was told that it was hard for me to get onto covers of magazines because black people did not sell,” Beyoncé told writer Clover Hope for her Vogue cover story. “Clearly that has been proven a myth. Not only is an African-American on the cover of the most important month for Vogue, this is the first ever Vogue cover shot by an African-American photographer.”
The idea that black people don't sell has long been entrenched in fashion media. Landing the cover of a major fashion glossy is a huge step in any model, musician, or actor's career — and the September cover is the most sought-after. In 25 years as editor-in-chief at British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman published just 12 covers featuring black models. By contrast, of the 10 covers her replacement Enninful has been in charge of so far, half have featured people of color.
Shulman told the Guardian last year that there were not enough famous black models to put on the cover during her tenure. “Vogue always sold on the newsstand, and people have to recognize the person who you’re putting on the cover. I was judged by my sales. That was my remit. My chief remit was not to show ethnic diversity as a policy,” she said. However, as Beyoncé put it, the idea that black cover stars don’t sell is a myth.
According to social media analytics firm Brandwatch, Rihanna’s appearance on the cover of this year's June issue of American Vogue generated more mentions on social media than anything the magazine had done in the last year, including its September issue with Jennifer Lawrence. And while it's still too early to collate data for Beyoncé and Rihanna’s September issues, it's almost impossible to scroll through Twitter or Instagram without seeing their images. People have also been sharing roundups of this year's more diverse September issues. These covers are getting people excited about print magazines, and in a struggling industry, generating excitement is no small thing.
Like fashion, Hollywood has the phrase "black movies don't travel," suggesting films fronted by black people simply don't make money abroad. The wildly successful Black Panther helped disprove this theory, but it wasn't the first film with a predominantly black cast to do well overseas. Get Out and Hidden Figures were also hits abroad, while Moonlight made more money internationally than it did in the US. Yet the myth remains. Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley recently tweeted about the struggle faced by "black movies" to secure overseas distribution, even when those movies domestically outperform films that do secure international releases.
Things are improving, however. The diversity of magazine covers has been increasing steadily over the last four years. The Fashion Spot analyzed 782 covers from 49 international publications, finding that 32.5 percent featured people of color. Last year was also the very first time over 30 percent of runways, print ads, and magazine covers featured non-white models. However, the cover stats were bolstered by magazines such as i-D and Vogue Arabia, of which 71.4 percent and 100 percent of their respective issues featured cover stars of color. More disheartening were Marie Claire UK and L’Officiel in France, neither of which offered any cover diversity, Vogue Paris which had one non-white model, and Vogue Italia who featured just two on its 22 covers last year.
All of this speaks to a wider issue — the people chosen to make and distribute these magazines and movies. Magazine journalism is still overwhelmingly white and middle class, and that demographic makeup clearly has an influence on the content produced and the people hired. Again, Beyoncé sums things up better than we ever could:
“If people in powerful positions continue to hire and cast only people who look like them, sound like them, come from the same neighborhoods they grew up in, they will never have a greater understanding of experiences different from their own. They will hire the same models, curate the same art, cast the same actors over and over again, and we will all lose.”
Now, read why New York is beating Europe when it comes to runway diversity.