Controversial Magazine Covers Featuring Celebrities
Despite positive messages that they originally try to deliver on the magazine’s cover, these stars’ appearances on the front page of a publication eventually backfire and spark debate.
AceShowbiz -Gracing the cover of a magazine is an honor in itself. Whether it’s for their fashion sense or the values that they represent, cover stars are likely chosen for the impact and influence that they’ll have on their fans and potential readers with the message they deliver on the cover.
Thanks to their star power, celebrities such as actors, musicians and athletes alike have bigger chance to be featured on a magazine’s cover. While most of the time this opportunity comes with positive cover story, unfortunately in several cases the message is not accepted well by public.
In these cases when this kind of publicity backfires, it is often followed with a heated debate that not only lasts for days but will also be remembered in the years to come. Without discouraging future cover stars, here are some of past controversial magazine covers featuring celebrities.
1. Demi Moore on Vanity Fair (1991)
Back in 1991 when people were widely shamed for baring their bodies in public, Demi Moore‘s Vanity Fair cover was deemed scandalous and even indecent by many. The “Ghost” star went completely naked while seven months pregnant with her second child during the photo shoot with famed photographer Annie Leibovitz. She flaunted her baby bump while covering her modesty only with her hands. Many retail outlets wrapped the magazine in paper, calling it borderline pornographic, but Demi and Annie were unapologetic about it.
“I was stunned at some of the negative responses. That people found it pornographic, or they thought it wasn’t family-oriented,” the actress told Roger Ebert, defending the cover. “I was representing life, yet I supposedly wasn’t appropriate,” she argued. “People think motherhood is wonderful, but it should be left behind closed doors, or whatever. It’s stunning. I can hardly believe it.” Decades later, however, the picture is still celebrated as a groundbreaking cover and has been recreated several times by other pregnant celebrities.
2. Priyanka Chopra on Conde Nast Traveller (2016)
Going Hollywood with good reputation, Priyanka Chopra may be aptly representing Asian minority who successfully made it big in America. Possibly for this reason, the Indian-born actress was featured on the cover of Conde Nast Traveller in 2016 to fight off the stereotypes often attached to immigrants in the U.S. To carry out this message, the “Quantico” alum was shown wearing a white tank top with the words “refugee”, “immigrant” and “outsider” printed on it crossed out, above the word “traveller.”
Priyanka Chopra’s 2016 Conde Nast Traveller cover
What didn’t cross their mind beforehand, however, was that it would offend actual refugees. Criticized for unthinkingly endorsing what might be insensitive, classist comment, the magazine defended the cover for standing up against “a culture of xenophobia.” Priyanka, on the other hand, was quick to realize their mistake, telling Indian news NDTV, “I’m really apologetic about sentiments being hurt. I have always been against labels. I am very affected and feel really horrible, but the message has been misconstrued.”
3. Harry Styles on Vogue (2020)
Ever since he debuted as a solo artist, Harry Styles has set a distinct image from other pop stars in general and from his boyband days in particular. His bold and flamboyant style often raised eyebrows and sparked talks about his sexuality. But perhaps nothing makes a greater statement than appearing on the cover of Vogue magazine wearing a lace-trimmed Gucci dress that defies gender barrier. “When you take away ‘There’s clothes for men and there’s clothes for women,’ once you remove any barriers, obviously you open up the arena in which you can play,” he told the magazine.
The criticism came swiftly at Harry, both from conservatives as well as LBGTQ+ community and supporters, with Candace Owens doubting his masculinity. Meanwhile, performance artist and author Alok Vaid-Menon took issue with the fact that Harry, a cis white male, was celebrated for what “trans femmes of color” have been doing but not receiving enough credit for. “Make no mistake: trans femmes of color started this and continue to face the backlash from it. Our aesthetics make it to the mainstream, but not our bodies,” they wrote on Instagram.
4. Azealia Banks on Dazed & Confused (2012)
While sex was no longer a taboo topic in early 2010s, Azealia Banks‘ Dazed & Confused cover was dubbed too risque to people’s liking in 2012. The potty-mouthed Harlem rapper is known for her fearless attitude, fierce style and in-your-face lyrics, and her photo on the British style bible’s front page seemingly intended to reflect her image in the same shocking way.
Azealia Banks’ 2012 Dazed & Confused cover
The “212” hitmaker posed with an inflated bright pink condom between her lips like a giant cigar, with a headline that blared, “Azealia Banks Blows Up.” As the result, the cover was preemptively banned in seven countries even before the image was officially unveiled to public. “Just been told our upcoming @AZEALIABANKS cover has been banned from 7 countries so far. Thank God for the Internet, huh?” the Dazed team tweeted a week before the issue hit the newsstands.
5. Caitlyn Jenner on Vanity Fair (2015)
Caitlyn Jenner officially bid farewell to Bruce Jenner by gracing the cover of Vanity Fair in 2015 after her very public transition. While she’s clearly not the first openly female transgender in the U.S., her fame and high profile even before her transition made her coming out story have a great impact across the nation. On the day the cover was unveiled, the former Olympic gold medalist gained over a million Twitter followers in four hours, beating a record set by Barack Obama.
Caitlyn Jenner’s 2015 Vanity Fair cover
The important landmark, however, received mixed response from the trans community, with many members expressing displease with the praise gifted almost instantly to the celebrity for her bravery, which seemed to disregard the daily fight average trans people encounter daily. Some others decried the length of time it took the former reality TV star to cast out her past identity and use of male pronouns, while wishing she had done more with her celebrity power to help the still embattled transgender people.
6. O.J. Simpson on Time (1994)
Back in 1994, in the midst of O.J. Simpson‘s murder trial, both Time magazine and Newsweek featured the former athlete’s mugshot on their covers. When the two magazines were placed side by side on newsstands, public soon realized Time’s cover had considerably darkened O.J.’s skin. The photo, representing a case already laced with racial tension, caused massive public outcry.
O.J. Simpson’s 1994 Time cover
The magazine responded to the backlash in a statement, claiming that “no racial implication was intended, by Time or by the artist,” while quietly replacing the edition on newsstands with the unaltered image. Meanwhile, photoillustrator Mat Mahurin claimed his edits had no racial agenda. “Much like a stage director would lower the lights on a somber scene,” he explained in a book later published on the history of Time magazine, “I used my long-established style to give the image a dramatic tone.”
7. Kim Kardashian on Paper (2014)
Even though Kim Kardashian was never a stranger to showing her skin, many were not ready to see the reality TV star’s naked and uncensored famous derriere on the cover of a magazine. But going with conformity was never their intention in the first place, so Paper Magazine presented the jaw-dropping image of the SKIMS founder showing her bare back with a cover line which revealed their goal to “Break the Internet” back in 2014.
The image quickly raised debate about sexuality, slut shaming as well as exploitation and fetishism of the black female body. TheGrio.com columnist Blue Telusma likened Kim’s photo to images of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, a black South African woman brought to London in the 19th century and displayed for her large buttocks and genitalia, even after her death. “Kim Kardashian doesn’t realize she’s the butt of an old racial joke,” Blue wrote on the headline.
8. James Franco on Candy Magazine (2010)
After dabbling in queerness in some of his movie and TV roles, James Franco fully embodied the drag persona as he posed in a face full of makeup in a 2010 cover of Candy Magazine. “The Deuce” star was barely recognizable as he dressed in latex gloves and an oversized tuxedo jacket with a choker and matching earrings. It was the cover for the second issue of the magazine, which self-proclaimed itself as the “First Transversal Style Magazine.”
James Franco’s 2010 Candy Magazine cover
Aimed to cater to those with an interest in “transvestism, transexuality, cross dressing and androgyny, in all its manifestations,” the fashion publication didn’t need to do much more to find an enemy in the transphobic community and James’ cover, which was shot by celebrity photographer Terry Richardson, only heightened the hate. Despite often representing the gay and queer community, the 42-year-old actor/director later clarified his sexuality as saying, “If it means whom you have sex with, I guess I’m straight.”
9. Kanye West on Rolling Stone (2006)
Before he made headlines with his presidential run and his Twitter rants, Kanye West was already a controversial celebrity with one of his antics including his cover on Rolling Stone’s 2006 issue. The rapper was depicted as Jesus with blood dripping on his face as a crown on thorns was sitting on his head. The magazine’s headline read, “The Passion of Kanye West,” which was a play on the tile of the film documenting Jesus’ crucifixion “The Passion of the Christ”.
Kanye West’s 2006 Rolling Stone cover
Needless to say, the cover that likened the Yeezy designer to a spiritual figure drew ire from the Christian community, who questioned the star’s divinity to compare himself to such divine figure. Comedian Mo Rocca called it “bad PR,” but in its defense, the magazine said that the cover featuring the “Jesus Walks” emcee was meant to be artistic and wasn’t meant to offend any group. Kanye, meanwhile, preemptively shut down the criticism of his comparison to Jesus as saying in an interview for the cover story, “You want me to be great, but you don’t ever want me to say I’m great?”
10. LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen on Vogue (2008)
LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen‘s appearance on Vogue’s cover in 2008 gained attention not only due to the unlikely combo, but also because of how the athlete was portrayed in it. At the time, the NBA star made history as the first black man to be featured on its cover, but the tableau in which he and the model and were portrayed caused the world to think twice about the publication’s morals and intentions.
LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen’s 2008 Vogue cover
The Los Angeles Lakers player was pictured with his face in an “ape-like” growl while he bounced a basketball with one hand and held the waist of Gisele with the other. The image was much too resemblance of the famous image of King Kong clutching actress Fay Wray in the 1933 movie, sparking criticism that it perpetuated stereotypes about black men as the movie shows a gorilla’s obsession with a blonde actress. The magazine made no official statement in regards to the uproar, leaving critics debating whether it was the publication’s deliberate intention or not to provoke racist imagery.
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