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Danielle Moodie-Mills, a pop culture sociologist and the chief creative officer of Politini Media, used to read her favorite magazines with iPad in hand, regularly emailing editors to point out the lack of diversity in women's fashion mags while the same white celebrities kept cropping up again and again. This past month, she was surprised to see Beyoncé on the September issue of Vogue, Ciara on Shape, Serena Williams on New York, and Kerry Washington on Self — even though only one of those was a traditional fashion magazine. "I was looking through and thinking, 'Wow, this is really amazing, I don't think we've ever seen anything like this,'" Moodie-Mills tells Racked. "So on the one hand, I want to celebrate that fact, right? But on the other, I'm like, it's 2015!"
One of the biggest factors that determines which celebrities land on women's magazine covers is their current project — do they have a movie coming out next month? A TV show that's returning in the fall? A book of selfies to launch? InStyle's cover star Anne Hathaway has The Intern coming out at the end of September. Marie Claire notes that Miley Cyrus is hosting the MTV Video Music Awards at the end of August in the online excerpt of her cover story. Elle's cover star, Keira Knightley, is co-starring in Everest. Very rarely does a celebrity get on a cover just because; Beyoncé is one of those exceptions. As one editor put it, she just doesn't need timing.
If the covers are overwhelmingly pegged to Hollywood projects, it would make sense to expect more women of color on covers now more than ever before. "Some of the most popular television shows that are on right now and going into the fall season are being lead by African-American or Latino casts," Moodie-Mills says. "But there are people that I see on the covers of magazines, like Kate Bosworth, and I'm like, 'When was the last time she was in a movie?'"
In a time where diversity in pop culture has never been more prominent, almost all of the current cover stars have been on past September issues, even from a relatively small sample of nine women's magazines (Elle, W, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Allure, Marie Claire, InStyle, and Glamour). This is Miley Cyrus's second September cover for Marie Claire in the past five years — she covered it previously in 2012. Lucy Hale covered Cosmopolitan's September issue in 2012 and again in 2014. Karlie Kloss, currently covering Glamour, shared Vogue covers in September 2014 and March 2015. Katy Perry covered Marie Claire in January 2014, Cosmopolitan in July 2014, Harper's Bazaar in October 2014, Elle in March 2015, and now Harper's Bazaar again in September 2015. Only three women featured this year haven't been on another one of the nine magazines' September covers in the past five years: Demi Lovato (Cosmopolitan), Gigi Hadid (W), and Anne Hathaway (InStyle, although she has covered the magazine before, in March 2010).
Since the same white women repeatedly cover similar magazines, it makes a cover showcasing a woman of color even more of an anomaly. In the past year, Cosmopolitan has featured two woman of color on its cover — Nicki Minaj in July 2015, and current cover girl Lovato. Vogue included Joan Smalls in a shared cover with Karlie Kloss and Cara Delevingne in September 2014, featured Serena Williams in April 2015, and chose Beyoncé to cover its September 2015 issue. In the same time frame, Allure has featured three women of color on separate covers (Kerry Washington, November 2014; Taraji P. Henson, July 2015; Salma Hayek, August 2015). InStyle stood out for featuring women of color on its covers all summer long: Mindy Kaling on the June 2015 issue, Zoë Saldana in July, and Eva Longoria in August.
InStyle's editor-in-chief Ariel Foxman told Racked that the diversity on the magazine's covers isn't a conscious decision to feature more women of color, but rather a natural reaction to who is making headlines right now. "It just so happens, based on all the criteria of projects and new faces and some familiar faces and projects and how popular some of these women have become, that those were the women we booked," says Foxman. "It made sense that they would be the covers. September was Anne Hathaway and October will roll around and it will be another woman of color."
Jourdan Dunn told the Guardian in September 2013 that she's been told that black faces don't sell magazines. In reality, magazine sales are steadily dropping no matter who goes on the cover. According to the Alliance of Audited Media, September issue single copy sales (in print and digital) have been declining everywhere over the past five years. For example: Allure sold nearly 175,000 copies of its Kim Kardashian cover in September 2010. In September 2011, Salma Hayek sold just over 140,000 single copies. The next year, Sofia Vergara sold 107,000 copies of Allure, nearly tying with Jennifer Garner's September 2013 cover, which sold 109,000 copies. In 2014, Chloë Grace Moretz's September cover barely sold 76,000 copies.
The steep sales decline is mirrored across the board with Elle, W, Glamour, Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Allure, Marie Claire, InStyle, and Vogue. Glamour's September 2011 cover of Rihanna sold 529,446 copies. Three years later, Olivia Wilde's September 2014 cover barely broke 250,000 copies sold. Beyoncé sold 761,910 copies of InStyle in September 2011, and a year later, Jennifer Lopez sold 756,049 single copies. Fast forward to 2014, and Julia Roberts sold just over 500,000 copies of her September issue. No magazine is reaching the same sales numbers that they hit five years ago, no matter who's on the cover.
The answer could lie in a shift across the board where magazines stop looking to what Hollywood projects celebrities have booked and start going for covers that will grab the most attention in any space, albeit online or on newsstands. "That model of the latest movie, album, TV show, doesn't work anymore," Emil Wilbekin, who runs his own business at World of Wilbekin and was the former editor-at-large for Essence, tells Racked. "With the internet, with Instagram, with social media, people are constantly bombarded with images of these celebrities. What you need now is not necessarily contextual relevance for timing of a show or product or movie or album — what you need is the 'wow' factor."
Whatever the solution is, it needs to produce results quickly because sales don't seem to be looking up in 2015, either. Cosmopolitan, which didn't feature any woman of color on any covers in the first six months of 2015, averaged 531,086 single copy sales per issue. The magazine didn't feature any women of color in the first six months of 2014 either, and it averaged 774,078 single copy sales per issue. That's a 32% drop in single copy sales in the past year. Marie Claire featured Kerry Washington on its April 2015 issue, followed by Zoë Kravitz as one of five May 2015 covers. In 2014, Lupita Nyong'o was one of five cover stars for the May issue, and the only woman of color featured on the magazine in the first six months of 2014. The magazine logged an average of 117,882 copies sold each month in the first half of 2015, compared to 143,482 single copies sold in the first half of 2014. Marie Claire's overall sales drop was slightly more subdued at an 18% decline from 2014 to 2015.