Vanity Fair's Young Hollywood Whitewash

Magazines have a tough time getting race right, but usually they manage to do a better job than Vanity Fair did in its March issue. The magazine, which is owned by glossy publishing house Conde Nast, recently delivered its annual Hollywood issue -- to howls of protest from around the blogosphere and the analog world.

The problem: Of the nine supposedly up-and-coming starlets featured on the fold-out cover, not one is African-American, Asian or Hispanic. The average skin tone on display is as white as the new-fallen snow.That will please their dermatologists, surely, but it's not as gratifying to the likes of Jezebel's Dodai Stewart, who laments the absence of "a single woman of color," or to the Guardian's Hannah Pool, who bemoans the "complete lack of melanin," or to Shine's Joanna Douglas, who wonders, "Were there no promising women of color who could've been featured?"

Of course there were, and some of them have been before. The 2008 Hollywood issue's cover showcased America Ferrera (who's not so much up-and-coming these days, as her show, Ugly Betty, was just placed on hiatus) and Zoe Saldana (who's having a better year, having just starred in Avatar and Star Trek). But -- and this is important -- both actresses appeared on the folded-over portion of the gatefold cover, not on the part visible to newsstand buyers. That's no accident. When they're being candid, editors of mass-audience magazines (as opposed to those targeted specifically at African-American readers) will tell you that black faces simply don't sell as many copies as white ones.

There are exceptions, of course, the most notable being Oprah Winfrey, who sold so well and so long for so many titles that someone finally had the bright idea of giving her a magazine of her own and putting her on every cover. More recently, editors have hoped that Michelle Obama might display the same kind of crossover appeal, but sales of issues with her on the cover have been only so-so.

Vanity Fair, as it happens, hasn't been as monochromatic as some of its competitors. Last month's cover subject was Tiger Woods (although one imagines he wasn't too happy to be there) and two of last year's 12 issues featured black cover subjects, Barack Obama and Michael Jackson.

But you would think Annie Leibovitz, the famed photographer who shot the Young Hollywood portrait, might be more sensitive to the concerns of black readers. It wasn't even two years ago that she was embroiled in controversy after shooting a cover for Vanity Fair's sister title, Vogue, that critics accused, rightly, of playing to antiquated and racist notions about black men. Leibovitz has never publicly apologized for that incident.

A Vanity Fair spokeswoman declined to comment about the decisions involved in producing the cover.

Disclosure: Conde Nast also published Portfolio magazine, where I worked from 2007 to 2009.
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