February 18th, 2009
05:13 PM ET

Why Michelle Obama's Vogue cover matters

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/02/11/art.flotusvoguesite0211.vog.jpg]
Carmen Van Kerckhove
President, New Demographic

A few days ago I found an email in my inbox from publisher Conde Nast, informing me that if I subscribed to Vogue now, I'd be guaranteed to receive the spring fashion issue, featuring Michelle Obama on the cover.

Magazine junkie that I am, I've received plenty of subscription solicitations in my day, but can't remember ever receiving one tied to a promise of receiving a particular issue. It goes to show how big of a deal this cover is.

Copies are selling on eBay at three and a half times the cover price. There are reports of shortages, with people desperate to get their hands on a copy. The issue is even making headlines around the globe in India, England, South America, and Australia.

In case anyone is wondering what’s so utterly remarkable about having Michelle Obama model the cover of Vogue, consider the fashion magazine’s blighted past in matters of race.

Vogue has a history of publishing disquieting images of black people, so the March cover - showing Michelle Obama in a healthy, glowing, glamorous light - is a definite departure for the magazine.

Traditionally, Vogue has thrown a spotlight on very few faces of color. In the last decade, only five covers have featured blacks: Oprah in November 1998, Halle Berry in December 2002, Liya Kebede in May 2005, Jennifer Hudson in February 2007, and Lebron James in April 2008. And during the past 80 years, only 18 of Vogue’s covers – that’s less than 2% - have featured black women.

Even the few Vogue covers which have featured black celebrities have been heavily criticized by advocacy groups. Jennifer Hudson's cover was decidedly unflattering, showing her mouth hanging open, while the Lebron James/Gisele Bündchen cover was widely derided as overtly racist, with its unmistakable allusion to a renowned World War I propaganda poster. Vogue could have picked a more elegant shot of the two, but instead chose to go with King Kong imagery, with James hunched in the great ape’s position, looking lethal.

If the above examples aren’t sufficient to prove my point, several times a year Vogue publishes a photo shoot that “contrasts” a white model against natives of color from another country, in an apparent attempt to spotlight the “primitive” or “uncivilized” nature of non-whites.

But Vogue isn’t the only fashion player with a race problem. Over the last few years, a heated debate has been brewing about the lack of diversity in the fashion industry. In late 2007, legendary model Iman and model agency owner Bethann Hardison hosted a series of town-hall style meetings at the New York Public Library to emphasize the discrimination faced by models of color. Robin Givhan, the respected fashion columnist at The Washington Post, has written a series of articles examining this very issue. And even Vogue itself ran an article in its July 2008 issue with the headline “Is Fashion Racist?”

So are we beginning to discern a glimmer of light at the end of a very long tunnel when it comes to race and fashion? The Michelle Obama Vogue cover is perhaps an early sign, as is the rise of up-and-coming models of color like Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman, and Arlenis Sosa. All are making inroads in a field which has been largely denied to people of color.

For better or worse, Vogue is viewed as a key arbiter of what's considered beautiful in American society. Having the magazine shine a spotlight on First Lady Michelle Obama’s decidedly non-European brand of beauty - with her dark skin, full nose and lips, and athletic build - means a lot to millions of people of color.

It’s no wonder the issue is flying off the shelves.

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Josh

    The cover of LeBron & Giselle could be construed as "overtly racist" if you compare it directly to the cover from 1917 or you could see that the cover might have served as inspiration and that LeBron embodies a sense of raw power, strength, and nobility that the gorilla symbolizes.

    Jennifer Hudson was at her peak when she did the cover of Vogue and her elation is palpable in the cover.

    Since 1964 there has been a total of six women of color on the cover of Vogue. This is certainly disproportionate to the number of covers. I wonder how many non-women of color have been on the cover of Ebony or Essence. Vogue is a business and as such portrays what their readers are interested in. Perhaps the majority of their customers are white women and if that's the case then I don't believe they are in the wrong for having covers like they do.

    The point I'm making is if you seek out signs of racial discrimination and injustice you'll find it. Even if you have to look back to 1917.

    February 19, 2009 at 12:24 pm |
  2. Miranda

    Sorry,First Lady, you look great and it's a giant step for "our" people but unless Vogue is donating some of the profit to help "our" people I will not be buying/reading Vogue.Please stay grounded and focused.

    February 18, 2009 at 11:12 pm |
  3. Michel H.

    First Lady Michelle Obama carries herself with dignity, high esteem, polish and poise. She earned the cover opportunity, and looks beautiful. She is a better person that me – I would have told Vogue to stuff it – based upon their past history / depiction of African Americans and non-recognition of our beauty. Hopefully, she will prove to them and other members of the fashion industry that our beauty is universal. Mrs. Obama is a beautiful example and President Obama is lucky to have her in his corner.

    February 18, 2009 at 10:40 pm |
  4. Annie Kate

    Vogue always has a spread on a new First Lady. It would be remarkable had they not done one with Michelle – the fact they did the usual First Lady cover to me shows that the office of President and First Lady transcend race and statements about race. Wouldn't it be nice if race didn't matter on everything else as well??

    February 18, 2009 at 9:31 pm |
  5. sherry

    You look great Mrs. Obama! You rock girl

    February 18, 2009 at 6:34 pm |
  6. Vonnie

    Um, I think you crashed Racialicious.

    February 18, 2009 at 6:34 pm |
  7. Sherry

    She looks great!! you rock Mrs. Obama

    February 18, 2009 at 6:31 pm |
  8. yvonne

    all that complain about this problem have money to start their own magazines. i would if i wasn't under the whip oppression and sterotypes. i don't buy the magazines. i'm a people person and know that all persons don't buy into that life style they were raised under. i have realized after learning about the way that folks won't change their minds when truth is before them only confirms that those who speak out and judge. for such is the person who speaks are they who have deep seeded hate and chose to use their position negatively . not only mags; but all media is like that. it can really make uncomfortable if they are simple minded

    February 18, 2009 at 6:06 pm |
  9. Mauka

    imagine how much they're gonna be worth when the usurper will be exposed not eligible to be POTUS! Mega $$$ Be brave Anderson and do your job, investigate him now!

    February 18, 2009 at 5:53 pm |