The Vogue cover story, which is to say the Vogue celebrity profile, is a very specific animal. Simultaneously fawning and enchanted by its own existence, it can sometimes approach self-parody, often knowingly, as a template of the celebrity profile and the clichés these profiles engender.
Specifically, the stock characterization of some gamine young actress pushing around salad on her plate with a fork—or scarfing a hamburger because she swears she eats!—exists partly because, often, that is what gamine young actresses are depicted as doing in Vogue cover stories. It’s a rite of passage for these cover subjects, who are usually under 40, and are exclusively women, with the exception of four men in Vogue’s history. Getting the Vogue treatment, salad/burger and all, is a specific and colossal benchmark in a woman’s celebrity. And to achieve this Vogue legitimacy means, almost always, being profiled by a man.
The most recent Vogue cover features Margot Robbie, an Australian whose career took off after she played Leonardo DiCaprio’s beleaguered wife in The Wolf of Wall Street, and who is expected to rise further after the release of Tarzan and Suicide Squad. As a beautiful young ingenue, Robbie an obvious choice for a Vogue cover in the post-2000 era, in which Anna Wintour has supplanted the supermodel cover with the celebrity (or, celebrity-who-looks-like-a-supermodel) cover. It’s been an oft-discussed decision, one that’s provoked handwringing about its effects on woman celebrities. But the TMZ industry being what it is, the Vogue cover status quo is unlikely to change; we’re lucky to get the one or two model covers per year that Wintour chooses (and even then, those models are also celebrities in their own right, like Karlie Kloss and Cara Delevingne).
What’s remained intact through the model-celebrity shift: the Vogue cover is still a milestone, a signifier of mainstream success that brings various American icons from Michelle Obama to Kim Kardashian into the same rarefied echelon. In a declining print industry, landing the cover of Vogue is one of the few measures of prestige that hasn’t wavered. And the surrealist, somewhat passé tone of the Vogue profiles is crucial to perpetuating the illusion required to make the cover such a coronation—the illusion of Anna Wintour’s fantastical universe, which casts its cover models as modern American royalty. It’s partly via that gauzy and unreal writing that the Vogue cover story gives its subjects’ most dilettantish impulses an air of legitimacy: Blake Lively’s short-lived website Preserve, for instance, which was described in a July 2014 cover story as her attempt at “using all the modern-day digital tricks of the trade to shine a light on—to preserve—all those finer, simpler things in American life that are in danger of getting touch-screened into extinction, trampled on by the medium itself.”
The Robbie cover was written by celebrity journalist Jonathan Van Meter. I’ve admired Van Meter’s work as long as I can remember—in 1993 he became the very first editor in chief of Vibe, the music magazine where, a decade after his reign, I’d later work—and he’s an accomplished writer who’s obviously made a prominent name for himself. But the Robbie story began in a way that was off, with gendered value judgments about her based on the character that made her famous.
When Margot Robbie popped up in The Big Short last year for a 60-second cameo—by definition, playing herself—to explain what “shorting” a bond means while drinking Dom Pérignon in the bathtub of a billionaire’s Malibu condo, I subconsciously shorted her. Here, it seemed, was that girl who invites you to stare and then tells you to fuck off if you stare for too long.
Take a moment with that last sentence. Moving on:
The fact that just two years prior she so ferociously inhabited the role of the hottest gold digger in the history of cinema in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, permanently lodging herself in the collective male libido, served only to reinforce my concern that she might be some new breed of high-maintenance superpredator. Thankfully, the cameo turned out to be a clever little lie in a movie all about big fat ones. This was Margot Robbie playing her caricature—the retrograde Playboy fantasy in permanent soft-focus.
It comes as a surprise, then—a relief, even—to meet Robbie in April on the Santa Monica Pier and discover that she’s not remotely like the manipulative sex kittens she’s been so eerily good at portraying on the screen.
This intro sets up a sort of respectability redemption, entirely in Van Meter’s estimation, as well as a device in his narrative arc, as Robbie goes—and again, purely in his estimation—from being said “manipulative sex kitten” to someone with “hustle—resourcefulness, mixed with ambition and a little naïveté.”
This is not to say a cover subject should not be criticized or even shaded—Caity Weaver’s extremely shady Justin Bieber piece for GQ is one of the best celebrity profiles I can remember reading. But I bristled at Van Meter’s implied short-order chauvinism. Vogue cultivates itself as the vision of propriety, and rarely tends towards negativity about its carefully curated, impeccably styled topics. Such stereotyping read, first of all, as vehemently off-brand. As anyone who followed the Kim Kardashian Vogue saga knows, which held that Kim was persona non grata until Kanye was part of the deal, people make the cover of Vogue because Anna Wintour herself has anointed you.
In other words, we are accustomed to the conventions of this anointment: the breathlessness, the awe, the notion of being dishy and intimate but also kept mysteriously at bay. But a profile like Robbie’s makes us remember who exactly is writing the terms of this ritual, speaking for these carefully pruned avatars of Vogue’s influence in the fashion and entertainment worlds. How is it possible that the people who put Vogue’s taste in covers into words in the feature well are so frequently men?
Almost every Vogue cover story in the last three years has been written by a man—most frequently the contributing editor Van Meter and Jason Gay, a renowned writer, editor and sports columnist who gave us last month’s odd Taylor Swift profile, written from her best friend’s wedding. There’s also Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s longtime international editor, who is truly a delight to read and seems to make more sense on fashion stories—but I counted the magazine’s last 50 issues, dating back to its May 2012 issue, and of that 50:
- 34 Vogue cover stories were written by men;
- 12 were written by women;
- four covers did not include a written-through feature;
- with one, possibly two, exceptions, all of the cover writers were white.
It’s a given that, in the magazine world, the majority of plum stories are assigned to men. And of course magazines will farm out those stories to contributing editors before freelancers as a cost-saving measure, if nothing else. But for contrast, in the last two and a half years of Elle, Vogue’s main competitor, only six total stories were written by men, the rest by women.
And much of the rest of Vogue is written, edited, and run by women, including Features Director Eve MacSweeney and a host of editors under the “Features” masthead that are almost entirely women. Between the women writers on staff at the magazine and an additional small army at Vogue.com, the publication is not hurting for excellent women writers, including those who do very serious reporting in-book, such as Heidi Mitchell’s memorable profile on Marilyn Mosby in last year’s July issue. But as ever, the piece that garners the most interest and carries the most weight is almost always the cover.
This gender breakdown is significant in part because women’s magazines are largely still thought of as unserious compared to men’s magazines, with the one major exception being Vogue, which enjoys both the prestige and the budget to keep it at the top of the women’s magazine game. And Vogue readers like myself want to read more women writing about the women the institution deems fitting for the cover, want to read women writers who are as accomplished as these men; as any journalist can tell you, the dynamic of an interview will shift relative to whom is performing it, and under what circumstances. Vogue has never precisely been about sisterhood, but Wintour seems to espouse liberal politics, relatively speaking, and she is in the business of elevating women by the very nature of her institution. That these impulses don’t seem to extend much to the writing of the most important story in the magazine is confounding, and incongruous.
Further, if men are almost exclusively allowed to write these stories—and, as a result, shape the narratives of the women successful enough to have landed on the cover of Vogue—what does it say about how the magazine views our ability to reflect them? Someone beautiful and muted, her outsize importance and degrees of seriousness relayed to you by a man.
Illustration by Jim Cooke