Magazine covers are a tricky thing to get exactly right. Every issue, the goal is to come up with something eye-catching and exciting that will pop out at potential readers, but what seems like a good idea doesn’t always turn out well. Sometimes a cover is boring, or people don’t understand it, but there’s nothing like a good controversy. There’s a long history of magazine covers creating public outcry, and it can happen to any magazine. From Vogue to The New Yorker, magazines know how to bring the drama.
As you’ll see on this list, the reason for the controversy isn’t always the same. Sometimes a specific person (Kim Kardashian, we’re looking at you) just always gets people talking. Other times, there’s clear cultural appropriation on a magazine cover, and this happens way more than it should. For whatever reason, all of these covers have caused a stir, for better or for worse. Let’s take a look at some that maybe shouldn’t have made it to print.
16. Interview – Semptember 2017
In this cover and editorial spread, Kim Kardashian West posed as Jackie Kennedy along with her daughter North West. Kim looks beautiful in the photos, and North is adorable as always, but some people raised their eyebrows at the shoot. First of all, some people claimed that Kim’s skin looks darker than usual on the cover, leading to accusations of cultural appropriation or even blackface. People also questioned calling Kim America’s new First Lady, but really that doesn’t seem so far off. Is Kanye 2020 still happening?
15. Golf Digest – May 2014
Even a magazine like Golf Digest can ruffle some feathers. Their May 2014 cover featured Paulina Gretzky, the socialite daughter of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and fiancée of a pro golfer. The only problem is she’s not even a golfer. Female professional golfers were quick to raise questions about the cover, rightfully annoyed that the rare opportunity for a woman on the cover was given to someone who doesn’t even play golf. Nothing against Paulina, but we have to agree with the female golfers on this one.
14. Elle – November 2013
There’s no denying that Melissa McCarthy looks beautiful on the cover of Elle‘s Women in Hollywood issue, but people weren’t thrilled with her outfit. While the other covers of this special issue featured stars like Reese Witherspoon and Penelope Cruz in fun, somewhat revealing outfits, Melissa is covered up under an oversized coat and swooping bangs. People called out Elle for being fatphobic and trying to cover up Melissa’s weight, rather than letting her dress like the other women. Melissa fought back, saying she loved the cover and it was exactly what she was going for. As long as she’s happy!
13. TIME – May 21, 2012
Breastfeeding in public is a subject that always gets people going, and TIME knew exactly what it was doing with this provocative cover. The cover features a mother breastfeeding her three-year old child and looking straight at the camera. This issue raised the question of how attached you should be to your child, but readers raised many more questions about the cover choice. While some might find the image inappropriate or distasteful, there’s really nothing unnatural about it. TIME probably sold a ton of copies of this issue, so they don’t mind the controversy.
12. The New Yorker – July 21, 2008
There’s a fine line between being provocatively funny and taking it too far. The New Yorker is known for their cartoon covers that often cause a stir, but this one definitely crossed the line. In 2008, back when Barack Obama was campaigning for President, they featured a cartoon showing him and Michelle Obama as Islamic extremist terrorists in the White House. While the cover was meant to poke fun at those who claimed Obama was a Muslim (and therefore a terrorist??!??!), it was an image that just didn’t need to be seen. Trying to be funny can come at a cost sometimes.
11. TIME – April 14, 1997
It’s now been more than 20 years since Ellen DeGeneres came out very publicly on the cover of TIME. It seems like everyone loves Ellen, and she’s more popular than ever, but this magazine cover certainly caused drama at the time. 1997 was a different (and tbh, more casually homophobic) time, and lots of people were confused or even disgusted by Ellen being a lesbian. Some advertisers even pulled out of her TV show, but she definitely got the last laugh. We’re so glad that, 20 years later, Ellen is back on top and the world is a much more accepting place.
10. Paper – Winter 2014
Three words: Break the internet. That’s what Paper tried to do with its Winter 2014 issue starring Kim Kardashian, and they probably got close. We chose the more demure version of the cover, but you’ll probably remember the other, more explicit version featuring, um, a full moon. We’re still pretty sure there’s some Photoshop being used to balance that glass, because the laws of physics just don’t work that way. The picture had a pretty obvious connection to a Jean-Paul Goude photo of a black woman used his book Jungle Fever. Many deemed this reenactment (and the original photo) racist – but break the internet? This cover sure did just that.
9. Vanity Fair – July 2015
Keeping it in the Kardashian-Jenner family, let’s talk about Caitlyn Jenner. After months of rumors and speculation, Caitlyn officially introduced herself to the world as a trans woman on the cover of Vanity Fair. Of course there were some transphobic people ~deeply offended~ by seeing this Olympian presenting her authentic self, but that wasn’t the only drama surrounding the cover. People questioned why a 65-year-old was wearing an outfit like this at all. Obviously, that criticism is rediculous as well in our (humble) opinion. It’s a beautiful thing to live life how you want to, and we’re still happy for Caitlyn that she was able to overcome all the adversity.
8. Rolling Stone – July 2010
Rolling Stone and Lady Gaga are kind of a match made in heaven. Both are a little edgy, love a good controversy, and know great music and art. Gaga’s July 2010 cover, where she wears a bra with two machine guns attached, certainly got a lot of publicity. People questioned the choice to showcase guns in a sexual way, pointing to the rampant gun violence in the US as a reason to be a bit more careful. It’s unclear if there was some larger intent behind the outfit choice, but we have to agree that they could have gone with something else just as edgy without glamorizing guns. Gaga probably has a whole closet full of weird bras, so they could have easily switched it up.
7. Rolling Stone – April 1999
Didn’t we say Rolling Stone loves a little controversy? Way back in April 1999, they featured a young pop star named Britney Spears on the cover, ever heard of her? She talked on the phone and held a Teletubby while wearing little more than a bra and panties, and this gave some readers pause. Britney was only 17 years old at the time, and this cover was seen as over-sexualizing someone so young. The Teletubby toy is also a weird touch, making her seem like a little kid even though she’s not.
6. Vogue – April 2014
Our final stop on the Kim Kardashian magazine cover tour features a special guest, her husband Kanye West. Kanye and Kim had both been vocal about wanting to be on the cover of Vogue, and ice queen Anna Wintour finally gave them her blessing. Kim appears in a wedding dress while Kanye holds her from behind, and it’s really a sweet cover. People mainly just didn’t like that Kim and Kanye were given this platform, but honestly of all the Kim Kardashian magazine covers you could be offended by – this?! A few months later, they had their fairytale wedding in Italy, even though Kim wasn’t wearing the dress from the magazine.
5. Vogue – April 2008
Let’s talk about another Vogue cover, shall we? Back in April 2008, the fashion mag featured the odd couple of LeBron James and Gisele Bündchen on the cover, which is fun and different. It was the unfortunate pose, however, that caused some major backlash. LeBron is letting out a ferocious scream while he holds Gisele in his arm, and people quickly drew comparisons to King Kong holding a woman in his grasp. This brings up racist connotations of black men being apes of some sort, which is just somewhere you don’t want to go. It was a fun idea for a magazine cover, but they really should’ve chosen a different photo or pose.
4. Allure – June 2013
Allure Magazine is all about the best beauty tips and products to try, but sometimes they don’t get it quite right. Zoe Saldana looks beautiful on their June 2013 cover, but the headline attached isn’t so great. They boast that Zoe is “115 pounds of grit and heartache,” which is nice except for… why are we making her weight the headline? Zoe is a lovely girl, but suggesting that her slender figure has anything to do with her ‘grit’ is just kind of insulting. Women are strong and beautiful, no matter what the number of that scale is.
3. Condé Nast Traveller Indian Edition – October 2016
Making a political statement on a magazine cover is a dangerous game, especially for a magazine that usually sticks to pretty palatable stuff. When the stunning Priyanka Chopra covered the Indian edition of Condé Nast Traveller, her outfit choice didn’t go over well. Her tank top featured the words ‘refugee,’ ‘immigrant,’ and ‘outsider’ crossed out, with TRAVELLER under. People jumped on the image for being insensitive, saying that being a refugee is not a choice but rather a result of global conflict. Priyanka responded by saying that the idea was to create a conversation about the harmful nature of labels, but this was definitely a problematic idea from the start.
2. Elle UK – July 2014
Congratulations, you’ve made it to the cultural appropriation section of today’s program. Magazines don’t have a great track record with being culturally sensitive but this one is pretty baffling. In July 2014, Elle UK featured Pharrell wearing a Native American headdress. Sorry, what? By 2014, there was definitely a conversation surrounding appropriation, and someone like Pharrell should be well aware that this isn’t cool. If anyone reading this is still unsure: please please do not wear a headdress, even to a music festival. Got it? Good.
1. Vogue Japan – November 2014
Ah, yes. What better way to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Vogue Japan than with a Japanese model by the name of… Miranda Kerr. Oh. Miranda’s inclusion on the cover of this special edition would have been questionable no matter what she was wearing, but the ensemble just makes it worse. She’s wearing a black wig in a traditional Japanese style, and her outfit, while modern, is definitely giving kimono vibes. We love Miranda, but there’s no reason this cover couldn’t have been an Asian model. Yikes.