If Black Women Don't Sell Magazines, Why Are They All Over The September Issues?

Photo: Courtesy of Vogue.
Beyoncé’s Vogue September 2018 cover was unprecedented and historic — perhaps not journalistically or visually, but certainly for what it represented for fashion publishing as a whole. “When I first started, 21 years ago, I was told that it was hard for me to get onto covers of magazines because Black people did not sell,” Beyonce told writer Clover Hope. “Clearly that has been proven a myth. Not only is an African-American on the cover of the most important month for Vogue, this is the first ever Vogue cover shot by an African-American photographer.”
The myth that Black women don’t sell magazines is one the fashion industry has maintained for decades. Last November, former British Vogue editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman told The Guardian the reason only eight Black women covered the magazine during her 25-year tenure was “people have to recognize the person who you're putting on the cover." According to The Guardian, “if she put a Black face on the cover who was not instantly recognizable,” Shulman says the magazine “would sell fewer copies. It’s as simple as that.” But is that actually the case?
It’d seem British Vogue’s newly-minted editor-in-chief, Edward Enninful, would disagree with Shulman's sentiment. Since taking over the 102-year magazine in November, he’s proven to be a champion for diversity, having featured Oprah Winfrey and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as well as models Adwoa Aboah, Adut Akech, and Selena Forrest on covers. He solidified his mission when he cast Rihanna as his first September cover star. Like Beyoncé’s shoot, Rihanna’s is also historic, as it’s the first time a Black woman has covered the magazine’s September issue.
In 2015, when eight Black women covered September issues, Charles Whitaker, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University told The Guardian: “You want recognizable people with whom the audience identifies, people who are trending right now, and who are touchstones for some cultural moment.” And it seems like the industry might (finally) be realizing that moment is now. September 2018 may see a record number of Black women fronting fashion magazines. Because, in addition to Beyoncé and Rihanna, there’s Tiffany Haddish on Glamour, Zendaya on Marie Claire, Lupita Nyong’o on Porter, Tracee Ellis Ross on Elle Canada, Slick Woods on British Elle, Adwoa Aboah and Naomi Campbell on Love, Issa Rae on Ebony, and Lauren Harrier on The Sunday Times. Now, that can't be a coincidence (especially if Black women can’t sell magazines).
Brandwatch, a social-media monitoring company, found that Rihanna’s Vogue June 2018 cover generated more attention the Internet than the magazine's September 2017 cover shoot with Jennifer Lawrence (and that was with all the conspiracy theories floating around). That could be the result of a number of factors, or it could speak to media companies’ realization that “Black women are voracious consumers of video and other digital content, and are leaders even in more traditional media categories,” Cheryl Grace, senior vice president, U.S. strategic community alliances and consumer engagement for Nielsen told Fortune in 2017. According to Grace, “Black women have strong life-affirming values that spill over into everything they do. The celebration of their power and beauty is reflected in what they buy, watch and listen to, and people outside their communities find it inspiring.” Earlier this year, Nielson reported Black women spend $54 million for ‘ethnic’ hair and beauty aids and feminine hygiene products, as well $152 million on women’s fragrances — products often advertised in women’s mainstream magazines. In short: #BlackGirlMagic is real, and when championed, it translates to money spent.
Like Beyoncé wrote in her Vogue cover story: “If people in powerful positions continue to hire and cast only people who look like them, sound like them, come from the same neighborhoods they grew up in, they will never have a greater understanding of experiences different from their own. They will hire the same models, curate the same art, cast the same actors over and over again, and we will all lose.” And while there is still much to be said about creating true inclusion in the fashion industry, these magazine covers offer a promising start.

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