In August 1991 a Vanity Fair cover story on the actress Demi Moore sent the conservative American magazine industry into one of its periodic fits of morality. The startling photograph, by Annie Leibovitz, showed Moore naked and hugely pregnant. No Hollywood star had ever appeared like this on the front of a mainstream magazine. “It seems we have broken the last taboo,” declared Tina Brown, Vanity Fair’s editor. But the suits were worried. Offended distributors disguised the cover with a wrapper, as though it were pornography. Was it sexual objectification, a declaration of female empowerment or a celebration of family values? Maybe it was all of those, but mainly it turned out to be good business. Vanity Fair’s sales leapt by 200,000 copies.
The story appears in “Uncovered”, a selective history of “revolutionary” covers from the past seven decades with accounts by the people who made them. There are some familiar images, among them Esquire’s “martyrdom” cover of Muhammed Ali from 1968, when he was facing prison for dodging his draft to Vietnam. George Lois, Esquire’s art director, cast Ali as a latter-day Saint Sebastian, his body pierced by arrows, claiming that it would give heart to millions of young American men with similar doubts about going to war.
But “Uncovered”’s author, Ian Birch, despite having edited such star-struck publications as Grazia, Red and Heat, is less concerned with celebrities and sales than with covers that have pushed boundaries. I regret my ignorance of Fact, a muck-raking American quarterly, which in 1964 campaigned against Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater by screaming on its cover that 1,189 psychiatrists it had canvassed thought him psychologically unfit to be president. The legal activity which followed put the magazine out of business.
Thanks to the internet, the pace at which print magazines have disappeared has accelerated in recent years. Between 2011 and 2017, the number of magazines bought from newsstands in Britain almost halved, from 820m copies to 422m. But what emerges from this book is how a striking image and a few well-chosen words still have the power to influence. Once seen, who can forget the New York magazine cover that assembled all the women who said that comedian Bill Cosby had assaulted them, a j’accuse that preceded his conviction, or Vanity Fair’s flirtatious cover-line, “Call Me Caitlyn”, when Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner discussed his sex-change. In 2016, Edel Rodriguez’s brilliant illustration for Time showed Donald Trump coming apart like a messy, dripping candle, with one word on the cover: “Meltdown”. Out of bad times come good magazine covers.
ONE, August 1958
ONE, launched in California in 1953, was America’s first widely circulated gay magazine for men and women. Typical of its contents were a poem about cruising, a story about a lesbian’s affection for a young girl, and an article in support of gay marriage. Its publishers hoped that heterosexuals would read it and “overcome their prejudices”. The US Post Office, however, refused to mail certain issues because of content it alleged was obscene. In 1958, after years of legal skirmishing between the magazine and the Post Office, the Supreme Court ruled that gay-related speech was protected under the First Amendment. It was a landmark in gay rights. Although ONE’s earlier covers were deliberately designed to be discreet, this one, which followed the Supreme Court decision, trumpets its proud message in big, bold words.
Esquire, May 1969
“An Esquire cover of me drowning in a can of Campbell’s soup? I love it!” Andy Warhol told the magazine’s art director, George Lois. The Sixties were the heyday of both Esquire and pop art, the movement which made Warhol famous. Lois, who is said to have been the inspiration for Don Draper in “Mad Men”, was dismissive of pop art and, when Esquire did a story about it, designed a spoof cover. He later said of his design that “you could look at it as just funny or…as how fame swallows people.” In those pre-computer days, the photo effect was achieved by dropping marbles into the soup to create a hole captured by a cut-out of Warhol. “When we put Andy into the soup, we almost lost him,” Lois drily remarked.
National Lampoon, January 1973
National Lampoon, the Harvard satirical monthly, nurtured future stars like John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and Tony Hendra. Hendra’s cover, from 1973, began as a jokey subscription campaign, threatening mainly student readers that if they didn’t subscribe, a dog would be shot, then a cat, “and the animal death toll will rise until you do”. This early example of “Boomer Humour”, aimed at baby boomers born after the war, became a major feature of American comedy. Taking the cover photograph proved surprisingly hard, as Hendra recalled: “When the dog looked straight out at the reader, he simply appeared victimised. Then someone had the notion of actually pulling the trigger…”
The Economist, September 1994
In 1994, The Economist’s irreverent image of “coital camels” illustrated a cover story condemning ill-advised business mergers. It outraged some readers, especially in America, who thought it beneath the dignity of a supposedly serious publication, but Bill Emmott, the paper’s editor-in-chief, felt duty-bound to “stick two fingers up to the establishment” when necessary. The Economist's picture desk looked at hundreds of images of ungainly animals coupling before they found the right one. “We ended up with camels because they were nicely discreet,” explained picture editor Celina Dunlop.
O, The Oprah Magazine, September 2013
O was launched in 2000 by Hearst Communications and Oprah Winfrey, the media mogul and actress, who appears on the front of every issue. This popular cover, from September 2013, was seen as a celebration of African-American beauty at a time of worsening race relations, but it was not intended to be a political statement. At the photo shoot, Oprah repeatedly played “The Lion King” soundtrack, claiming that her new mane (which was really a 3lb wig) made her feel like a lioness.
Die Zeit, May 2015
In 2014 Die Zeit, Germany’s liberal weekly, responded to Europe’s escalating refugee crisis by bravely publishing a magazine cover in German and Arabic that could be read by both nationals and immigrants. The text begins: “Every day, people start out in the hope of a better life. We dedicate this issue to you.” Since Arabic is read from right to left, producing the cover was unusually difficult, but the magazine team were united in delivering a message described by Mohamed Amjahid, its guest editor, as “Refugees welcome”.
Uncovered: Revolutionary Magazine Covers – the inside stories told by the people who made them by Ian Birch is out now, published by Octopus