The Celebrity Cover Backlash
Celebrities once dominated magazine covers and fashion ads. Now. Angelina and Uma have been replaced by athletes, models, and dead people. Jacob Bernstein on why the stars burned out.
For nearly a decade, movie stars have appeared consistently on the covers of every major magazine in America—Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar—as well as ad campaigns for virtually every luxury fashion brand whose clothes sell on the fourth floor of Barneys.
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Just a few years ago, you might have come across Angelina Jolie decked out in a perfect evening gown from St. John on the pages of a fashion magazine. On another, it was Jennifer Connelly, her enviable size-zero body posing in the latest space age clothes from Balenciaga. Flip a few more pages, and you might see Uma Thurman reclining on a couch in Louis Vuitton, clutching one of the French fashion house’s famous monogrammed bags.
But this season, the only billboards Jolie will be on are for her July movie, Salt. And when asked why Jolie was no longer appearing in ads for St. John, replaced by the model Karen Elson, the company’s CEO Glenn McMahon told Women’s Wear Daily that Jolie had “overshadowed the brand.”
“We wanted to make a clean break from actresses and…clean the palate,” McMahon said.
“Scarlett Johansson is a very good actress, but is she going to sell magazines to the same degrees as Julia Roberts once did?”
Apparently, that’s similar to how people felt at Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton, both of which went with models for their new ad campaigns.
A few seasons ago, a department store buyer attending Marc Jacobs’ semi-annual fashion show in New York might’ve run smack into Demi Moore or Madonna. Now, the designer has had a change of heart. Robert Duffy, the president of Marc Jacobs, recently told Style.com, “People used to want to come to our shows because of [the celebrities who were there]…So we sort of stopped that and just got back to showing a fashion show, and if people want to come, great.”
Meanwhile, on Glamour—which has regularly featured celebrities—the June cover features not a star promoting her latest movie, but three models, one of whom is plus size.
And on Vanity Fair this month, there are two near-naked athletes from the World Cup, whose names no one in America seems to know. It’s the third time this year the magazine has opted not to put a big star on the cover.
What is happening? Is it the end of the celebrity moment?
In conversations with magazine editors, Hollywood power players, and advertising executives, no one goes so far as to say that the stars have burned out, but there is some consensus that after years of Hollywood dominating nearly every aspect of the pop culture landscape, a shift is taking place. Increasingly, these people say that they are looking for a new series of faces, that the tried-and-true formula of going to a movie star first is no longer working. “It’s about commerce,” says Joe Zee, creative director of Elle. “At some point, you have to go and find something new.”
Glamour’s editor Cindi Leive agrees:, “I think what you’re seeing in the magazine world is a certain amount of fatigue with the same old, same old faces. One reason we had a nice sale with Taylor Swift was that you hadn’t seen her on a million magazine covers before and there was actually the hope that ‘Oh my God! I might actually learn something new.’ I think taking risks is serving people well right now.”
Or as Samir Husni, the magazine industry pundit, put it, “What else do you really want to know about Angelina Jolie? With a lot of these celebrities, there’s nothing left to show unless they actually take their clothes off. We’ve covered them from every shape, every corner. We’ve shown them with their kids, and with their boyfriends and with their girlfriends, so that’s why you’re starting to see semi-naked soccer players and a semi-naked Tiger Woods. That’s what it takes to survive in a digital age.”
Part of the reason for the shift appears to be that as more and more industries produce their own celebrities— star chefs! Star personal finance experts! Star sixth graders playing Lady Gaga at assembly!—the more traditional celebrities have lost some of their clout.
Or, to paraphrase Norma Desmond, it’s not just that the magazines have gotten smaller, it’s that the stars did, too.
Says one magazine industry veteran: “The younger celebrities today are not Brad Pitts or George Clooneys. Scarlett Johansson is a very good actress, but is she going to sell magazines to the same degree as Julia Roberts once did? The reason Sarah Jessica Parker is on the cover of Vogue and Marie Claire and everywhere else is because there are so few other people that can sell.”
It’s a problem that extends to the celebrity weeklies, which derive a significant amount of their revenue from newsstand sales and which were mostly down in the second half of 2009. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, OK!, In Touch, People, Star, and The National Enquirer all posted considerable declines at the end of last year. Only Us Weekly reported a sales increase, and it was modest, about 1.9 percent.
Even at the box office, where ticket sales are up year over year, the biggest star vehicles are falling flat. Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, and Mel Gibson’s most recent projects have all been commercial disappointments. Same for Angelina Jolie. In the last five years, only two of her films have crossed the $100 million mark, and the biggest hit of those was Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which seemed to play off of her reported affair with Brad Pitt, who was married to Jennifer Aniston when the film was made.
The biggest movie event of the last year—and the highest-grossing film of all time, actually—is Avatar. But you can’t exactly put a blue Navi creature on the cover of Vogue.
In the midst of all this celebrity backlash has been the global economic crisis, which has made fashion brands far more squeamish about paying stars wads of cash for appearances at fashion shows and store openings.
Robert Burke, a prominent consultant in the fashion business whose clients include Bulgari, Vera Wang, and Dunhill, notes, “There was a time not too long ago when celebrities were paid a lot of money to show up at a party and today people are really looking at the R.O.I and going, ‘Do we really need this person here?’ Paying people to appear at a fashion show is a bit passé.”
Still, there are a few rare actors who continue to dominate at the box office and whose personal lives are titillating to magazine editors. The most notable example right now is Sandra Bullock, who had two enormous hit movies last year, won an Oscar, and left the tabloid marriage from hell.
As Glamour’s Cindi Leive says, “There is no editor who wouldn’t love to have her on her next cover. She’s a quality actress and an amazing person but obviously the reasons for feeling your readers would relate to [her] are more complicated than that. Just being in a blockbuster movie is not enough anymore, unless it’s a movie about vampires. Then it’s enough.”
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.