Femme Fatale

08.31.11

Hollywood’s Overlooked It Girl

The stunning Zoe Saldana has a hit movie, ‘Colombiana,’ opening at No. 2 this weekend. But the breakout Latina star still can’t get on the cover of a major magazine. By Allison Samuels.

Zoe Saldana certainly has it all, or so it would seem. Her café au lait skin is as flawless as it is pretty, her figure is toned and slim, and the powers that be in Hollywood appear willing and ready to throw big bucks behind any project she appears in. Still there’s one thing she’s oddly lacking: a major fashion-magazine cover to accompany the release of her first solo feature film.

Colombiana marks Saldana’s initial foray into the "kick ass" female superhero role and the first time she’s carried a major film all on her own—a feat only the likes of Angelina Jolie, the grand dame of female action heroes, has been able to pull off in recent years.

Stylish and sleek advertisements for the film that casts Saldana as a revenge-seeking hit woman were enticing enough to secure second place for the movie at the U.S box office this weekend, even as many on the East Coast faced the wrath of Hurricane Irene. With tickets sales of over $11 million, Colombiana’ came in only second to persistent fan favorite, The Help.

‘’Zoe is Hollywood’s new ‘it’ girl, there’s no doubt about that,’’ says Marvet Britto of the Britto Agency, an entertainment branding and image consultant company.  ‘’She is on the short list of actresses for most of the projects directors are talking about. That can only grow and get bigger.’’

Pretty impressive for a woman of color, and even more so given that Saldana didn’t receive one of the major advertising perks usually guaranteed for a major film such as Colombiana and to the young, beautiful, and hot in Tinseltown. Magazine covers aplenty.

Hollywood is without doubt an industry driven by the media that surrounds it. Movies and the stars selected to appear in them survive, thrive, and often become household names not just for the roles they take on but by the deluge of media opportunities that come along with a hit film or television show.

It’s hard to deny that the massive popularity actresses such as Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, and Gwyneth Paltrow enjoy is primarily fed by the numerous magazine covers they grace each month and not by their performances in critically acclaimed films.

So what about Zoe? In 2010 Saldana was famously absent from Vanity Fair’s annual Hollywood cover, even though in 2009 she’d gained the distinction of becoming the only actress to have three movies in the top 20 for three consecutive weeks. One of those films, Avatar, became the highest-grossing film of all time.

Last year designer Calvin Klein tapped her to star in his Envy underwear ad campaign. An impressive feat for any actress in Hollywood these days, though it appears not impressive enough for the New York editors of the top magazines.

This month Vogue, Bazaar, Marie Claire, and Elle opted to go with the tried and true in their selections of famous faces for their September issues, and that didn’t include Zoe. Saldana managed to land on the covers of special-interest magazines such as Ebony and Latina.

‘’The magazine industry has always been hesitant to put a woman of color or black woman on the cover of a major fashion magazine because they don’t sell well,’’ says Bethann Hardison, fashion advocate, former model, and owner of a modeling agency that bears her name. ‘’That hasn’t changed over the years as far as the publishing world is concerned. It’s still very much about blonde hair and blue eyes.’’

Though Saldana’s heritage is both Puerto Rican and Dominican, and she regularly touts her Spanish heritage to all who’ll listen, she’s routinely considered African-American, largely due to her smooth brown complexion and dark-brown locks. Unlike with her Latina peers Jennifer Lopez and Jessica Alba, who both have slightly more European features, Saldana’s browner hue is still searching for its place of favor with top magazine editors in the U.S.

Interestingly enough, Saldana’s face recently graced the July cover of Russian Vogue and the February issue of Italian Vogue.

‘’She may not say she’s black, but black is in there somewhere,’’ said Hardison.  ‘’And black is what they see when they get ready to decide who’s the cover of their magazines. It’s not fair, but it’s the way it is.’’

Others in the fashion industry point out that while both Beyoncé and Rihanna appear on Instyle and Glamour magazine covers this month, both women are singers, which is a more traditionally accepted role for women of color. Dominating the box office is not.

Michael Schultz, an African-American director and producer, says he’s rather perplexed at Saldana’s lack of appeal in editors’ offices and at the newsstand. The director of such films as Carwash and television shows like In Plain Sight says the Dominican starlet has replaced Halle Berry as the woman of color of choice and in demand in Hollywood.

‘’I frankly think she is the new Halle Berry with more talent,’’ says Schultz. ‘’And the white boys think she’s hot, so the sky is the limit for her with the right moves.’’

Does she have them? While she and her management team have thus far been savvy and calculating in choosing film roles that showcase her acting skills and beauty, she’ll need the surrounding media support if she’s ever to skyrocket to the land of Jolie or higher.

“She’s a charming girl and an actress with a presence,” says African-American film historian Donald Bogle. ‘’But without those magazine covers, it will be very hard for her to go to the next level.’’

A brown face just doesn’t resonate with nonminorities when it’s on the cover of magazines.

Britto says Saldana had the great misfortune of opening in a major film during one of the most vital months for fashion. September issues of women’s publications are usually the largest of the year and feature hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of ads showcasing fall attire.

‘’They weren’t willing to take a chance on someone that hadn’t proven themselves a big seller in this time period,’’ says Britto.  ‘’They must have someone who they know will sell and sell well for the September issue.’’

Hardison sees the Saldana magazine dilemma through slightly different lenses. A former model who for years has been a top advocate for the increase of brown and black models on the runway and in print ads, she thinks the calendar month is of little consequence.

‘’I’ve thought about this for a while and I’ve come to the realization that a brown face just doesn’t resonate with nonminorities when it’s on the cover of magazines,’’ said Hardison, "so they won’t buy it.’’