It was fun watching the festival of media umbrage over April’s Vogue cover—you know, that Annie Leibovitz portrait of a sloe-eyed Kim Kardashian in a white ruched wedding bustier, nuzzled by her equally spiffy baby daddy, Kanye West.
It’s not entirely clear why a fashion shot of the reigning queen of trash television—whose 2007 “leaked“ sex tape lifted her from the status of Paris Hilton’s B-list BFF to the star of her own little reality-TV empire—should prompt so much punditry bewailing the decline of Western civilization. True, Anna Wintour may have gone a little overboard when she celebrated Kim’s “courage” in her editor’s letter. But come on. The cover of Vogue is not exactly the Nobel Peace Prize, and Kim Kardashian isn’t exactly Pol Pot.
Anyway, far be it from me to get on my high horse about sensationalist covers. I helped give birth to the mutant celebrity nightmare that has now eaten the media world. As the onetime editor of Vanity Fair, I shall never forget the pain I caused the distinguished foreign correspondent T.D. Allman when he learned that his rigorously reported 8,000-word profile of the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (to whom he had looked forward to sending an early copy) would appear in the issue topped with Annie’s portrait of a Roseanne Barr mud wrestling in a swimsuit. Bait-and-switch was the whole glorious gimmick of high-low editing, and I am happily guilty on every count.
Vogue celebrates plenty of women of substance. Wintour has kept the standard up while battling as hard as everyone else for cultural relevance. But what happens when there isn’t a bait-and-switch? When it’s just low-low? Because that’s where we are, friends(as John McCain would say).
Vogue calls its Kim cover “aspirational.” It is—and that’s the trouble. A Vogue cover is a mirror. Sometimes it’s a funhouse mirror, sometimes it’s Cinderella’s stepmother’s mirror, and sometimes—this time—it’s a mirror of our aspirations. And those now have very little to do with any notion of excellence, either of character or of comportment. Our hopes have gotten so cheesy that even the cheese is ersatz.
So at the risk of sounding like a throwback to Tipper Gore, I’d like to suggest that our world is full of women to admire—women whose personal example is ennobling, women whose lives lift our expectations, and our aspirations, out of the mire of brute notoriety. These are the truly cool women in the world, and more and more I find them in places that most of the media no longer has the budget to seek out.
I’m thinking of Manal al-Sharif, the ravishing young Saudi businesswoman in the white silk hijab who defied the driving ban and wound up arrested. She’s cool. And Khalida Brohi, the 25-year-old Pakistani spitfire who drives alone around rural villages in Pakistan, telling hostile turbaned misogynists why their daughters should go to school. She’s cool. And Claire Byarugaba, the soft-spoken 26-year-old campaigner for Uganda’s gays, who continues to risk her life even after she was outed by Red Pepper, a Ugandan tabloid, in the witch hunt now sweeping the African continent. She’s fierce and she’s gentle—and she’s cool. The Ukrainian pop star and former MP Ruslana, who belted out the national anthem in Maidan Square under the guns of special forces troops and calmed protestors? She’s awesome as well.
There are plenty of cool women here in the United States, too. Here’s one: Army Sgt. Julia Bringloe, decorated for valor in 2012, who rescued 14 wounded soldiers on a 60-hour medevac helicopter mission in the mountains of Afghanistan. During one hoist, dangling from the helicopter as she rappelled back with the stretcher, she broke her leg when she interposed her body between a tree and a patient to protect him. Ignoring the pain, she flew back several more times to rescue others. I consider Julia cool—cooler than Kim Kardashian, and maybe even more “courageous.”
Few of the women we feature this week at the Women in the World summit are cover girls, but every one of them is a model—a model of service, a model of grit, a model of inspiration. Whether they’re as famous as IMF chief Christine Lagarde and former Secretary of State/Senator/First Lady Hillary Clinton or as relatively unknown to the mass public as Khalida Brohi and Claire Byarugaba, they all have something to teach us about the kind of cool that counts—or should.
To check out these cool women, and many more, watch the Women in the World Summit livestream on the Daily Beast, starting Thursday at 6:30 p.m