Why Michelle Obama’s Vogue cover matters

by Carmen Van Kerckhove, originally published at CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 blog

A few days ago I found an email in my inbox from publisher Conde Nast, informing me that if I subscribed to Vogue now, I’d be guaranteed to receive the spring fashion issue, featuring Michelle Obama on the cover.

Magazine junkie that I am, I’ve received plenty of subscription solicitations in my day, but can’t remember ever receiving one tied to a promise of receiving a particular issue. It goes to show how big of a deal this cover is.

Copies are selling on eBay at three and a half times the cover price. There are reports of shortages, with people desperate to get their hands on a copy. The issue is even making headlines around the globe in India, England, South America, and Australia.

In case anyone is wondering what’s so utterly remarkable about having Michelle Obama model the cover of Vogue, consider the fashion magazine’s blighted past in matters of race.

Vogue has a history of publishing disquieting images of black people, so the March cover — showing Michelle Obama in a healthy, glowing, glamorous light — is a definite departure for the magazine.

Traditionally, Vogue has thrown a spotlight on very few faces of color. In the last decade, only five covers have featured blacks: Oprah in November 1998, Halle Berry in December 2002, Liya Kebede in May 2005, Jennifer Hudson in February 2007, and Lebron James in April 2008. And during the past 80 years, only 18 of Vogue’s covers – that’s less than 2% — have featured black women.

Even the few Vogue covers which have featured black celebrities have been heavily criticized by advocacy groups. Jennifer Hudson’s cover was decidedly unflattering, showing her mouth hanging open, while the Lebron James/Gisele Bündchen cover was widely derided as overtly racist, with its unmistakable allusion to a renowned World War I propaganda poster. Vogue could have picked a more elegant shot of the two, but instead chose to go with King Kong imagery, with James hunched in the great ape’s position, looking lethal.

If the above examples aren’t sufficient to prove my point, several times a year Vogue publishes a photo shoot that “contrasts” a white model against natives of color from another country, in an apparent attempt to spotlight the “primitive” or “uncivilized” nature of non-whites.

But Vogue isn’t the only fashion player with a race problem. Over the last few years, a heated debate has been brewing about the lack of diversity in the fashion industry. In late 2007, legendary model Iman and model agency owner Bethann Hardison hosted a series of town-hall style meetings at the New York Public Library to emphasize the discrimination faced by models of color. Robin Givhan, the respected fashion columnist at The Washington Post, has written a series of articles examining this very issue. And even Vogue itself ran an article in its July 2008 issue with the headline “Is Fashion Racist?”

So are we beginning to discern a glimmer of light at the end of a very long tunnel when it comes to race and fashion? The Michelle Obama Vogue cover is perhaps an early sign, as is the rise of up-and-coming models of color like Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman, and Arlenis Sosa. All are making inroads in a field which has been largely denied to people of color.

For better or worse, Vogue is viewed as a key arbiter of what’s considered beautiful in American society. Having the magazine shine a spotlight on First Lady Michelle Obama’s decidedly non-European brand of beauty — with her dark skin, full nose and lips, and athletic build — means a lot to millions of people of color.

It’s no wonder the issue is flying off the shelves.