Can Vogue’s most diverse cover yet revive its flagging reputation? Magazine puts plus-size and transgender models on the front of its September issue – alongside industry favorites like Bella Hadid, Kaia Gerber, and Madonna’s daughter Lourdes
- Vogue’s September issue has a ‘New Beginnings’ theme and stars models who it says are ‘challenging definitions of beauty’
- Bella, 24, and Cindy Crawford’s daughter Kaia, 19, pose with Madonna’s daughter Lourdes ‘Lola’ Leon, 24
- Also on the cover are Sherry Shi, Anok Yai, plus-size models Yumi Nu and Precious Lee, and transgender model Ariel Nicholson
- The magazine hails the models as being on ‘the forefront of a thrilling change to an industry’ and says that they are redefining ‘what it means to have influence and visibility’
- Vogue has previously come under fire for a lack of diversity and promoting a narrow standard of beauty
- Editor-in-chief Anna Wintour has also faced numerous calls to resign after being accused of favoring white, thin employees, and allowing discrimination at Vogue
Vogue has debuted its most diverse September cover yet, as it attempts to revive its flagging reputation amid furious controversy over its lack of inclusivity.
The publication released images from its upcoming issue on Thursday, revealing a cover that features some of the industry’s leading lights – Bella Hadid, Kaia Gerber, and Madonna’s daughter Lourdes Leon – posing alongside plus-size, transgender, and ethically-diverse models.
In the new extended cover, Bella, 24, and Kaia, 19, pose with Madonna’s daughter Lola Leon, 24; plus-size models Yumi Nu, 24, and Precious Lee, 31; trans model Ariel Nicholson, 20; South Sudanase-American model Anok Yai, 23; and Chinese-American model Sherry Shi.
Touting a ‘New Beginnings’ theme in a press release, Vogue praises these women for ‘challenging definitions of beauty,’ hailing them for being ‘at the forefront of a thrilling change to an industry — a redefining of beauty, and what it means to have influence and visibility in the fashion world.’
The open-armed approach to diversity in all forms seems to come in response to mounting criticism of the magazine, with critics complaining that it has long promoted an extremely narrow standard of beauty — and former staffers accusing editor-in-chief Anna Wintour of favoring white, thin employees and allowing discrimination at Vogue.
The September issue is here! Vogue’s new issue has a ‘New Beginnings’ theme and stars a host of models whom it hails for ‘challenging definitions of beauty’
Sharing the spotlight: The cover stars industry favorites like Kaia Gerber, Anok Yai, Precious Lee, and Bella Hadid
What a cast! On the extended version are Sherry Shi, Ariel Nicholson, Yumi Nu, and Madonna’s daughter Lola Leon
Vogue’s cover for its highlight-of-the-year September issue breaks the mold in a few ways — including because it was shot inside Vogue’s New York City office, with the hustle and bustle of editors working all around.
Bella is dressed to the nines in a sequined Christopher John Rogers dress, Kaia gives a peek at her long legs in a blue lace Tom Ford, Sherry is stunning in an ivory Proenza Schouler suit, and Yumi’s clothed her curves in a bright Mara Hoffman number — but the group is surprisingly huddled around a desk at Condé Nast, with an editor seen toiling away on a computer behind them.
In another shot, Precious tries on a dress with a full rack of clothes and an extensive shoe collection nearby, and one more shows Ariel in a bold Rick Owens dress, standing in a window as editors work around her.
But it’s the comprehensiveness of the group that is the biggest change for the magazine.
Ariel Nicholson, an LGBTQ rights activist, is the first trans model to cover American Vogue. (Andreja Pejic was the first trans model to be profiled by the magazine, while Valentina Sampaio was the first to cover an international edition when she starred on the front of Vogue Paris in 2017.)
And both Precious Lee and Yumi Nu fall into the curve model, or plus-size model, category.
‘I cherish the platform I’ve been given, and it makes me happy — like, so happy — to know there are larger Asian-American girls who can look at me and see themselves,’ she said.
Vogue’s cover story, written by Maya Singer, concedes that beauty has been ‘democratized’ by social media, allowing designers ‘unprecedented freedom to cast whomever they like — whatever size, age, ethnicity, or gender they may be — in their shows or campaigns.’
The shift is described as a ‘revolution,’ wherein the ‘barricades have fallen’ and ‘forced an industry-wide reckoning with a question: Who gets to be a model?’
But some critics would argue that Vogue has been instrumental in putting those barricades up.
In fact, Chromat founder Becca McCharen-Tran says in the cover story that simply giving these models a job isn’t enough — but she seems hopeful that the industry is finally starting to understand that.
‘I feel like fashion has gotten the message that casting models from diverse backgrounds is the absolute bare minimum,’ she said. ‘But what people are starting to wrap their heads around now is that “diversity” isn’t the point—the point is respect, the point is dignity.’
Embraced: The shift is described as a ‘revolution,’ wherein the ‘barricades have fallen’ and ‘forced an industry-wide reckoning with a question: Who gets to be a model?’
Breaking barriers: Ariel Nicholson, an LGBTQ rights activist, is the first trans model to cover American Vogue
Meanwhile, Ariel noted that ‘there are limits to what “representation” can do, adding: ‘I’ve been put in this box — trans model. Which is what I am — but that’s not all I am.’
‘Obviously it’s a big deal being the first trans woman on the cover of Vogue, but it’s also hard to say exactly what kind of big deal it is when the effects are so intangible,’ she said.
And Yumi added that while she is thrilled to be a part of wider representation, she wishes she didn’t have to check a box for a specific category.
‘I guess there’s a part of me that feels like labels can be limiting. In an ideal world, maybe we wouldn’t have them,’ she said.
Even Bella, Kaia, and Lola bristled at being labeled — though in their case, those labels are ‘another dumb model’ and ‘talentless rich kid,’ with all three the offspring of successful parents who helped paved their way into the industry.
‘People think I’m this talentless rich kid who’s had everything given to her, but I’m not,’ said Lola, who revealed that she paid for her education at the University of Michigan herself.
So far, the response to the new photoshoot has been largely positive, with several commenting with heart and fire emojis and one calling it ‘the best cover in decades.’
Don’t box me in! Even Bella, Kaia, and Lola bristled at being labeled — though in their case, those labels are ‘another dumb model’ and ‘talentless rich kid’
South Sudanese-American model Anok Yai is one of the models to cover the issue
Size inclusivity! Precious Lee, 31, is one of two plus-size models to cover the issue
‘So glad to see this diversity,’ wrote one. ‘Vogue, you need to represent more of the diverse world we live in.
‘I love the diversity, they’re all so beautiful,’ wrote another, while a third commented: ‘About time! More representation, more variety!’
‘I’m glad y’all put some color on there because you know how Vogue gets. Good job,’ wrote one more.
‘I love this,’ said another. ‘Now little girls will grow up learning that beauty comes in all different shapes and sizes.’
There have certainly been some critiques, too, with most calling out that Bella, Kaia, and Lola all have famous parents who gave them a leg up.
‘That’s a lot of nepotism, even for Vogue,’ wrote one, while another argued: ‘Kaia and Bella are literally the results of nepotism and do not deserve to be in a cover that is supposed to be the reshaping of the industry.’
‘Changing the industry is a bit of a stretch when a third of the cover girls got there because of nepotism,’ snapped one more.
Vogue has made a concerted shift toward more diversity in casting in the past few years.
In January, the magazine produced four different covers, with one each for 64-year-old actress Frances McDormand, tennis star Naomi Osaka, plus-size model Paloma Elsesser, and Spanish singer Rosalía.
‘I guess there’s a part of me that feels like labels can be limiting. In an ideal world, maybe we wouldn’t have them,’ Yumi Nu said
Ariel Nicholson noted that ‘there are limits to what “representation” can do, adding: ‘I’ve been put in this box — trans model. Which is what I am — but that’s not all I am’
Famous parents: While the cover has been mostly well-received, some are slamming Vogue for embracing nepotism with three of its model choices
Other cover stars this year have included Vice President Kamala Harris, Gigi Hadid, Selena Gomez, Amanda Gorman, Kaia Gerber, and First Lady Jill Biden.
For last year’s September issue, the publication enlisted black contemporary artists Kerry James Marshall, 64, and Jordan Casteel, 31, to create paintings for the cover.
But amid the shift there have still been calls more more diversity all-around, including on the sets of photoshoots.
Backlash: Anna Wintour has been criticized for creating a culture at Vogue that avored employees who are thin, white, and from elite backgrounds
In August of 2020, Beyoncé’s mother Tina Knowles criticized Vogue not hiring enough black photographers for its cover shoots, while praising the magazine’s British version for its own September 2020 cover, which featured 40 activists described as ‘The Faces of Hope.’
‘When will American Vogue step up and hire more Black Photographers for cover shoots? We’re waiting…….’ she asked on Instagram.
Criticism has been lobbed at Wintour in particular, including from her former employees.
In a lengthy New York Times article published in October, 18 black journalists who have worked with Wintour said Vogue favored employees who are thin, white, and from elite backgrounds.
The Times article detailed a number of examples of alleged racism under Wintour’s leadership.
In 2017, Wintour used an offensive racial term in an email as she raised questions about whether a photo shoot of black models wearing bonnets would itself be perceived as offensive.
‘Don’t mean to use an inappropriate word, but picaninny came to mind,’ Wintour wrote.
When Wintour asked a black assistant to weigh in on the photo shoot, the assistant said the image was not offensive, but expressed displeasure at being asked to render a verdict as a junior staff member, according to the Times.
In another 2017 incident, Kendall Jenner appeared at a London fashion week party wearing fake gold teeth, which a white Vogue writer described as ‘a playful wink to the city’s free-spirited aesthetic — or perhaps a proverbial kiss to her rumored boyfriend, A$AP Rocky.’
Flashback: Last year, a black Vogue staffer expressed outrage that the magazine did not condemn Kendall Jenner’s fake gold teeth (left) in 2017; model Karlie Kloss (seen right in February 2020) appeared in Vogue in a ‘yellowface’ geisha outfit in 2017
The Times reports that a black Vogue staffer expressed outrage, saying that the gold teeth were cultural appropriation.
A top lieutenant brought the issue to Wintour’s attention, writing: ‘If Kendall wants to do something stupid fine but our writers (especially white ones) don’t need to weigh in and glorify it or ascribe reasons to it that read culturally insensitive.’
In his book, former editor-at-large André Leon Talley called Wintour a ‘colonial dame, she comes from British, she’s part of an environment of colonialism. She is entitled and I do not think she will ever let anything get in the way of her white privilege’
Wintour appeared dismissive of the cultural appropriation crisis, responding: ‘Well I honestly don’t think that’s a big deal.’
Also in 2017, white model Karlie Kloss drew cultural appropriation accusations when she appeared in Vogue in a geisha outfit, with her face in pale makeup and her hair dyed black. The photo shoot in Japan drew immediate accusations of ‘yellowface’.
After internal cries of alarm over the feature, Wintour reportedly replied that it could not be cut because of its ‘enormous expense.’
Wintour, who has been Vogue’s editor in chief since 1988 and Condé Nast’s artistic director since 2013, later responded to the allegations in a statement to the Times.
‘I strongly believe that the most important thing any of us can do in our work is to provide opportunities for those who may not have had access to them,’ she said.
‘Undoubtedly, I have made mistakes along the way, and if any mistakes were made at Vogue under my watch, they are mine to own and remedy and I am committed to doing the work,’ she added.
In response to the pickaninny comment in particular, she said: ‘I was trying both to express my concern for how our readers could have interpreted a photo and raise the issue for discussion, and I used a term that was offensive. And for that, I truly apologize.’
At the time, former editor-at-large André Leon Talley came to her defense on social media, praising her for hiring him and breaking the glass ceiling.
The remarks were certainly a change in direction from ones he’d made earlier while promoting his book, when he called Wintour a ‘colonial dame, she comes from British, she’s part of an environment of colonialism. She is entitled and I do not think she will ever let anything get in the way of her white privilege.’
In her corner: Naomi Campbell, who appeared on the cover of Wintour’s first September issue in 1989 (above), vehemently defended the editor
Naomi Campbell, who appeared on the cover of Wintour’s first September issue in 1989, vehemently defended the editor as well.
In June of 2020, Wintour had sent a company-wide memo addressing racism claims.
‘I want to start by acknowledging your feelings and expressing my empathy towards what so many of you are going through: sadness, hurt, and anger too,’ Wintour began.
‘I want to say this especially to the Black members of our team — I can only imagine what these days have been like. But I also know that the hurt, and violence, and injustice we’re seeing and talking about have been around for a long time. Recognizing it and doing something about it is overdue.’
‘I want to say plainly that I know Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate and give space to Black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators,’ she continued.
‘We have made mistakes too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant. I take full responsibility for those mistakes.
‘It can’t be easy to be a Black employee at Vogue, and there are too few of you. I know that it is not enough to say we will do better, but we will — and please know that I value your voices and responses as we move forward. I am listening and would like to hear your feedback and your advice if you would like to share either.
‘I am proud of the content we have published on our site over these past few days but I also know that there is much more work to do. Please don’t hesitate to be in touch with me directly. I am arranging ways we can discuss these issues together candidly, but in the meantime, I welcome your thoughts or reactions.’
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