Newly appointed editor Radhika Jones breaks from the decades-long theme of “white, female ingenue” cover stars
Graydon Carter has left the building.
Newly appointed Vanity Fair editor Radhika Jones selected Lena Waithe — the Emmy-winning out, black lesbian writer-actor-producer whose career has recently exploded — as the Condé Nast mag’s April cover subject. In a wide-ranging profile written by queer black writer Jacqueline Woodson and photographed by Annie Leibovitz, the “Master of None” star discussed influences on her work; Hollywood’s Time’s Up movement; her fiancée, Alana Mayo; and her own efforts to boost representation of people of color and queer folks in film and TV.
“For so many of us who have not seen an out Black lesbian front and center this way, her arrival is a small, long-awaited revelation,” wrote Woodson in her profile. “Her arrival is our arrival.”
“When I thought about the kind of person I’d like to see on the cover of Vanity Fair, I thought about Lena Waithe — a member of the new creative elite remaking entertainment for her generation,” Jones added in an editor’s note.
Waithe, best known as Denise on “Master of None,” the creator of Showtime’s “The Chi” and the newly-ordered TBS pilot “Twenties,” and an actress in Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One,” last year became the first black woman to land the Emmy for comedy writing. She and her team also work with the Blacklist, a website through which aspiring writers can pay to have industry professionals read and evaluate their scripts.
The editorial choice, coming after a pensive Jennifer Lawrence covered Vanity Fair’s March issue, marked Jones’s first cover shoot — and drew praise for breaking the mold. “Dear @RadhikaJones,” filmmaker Ava Duvernay wrote on Twitter. “You’re changing the game by centering this game-changer on the @VanityFair cover. You’ve done something big here. Something bold. I’m excited by you. And grateful for this powerful image of our sister warrior, the great @LenaWaithe. Who we hold so dear. Brava.”
— Lydia Polgreen (@lpolgreen) March 22, 2018
“Do y’all understand how many lives this cover is going to change? How many little boys and girls (and adults) who are afraid of being themselves that will feel empowered because @LenaWaithe is living in her truth?” added NFL player turned filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry. “Bravo @VanityFair @radhikajones. This is incredible!”
Waithe’s cover status, said sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism,” signals a “Vanity Fair for a new, more woke generation of readers.” “It felt like unearthing a story that has always been there but has just not been told because of the dominant focus on … white, straight, male actors,” Yuen told Moneyish. “(It’s) very significant in that she’s setting Vanity Fair for perhaps a new era of not just focusing on the same old young, white, female ingenues, but really looking at also someone who’s an actor and a creator and a mentor, and obviously an intellectual and cultural figure.”
The magazine industry at large has taken cues from Hollywood in growing more socially aware, Folio Magazine editorial director Caysey Welton told Moneyish, citing as examples Teen Vogue, Time magazine and Women’s Running, which on its October 2016 cover featured a Muslim woman in hijab.
“I think Vanity Fair really should be the leader … in saying that Hollywood is not just couture dresses and these beautiful, overdone cover shoots,” Welton said. “Graydon’s Vanity Fair was a beautiful magazine and had great journalism, and I’m not trying to demean that in any way. What I’m saying is, maybe it didn’t quite relate to what Hollywood (is) all about right now, and what the climate in America is right now with a more progressive movement.”
This new direction, he added, “points out that Vanity Fair has their finger on this sort of change that’s happening; the shift in Hollywood and media — for lack of a better word, this wokeness or state of being.”
Spotlights on strong, multi-talented creators like Waithe can also provide “a model of how to be a celebrity,” Yuen said. “I think Hollywood wants to diversify but it doesn’t know how,” she said. “So I think this portrait of Lena Waithe is one message sent to Hollywood: This is one way, and a very successful way, that Lena Waithe has been able to etch out this path.”
Yuen marveled that Jones, who took the reins as the mag’s first editor of color after Carter’s 25-year run, had been willing to make bold choices right out of the gate. “A lot of times when women of color get into positions of power … they don’t want to be labeled as someone who’s only going to advocate for or creatively get behind stories of color” for fear of pushback or being stereotyped themselves, she said. “I think for her to make this her debut as the new editor, it does say, ‘I’m not afraid to do this, and this is what I want to do — and maybe this is why I even took the position.’”
Jones, Welton said, understands the 2018 climate of tolerance and progressive-mindedness. “If you don’t go that way, you’re probably going to end up on the wrong side of history, and you’ll become irrelevant,” he added. “I think that’s kind of why they brought her in, and I think they wanted her to be bold.”
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