How Beyoncé’s Vogue Cover Is Making History and Why That Matters
125 years is a long time.
Since Vogue published the very first issue of its magazine over a century ago in 1892, America has gone through 22 presidents, given women the right to vote, outlawed the production of alcoholic beverages, made alcohol legal again, adapted to the introduction of the microwave oven, television, computers, and internet to their daily lives, gone to the moon… You catch our drift.
And yet, amidst all that, some progress has moved at a truly glacial pace. After all, it wasn’t until the 21st of the 22 presidents elected to office during Vogue’s celebrated existence that the country elected one of color. And the chance to see a female in office? Well, we all know how that went.
Progress within the halls of Vogue’s offices, too, has moved at a uniquely slow pace. It would take 82 years for Beverly Johnson to become the first black model to grace the cover and another 15 before a model of Puerto Rican descent, Talisa Soto, would show up to represent the Latin audience. In that same year, a year into Vogue editor-in-chief extraordinaire Anna Wintour’s now-30 year tenure, Naomi Campbell would become the first model of color to grace the cover of the venerated September issue.
And yet, despite all those firsts, it’s not exactly like a floodgate of racial diversity had been opened at the magazine. Since Campbell’s September issue cover in 1989, only three other women of color have followed suit: Halle Berry in 2010, Joan Smalls (sharing her cover with Cara Delevigne and Karlie Kloss) in 2014, and Beyoncé in 2015. That’s it. No Latin models have made the cut, and don’t even get us started about models of Asian descent. (Actually, on second thought, do. Did you know that, in 125 years, only one has graced any cover for the magazine? It was Chinese model Liu Wen, and like Smalls, she had to share her March 2017 cover—with six other models.)
All of this makes Queen Bey’s return to the cover for the just-revealed September 2018 issue all the more important. Not only does her repeat make a cool fifth in terms of representation for women of color, but one very important behind-the-scenes factor make this a watershed moment for the publication. For the first time in the the history of Vogue, their cover was photographed by an African-American. Yes, you read that right. The first time.
For the shoot, the magazine commissioned 23-year-old photographer Tyler Mitchell, whom they’d become aware of when he photographed gun rights activists for a Teen Vogue cover earlier this year. And while the rumor mill had run rampant ahead of the release with the idea that Wintour had handed Beyoncé full control over the cover shoot and ensuing story, presumably including Mitchell’s involvement, the official story’s a bit different.
In an interview with Business of Fashion, Wintour addressed the rumors, asserting, “The concept and the photographer was entirely Vogue’s, specifically Raul’s.” She was referring to Condé Nast (Vogue’s parent company) creative director Raul Martinez. It was Martinez who sparked to Mitchell’s Teen Vogue work, the story goes, earning him a spot on the short list of photographers presented to Beyoncé, who is said to have immediately approved him, recognizing both his talent and the historical implications attached to the decision. (As for the notion that Beyoncé’s “in her own words” cover story was a concession on Wintour’s end, she countered, “As last time, and the time before, there was a lot of discussion about the best way to approach this. Who is better to write about Beyoncé than Beyoncé?”)
“Until there is a mosaic of perspectives coming from different ethnicities behind the lens, we will continue to have a narrow approach and view of what the world actually looks like. That is why I wanted to work with this brilliant 23-year-old photographer Tyler Mitchell,” Beyoncé, as told to Clover Hope, explained in the cover story.
As she argues in the article, until the folks in power begin to hire and cast people who don’t exactly look, sound, and come from the same places as them, “they will never have a greater understanding of experiences different from their own. They will hire the same models, curate the same art, cast the same actors over and over again, and we will all lose.”
With the push for greater representation of diverse voices in front of the camera swelling in Hollywood, so, too, must the push grow behind the lens, in the writers’ room, and in the boardroom. And its moments like these, whoever suggests them and however late they may feel, that can create real change.
“There was a ladder for the people who came before me, and there’s a ladder now—it’s just a new ladder,” Mitchell states in a Vogue profile of his own. “I want to open the eyes of the kids younger than me, show them that they can do this too.”
“I cried 3 times already this morning,” the young photographer tweeted as he revealed his work on Monday. “Here’s Beyoncé by me for the September 2018 cover of American Vogue.”
Vogue took a giant step up its own ladder of progress here. And they ought to be commended for that. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take another 125 years for the next one.