They can’t let us have anything.
In tandem with the debut of Beyoncé’s historic September 2018 Vogue cover, an expected flurry of scrutinizing think-pieces have ensued—along with a very uncomfortable debate over the relevance of Beyoncé’s cover story, and who’s entitled to claim credit for Vogue booking their first black photographer to shoot the cover of the most visible issue of the year.
It all began when Business of Fashion (BoF) published an article on Monday morning titled “American Vogue’s September Issue: Leaks, Rumours and Making History,” which included an interview with Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, alongside Condé Nast creative director Raul Martinez.
The interview seemed designed to refute a previously published report by the Huffington Post that Beyoncé had been given “unprecedented control” over the cover, stating:
The publication is contractually obligated to give Beyoncé full control over the cover, the photos of her inside the magazine and the captions, which she has written herself and are in long-form, according to two sources who are familiar with the agreement between Vogue and Beyoncé but aren’t authorized to speak to the press.
This, of course, refueled rumors of Wintour’s imminent departure, which might explain why Wintour and Martinez felt the need to categorically deny a statement from one of those two unidentified inside sources, who’d told Huff Po:
The reason a 23-year-old black photographer is photographing Beyoncé for the cover of Vogue is because Beyoncé used her power and influence to get him that assignment.
Instead, Wintour, who has steadfastly refused to comment on departure or retirement rumors (a Condé Nast exec has stated that she “isn’t going anywhere”), told BoF: “The concept and the photographer was entirely Vogue’s, specifically Raul’s.”
And Mitchell, who is not only the 126-year-old publications’s first black cover photographer, but at age 23, ties for its youngest (with 1960s phenomenon David Bailey), quickly fell in line, telling BoF that “the Vogue team made clear that they wanted him to stay true to his vision.” Doubling down, he also penned a (wisely now-deleted) tweet that he was hired by Martinez and Wintour—after reportedly being proposed to Beyoncé, who “quickly agreed.”
So if we’re understanding this correctly, we’re supposed to believe that after excluding black photographers’ work from the cover for well over a century—30 years of which were helmed by Wintour—Vogue suddenly and solely had the brilliant idea to hire a 23-year-old black man (the term “boy” was only used in the title for comedic/pop cultural purposes) to photograph perhaps the most famous woman—but certainly the most famous black woman (rivaling Oprah)—in the world?
Of course, Vogue has attempted to qualify their claim by referencing Mitchell’s previous work for Teen Vogue; conveniently forgetting that he also previously photographed Beyoncé’s sister, Solange. But their version of events also diminishes—if not outright contradicts—Beyoncé’s own agency in the decision, which she thoroughly explained in Vogue’s cover story:
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. ... Not only is an African American on the cover of the most important month for Vogue, this is the first ever Vogue cover shot by an African American photographer.
It’s important to me that I help open doors for younger artists. There are so many cultural and societal barriers to entry that I like to do what I can to level the playing field, to present a different point of view for people who may feel like their voices don’t matter. ...
If people in powerful positions continue to hire and cast only people who look like them, sound like them, come from the same neighborhoods they grew up in, 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.
Vogue’s insistence on taking sole credit for the history-making choice—if only to reassert Wintour’s ongoing power as the head of the publication—does feel like a loss. Had they conceded that it was an active and equal collaboration between themselves and Beyoncé and her team, they likely would’ve appeared more relevant and forward-thinking, since all one is left to think now is, if it was all your idea, then why not sooner?
Are we really supposed to believe that Beyoncé—who, for all her own contradictions, has been consistently pushing her own needle and legacy forward in recent years by recruiting and promoting black talent and imagery—had little to no influence whatsoever in the world’s most prominent fashion publication taking such a huge risk with its most lucrative issue of the year?
The Daily Beast gave what felt like a much more accurate read of the controversy, as writer Tim Teenan wrote, “A bastion of white privilege has been schooled by a black, pop-cultural icon. Vogue has had to be made to do the right thing, and only a very powerful person could make it do the right thing.”
There, fixed it.
But the Beast went one further in challenging the magazine’s claim of unilateral creative control over Beyoncé’s cover story: Questioning their journalistic integrity, Teenan calls out Vogue’s seeming failure to insist that writer Clover Hope (culture editor for our sister site, Jezebel) be allowed to conduct a more traditional interview (which was highly unlikely, since Beyoncé has notoriously avoided being interviewed for many years; her last appearance in Vogue was entirely visual). Pointing to the series of “as told to” extended captions that comprise the editorial, Teenan writes:
If it is true that Beyoncé and her representatives controlled everything that we see in Vogue, however those words were produced, then that is significant for a range of reasons.
Principally, the most powerful fashion magazine in the world, with the most powerful editor at its helm, has ceded control to a celebrity it wanted to feature. ... However brilliant and inspiring a celebrity is—however much of a landmark having a black photographer finally shooting a Vogue cover is—having Beyoncé dictate what is said about her in Vogue and how she is presented, is a startling jettisoning of editorial control, and what journalism should be about, whatever the outlet for that journalism is. ...
Yes, it says a lot of amazing things about Beyoncé that she can demand and execute this level of control, but it says something more troubling about Vogue that it should agree to it. ... That a celebrity should co-opt the means of production of a glossy magazine says much about the power of that celebrity, and what celebrity means today.
Again, this challenges the notion that Vogue maintained complete creative control of this issue—which might be all right, if they just admitted it. Or better yet, how about play the same card played with those retirement rumors, and say nothing at all?
Instead, their insistence on denying that the price of featuring this enormously famous celebrity was to allow her and her team to effectively act as editor-at-large does us all a disservice, as it attempts to diminish her influence while inexplicably positioning themselves as the sudden arbiters and elevators of young black talent.
You know, just like that—after 126 years.
It’s a questionable public relations move, to say the least—and one that might have been performed more for the benefit of Vogue’s board of directors than the legions of fans—and representation-starved black folk—who will buy this issue in support of the powerful woman on the cover, rather than the powerful one behind the scenes.
But perhaps the ugliest—and messiest—outcome of this entire controversy is the unsubstantiated rumor reported by Radar Online that Beyoncé wasn’t even Wintour’s first choice for the September cover. The site’s StraightShuter podcast claims that Wintour initially wanted new royal Meghan Markle, reporting that Markle “would’ve killed” for the chance to pose for the cover prior to her marriage to Prince Harry, but passed since becoming the new Duchess of Sussex (though fellow Condé Nast publication Vanity Fair snagged her last October; so if this is true, it sounds like poor planning on Vogue’s part).
According to Radar’s snarky “inside” source, “Bey had no idea that she was the second choice for the issue,” gleefully adding that “everyone at Condé Nast began gossiping as soon as the new Duchess of Sussex ‘passed.’”
While if this were true, it would mean there would’ve been a black woman on the cover of the September issue regardless, the rumor has since been quashed by Vogue. But given the other rhetoric floating around, it begs the question: Why was it even necessary? Was this supposed “leak” in fact another subversive move on the part of Vogue’s PR machine to diminish Beyoncé’s power; in effect saying, “she ain’t all that”?
These are questions we shouldn’t have to ask. We shouldn’t be forced to question Vogue’s motives, and we certainly shouldn’t be weighing the relevance or desirability of one black female celebrity versus another—or the hiring of a black photographer, or the output of a black writer—all of whom converged to make this moment one for the history books.
We should have the luxury of sitting back with our collector’s item Vogue September issues and just basking in the beautiful black glory of it all, without question; and with Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” on repeat in the background.
But it seems Vogue won’t let us be great. They can’t let us have anything.