If you’re a follower of Hollywood, politics and society—or a journalist who covers all three—you’re likely familiar with Vanity Fair. Though first published from 1913 to 1936, the magazine as we know it today has been in print since 1983 and until recently was under the editorial direction of Graydon Carter, who took the helm in 1992. It is well-known for its well-written articles and artistic covers, generally shot by celebrity portraitist Annie Leibovitz.
But what the magazine has never been well-known for is diversity of representation. Though past covers have individually featured certified icons like Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, both President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, and, more recently, Serena Williams and future princess Meghan Markle, the magazine has struggled with regularly showcasing luminaries of color. In fact, the magazine’s much anticipated annual Hollywood issue didn’t feature any black actors on the first third of its trifold cover until 2014, and in 2016, Viola Davis was the first black actress since 1999 to make it onto the main cover (which was notably an all-female cover). Even less exposure has been given to nonblack people of color.
So when 44-year-old New York Times editorial director Radhika Jones was chosen to succeed Carter as Vanity Fair’s editor-in-chief last fall, there was understandable excitement about how some new blood might breathe new life into the magazine. Jones, who is half-Indian, helmed her inaugural issue this month and wrote in her editor’s letter:
Arguments that have simmered for years—about the importance of championing women, new voices, people who come from a wide range of ethnicities and backgrounds—are finding an audience. ... That comes with tremendous opportunity: to draw attention to the people who are on the culture’s cutting edge, whose talent and creative vision transform the ways we see the world and ourselves.
Jones is clearly seizing that opportunity with the April issue; on its cover is writer, actress and producer Lena Waithe—photographed by Leibovitz, of course. Though we know she can rock dapper style beautifully (see her 2017 Emmys look), the star stares into the camera with a slight smirk, wearing a simple white T-shirt.
In addition to being the creator of groundbreaking television like the Emmy Award-winning “Thanksgiving” episode of Netflix’s Master of None and her hometown homage on Showtime, The Chi, Waithe is an out and vocal black queer woman—the first to make the cover of the famed magazine. Said Jones: “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.”
To write Waithe’s cover story, Vanity Fair recruited National Book Award-winning poet Jacqueline Woodson (coincidentally, also a black, female and queer member of the creative elite), who opened her profile of Waithe with a passage worthy of her award-winning semiautobiographical book, Brown Girl Dreaming: “In your life, if you’re lucky enough, you are born during a moment in time when the world is ready for the change you’re bringing. So all that’s left for you to do is your work.”
Though it has clearly not always been the case, Waithe has seemingly fallen into step with a moment in time that is finally ready to receive her greatness—and we are absolutely here for it. And what does the multitalented Waithe have to say about this pivotal moment in her life?
“Here’s the irony of it all,” she told Woodson. “I don’t need an Emmy to tell me to go to work. I’ve been working. I’ve been writing, I’ve been developing, I’ve been putting pieces together and I’m bullets, you know what I’m saying?”
We hear you loud and clear, Lena.