Glossies so white: the data that reveals the problem with British magazine covers

A Guardian investigation shows there were whole months last year when not a single BAME person featured on the cover of our biggest-selling magazines. And when it comes to children’s magazines, the problem is even worse

Women’s magazine editors have always understood the importance of a good cover. An illustration of Queen Victoria’s bust, surrounded by stylish women behaving as domestic role models, was credited with propelling Mrs Beeton’s The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine to bestseller status in 1857, earning it “more patrons than any other magazine in the Empire”, one newspaper said. As a mixed-race girl growing up in Britain in the 1990s, I might have still been in the era of empire, as far as my relationship with popular magazines was concerned. Yes, I bought Just Seventeen, More, Marie Claire, Elle and Vogue, but the fact that I – and thousands of other women and girls of colour like me – spent our money on glossies did not mean they catered for us. Through ignorance and indifference, they frequently featured no one of black, Asian, mixed or any other ethnic minority heritage from cover to cover, while advice on makeup, skin care, hair styles and products was unfailingly irrelevant to us.

New research by the Guardian’s data team shows how little has changed. The covers of some the UK’s most popular monthlies remain overwhelmingly white.

Of 214 covers published by the 19 bestselling glossies last year, only 20 featured a person of colour. That’s only 9.3%, although 13.7% of the UK are BAME, according to the Office for National Statistics’ latest estimate, published in June 2016. The most diverse month was October, when two magazines showed a black model and one featured an Asian model on the cover. But in two months in 2017, March and May, the front covers of every single title we analysed featured images of white people exclusively. The covers of four magazines – Marie Claire, HomeStyle, Your Home and Prima – did not feature a single person of colour throughout 2017.

For our study, we looked only at publications whose covers mostly featured people and based our calculations on covers that show only one person. The picture is similar if “multi-person” covers are included. The representation problem is not confined to women’s magazines. While GQ featured two black cover models over the year, the other men’s magazine in our study, Men’s Health, had just one. Neither publication featured men from any other minority background.

Children’s magazine covers also lacked diversity. For the five children’s publications we looked at (in addition to the 19 other monthly magazines), 95% of the cover models were white. One of the most popular – Mr Tumble Something Special – was based on the children’s TV personality Justin Fletcher, who is white, but others depended heavily on the young, white YouTube star Zoella, who appeared on eight covers in 2017, while black models appeared on only two. None of the bestselling children’s magazines featured Asian or Latino models.

Lena Waithe on the April 2018 cover of Vanity Fair, photographed by Annie Leibovitz.
Breaking barriers … Lena Waithe on the April 2018 cover of Vanity Fair, photographed by Annie Leibovitz. Photograph: Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair

The inclusion of children’s and men’s titles in the Guardian’s research shines a greater light on the state of diversity in magazines, a debate that usually centres on a smaller number of women’s glossy magazines and especially British Vogue. During its former editor Alexandra Shulman’s 25 years at the helm, only two black women were given solo covers. Shulman said in 2012 that, “in a society where the mass of the consumers are white and where, on the whole, mainstream ideas sell, it’s unlikely there will be a huge rise in the number of leading black models”.

When Shulman stepped down in 2017, making way for UK Vogue’s first black editor, Edward Enninful, her leaving photo depicted an all-white editorial staff at the magazine.

Enninful rebooted interest in the magazine, with a much-celebrated first cover featuring British Ghanaian model Adwoa Aboah – a confident decision that may have stemmed from Enninful’s time at Italian Vogue, where the first ever “black issue” sold so well that an extra 60,000 copies had to be printed. The magazine’s most recent cover headlined “New Frontiers”, was also praised for featuring a diverse range of models including Halima Aden, the first woman to wear a hijab on the magazine’s cover.

Vanity Fair in the US, meanwhile, has repeatedly come in for criticism for its Hollywood covers – Annie Leibowitz photo shoots depicting an array of A-list actors in a spread that is intended to depict the state of the movie industry. “Young Hollywood is thin, white,” ran one critical headline in response to the magazine’s 2010 cover, which did not feature a single person of colour. Recent years have seen a push for diversity, with the 2017 cover featuring mixed-heritage Irish actor Ruth Negga, Lupita Nyong’o and Janelle Monáe. The magazine’s new editor, Radhika Jones, signalled a further change of intent by putting Lena Waithe, the black (and gay) actor and writer, on the April edition.

But the Guardian’s data suggests focus on changes at Vogue and Vanity Fair has obscured failings elsewhere. “The industry is still overwhelmingly homogenous,” says a senior figure from an ethnic minority background working at another UK magazine, who did not want to be named. “Obviously, the appointment of Edward at Vogue is amazing, but that doesn’t change the fact that magazines are still incredibly white and middle class.”

One obvious indicator of the historic failure of the biggest glossy titles to cater for black and Asian women has been the mushrooming of magazines aimed directly at them. From long-established magazines such as Pride and Black Beauty and Hair to new black platforms such as Black Ballad, Gal-Dem, Glam Africa, and Skin Deep, and Asian titles such as Asian Woman, DesiMag and Burnt Roti, women of colour have been reaching for magazines that normalise their look and the issues facing their communities.

“Growing up, I would pick up magazines, and I never saw anybody who looked like me,” says Afua Adom, former editor of Pride. “I was really into music, so I used to read Smash Hits and magazines like that; I never saw a person who looked like me. And where I lived in Scotland there was no one who looked like me anywhere. My mum subscribed to Pride, and that’s why I wanted to work there all those years ago – because it was the only magazine I saw full of women who looked like me.”

The mainstream magazines are little better than they used to be. “You flick through any title and there’s a page that’s got shampoos and stuff and there’s nothing for afro hair, or there are no beauty solutions for darker skins, or there’s no skincare for darker skin,” Adom says. “It’s like that all the time. And you just think: ‘The way that you’ve alienated so many women who pick up this magazine so quickly, there’s no thought process there at all.’”

Adwoa Aboah from Edward Enninful’s first issue as editor of British Vogue, December 2017
Adwoa Aboah from Edward Enninful’s first issue as editor of British Vogue, December 2017 Photograph: Steven Meisel/Vogue

One of the magazines I read while growing up was Marie Claire, which remains one of the UK’s bestselling women’s monthlies. Although its content is more diverse than it was, its covers did not feature a single non-white model in 2017.

I tell Trish Halpin, Marie Claire’s editor in chief, of my surprise that the magazine is still failing to speak to women like me on its covers.

Halpin agrees that the magazine’s record is problematic, but she says editors lack control over the timing of their cover stars. “We changed from model covers about 15, 20 years ago,” she says. “It’s now very much about that A-list star on the cover that’s going to sell the magazine on the newsstand. We start with a wishlist of essentially very recognisable stars, within a particular demographic of the age of women we are speaking to – early 20s, to late 30s, early 40s. Within that wishlist, there are definitely a good number of black women and women of colour. But it’s not that easy to get them. We are experiencing the trickle effect – there still isn’t a big enough pool. We had two black actresses lined up for 2017, but their publicist decided to go with other titles. We are hoping we are going to secure one of those for our summer covers next year.”

I approached three other editors, who didn’t wish to go on the record. But other senior figures in the industry say the Guardian’s research reflects a relatively small pool of BAME A-list stars, linked to a wider inability in the film and fashion industries to recognise BAME talent. Yet over the decades magazine editors have proved their ability to shape perceptions as much as to reflect them. They are the ones who decide who is “cover-worthy”.

All of the magazine industry figures I spoke to, while admitting shortcomings in cover diversity, pointed to significant change inside magazines. Halpin said that, in relation to Marie Claire, it was important to judge the magazine by its content as well.

“You’ll see a very different story there,” she says. “At Marie Claire, we used 17 models of colour – which is probably about a third to a quarter of all of the models that we shoot.”

The change inside magazines is one I have noticed, and one that would have gone a long way towards alleviating my own anxiety of otherness, had it been the case when I was a young magazine reader. Greater use of models of colour on inside pages reflects the progress being made across the fashion industry. The website Fashion Spot reported a rise in diversity in global fashion in 2017, with the big fashion capitals of New York, Milan, Paris and London all featuring more women of colour than in previous years.

And of the 266 major shows and 8,258 catwalk appearances across the four cities in 2017, an average of 30.2% of castings were women of colour. While New York fashion week was the most racially diverse, diversity at London’s rose by 4.9%.

But covers matter. Those who appear on them are the ambassadors of beauty, success and commercial appeal. For those who scan magazine racks, the impression of whose faces are projected out on to a shop floor has a visceral impact – and the choices of whose faces those are reverberate, influencing others. There’s a danger, too, that diversifying the models inside magazines while the covers remain white sends a new message of hierarchical beauty standards – suggesting women of colour have their place, and it’s not on the cover.

Internationally, according to the Fashion Spot, cover stars are becoming more racially diverse. Six of the 10 most booked cover stars in 2017 were women of colour, such as Dutch-Egyptian-Moroccan model Imaan Hammam. Adwoa Aboah graced eight international covers; Rihanna featured on seven.

This makes the tendency of some editors – who have historically passed the buck elsewhere within the fashion industry – seem harder to sustain. “Black models don’t sell magazines,” Jourdan Dunn, one of the most recognisable fashion faces in the UK, was told when she inquired about the absence of other black women from a high-end fashion magazine in 2013. Yet their current popularity on the catwalk suggests that they could.

The magazine industry’s reluctance to put BAME women on its covers is not the only way it is failing the public. The situation is even worse regarding larger, older and transgender models. But there are numerous firsthand accounts of the way in which representation of race has a particularly negative effect on black women.

Nyong’o, for example, has spoken candidly about the impact black supermodel Alek Wek had on her shortly before she won her first Oscar. “She was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine, and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was,” Nyong’o has said. “My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome … When I saw Alek … I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty.” Nyong’o – and the other members of the tiny group of women of colour who do feature on magazine covers – are still overcoming these obstacles. In 2017, two magazines – the Evening Standard magazine and Grazia – infuriated black women in particular when they airbrushed out the more visible elements of black hairstyles from cover models’ looks. “I remember the Lupita Nyong’o cover where Grazia just airbrushed her afro out,” says Adom. “I was so disappointed, because I really love that title – I buy it all the time. And they took such a long a long time to apologise … I just thought: ‘You guys just don’t get it.’”

As the country becomes increasingly diverse – more than a quarter of schoolchildren in England are from ethnic minority groups – it is of special concern that this is not being reflected in magazine covers. Corinna Shaffer, editorial director of Immediate Media, which publishes 21 children’s magazine titles, including all but one of those featured in the Guardian study, acknowledges more needs to be done.

“The children who read our magazines deserve the best – that’s our starting point,” she says. “We are not about tokenism: [who we put on the cover] has to be right for the title. But we do need to be aware that we are reflecting a cross-section of the audience, whether it’s on the cover or inside.”

It’s interesting that Shaffer mentions tokenism. Across the industry, there’s a concern that crude attempts to remedy a lack of diversity in magazine covers will do more harm than good.

“I have sat in meetings at some publications where someone has said, ‘Oh, we haven’t got a black person in the May edition – we need to figure that out,’” says one source at a women’s magazine. “When I hear that, it tells me you are not getting it right – that is just tokenistic. We need to talk about the underlying reasons why black women are not finding themselves on the covers, as they undeniably should, through the normal process.”

“You don’t have to have a diverse team to have diverse magazine covers, but when you do, diversity is a natural outflow of that. You have people who have different points of view and opinion – a more well-rounded mix,” the source adds. “We are not even getting people from a diverse range of backgrounds applying for positions at a senior level.”

The lack of diversity among staff working within magazines is symptomatic of inequality in the media as a whole. A report last November found that 94% of journalists are white, compared with 91% of the working population as whole, a figure that does not take into account the fact that many publications are based in London, where only 60% of the population is white.

There is also evidence that black journalism students suffer a particular ethnic penalty in the workplace. Figures from 2014-15 on the likelihood of journalism students being employed as a journalist six months after graduation suggest that white students have a 26% chance and Asian students a 33% chance, while black students have only an 8% chance of finding employment.

The failure of magazines to recruit from a wide pool of journalists – particularly in diverse cities such as London – creates a vicious cycle in which unreflective newsrooms continue to produce unreflective editorial and cover content, further alienating readers from different backgrounds.

“The erasure of black and brown people from magazine covers is part of a much broader process of “othering” – it reinforces the idea that people of colour are not the norm,” says writer and critic Maya Goodfellow. “What should concern us all is the multifaceted impact this has on notions of race in the UK and the idea it creates that people of colour don’t belong.”

It is also bad business. In these challenging economic times, neither publishers nor the advertisers on whom they rely can afford to turn away ethnic minority women who, figures show, spend a disproportionate amount on beauty and cosmetic products.

If my teenage experience is anything to go by, the images magazines choose to place on their covers are incredibly influential, not just reflecting trends and celebrity in other industries, but setting them. When it comes to representation of people of colour, it is a responsibility, and an opportunity, that they could do much more to harness.

  • This article was amended on 11 April 2018. It originally compared the percentage of BAME figures on the magazine covers we looked at with the BAME population of England and Wales. A better comparison would be with the UK as a whole, which the ONS estimated in June 2016 to be 13.7%


Afua Hirsch, with data reporting by Elena Cherubini

The GuardianTramp

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