How Beyoncé Beat Anna Wintour and Rewrote the Celebrity Profile Game
Rumours have persisted for a few months now that the legendary editor-in-chief of American Vogue, Anna Wintour, will be stepping down from her position over the next year, and that the upcoming September Issue will be her last. If that is the case then it makes sense that Wintour, immortalized through pop culture pastiches like The Devil Wears Prada, would want to go out in style. The biggest Vogue of the year cannot be just another September in this instance. One needs not only a star but a legend. According to the Huffington Post, that star will be Beyoncé.
While the musician has appeared on the cover before, this time will be different. Sources talking to the Huffington Post claim she has been given unprecedented control over the cover by Wintour. She has allegedly chosen the photographer to take her pictures, 23-year-old Tyler Mitchell, who would become the first black photographer to shoot Vogue US’s cover. Her editorial control will also give her final word on the images used of her, the fashion she wears, and the captions on each image. Similarly, to her 2015 cover, Beyoncé will also not grant an accompanying interview.
This is a level of power that just does not happen with celebrity profiles, even in an age of achingly managed PR and publications willing to bend over backwards for their subjects. Alicia Vikander can get on the cover of Vanity Fair by giving an interview over Skype, but she still had to give the interview. Beyoncé could land Vogue’s cover in 2015 without having to talk to the magazine but she didn’t get to choose the photographer or clothes for that one. Wintour has always prized herself on her ability to get major celebrities to adhere to Vogue’s demands. This is the most powerful woman in fashion, the one who made putting non-model celebrities on covers the new normal, and the one who has always insisted that it must mean something to be in the magazine. So, what does it mean that she’s yielding the crown to her subject?
Vogue’s profiles nowadays veer between perfectly pleasant and blandly digestible. The purpose of these interviews is not to bear all, nor is it to create scandal. They are there to accompany the aesthetic of magazine and subject alike. That’s not to say they can’t be interesting or worth reading. The most recent cover issue for Rihanna had a very vibrant and funny profile that worked perfectly in cementing our ideas of what makes her so intriguing. Amal Clooney’s cover piece was a clever stealth operation, disguising tender political issues and legal know-how with the comforting fluff of being a celebrity wife and mother. For many, being on the cover of Vogue is an induction into an elite level of fame and fashion recognition. That’s why people do what Anna tells them to.
But Beyoncé? Well, she’s a bit beyond that now.
Beyoncé has moved completely past the realms and rules of typical celebrity. She doesn’t need to sit down for interviews to promote an album. Hell, she doesn’t even need to announce a new album until it’s being uploaded to Tidal. She can exert total control over her image, both on stage and off, and she’s managed to define her creative output as its own form of publicity. She’ll reveal all in her songs about her marriage and troubles with Jay-Z and she won’t elaborate beyond the music itself. There’s no need to clarify anything on Instagram or respond to journalists’ queries or do what anyone tells her she must. The objective is to create flawlessness and Beyoncé comes pretty damn close.
Wintour knew that Beyoncé wouldn’t see being on Vogue as the kind of honour that others would. She’s been there and done that. Vogue need Beyoncé more than Beyoncé need Vogue, and she has apparently taken advantage of that. She’s elevated the work of a rising black photographer who wouldn’t under any other circumstances get near Wintour’s office. It’s unknown what clothes she’ll choose but gossip is rife that she’ll focus on black designers. Vogue remains one of the most pathetically white institutions in an industry that seems to fetishize its upper-class whiteness. Over in the UK, our version of Vogue has shaken off years of irrelevance with the appointment of new editor Edward Enninful, who has made a point of putting women of colour on the cover more times in one year than his predecessor managed in several. Wintour, however, has been slower on the uptake, although obvious progress has been made thanks to recent covers with figures like Ruth Negga, Zendaya and Zayn Malik. Still, the fashion itself is still primarily the work of white men, photographed by white men or Annie Leibowitz, and Wintour has always prized her favourites. If it is not demanded by an outside source, the chances are Anna won’t do it, and she doesn’t listen to just anyone.
Giving Beyoncé everything she asks for probably won’t happen with a lesser celebrity or even one on a similar plain of fame to her. Rihanna won’t get these privileges, for example, although I doubt she’d ask for them. Yet it is representative of the continuing dilution of the celebrity profile as an art and journalistic form. A lot of them already serve as thinly veiled publicity for their subjects, watered down of substance or abrasiveness, but it’s still a shock to see the profile just completely done away with. It’s not like Beyoncé hasn’t done any interviews over the past couple of years - she interviewed her sister Solange for Interview Magazine in 2017 - and if Wintour was so eager to adhere to her demands it wouldn’t have been unfeasible for her to ask for a specific journalist or very strict requirements for the process. Yet she didn’t want even the most toothless appraisal to accompany her cover.
She eliminated the profile from the equation entirely because she could.
This could pave the way for the future of the medium. Perhaps more places will simply do the kind of thing that I do and write about the celebrity without ever meeting them. Yet there’s still a place for a robust and revealing profile. Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s recent New York Times piece on Gwyneth Paltrow is a stellar example of what a great journalist with a willing, if not always self-aware, subject can do. It all depends on who needs it, and both sides of the equation have to need it for it to work. But Beyoncé? She doesn’t need, she only gets.
Sorry, Anna. You lost this one.
(Header photograph of Beyoncé, Anna Wintour and a very much done with this shit North West courtesy of Getty Images)
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