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Kamala Harris’ Vogue Magazine Cover Controversy


On January 10th, 2021, Vogue Magazine published their February front cover of America’s first woman Vice President, Kamala Harris. Although this publication was meant to be a celebratory occasion, the final cover photo of Kamala Harris for the magazine’s print edition was received as underwhelming.

Vogue magazine became the headlines of a “whitewashing” controversy when it tweeted photographs of its February cover star, Kamala Harris. Two images of the US Vice President were released. One, a full-length shot in front of what appeared to be a glossy pink silk drape, drew the ire of social media critics. One user called it a “washed out mess of a cover”. “Kamala Harris is about as light-skinned as women of color come and Vogue still fucked up her lighting,” they wrote. Others criticized Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour. “What a mess up,” wrote the New York Times contributor Wajahat Ali. “Anna Wintour must really not have Black friends and colleagues. I’ll shoot shots of VP Kamala Harris for free using my Samsung and I’m 100% confident it’ll turn out better than this Vogue cover.”

But despite all the criticism, Vogue denied all accusations of lightening Harris’ skin to the New York Post, but the assurance failed to quell the wave of disapproval.

Past Mistakes Of Vogue

This was not the first controversial occurrence Vogue has had surrounding African American featured front covers. The August edition of US Vogue, featuring Simone Biles, was also criticized for the bad lighting of Biles’ skin tone. “I hate the toning, I hate how predictable they are … and I super-hate that Vogue couldn’t be bothered to hire a black photographer,” tweeted Morrigan McCarthy, the national picture editor at the New York Times at the time. The issue of lighting Black skin properly in magazine editorials and on the screen has been an issue for years. In 2019 Melina Matsoukas, director of the film Queen & Slim, said: “There’s a belief in the industry that black skin needs an incredible amount of light or a certain traditional way of lighting in order to be visible, and it’s just not true.”

Black cinematographer Bradford Young, who worked on the film Selma, told Deadline: “I’m never satisfied with the way I see my people photographed in movies. I think it comes from a lack of consciousness – if you grew up in a community where you don’t know black people, I wouldn’t suspect you would photograph them in a concerted way.” Last year, Wintour apologized to staff members in a letter for “mistakes” in publishing photographs and articles seen as insensitive to minorities. “Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate or give space to Black editors, writers, photographers, designers, and other creators,” Wintour wrote. “We have made mistakes too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant. I want to take full responsibility for those mistakes.”

Despite the publication’s stated best intentions, Vogue’s protracted history of racism (which Wintour has previously apologized for) is impossible to ignore. For decades, the magazine has excluded and underpaid Black talent and published racially insensitive images and stories. This casual image of the woman who will be America’s first woman vice president seems to add to the narrative of Vogue’s lack of respect for women of color, even those who have risen higher in the American power structure than any other woman in US history.

Vogue’s Response

Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour has spoken out about the magazine's controversial February cover, which features Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in a photo that drew backlash from critics on social media. The iconic fashion magazine and Wintour herself came under fire when the cover was leaked online. Many were quick to call out the lighting and casual styling of the cover photo that shows the former California senator in a black suit jacket, skinny pants, and Chuck Taylor sneakers. Many felt Harris, the first Black and South Asian woman to be elected vice president, appeared "disrespectful." Wintour, 71, addressed the criticism in a statement to the New York Times' Kara Swisher, saying that the team at Vogue "understood the reaction." "I just want to reiterate that it was absolutely not our intention to, in any way, diminish the importance of the vice president-elect’s incredible victory," she said. "We want nothing but to celebrate Vice President-elect Harris' amazing victory and the important moment this is in America's history and particularly for women of color all over the world."

Vogue then released a digital version of its February cover, featuring a different photo of Harris in a powder-blue suit. Reports began circulating that Harris' team believed the second image would be the one to cover its print issue. Vogue told TODAY that it is using both images as digital covers. Harris' representatives have not returned TODAY's request for comment.

Responses Against Kamala Harris

According to the Post, Harris and her team had control over her clothes, hair, and makeup. She chose her own casual black jacket and pants and a pair of Converse Chuck Taylor boots for one photo, a powder blue Michael Kors pantsuit for the other. Each image was shot by Tyler Mitchell, who was 23 when he came to prominence photographing Beyoncé for Vogue in 2018. Mitchell has only posted one image – the Michael Kors one – on to his official Instagram account. The Hollywood Reporter has said Harris’s team were “blindsided” that her choice of cover (the one featuring the Michael Kors pantsuit) was not the one the publication decided to go with. “Harris’s team was unaware that the cover photo had been switched until images leaked late Saturday, according to a person involved in the negotiations over how Harris would be featured on the cover,” says the article. “The person with knowledge of the negotiations said Harris’s team has expressed to Vogue its disappointment over the magazine’s decision.” A Vogue spokesperson told the Guardian: “The team at Vogue loved the images Tyler Mitchell shot and felt the more informal image captured Vice President Harris’s authentic, approachable nature -which we feel is one of the hallmarks of the Biden/Harris administration. To respond to the seriousness of this moment in history, and the role she has to play leading our country forward, we’re celebrating both images of her as covers digitally.”

Harris’s appearance on the Vogue cover is likely to attract the attention of Donald Trump, who complained last month that his model wife, the first lady, Melania Trump, had not graced a single magazine cover in his four years in the White House, having been snubbed by “elitist snobs” in the fashion industry.

In a time where the media dominates the daily life of American society, the public audience remains extremely engaged in the images our leaders and role models convey. This influence in media helps the people develop their own understanding of how authority looks and changes. This 2020 election has been monumental for the American people. Specifically, Ms. Harris’s election has been personal to so many. Any cover would’ve been carefully inspected and criticized against. Although most people were not happy with Vogue’s February cover, it revealed just how deeply the American people care.

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