Shock and Awe – History’s most Controversial Covers

By now we’ve all seen the controversial fruits of Anna Wintour’s labour in her decision to commission Annie Leibovitz to shoot Kim and Kanye on this month’s American Vogue cover. Though the image proved neither distasteful nor politically incorrect, it triggered a media uproar and heavily divided public opinion, forcing Wintour to defend her actions.


Newly released image from inside the Vogue cover shoot

Wintour’s bold decision wasn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last time that a magazine cover becomes the subject of equal parts public praise and ridicule. The publishing industry has seen it’s fair share of show stoppers in the last century. The technique is simple; take a celebrity or culturally-relevent personality of your choice, mix with a highly regarded photographer and throw in a healthy dose of sex appeal. Garnish with additional religious or racial offence to taste, and you’ve got yourself a headline worthy cover ripe with volatility. Here, we take a look at some of history’s covers that have shook newsstands the world over.


Lindsey Lohan, Purple Fashion – Spring 2010


Terry Richardson collaborating with Lindsey Lohan was probably never going to end well, and in true “Uncle Terry” style, the shoot featured Lohan writhing around, smoking and pulling her underwear down at the height of her media frenzy. While she may not be the first global act to imitate Jesus Christ (Let us not forget John Lennon’s infamous quote from 1966. If you don’t know already, Google it), Richardson and Purple Magazine’s Oliver Zahm developed the concept of Lohan being crucified as a reflection of the media attention she was receiving at the time.


Muhammad Ali, Esquire – April 1968


This controversial cover of American Esquire depicted Muhammad Ali being pierced by six arrows in the style of St. Sebastian, a third-century Christian martyr and later patron saint of athletes, who himself was thusly punished for his steadfast religious beliefs.  This particular image – perhaps the most enduring – was the second of three Esquire covers defending Ali, almost a year after his refusal to be inducted into the United States Army due to his Muslim beliefs.  Designer George Lois persuaded the legendary fighter to pose as Saint Sebastian for the April 1968 issue of Esquire. When Ali protested that he couldn’t pose as a Christian, Lois argued that it was “a symbolic thing”.


Lady Gaga, Vogue Hommes Japan – September 2011


Perhaps the first major publicity stunt that put Gaga on the map, her double cover for Vogue Hommes Japan gained notoriety for two reasons; not only did the feature debut Gaga’s brief obsession with wearable meat, it also gave the world a chance to catch its first glimpse of her male alter ego – Jo Calderone. Shot (somewhat unsurprisingly) by Terry Richardson, the cover caused  uproar amongst animal rights activists, which was soon exacerbated by Gaga herself when she showed up to the MTV Music Awards a month later wearing a full dress made from raw meat. In a public statement following the awards, Gaga claimed the dress was a “powerful political statement”, rather than just another attention-grabbing outfit. The star attempted to justify the look by referring to a speech she made, The Prime Rib of America, which urged the US military not to discriminate against gay men and lesbians from serving in the army.


Adolf Hitler, Time Magazine ‘Man of the Year’-  1938


Time Magazine’s annual Person of the Year cover (having changed its name in 1999) is universally seen as an honour, a prize won after doing remarkable things throughout the previous year. Previous winners have included President Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth II and Mark Zuckerberg – though the truth is, you don’t necessarily have to be a great, honourable person to win the award. This entry may not be a photograph shot by a world renowned lensman, but Time’s illustration of the Fuhrer sat at an organ, playing “his hymn of hate in a desecrated cathedral, while victims dangle on a St. Catherine’s wheel while the Nazi hierarchy looks on”, is perhaps the most controversial of them all. Time has always defended the cover, reminding critics that its yearly award is given to the most influential person, rather than the most admirable. It’s a strong argument. However, all of these years later, it’s jarring how much Hitler stands out for an honour that was also granted to people like Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.


Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Rolling Stone – July 2013


With tousled hair and dreamy eyes, the man staring out of the July, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone could have been a rock star (eerily reminiscent of The Doors frontman, Jim Morrison). Instead, he was an accused murderer and one of two men responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing. Bolstering the age-old mantra that even bad publicity is good, Rolling Stone saw sales of its July 2013 edition double compared to previous months. A brief statement from Rolling Stone said it was important to examine the complexities of how Tsarnaev walked away from his potential and, in the words of the cover story itself, became a “monster”.


Azealia Banks, Dazed & Confused – September 2012

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Showcased inflating a pink condom on the cover of Dazed, Banks’ disregard for controversy led to the issue being banned in seven countries. Shocking? Banks is the girl famous for chanting the lyric ‘I’mma ruin you, c***’, in her breakout single ‘212’, which contained much more offensive content. It’s fair to say that Dazed‘s reader base are fairly comfortable with risky material, so let’s save our outrage for the day she lands a cover for Elle.


Kanye West, Rolling Stone – January 2006


The second entry for both Kanye and Rolling Stone, In 2006, the word ‘blasphemy’ was bandied around when Kanye West was portrayed as Jesus (once again, not the first time we’ve seen this) with this crown-of-thorns cover. Undeterred by the criticism, West ran with the theme of the Messiah and went on to release his sixth studio album – Yeezus – in 2013.


It perhaps comes as no surprise that certain powerhouse publications seem to be repeat offenders in this cycle of notoriety, though when we start to see the same ideas regurgitated over and over, Creative Directors and Photographers will surely have their work cut out for them if they wish to continue this trend and see continuing sky rocketed sales. Perhaps a trip to the bookies is in order this weekend, I wonder what odds I can get on seeing a machiavellian Barack Obama wearing a suicide vest, on the cover of GQ in February 2017? Time will tell…

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