MIA: In defence of this cover.

Melissa McCarthy on the cover of Elle.



Melissa McCarthy is on the cover of US Elle this month. A lot of people are excited and I understand why. They should be.

Women larger than a size 0 are almost never allowed to appear on glossy covers unless they are Oprah and they own the magazine.

I know this because I used to be a magazine editor and I only put two women on the cover who weren’t skinny.

And there are a couple of reasons for it.

To sell tens of thousands of copies of a magazine, you need to have a celebrity on the cover and it’s been that way for about 15 years. RIP models. Send flowers (not chocolate).

And although they won’t want you to know this, editors don’t have the final say on their covers. Publishers do. And their decisions are heavily influenced by numbers. They are unlikely to approve an editor’s choice of cover if it has risk attached to it, especially at the moment, when magazine circulation is so incredibly challenged by declining sales.

Low risk means something (or specifically, someone) that’s proven to work. Jennifer Anniston. Cameron Diaz. Gwyneth Paltrow. Kate Hudson. Blake Lively. A sea of bland blondeness, samey and size zero. With the shit photoshopped out of the image.

Here’s what I’ve noticed: when a magazine editor tries to push out that boundary a little, to try something different on the cover (well, different for magazines, it’s relative), people tend to freak out. It’s the covers that break the mould that – ironically – are the most criticised for not doing ENOUGH. For not being different ENOUGH.

Perversely, every overly airbrushed cover with yet another skinny blonde celebrity goes out into the world unremarked upon. Or perhaps just unnoticed.

And so it is today. It’s not all awards and accolades for the Elle cover. For every little bit of praise the mag gets for putting a plus size celeb on the cover, they get it back twofold in the form of heavy criticism.

These are the sorts of things detractors of the Elle cover are saying:

1. The magazine hasn’t really made her their cover girl, she’s simply one of four covers for Elle this month in their Women in Hollywood issue. Here are the others:

2. The other covergirls are showing a lot of flesh. Melissa is swamped in a coat with her hands thrust deeply into her pockets and her hair covering most of her face, leaving just a small triangle of visible skin on her neck and chest.

3. The Melissa cover – just like the covers of Oscar nominee Gabby Sibide and Octavia Spencer in previous Women In Hollywood issues – is unlikely to appear on newsstands and instead, simply be sent to subscribers to offset any risk of lost sales. The skinny celebrity covers will appear on the newsstand.

Gabby Sidibe on the cover of Elle in October 2010 (left) and Octavia Spencer on the cover in October 2012

These criticisms are very valid. It’s good that we’re talking about it; good that magazines are being held accountable for the crappy way they portray women. It’s time. But it frustrates me that when they do dare to take a step towards a more inclusive and diverse cover image, they invariably get slammed.


Ouch. I think I have splinters in my arse from fence sitting on this one.

I’ve been slammed myself over this in the past, something I’ve written about many times so skip the next couple of pars if you’ve heard this story before. When I was editing Cosmo, I did a double cover (or a flip cover) with Big Brother contestant Sara-Marie Fedele on one side and Britney on the other. I’m really proud of that cover but it cost me.

The cover

Sarah-Marie was on the cover. But it was a shared cover with the then Super Celeb Britney Spears.

It wasn’t a flip cover because of Sarah’s weight but because she was not of the celebrity calibre a Cosmo cover required. But hey, I was desperate to put someone larger than a size zero on the cover and celebrities who ticked that box were virtually non-existent.

Meanwhile, many readers slammed me for ‘dissing’ Sara-Marie for putting her on the ‘back’ cover instead of the front. I was upset and defensive at the time but I see their point. Totally.

I’ve watched the same thing happen when the Women’s Weekly put an unphotoshopped image of Sarah Murdoch on the cover (the outrage centred on the fact she was ‘too beautiful’ already).

Next, controversy erupted when the same mag featured a 50-year-old naked Deborah Hutton on the cover (the outrage centred on the fact that the image was air-brushed – just like every other printed image you see).

And it happened again when Marie Claire put an un-photoshopped image of Jennifer Hawkins on their cover (same argument as Sarah Murdoch).

Sarah Murdoch, Deborah Hutton and Jennifer Hawkins.

And yet, nobody says anything when yet another magazine comes out with yet another airbrushed skinny celebrity on the cover. Maybe those images have become so ubiquitous we don’t even register them anymore?

Still. I’m happy to see Melissa McCarthy on the cover. I think she looks fantastic. Would it somehow be better if she was naked? That’s a whole other argument – the way photographers only know how to photograph anyone larger than a model with their clothes off.

Like this:

Yes, I know we want change. I know we’re tired of the images we’re fed by magazines. We need to keep telling them that and voting with our wallets until they listen. But when they take a baby step in the right direction, we need to encourage them.

If you still buy mags, support the ones who portray women in a way you agree with. And encourage editors when they recognise that not everyone wants to see a sea of scrawny photoshopped aliens when they’re standing in line at the supermarket.

What was your reaction when you see the Melissa McCarthy cover? Do you think the magazine industry is doing enough to be representative of different women?