On Culture

A Makeover for Jackson and Shades of Change for Ebony

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007

Pop star Michael Jackson has resurfaced. He has returned to the recording studio. And in celebration of the 25th anniversary of "Thriller," he gazes placidly from the December cover of Ebony magazine. And, to be blunt, he does not look like a creepy goofball.

When the world last had a long, hard look at Jackson more than two years ago, he was on trial for child molestation. He would shuffle into court late and distracted, wearing suits that looked like they had been lifted from Sgt. Pepper, militaristic armbands and medallions and, on one day, pajamas. After he was acquitted he disappeared to the Middle East, only occasionally emerging to make a few bucks by posing in photo ops with screaming fans in Japan.

But he has been transformed in Ebony.

He is wearing white tails and a plain white shirt. A gold mesh bow tie hangs, undone, around his neck, and a large diamond-and-white-gold floral brooch serves as a million-dollar boutonniere. He looks like a contemporary pop star, rather than a relic from the '80s.

The photographs inside are even more compelling. In one, Jackson is wearing silver metallic jeans, silver reptile cowboy booties, a long black iridescent frock coat, copious diamonds on his lapel and a black top hat, the brim of which he is tugging down over one eye. The photograph is graceful and dynamic. But what is most fascinating is that Jackson looks like himself -- that hair, that face, that dancer's body, that flamboyant style -- but he also looks like a grown-up. Or more specifically, like a grown-up version of his P.T. Barnum self.

There is no attempt, either in the images or in the accompanying story, to address his financial situation or to backtrack over his legal problems or curious proclivities. That is not Ebony's style. Instead, it is purely a celebration of the performer, the fact that "Thriller" has sold more than 100 million copies and that some version of a Jackson song -- a sample, a remake, a Jackson 5 ditty -- probably is on every iPod in the world.

The photos, by Matthew Rolston, were taken at the Brooklyn Museum about two months ago, following about eight months of negotiations with Jackson's people -- about a dozen of whom accompanied him to the shoot -- regarding everything from timing to who would do his hair. (His personal hairstylist did.)

It was Jackson who proposed the location. He wanted to be in the company of art, says Harriette Cole, Ebony's creative director. With the museum as the backdrop, Cole says, "I started thinking 'timeless.' "

She also noted that when Jackson was asked to review some ideas for the shoot, he slipped on a pair of reading glasses, a gesture that reminded her that "his music may be timeless, but he's a grown man."

At the heart of the shoot was a singular question: "What does a mature icon look like?"

Cole and her colleagues have been asking that same question as it relates to the magazine. Since the death of its founder, John H. Johnson, in 2005, Ebony has been in a process of reinvention.

Founded in 1945, Ebony became a dominant voice among African Americans and occupied a place of honor on coffee tables in homes across the country. But it also became staid. It indulged in the gushing profiles that are the lifeblood of so many magazines but focused on aging celebrities who had little relevance to younger readers. Mostly, Ebony lacked a lively editorial voice. It rarely even photographed its own covers, instead using the sort of stock images that might be distributed by a fan club.

Ebony survived -- as other magazines aimed at African Americans came to the fore -- in large part because of the loyal grandparents who wanted to read about the homecoming queens from historically black colleges, who took pride in staying abreast of the first black this or that and who made a point of sharing those milestones with their children and grandchildren. It appealed to those who were more interested in Bill Cosby than Kanye West.

Cole, an author and veteran of the magazine industry, arrived last January. Ebony, with a circulation of 1.45 million, bore the burden of its significant history. "Ebony is the largest black magazine in the world. But it's also a general interest magazine. You have grandmothers, mothers, daughters and granddaughters -- how do you appeal to four generations at one time?"

Ebony's changes have been more than aesthetic. There are more timely and provocative features, for instance. But it's the contemporary gleam of the magazine that is most immediately noticeable. The more refined look sends the strongest signal that all is not as it once was. The past has not been completely dismissed, it simply is being placed in the context of the present day.

The first cover Cole worked on was of Barack and Michelle Obama. "We wanted to create a presidential image. It wasn't meant to be flashy. It was to be iconic -- American and iconic." An April cover story featured Harry Belafonte, 80, and Common, 35. On the inside pages, the two talk politics. "We want people whose lives and work cross generations. And we style them so they look contemporary."

It's the same principle that Ebony has applied to Jackson. He was not asked to wear some designer's slim-cut business suit and expensive tie. That would have been a transformation, but it would not have been Jackson. In keeping with the magazine's tradition, the editors wrap Jackson -- and the "Thriller" legacy -- in a warm embrace. And they make a persuasive argument that the pop star and the magazine can both continue to be relevant.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company