In Harper's Bazaar photos, Katie Couric is a power broker in Louboutins

By Robin Givhan
Thursday, February 4, 2010; 2:39 PM

The March issue of Harper's Bazaar, which arrives on newsstands Feb. 16, includes a story on CBS newswoman Katie Couric in which she talks about the arrival of Diane Sawyer into the ranks of network anchors, revisits her famous Sarah Palin interview and acknowledges the loneliness she sometimes feels as a single parent.

But the most striking aspects of the glossy feature are the images by photographer Francois Dischinger. They are an audacious celebration of a powerful woman as a boldly sexy one, too.

There's nothing reserved or hesitant in the sex appeal on display in the four-page story about Couric. The images are a full-throated, even exaggerated, rebuke of the notion that a woman must dress in a prescribed manner -- Suze Orman suits, full-coverage blouses, sensible heels -- to protect her IQ, her résumé and her place in a male-dominated work culture.

Is Couric dressed in a manner appropriate for a network anchor? These images demand that viewers define -- or redefine -- their terms.

In one photograph, Couric sits at a glass desk with a tight bouquet of white roses to her right, along with a silver laptop. A clear globe is on her left. This is a desk for paperless work -- e-mails, Google searches, video conferencing. It is the work space of a woman who has risen above the grubby and the mundane; she has assistants for that. She does not have to take lunch at her desk. Her presence is demanded where the powerful dine.

The journalist, who broke ground as the first woman to fly solo as a network anchor, wears a one-shoulder, taupe Calvin Klein Collection dress that fits quite nicely along every curve. The dress is matched with a dazzling wrist cuff and the kind of platform Gucci heels that have been known to send professional models tumbling to their knees.

Couric's blond hair is slicked back, and her eyes are rimmed in thick kohl. She stares directly into the camera. She is not flirting; she's demanding the reader's attention, and she looks quite confident that she will get it.

In a second photograph, Couric wears a black Giorgio Armani jacket and short -- very short -- skirt. She clutches the jacket closed with one hand, creating the illusion that she isn't wearing a blouse. Her feet are tucked into black Christian Louboutin booties that have gold bands rising up her ankles like repurposed Ndebele neck rings.

Couric stands atop two TV sets, one with a still shot of her interviewing Palin during the presidential campaign and the other with a shot of her speaking with President Obama at the White House.

It's a victory photograph -- Couric as the conquering and influential anchor -- and it not so subtly sends a message about cause and effect: The Palin interview influenced the Obama win. Couric is on top of her game, at least in this photo story -- no matter that her "CBS Evening News" lags in the ratings.

The images in Bazaar acknowledge Hollywood's definition of sexy, in which tough female bosses are defined by their form-fitting business suits and their staggering heels, which would seem better suited for sitting than purposefully striding.

Yet there's a particular brand of power-positioning at play when a woman walks confidently into a room in a pair of heels that make those who'd be suffering vertigo blanch: How can she walk in those? Pure grit -- that's the explanation. And yes, please infer that if those four-inch stilettos don't draw tears from the woman wearing them, then neither will some ambitious colleague's backstabbing ways. Fashion, in this sense, is power.

The photographs also bear the markings of the fashion industry's vision of what sexy can look like in the modern workplace, particularly as it plays out in the corner office, where the woman at the big desk has finally won the clout to write the dress code.

Couric "is really an attractive woman, and in case anyone hasn't noticed, it's been widely reported, she has great legs. There's no reason, in this day and age, why any woman has to compromise her attractiveness to do the job," says Laura Brown, the fashion/special projects director who oversaw the photo shoot, and an editor for whom I have written. "When coming up in the industry, you tend to dress the way people think you should dress; she has earned the right to be sexy if she wants."

Besides, Brown says, she was "doing pictures for a fashion magazine, not Newsweek."

Other newswomen have been photographed for fashion magazines. They have had their beauty celebrated. Certainly ABC's Sawyer has.

Palin, on whose head Couric virtually stands in the photo, has embraced her attractiveness, too. Sawyer and Palin are former beauty pageant contestants, after all. And, besides, who doesn't want to look effortlessly pretty?

But it is one thing to take note of a woman's good looks; that's merely acknowledging the obvious. Couric is playing with the complicated fantasy that merges femme fatale with power broker. It's a dream sequence in which few women at the top of their profession ever participate.

Being designated "sexy" is altogether different from being called pretty. "Sexy" taps into emotions, and it stirs a response, a feeling. It's not simply an arm's-length observation. There's something far more intimate in a debate over who is sexy and who is not. And taking a sexy photo is a conscious provocation.

Almost a decade ago, CNN hired journalist Paula Zahn to host a news program. The network introduced her to viewers by declaring her provocative, smart and "just a little sexy." The words were accompanied by quick cuts of Zahn's face and the sound of a zipper.

The ad was pulled after running a dozen or so times over a weekend. The network apologized to Zahn, noting that she had spent 20 years building her reputation as a serious journalist and that CNN had put all her hard work at risk by declaring her sexy -- even a little bit.

Now, in 2010, Couric has pronounced herself sexy in the Bazaar photographs. After breaking ground in network news, after having folks debate whether she should have worn a white blazer on her debut show -- as if anything but black or navy proclaimed her less serious -- there are these images. Unapologetically, forcefully, I-dare-you, sexy. In each one, Couric looks strong and capable. Capable of what, of course, is the underlying question.

Certainly, some will see the pictures as further proof of why she is all wrong for the job. They will probably be the same people for whom Couric has accumulated a personal work wardrobe of blacks, grays and pinstripes -- a more sophisticated, yet still reserved, alternative to the news-anchor cliche of Crayola-colored blazers.

But in the fantasy office that Bazaar created, Couric exists as a woman who is sexy, fashionable, purposeful, accomplished, influential -- and looking pretty darn pleased with the overall package.

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