Mindy Kaling is on the cover of Elle’s February issue, but not everyone is loving her close-up.
Kaling appears on one of four versions of the issue, sharing the spotlight with Amy Poehler, Zooey Deschanel and Allison Williams of “Girls”fame. While the latter three appear in full-body poses, Kaling’s cover features her face and not much else. It’s also the only one in black and white. The contrast was well documented on Twitter, where fans wondered if it had to do with the fact that Kaling is Indian American or that she’s curvy, at least by Hollywood standards. Click here to see the cover photos.
“The Mindy Project” actress seems to have no issue with how she was pictured, addressing the controversy in cheeky tweets on Tuesday. “I love my @ELLEmagazine cover,” she wrote. “It made me feel glamorous & cool. And if anyone wants to see more of my body, go on thirteen dates with me.”
— Mindy Kaling (@mindykaling) January 7, 2014
Should that put the scrutiny around the cover to rest?
Not necessarily says Angela Burt-Murray, who was editor-in-chief of Essence magazine from 2005 to 2010. “The fact that Mindy likes the cover is nice,” Burt-Murray said in an email. “But that doesn’t mean others can’t have their say.”
Burt-Murray also noted that she’s “a huge Mindy Kaling fan” and hopes “that more magazines start to celebrate her comedic genius and broader standard of beauty.”
Not fitting Hollywood’s mold is something that Kaling wrote about in her 2012 book “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).” In a frequently-circulated passage, Kaling addressed the interest in her non-Hollywood proportions head on.
I fall into that nebulous, quote-unquote, normal American woman size that legions of fashion stylists detest. For the record, I’m a size 8 — this week, anyway. Many stylists hate that size because I think to them, it shows that I lack the discipline to be an ascetic; or the confident, sassy abandon to be a total fatty hedonist.
Women of color are certainly featured on the covers of more magazines today than they were, say, a decade ago. A 2002 New York Times article noted that Halle Berry, then featured on Cosmopolitan’s December issue, “became only the fifth black to appear on the cover of Cosmopolitan since the magazine began using cover photographs in 1964, and she is the first since Naomi Campbell in 1990.”
That same New York Times article referenced the now-shuttered Teen People as a magazine known for featuring stars of all races on the cover. Burt-Murray served as Teen People’s executive editor from 2003 to 2005. Prior to that, she was executive editor at Honey, which New York Magazine billed as “Jane” meets “The Source” and sought to fill the void many young black women felt when reading mainstream fashion magazines.
Burt-Murray said there’s still a sense in the industry that covers featuring people of color do not sell well. She referenced comments by People magazine editor Larry Hackett, who told AdWeek in a panel last September, “I’d be lying if I said that minorities don’t have a harder time selling covers.”
It’s worth mentioning that Beyoncé covers have been known to do particularly well. Groups of celebrities also do fairly well, a concept that came up at that same AdWeek panel, which also featured Entertainment Weekly’s managing editor Jess Cagle .
Hackett told the trade publication that “the era of the A-List movie star is over.” And Cagle noted that social media often factors into EW’s decisions about who to feature on the cover.
By that standard, Kaling makes a perfect cover girl — she has just under 2.7 million Twitter followers, some of whom are, no doubt, responsible for starting a conversation about how she was featured on Elle.
Fashion glossies have long faced criticism for the way they’ve portrayed stars who don’t fit the Hollywood mold. In 2010, after Elle featured Gabby Sidibe, of “Precious” and “The Big C” fame, on its 25th anniversary issue, readers wondered if the magazine had intentionally lightened the skin of the actress. The issue was also a part of a series of covers — Amanda Seyfried, Megan Fox and Lauren Conrad were also featured. Criticism also followed Lucky’s cover treatment of Kerry Washington.
Just last year, Elle faced criticism about the way it portrayed Melissa McCarthy, who shared cover honors with actresses Reese Witherspoon, Penelope Cruz and Shailene Woodley for the magazine’s “Women in Hollywood” issue. The actress appeared on the cover in a coat, in striking contrast to Woodley, who appeared on the cover in a swimsuit.
In response to the controversy, McCarthy joked that she “wanted to look like the walk of shame.” And Elle issued a statement, noting “On all of our shoots, our stylists work with the stars to choose pieces they feel good in, and this is no different.”
Similarly, Elle has released a statement about Kaling’s cover controversy, saying “Mindy looks sexy, beautiful and chic. We think it is a striking and sophisticated cover and are thrilled to celebrate her in our Women in TV Issue.”
Burt-Murray, who co-founded CocoaFab, a lifestyle Web site geared toward women of color, says that social media offers a “real-time focus group” for magazine editors, “whether they want it or not.”
But it might do well to listen. “Magazine editors need to understand the shifting demographics of the country and embrace a wider cross section of cover subjects,” Burt-Murray said.