The arrival of the Kim and Kanye April Vogue cover has sparked a mighty backlash, including declarations that Vogue is officially dead, accusations that the couple bought their cover spot and announcements of canceled subscriptions. Everyone's problem? They don't think Kim Kardashian deserves a seat on fashion's highest throne.
Let's start by quickly getting out of the way the fact that Kanye is not the issue here. If this was a men's magazine and Kanye was on the cover with Kim peering over his shoulder, the outrage would be minimal or non-existent. Kanye, ill-timed public outbursts and bewilderingly earnest videos aside, has earned the respect of the public through his obvious talent for music. Kim, on the other hand, has yet to reveal a talent for much of anything at all.
Except there is one thing she is exceptional at, an art that, like anything else, she mastered through discipline and well-played instinct. This is being famous. In an age when a designer knock-off from Zara and a regularly updated Instagram account can project the illusion of, if not pave a pathway to, "it girl" status, Kim is queen. Basically, Kim is famous because you want to be famous too.
The debate over the cover is not so much about Vogue's reputation, but a battle between the 20th and 21st century approach to celebrity, new media and old media, new money and old money, and the realization that even the stodgiest of old gatekeepers like Wintour can no longer resist the pull of do-it-yourself celebrity.
This is not lost on Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who in her editor's note offers a preemptive defense of her cover star by giving a nod to Kim's mastery of the D.I.Y. approach to fame.
"Kanye is an amazing performer and cultural provocateur," she writes, "while Kim, through her strength of character, has created a place for herself in the glare of the world's spotlight, and it takes real guts to do that." Later Wintour adds: "There's barely a strand of the modern media that the Kardashian Wests haven't been able to master."
These days we are more interested in examining the contours of fame, the act of being famous, than we are in admiring the famous for their many gifts. This makes the Kardashians — Kim in particular — a perfect fit.
Reality TV has been around for awhile now and many of its stars — I'm thinking Paris Hilton, Heidi Montag, Snooki — have faded. The Kardashians are the exception. They have been in the spotlight for seven years and their halo has grown no dimmer, their cover spots on tabloids no less frequent.
Part of what makes the Kardashians so compelling is the way in which they have sustained our interest all the while not doing terribly much at all. But that just might be their secret. The narrative crux of their reality shows and public persona is not ultimately their beauty, fame, or wealth, like it was for Hilton, but their family life out in the suburbs. The clan is very good at revealing some insecurities in front of their camera, creating a real sense of intimacy with their viewers, all the while keeping large swaths of their inner selves hidden.
In this way they embody the spirit of US Weekly's "Stars — They're Just Like Us" column, which, along with social media, fast fashion, and tabloid culture in general, only work to further diminish the distinction between the rich and famous and the rest of us. Or at least in our imaginations. We no longer want our stars to emphasize how different they are from us, and when they do, like Gwyneth Paltrow did with her lifestyle website GOOP, we resent them for it.
Kim, despite her beauty, is the most neutral/least interesting personality-wise of the group. But I think this boring quality is what has made her stick. Onto Kim's blank slate we can project our own desires, our own beliefs that if stars are just like us, we are just like them too. Vogue suddenly doesn't seem so out of reach.
Elissa Strauss writes about gender and culture for TheWeek.com.
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