Graydon Carter's magazine used to be about power, money and fame. Once that meant tycoons and politicians. Now it means half-naked starlets.

JOHN INTINI February 27 2006


Graydon Carter's magazine used to be about power, money and fame. Once that meant tycoons and politicians. Now it means half-naked starlets.

JOHN INTINI February 27 2006


Graydon Carter's magazine used to be about power, money and fame. Once that meant tycoons and politicians. Now it means half-naked starlets.


The wrapped current in issue Playboy-esqae of Vanity Fair plastic— comes presumably to keep underage eyes from sneaking a peek at the magazine’s skin-filled pages. Scarlett Johansson’s much talked about bare bum on the cover, in fact, pales in comparison to the topless and racy photos of the young starlets insideposing sexier for this special Hollywood issue than they do for Maxim. There’s even a giant fake breast on the page that features a highprofile nip/tuck specialist from Beverly Hills who is known for his “subtle boob jobs.” And no, the breast isn’t Pamela Anderson’s— she’s hanging out on page 318.

Not exactly the magazine that publisher J.E. Corr Jr. envisioned when he relaunched Vanity Fair in March 1983 (following a 47-year hiatus). At the time, Corr defined his ideal readership as “a handful of bright, literate people.” The magazine was to be smart. Highbrow. Elitist. It was to be a publication, he said, that “captures the sparkle and excitement of our times, our culture.” It tanked. So less than one year and two editors later, Tina Brown, a gutsy Oxford-educated Brit, was called in and given six months to stop the bleeding. If not, Condé Nast chairman S.I. Newhouse was going to shut it down.

Brown’s first big change was to put Hollywood A-listers on the cover. Her full revamp of the

magazine debuted in April 1984 with a cover featuring 23-year-old Daryl Hannah, blindfolded and wearing a red-sequined evening gown with an Oscar statuette in each hand. But in Brown’s magazine, new money didn’t outshine old money. Each had its place in the mix. Brown

ran stories about Hollywood’s hottest stars, but also ones about international jet-setters and Washington’s major players. And she opened the doors to the New York City brownstones and Hampton getaways of the social elite-getting inside the lives of famous American families like the Vanderbilts and the Kennedys.

Vanity Fair felt important. Never more

so than when Ronald and Nancy Reagan were photographed by Harry Benson foxtrotting across the White House’s Map Room floor (fittingly, to the Frank Sinatra classic Nancy). That June 1985 issue offered an intimate glimpse of real glamour. More than just glitz, this was a couple that really mattered. Years later, Brown wrote that the Reagans’ flirty romp went a long way to saving the then-fledgling magazine. “Coming when America was emerging from a long recession,

the dancing presidential couple seemed to epitomize the buoyancy of American expectation,” wrote Brown. “Reagan’s theatricality always

resonated that way. It was an instinctive collusion between imagery and national mood.”

No matter how long you stare, it’s hard to evoke the same feeling by looking at Lindsay Lohan’s freckled and nearly naked body on the cover of Vanity Fair's February 2006 issue. And yet, her very presence also says a lot about the state of the nation. Sex and celebrity now sell more than ever. That notion isn’t lost on Canadian-born Graydon Carter, who moved

into the editor-in-chief’s corner office in 1992 and further perfected the model created by his predecessor. But Carter (whose first issue featured Madonna floating topless in a pool) has taken it to new limits since newsstand sales dropped by more than 20 per cent in the second half of 2004. (Featuring Hollywood hunks—Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jude Law—on successive covers proved disastrous by Vanity Fair standards.)

The magazine’s recent cover subjects—almost all women—have been decidedly lightweight, even by Hollywood standards. In fact, the photos could just as easily be turned into a bestselling calendar for the frat-boy set: eastern European supermodels (April ’05), Angelina Jolie (June ’05), Paris Hilton (October ’05), Beyoncé Knowles (November ’05),

Kate Moss (December ’05), Naomi Watts (January ’06), Lindsay Lohan (February ’06), and Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley (March ’06).

“It’s a bit of false advertising,” says Johanna Keller, a journalism professor at Syracuse University.

“It gives the impression that Vanity Fair is now just a celebrity magazine. And they aren’t doing themselves any favours by putting celebrities on the cover who are already overexposed. If there are too many bimbos running around, it begins to look like another animal.”

And risks being lost on a newsstand chock full of glossy gossip rags, entertainment weeklies, and men’s monthlies. “Vanity Fair focuses on four attributes

—power, money, fame and beauty,” says Keller. “Right now, especially when it comes to their covers, beauty is at the forefront.

It’s more about celebrity and eye candy. There is definitely a movement to package things the way Maxim does.” Bonnie Fuller,

who runs Star, the insanely popular tabloid that experienced an 84 per cent increase in ad revenue last year, has been able to take advantage of Carter’s recent cover choices. “They got an excellent interview with Lindsay Lohan and we were able to report on what they reported,” says Fuller, who like Carter is Canadian-born. “It’s funny, but it’s

sort of a symbiotic thing.” Very funny, in fact, since Vanity Fair’s commitment to sexy women on the cover

seems, at least partly, a response to the rise of the weekly tabloids. A Vanity Fair spokesperson claims that gossip magazines have had “no effect whatsoever” on the magazine’s strategy. Fuller, who doesn’t consider Vanity Fair a competitor, doubts that claim. “I’m not sure I’d characterize it as a response, but it seems unlikely that they wouldn’t be influenced,” says Fuller. “Paris, Lindsay and Jennifer have been the constant cover subjects of celebrity newsweeklies for months. We’re out there every single week doing stories on this cast of characters.”

Once you get past the cover, Vanity Fair still boasts some of the best feature writing and photography in the business. “When you read it, it’s smart and informed,” says Keller. “They are depending on the cover to pump up sales, but they may be com-

peting with the wrong segment of the market.”

In July, the magazine broke the biggest mystery in journalism history when it revealed that former FBI deputy director Mark Felt was “Deep Throat.”

Vanity Fair scooped even the Washington Post, which owned this story for three

decades. And yet, they simply ran a single line (“Exposed! Watergate’s ‘Deep Throat’ ”) on the top of a cover featuring a “beguiling” Nicole Kidman (“She bares her soul about her love life, Tom’s new flame, and the cost of fame”).

“The modern magazine has to be 10 different magazines,” says Robert Boynton, the head of New York University’s graduate magazine program. “I’m sure that Graydon Carter doesn’t give a shit what appears on the cover and probably farms it out to someone very smart about those things. I think he once even admitted to not knowing the name of the actress on the cover—a young thing who had been in one movie but had a great ass. He understands that the cover is no more than a huge billboard for advertisers—whether it bears any relation to what’s inside makes almost no difference at all.”

Maybe, but doesn’t a string of covers featuring the Hollywood “it” girl of the moment hurt a magazine’s reputation for providing award-winning investigative and political journalism? “People look at a magazine as something that houses a whole bunch of things,”

says Boynton. “I don’t think many readers take offence if something in one section is of no interest to them.” Vanity Fair’s recent numbers indicate that the busi-

ness side of things are better than fine. Circulation recently climbed to 1.2 million—the highest in the publication’s history. And last year, ad revenue topped $258 million, up nearly one per cent from the previous year, even though the total number of ad pages was down by about nine per cent (you’d never know it sifting through all the ads in search of the table of contents). The much-anticipated Jennifer Aniston “tell-all” after her very public breakup with Brad Pitt was the biggest seller in the magazine’s history (738,929 copies sold on the newsstand). And nearly 3,000 new subscribers have signed on since the beginning

of February—about the time it began circulating that fashion designer Tom Ford had art-directed the Hollywood issue.

Is it all just proof of the public’s ferocious appetite for celebrity dirt? After all, Vanity Fair remains the glossiest celebrity mag of them all—the one the big-name stars turn to when they need to bare their souls about relationships gone sour or drug use. Still, one couldn’t be blamed for wondering if Vanity Fair was feeling the competitive celebrity-chasing heat when the December 2005 issue arrived. Featuring a surprised, and somewhat guiltylooking Kate Moss, the cover line promised “the inside story of the cocaine, the boyfriend, the shattered career.” But the magazine, which prides itself on being able to get any celebrity to talk, didn’t even interview her and had to use old photos and quotes—a very tabloidish treatment.

“In the 1980s, it was unique to mix celebrity with smart,” says Keller, one of the original subscribers when the magazine relaunched in 1983. “It’s a much trickier time now.” M