10 of the Most Controversial Magazine Covers

The concept of not judging a book by its cover may hold true for many things, but when it comes to selling a magazine, it’s an expression that can’t hold water. As a way to not only convey the intent and purpose of what’s inside to potential buyers passing a newsstand, a magazine cover can easily make or break the stories within and may make the difference between a new reader or nothing.

While magazines have always optioned to choose eye-catching covers that will gain them readers and keep their audience interested, there are those that have managed to illicit a much stronger reaction in a medium where it’s hard to stand out, saturated as it is with bold and often over sexualized images. Whether some cover images were designed to beg a question in a new, exciting way or to merely snare interest, some have led to an enraged response while others have actually succeeded in shifting the familiar tide.

The recent cover of Vogue featuring pop-culture fixtures Kanye West and Kim Kardashian might not have convinced the public of their staying power, but it did lead to wagging tongues and the threat of cancelled subscriptions. On the other hand, when the strikingly different but very famous duo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono graced Rolling Stone, the image rendered on film sent shockwaves for how spare and striking it was. Though the following covers have managed to stir up interest, sometimes with more purpose than others, they have all had enough of an impact on the public consciousness to provoke a considerable response.

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10 GQ – Dianna Agron, Lea Michele and Cory Monteith

Riding off of the smash-hit success of the television show Glee, GQ’s November 2010 cover shot by photographer Terry Richardson showed a much different side to a few of the stars who were fast becoming fixtures on the bedroom walls of young teens. Featuring Cory Monteith sandwiched by his fellow Glee stars Dianna Agron and Lea Michele, the cover received much criticism for depicting the nearly squeaky clean characters in a newly raunchy light, complete with sexualized image, revealing clothing and the telling headline “Glee Gone Wild!” While the Parent’s Television Council expressed outrage, stating that the cover “borders on pedophilia”, all of the actors involved were far past the sunset of their high school days and well into their roaring twenties.

9 Lady Gaga - Rolling Stone

Since Lady Gaga first appeared on the scene in 2008, she’s made a familiar bedfellow of shock tactics and has rarely strayed far from the limelight. As could be expected, her July 2010 Rolling Stone cover caused a bit of a stir and featured her in a short blonde wig and dominatrix style outfit with readied guns. Though the issue probably made some people talk for the bare-bummed Gaga, the seeming sexualisation of violence that was depicted on the cover incensed the public in particular, especially given a cultural climate that has long since tired of the frequency of incidents involving gun violence.

8 Kanye West and Kim Kardashian - Vogue

Among the most blessed and cursed of modern celebrities, even if by their own deeds, initial rumblings of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West on the cover of Vogue were met with hostility and disbelief. However, for the highly-esteemed fashion magazine’s April 2014 issue, the duo did indeed make their Vogue cover debut, decked out in wedding attire and looking squarely out at the viewing audience. While the magazine unleashed fury from critics and fans alike who thought the cover choice meant the end of the magazine’s reign (and possibly Western civilization), its real impact on Vogue’s legacy is still waiting in the wings.

7 LeBron James and Gisele Bündchen - Vogue

The controversy incited by Vogue’s April 2008 cover featuring model Gisele Bündchen and athlete LeBron James might seem a bit less apparent, but the awkwardness of the image has given way to much criticism regarding race and its perceived implications. While the intent of the issue was to focus on shape using Bündchen and James as representations of physical health, the image featuring a hulking James and a flimsy-by-comparison Bündchen reminded many people of King Kong and the delicate Fay Wray, with Bündchen the vulnerable and victimized. Though the cover made LeBron James the first black man to appear on the cover of Vogue, many saw the cover image as one that subconsciously upheld damaging stereotypes.

6 Britney Spears - Rolling Stone

A certain amount of scandal has become more than commonplace in the media nowadays, but the April 1999 cover of Rolling Stone that featured the 17-year old pop princess Britney Spears caught people’s eye for more than one reason. While Spears had already gained the attention of the media with her saucy schoolgirl persona in the video for “…Baby, One More Time”, the cover was another nail in the coffin of her alleged innocence with Spears in a bra and panties, Teletubbie and telephone in hand as if to convey the duality of her burgeoning sexuality and still-minor status. Though she had not yet cemented her pop-culture persona, photographer David LaChappelle claimed that it was Spears that was more than willing to strip down for the shoot.

5 Demi Moore - Vanity Fair

Shot by famed portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair’s August 1991 issue, this relatively raw cover of actress Demi Moore still provides something akin to surprise more than 20 years later. As Moore was 7-months into her pregnancy with her second child, Leibovitz decided to photograph the very famous 28-year old completely naked and staring out with wide eyes at viewers, with one hand covering her breasts and the other holding her belly. While the photograph was considered vulgar and offensive by a number of critics, it has since inspired a host of other similar covers featuring pregnant celebrities like Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears, and it is now seen as a graceful, authentic break from the typical glitz of Hollywood.

4 Dzhokhar Tsarnaev - Rolling Stone

In the past, the cover of Rolling Stone has often been reserved for musicians, actors and other prominent celebrities whose success is on the horizon, and for that reason the decision to put one of the perpetrators of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing on the August 2013 cover was met with significant outrage. Though the cover story aimed to disassemble the oft-created myth of evil, the cover image of Tsarnaev made him look more like a long lost member of The Strokes than it did a violent criminal. While Walgreens and CVS Pharmacy refused to sell the magazine, Rolling Stone stood behind their cover and insisted upon their “commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage”.

3 Is God Dead? - Time

Religion, even when approached with sensitivity, is always a contentious issue, but the approach that Time Magazine took in their April 1966 issue still managed to raise the bar for god inspired controversy. While the article itself might have dredged up ire for its focus on the Death of God movement that gained steam in the 1960’s, most felt the real offense was the bold, black cover begging the question “Is God Dead?” in red letters, as if to recall the affirmations of the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. While the cover story’s theme was more investigative than accusatory, the image still offended many for the sheer bluntness of its style.

2 Charles Manson - Rolling Stone

While the 2013 cover of Boston bombing perpetrator Dzhokhar Tsarnaev might have elicited a great deal of scandal, it wasn’t the first time that Rolling Stone got into trouble for making a criminal look like an icon. On their June 1970 cover, the magazine chose to feature a rather glassy-eyed image of Charles Manson, a serial killer who, together with his commune style Manson family, was responsible for several gruesome deaths in the Hollywood Hills in the summer of 1969. Though the issue also featured an interview with Manson from behind prison bars, the effect of the magazine cover was that of giving rock star status to a figure unworthy of anything more than a sentence.

1 John Lennon and Yoko Ono - Rolling Stone

Comprising the cover for Rolling Stone’s January 1981 issue, one of the most recognized magazine images of all time was actually something of a fortunate accident. The image, shot by Annie Leibovitz, was originally supposed to feature a nude John Lennon and Yoko Ono, but with Ono not wanting to take her clothes off, Leibovitz ended up with a striking black and white shot of Lennon’s vulnerable nakedness ensconcing the dark-clothed Ono as if a metaphor for the power of love against hate. While Lennon’s untimely death at the hands of a fan occurred that same night on December 8, 1980, the cover that almost wasn’t lived as a striking final portrait and has since been named the best magazine cover of the last 40 years by the American Society of Magazine Publishers.

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