Men on women's mag covers: an uncomfortable truth
For years you told me you wanted them there, but you lied....
I promise this is not one of those times when I will wang on about my love of BTS. It’s just that, my love of BTS makes me alert to everything those seven young men have got going on. And it involves a lot of magazine covers. Currently we have Jimin covering Korean Vogue:
And his bandmate, V, on Elle:
In fact, since I developed this affection for K pop, I have noticed male pop stars get a lot of covers of magazines that in Britain we’d consider to be traditionally women’s magazines and featuring women on their covers. It’s a cultural difference I’m not even going to pretend to have any expert view on. And I like how normal it is for men to feature on magazines there. It was never the case here during my entire magazine career.
No matter what title I edited - in the period from 1994 to 2022 - I was always inundated with requests to put more men (or boys, during the Sugar magazine era) on the cover. Every reader from the teens who read my Sugar, to middle-aged and elderly women and men who loved You magazine and of course, the millennial-aged Glamour readers wanted to know why we rarely did it.
I’ll tell you why: it always - always - tanked.
It really makes no sense when you consider that my remit was always to create magazines that appealed to predominantly heterosexual women. People who fancy men. Why would they not be excited to see a famous hottie of the day - say, a Clooney, a Pitt, a Beckham - giving it Blue Steel on the cover of their favourite magazine.
I couldn’t really tell you the answer to that. Was it the vague science we all believed in publishing - ie that what readers really wanted in a magazine cover is some sort of recognition, in a subliminal flash, of your own image? Seeing enough in that cover model that reflects who they think they could be? Did you need, as survey after survey seemed to suggest to us, to be able to relate to that cover model on some level, feeling enough of a connection to be pulled to buy the magazine? Personally I often wondered if the female gaze was simply nothing at all like the male gaze; and so while men happily ogled whoever was on the cover of Loaded, FHM, Nuts, Zoo, it was something still seen as a little bit embarrassing for women to emulate. Yes you might fantasise about climbing Mt Hemsworth, but signalling that to the world, via brandishing your fave mag with him on the cover? Was it just too much for women who considered themselves all grown up and beyond their teenage crushes? Like I say, I don’t know. All I do know is that no matter how many of you wrote to me to say, ‘GIVE US THE HOT MEN ON YOUR COVER’, none of you ever bloody bought it.
Still, we did talk our employers into testing the water every now and again: doing something ‘exciting and different’ by putting a man on the cover. It’s what you all told us you wanted, after all. And then the sales figures would roll in and we’d be traumatised into never doing it again.
The world has progressed since my time as an editor and magazine covers definitely reflect that in terms of more diversity of size, colour and gender fluidity. But I do suspect it’s still true that men don’t really sell women’s magazine covers. However, because the landscape has changed in so many ways when it comes to newsstand sales, I think it matters less. Being polite, let’s say most print mag sales are… ‘flat’. I’d wager there isn’t a dramatic difference between a good and a bad sale on a magazine anymore. You might as well throw in an experimental Timothee Chalamet alongside your more conventional Taylor Swift cover: the dearth of footfall at newsstands means they’ll probably both do about the same. But you get the kudos of looking fresh and interesting by featuring the (very) occasional guy.
Back in the day, even though my rational side knew it didn’t really work, occasionally I’d still listen to the disingenuous pleas of the readers. I remember being so jealous when Marie Claire threw this out there:
Ol’ Becks was the hottest guy on the planet at the time (2002). Two of my closest friends, Marie and Kath, were the editor and deputy editor respectively and I was at Glamour. ‘You bastards!’ I texted them. ‘Yep!’ laughed Kath.
They got a ton of publicity for this cover. They gleefully pretended that it was the very first time a women’s mag had put a man on the cover - not true, but no one cared when saying that was a nice news hook. I’d done two men on covers at New Woman, in the late 90s. But New Woman wasn’t really one of the major magazines so the newspapers didn’t really treat anything we did as counting for much and, anyway, as I say, both of those covers - one was Johnny Vaughan who was a big deal at the time as the presenter of The Big Breakfast, the other was just a male model wearing little more than a smoulder - absolutely died a newsstand death.
I don’t know how many copies David Beckham’s Marie Claire sold, but I do know that it didn’t launch an avalanche of more covers featuring men. And none of us were averse to doing, over and over again, anything that worked.
Still, it continued to be seen as something ‘cool’ and even a little bit subversive to do, so I found a way to be creative about it and to be able to proudly say, actually, we feature quite a few men on our cover.
When we launched the Glamour Women of the Year Awards, we decided - amongst the awards categories for women such as writer, sports personality, actor, singer etc of the year - to have one award for a man of the year.
I don’t really know why, it was a nice way to sprinkle a little bit of testosterone onto an otherwise exclusively female event. Look, I don’ t know, I didn’t really think about it that deeply if I’m honest with you. We just wanted to put together a fun and glamorous event.
So, as we did with our award-winning women, we dangled the promise of a turn on the cover to our intended man of the year. We never paid anyone a fee to give up their time to come to our event, so the cover was our biggest (only) bargaining tool to entice with.
Over the years, a host of men were offered covers in exchange for turning up in person to collect their coveted man of the year trophy. These included David Schwimmer, Usher (who has the distinct honour of being the one and only man in all those years to send me flowers as a thank you), Mark Ronson, Tom Hiddlestone, Daniel Radcliffe, Kanye West (look, it was a LONG time ago, OK? A different time) and Sam Claflin. They’re the ones I can remember off the top of my head but there were more.
I’d planned to feature them all right here, but tellingly, it’s now almost impossible to find these cover images on the internet. I think I might know why.
Um… we barely printed any.
The Glamour Awards covers, our July issue, were always split amongst three award-winning women and the one man. They’d each get a share of the total amount of magazines being printed.
It was a balancing act. We wanted to be fair to everyone involved. But we also knew that there’d be a clear one of the four who had the most appeal at the newsstand. And that was never going to be the guy.
However, I had of course promised these guys’ publicists that they would be on the cover of Glamour. I wanted them to be at the Awards to help make them great. But I - and my employers - also knew that men ruined the sale of magazine covers. So I would be in with my bosses haggling about how many of this print run would actually be of the man in question. Inevitably he’d get a small run and even then, very few of those would actually make it onto the newsstand. His issues were invariably the ‘office copies’ that would never be sold.
But I knew I couldn’t fall foul of a celebrity or his publicist, in town and excited to see their magazine cover taking up all the shelf space in WH Smiths. I would bike them several of my office copies in the hope that would stop them even going to a shop to look for it. Of course this eventually backfired. I can’t remember who it was, but along came the year when the publicist hunted high and low around London for her actor’s cover and couldn’t find it and I got it in the neck. I did a lot of stammering along the lines of ‘We know he’s really big in Manchester, most of his copies are on sale there *sweat*’. Thereafter, I made it my business to learn which hotel our man of the year and his team were occupying and made damn sure that the newsagents they could walk to from there were stocked with his damn cover.
Awful, right? I know. Sorry, everyone involved. But I had to make sure the magazine sold and make sure I had a banging celebrity event that looked impressive. I needed to be creative at times to make both of those things happen. I’m really sweating now. Stop looking at me.
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So interesting... I wonder if it's something to do with our training as women - that it's more appealing to think 'we can have the life that woman is living/be like her' than 'we can have what we actually want'... Thanks for a glimpse into your world, I enjoyed reading.
Loved reading this. Am endlessly fascinated by the inner workings of glossy mags, especially back in their hey day.
And agreed, I think we want to relate to the cover star, maybe even hope they can offer us some clues as to how we can be a bit cooler / more fun / better looking etc like them. Thanks again for a great read!