In Defense of Kim Kardashian and the Editors of Paper Magazine and Why This Cover Makes Sense

Joe Zee
·Editor in Chief

I sit down with Mickey Boardman, the editorial director of Paper magazine, who was on the cover shoot, and he explains whose idea this was, how this cover came to be, if the photos were retouched, and who oiled that famous butt. 

So I have been a magazine editor for more than 25 years with a majority of that time spent discussing, booking, styling, and conceiving cover shoots. My career started in the early ‘90s when the cover stars were the supermodels (Linda! Christy! Naomi!) and then I saw (and admit, pushed for) the migration of celebrities fronting covers. I love that celebrities convey more than just a pretty face and add a deep resumé with broader recognition and are a part of the pop culture conversation. Which is why the current Paper magazine covers featuring Kim Kardashian West make perfect sense to me.

Before everyone gets all worked up about it, here’s my reasoning: A cover, especially today, has to allow for discussion. On a crowded newsstand within a dwindling print industry, editors have to work that much harder to get attention, create the news and not just report it. If magazines can’t have increased sales, at least, they can increase their relevance by making headlines. And let’s face it: Good or bad, Kim is news and Kim Kardashian naked is even bigger news. (No pun intended.)

First of all, the choice of the photographer, Jean Paul Goude, was brilliant. He is a smart and talented artist (whom I worked with once) that mined his career by celebrating the exaggeration of women’s bodies, most memorably Grace Jones and her 1985 Island Life album. He was one of the early adopters of retouching and arguably, the Kardashian cover shots have been retouched but to what extent has been the debate of the Internet. There has been a lot of negative — and in Kardashian and Paper’s defense — some positive reactions but if the magazine’s main goal is to #BreakTheInternet as they claim, then they are well on their way to achieving this. 

Breaking the World Wide Web today requires more than just a pretty face. Vogue went through this Kardashian controversy earlier this year and the Internet was all abuzz. I won’t go so far as to say cover stunts don’t exist, because they do, but it’s to what extent magazines are willing to go for those stunts. Celebrity nudity is always the easiest gateway to that goal. Personally, I’ve been a willing participant in the past having styled three pregnant nude covers in my career (Cindy Crawford, Jessica Simpson, and a partially-clad Heidi Klum) and one non-pregnant nude cover (Tom Ford fully dressed with naked Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson). In each case, they all proved to be a huge conversation makers, especially as all of those covers (with the exception of Jessica Simpson) happened prior to iPhones and social media. 

Though I would say the noisiest cover happened in 2002. Winona Ryder, fresh off of her shoplifting arrest outside a Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, was also promoting her new movie, Mr. Deeds, and she was appearing on the cover of W magazine to promote it. No one remembers that movie but everyone remembers my cover. I showed up that day, like all of my photo shoots, with way too many clothes and even more accessories. But tucked away somewhere behind all the runway looks was a selection of “Free Winona” T-shirts. I liked that the public was rallying for her in the face of her arrest and court date and if anyone could see the humor in this, it would be Ryder. I had only met the actress once or twice prior to this photo shoot and could only hope that everything didn’t go south when she showed up and saw that particular rack. After much discussion with her PR rep and Ryder herself, we decided to try a shot with her in the T-shirt. She loved the idea and thought it was fun. When we got the art into our office a week or so later, we mocked up a cover we wanted to feature with the star wearing the tee and started our campaign to get it featured. Of course, we could have gone rogue and just slapped it on the cover but in tentative place of Hollywood and publishing, being blacklisted was not our goal. To our surprise, despite some hesitation from her representation, Ryder and team agreed. More than 10 years later, that cover is still a topic of conversation when controversial covers are discussed — I can only imagine what the results would have been in the age of social media.

But Kardashian is already a bonafide social media star. Like her or not, marketers agree that she can sway opinion or move product, so if pushing a magazine cover is the goal here, then why not? We are all talking about this after all. Mission accomplished.