Skee-Why? Kamala Harris' 1st Vogue Cover Sparks a Slew of Questions—Namely, What Was Anna Wintour Thinking? [Updated]

Maiysha Kai
·13 min read

The ongoing pandemic has forced some necessary pivots for all of us—the ways we work, play, communicate, and create have all dramatically changed in the past year, for better or for worse. The fashion industry has been among those forced to get especially creative, finding new ways to pare down typically lavish, personnel-heavy shoots in far-flung locations to create safely produced yet impossibly stylish images to fill the pages of its print and digital media. This, combined with the need to create content accommodating our collective need for escapism yet addressing the profound issues and swiftly fluctuating political climates of this extremely challenging past year have at times proven magical—at others, not so much.

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Take, for instance, what appears to be the February 2021 cover of American Vogue, leaked Saturday night by fashion-focused Twitter handle Models Daily. Somewhat ironically flanked by the phrase “By the People, For the People: The United States of Fashion” stands Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, casually dressed as if in between campaign stops (which she may very well have been). In the photo, Harris sports a black blazer, skinny jeans and white tee, accessorized with a coordinating pair of her now-trademark Converse low-tops and the oft-seen pearl necklace emblematic of her chosen family, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. The sorority also gets a visual shoutout in the cover’s pink-and-green backdrop of artfully rumpled silk shantung and brocade, upon which Harris looks...weirdly transposed.

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“I’m a woman of the people!” the image screams as Harris grins at the camera almost sheepishly, hands somewhat awkwardly clasped. It is stating the obvious to say the future vice president is an objectively attractive 56-year-old woman whose attractiveness is entirely inconsequential to her fitness to lead (but nevertheless fits comfortably within Eurocentric beauty norms). Perhaps driving that point home, Vogue’s cover could be interpreted as a study in humility—or normcore—if wildly underwhelming for one of the most powerful women in the world featured atop the most powerful fashion magazine in the world. If the message is that Harris, often scrutinized for her trustworthiness, considered “intimidating” or outright publicly insulted in the run-up to this year’s election, is as accessible as your average—well, anybody—then...nailed it?

While we weren’t impressed, we know Converse was likely over the moon. “Throughout time, our iconic All Star sneakers have shown up in moments of progress, change and creativity; our canvas adopted around the world and across cultures as a symbol of expression,” a spokesperson for Converse told British Vogue last November.“We are pleased that madam vice-president has chosen the Chuck Taylor All Star as a reflection of her personal identity in a historic moment.”

If only Vogue’s cover were as iconic and creative (“progressive” remaining up for debate). Instead, the image struck many social media users as so mediocre, they began questioning whether the cover could possibly be real (after all, this is Vogue, dahlings!)—and if so, whether Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour was still fit to hold her office. Vogue has yet to publish a statement, cover interview, or any details about the shoot on social media, but upping the intrigue, a Twitter user noted that Harris’ niece Meena Harris purportedly “liked” the Twitter cover reveal, lending credence to its existence—whether we like it or not.

Late Saturday night, New York Magazine and HuffPost contributor Yashar Ali claimed to have confirmation that it is, in fact, the cover—or at the very least, a cover, since Vogue has been known to debut multiple covers simultaneously. This was most recently the case with the January issue, which had four different cover stars. The magazine has also occasionally chosen to differentiate the covers of the digital and print editions; the barcode indicating this might be the version that made to newsstands and print subscribers.

However, things got extra-spicy when Ali shared that Harris’ team, believing they’d previously agreed upon a different cover altogether, felt “blindsided” by the chosen cover.

If true, what a way to treat our new vice president-elect, particularly if also true are receipts pulled by some internet sleuths alleging that as recently as November (post-election), Harris was rumored to have turned down Vogue’s repeated offers of a cover.

As reported in an exclusive by British-based tabloid OK!:

“Vogue has been reaching out to Kamala’s team for months offering her the cover, but at least for now, it has been a ‘thanks, but no thanks,’” a source tells OK!

“Anna Wintour — the magazine’s powerful editor-in-chief — is shocked. Anna is the most important person in the fashion world and isn’t used to anyone passing on doing her cover. Michelle Obama was on the cover of Vogue three times during her eight years in the White House, but apparently it’s not good enough for Kamala.”

Insiders add that this has nothing to do with scheduling, but rather messaging.

“This just isn’t the right look for the new administration at the moment. Kamala will be the nation’s first ever female Vice President and first person of color in the position. This moment isn’t about fashion. It is about something much bigger,” says a source.

“Don’t get me wrong, Kamala loves a power suit as much as anyone else, the right time will come to do Vogue, it’s just not now.”

This is where we repeat that OK! magazine is widely regarded as a tabloid, meaning we aren’t taking this account as gospel—though we do agree this moment, while history-making, is far bigger than fashion (thankfully, we have the bandwidth for both). Equally true is that messaging matters, which is why we’re joining those side-eyeing Wintour, especially if reports of her subverting the expectations of Harris’ team are true. Many have cited the dimly lit cover story of Simone Biles Wintour greenlit for last August’s issue as evidence the legendary editor has lost her touch for choosing iconic cover shots—or worse, of an innate and already reported disregard for Black women.

Shot by Vogue regular Annie Leibovitz—who many speculate may have also shot Harris’ cover—Biles’ photos were wholly consistent with the photographer’s penchant for moody, desaturated, and often grainy imagery, though aesthetically they didn’t do their lovely brown-skinned subject many favors. We have yet to confirm if Leibovitz photographed Harris as well, but in fairness, she also photographed all three of Mrs. Obama’s aforementioned Vogue covers, published in March 2009, April 2013, and December 2016. Memorably, each was more glamorous than the last, reflecting Obama’s evolution into one of the world’s most admired women and favorite first ladies (“The First Lady the World Fell in Love With,” mused the copy on her 2016 cover).

While as vice president-elect, we wouldn’t expect to see Harris modeling a glamorous gown in her cover shot (at least, not at this juncture), there’s also the fact that we’ve seen Vogue do better by at least one other Black female political figure in the recent past. In the magazine’s September 2019 issue, Stacey Abrams stunned in an equally simple (but immensely more cover-worthy) shot by Ethan James Green, an instantly iconic image that now seems to have foreshadowed her power to flip Georgia—and accordingly, the Senate—for the Democrats and away from the demagogue.

Due in no small part to Abrams’ efforts (along with a slew of other Black female activists and organizers), Harris will become second-in-command of the country on January 20, the first woman to rise so high in American government, as well as the first woman of color. It’s a role that commands power and respect—especially if Harris continues to ultimately pursue the presidency. Is that what this cover conveys? Not so much—so what the hell happened???

Generally, we’d hesitate to place the onus entirely upon Wintour, as cover stars at Harris’ level (or Obama, Oprah, or Beyoncé’s) are typically also given cover approval before their issues go to press, giving the vice president-elect agency in this less-than-stellar sartorial display. Ali basically confirms that was the case here as well, so given the additional intel that the chosen cover image was not the one agreed upon...

Anna—what’s good? (Seriously. Don’t play with us.)

Yes, we know that amid our current state of affairs, we should remain more focused on how Harris will do in her new role than how she’s dressed. Still, Vogue’s cover might seem far less disappointing had it not been preceded by the poised and powerful presence of the then-vice presidential candidate on the cover of Elle’s November “Women in Politics” issue, one of several editorials featuring Harris released ahead of the election that would promise a light at the end of the seemingly interminable tunnel of Trump’s tenure (a light that incredibly seems even further off as his presidency comes to an insurrectionist-fueled end).

This moment may not be about fashion, but Harris’ ascension is nonetheless a history-making one—worthy of more than a snapshot in campaign bus couture in front of some messily hung bolts of fabric (no shade to the AKAs’ signature shades). While this may not be the cover we’d pick for our vice president-elect, the bigger issue is that, if reports are true, the moment also merited giving our new veep the respect she deserves and the image requested. Instead, given the controversy, this may end up being Harris’ first and last Vogue cover, so if this was the best the magazine could come up with to celebrate our first female vice president, perhaps it would’ve been better to wait until she was comfortably installed in office. As it stands, Wintour just got a promotion (becoming Condé Nast’s first chief content officer as well as Vogue’s global editorial director), so we’re pretty sure she won’t be leaving hers any time soon.

Updated: January 10, 2021, at 11:15 a.m., ET: Confirming our suspicions that the cover leaked Saturday night might not be the sole image of Harris, on Sunday morning Vogue posted its digital cover of the vice president-elect. It was simultaneously revealed that both versions of the cover were photographed by Tyler Mitchell, who memorably became the first Black photographer to cover Vogue when he collaborated with Beyoncé for the September 2018 cover. While this fact doesn’t make us love the print version more, it does confirm Ali’s report that a powder blue suit was agreed upon for the cover, the digital selection likely more in line with what many (including us) would expect for Harris’s first cover. This version would’ve made a much stronger first impression, but perhaps the cumulative message is that Harris will be bringing both a multifaceted and multicultural presence to the vice presidency—which is more than we could ever say of Mike Pence.

“I always say this: I may be the first to do many things—make sure I’m not the last,” says Harris in her cover story, which also went live Sunday morning. “I was thinking of my baby nieces, who will only know one world where a woman is vice president of the United States, a woman of color, a Black woman, a woman with parents who were born outside of the United States.”

Updated: January 11, 2021, at 4:50 p.m., ET: In an email statement obtained by the Cut, a Vogue spokesperson gave further explanation to what Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan called lacking in “due respect.” “It was overly familiar. It was a cover image that, in effect, called Harris by her first name without invitation,” Givhan said (and we agree). This, amid continued reports from an “anonymous source from the Harris team” that the vice president elect’s pink-and-green photo was not agreed upon as a potential cover shot, as well as the cryptic absence of the cover from photographer Mitchell’s social media. Nevertheless, Vogue stands by the choice, stating:

The team at Vogue loved the images Tyler Mitchell shot and felt the more informal image captured Vice-President-elect Harris’s authentic, approachable nature — which we feel is one of the hallmarks of the Biden-Harris administration. To respond to the seriousness of this moment in history, and the role she has to play leading our country forward, we’re celebrating both images of her as covers digitally.