Media Circus: Run for cover!

uptown and downtown magazines vie for the hottest, newest, least known celebrity cover stories

Published December 11, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

You couldn't avoid them. This month, whether you were a goateed aspiring Los Angeles filmmaker perusing Interview at a hip java bar, a Westchester County grandpa fumbling through another bulky Sunday New York Times or a North Carolina housewife staring at Vanity Fair in the checkout line at the Piggly Wiggly, you were all looking at the same two cover faces: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

Who? Until now, only specialized film buffs would have been able to pick Damon or Affleck out of a police lineup -- a Sundance-savvy type might have seen Affleck in "Chasing Amy," a Tiger Beat teenage girl might have written love letters to Damon after "School Ties." But a confluence of releases -- "Good Will Hunting," which they co-wrote and co-star in, and Damon's leads in Francis Coppola's "The Rainmaker" and Steven Spielberg's upcoming "Saving Private Ryan" -- made the boyhood friends worth noting, newsworthy enough to support long features. But faces to sell magazines with?

Nobodies used to take their time becoming somebodies. And national magazines accorded them recognition in an informal but orderly fashion. In the past, with a breakout performance or a hot look or even just the right boy/girlfriend, an unknown actor might luck into the cover of a few downtowny magazines like Interview or Paper or Time Out; the bigger glossies might deign to run a photo "spotlight" or a fashion spread. For the actor's next high-profile project, he or she might -- with timing, a pushy publicist and perhaps some talent -- graduate to longer "inside" features, or perhaps the cover of a middle-circulation magazine like Details. By the time a mass-market title like Vanity Fair granted a cover, the actor would already be a brand name, a human billboard who could sell a magazine to someone across the street from the newsstand.

There was an economic logic to this. When I went to work at Rolling Stone in the mid-'80s, I quickly learned the maxim, "You can never be too late," meaning, whenever the magazine tried to stick its neck out and promote someone worthy on the brink of stardom, the cover would tank (even if the choice later proved right). Instead of being the first, it was almost always better to wait until after market saturation -- when bi-coastal insiders were sick and tired of a celebrity. (The exception to this was the magazine's annual "Hot" issue, which covered its ass by partially uncovering the unknowns.)

In the past two years, a serious shift in how magazines crown celebrities has occurred -- call it the McConaughey factor -- that has sent Vanity Fair, Vogue (where I have also worked) and others running for cover, scrambling for the same fresh faces. Nascent stars -- like Alicia Silverstone, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cameron Diaz and Liv Tyler -- with the right demo and visibility for a Details or Rolling Stone are appearing simultaneously, or even beforehand, on bigger books.

Several years used to pass between someone's first Interview cover and their first VF cover. Now it's a nanosecond -- or even less: Renee Zellweger got the VF cover without waiting for Interview, on the basis of one supporting role in a hit movie. Details called me to do a cover story on Skeet Ulrich several months before "Scream" came out. The lines have gotten so blurred between the hipoisie and the mass market that both VF and Interview used the same photographer, Bruce Weber, for their shots of Damon.

So, why is this happening? Several factors. With the fragmenting and niche-ing of the magazine world (and America), movies are one of the last cultural universals, and get written about everywhere. A decade ago, fashion magazines put only models on their covers; now it's not unusual for a third or a half of their covers to be movie stars. At Time-Warner alone, titles like Entertainment Weekly, People and In Style compete with each other for newsy, of-the-moment celebrities. A recent issue of Time devoted three separate features to the movie business: the "Anastasia"/"Little Mermaid" battle, the "Amistad" controversy and the upswing at Sony Pictures -- the kinds of stories that a decade ago would've only been covered in the trades.

This has quickened America's fatigue with the same old faces. Demi Moore literally has nothing left to bare, and other megastars like Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger, even if they can still sell movie tickets, long ago stopped having anything new to say, and as such become less compelling magazine covers. A Matt Damon stands out on the newsstand -- even if you don't recognize him, you can at least tell it's a new issue, unlike, say, another Harrison Ford cover. The magazine is also counting on your panic: I obviously should already know who this is!

Magazines have also gotten less likely to wait for a new star to follow up a hit movie, because the follow-up may never come. The movie business has started aping the music business in creating one-hit wonders. All it takes now is the right person in the right role to become an overnight icon -- witness Silverstone's instant following after "Clueless" -- and then the wrong role to become an overnight has-been.

And, as documented in the New York Times Magazine issue graced by Affleck and Tom Hanks, it's not just the audience that's jaded about the established, expensive movie stars. Post-"Pulp Fiction" Hollywood is unsettled, in debt and hungry for new voices. As soon as magazines perceived this opening, it was only natural they would relish the opportunity to free themselves from Cruise's stringent demands.

But underlying all this is an economic reality: Magazines need fresh blood to move product. In the past decade, the generation of stars Vanity Fair had relied on -- Madonna, Stallone, Bruce Willis, Richard Gere -- have aged, as have the readers who are interested in them. To keep funneling in new readers, the magazines have to keep young faces in the mix.

In the short term, perhaps this is a good thing. Interview editor Ingrid Sischy says she isn't threatened by the head-to-head competition (last summer, she had McConaughey and Ashley Judd on the cover the same month he was on Vanity Fair). When she worked at Artforum, she says, it was so crucial to be ahead of everyone else that she sometimes felt like she was "sailing by herself." If an Interview choice ends up getting to the mainstream quicker, that just means her instinct that the person was "authentically interesting" was right, and the wider audience deserves to hear about him. "I don't own him," she says.

The trend, she says, is "a really good sign. It means that all of us have created a situation where new people have a chance, instead of the same old people. It represents an opening up of things. I'd be horrified and depressed for the world if magazines couldn't afford to take a chance on a new person."

The question is how all these new talents will hold up under such instant scrutiny. They will be accorded much less space to develop, try something risky or make mistakes. McConaughey suffered a backlash in record time; people were sick of him before they'd even seen him in a movie. A small film like "Good Will Hunting" now carries the onerous burden of proving itself worthy, instead of being able to surprise and charm people. Certainly some people, like Silverstone, seem singed by instant fame. Sony gave her a production deal, and she lost a lot of career momentum making a bad movie.

Sischy says the attention is not necessarily a negative. "So many artists," she notes, "die without nourishment." Who knows? Maybe some of the stars will rise to the occasion, and not go back to waiting tables. Maybe the next superstar will be recent Interview covers Rose McGowan or Jeremy Davies. But if they and their ilk don't sell magazines, before we know it we'll be back on Cruise control.

By David Handelman

David Handelman is a former editor of Rolling Stone and Vogue. He has seen Elvis Costello live more times than he cares to admit.

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