Shattering glass ceilings has become SOP for Bonang Matheba and it’s not hard to see why she keeps bagging glossy cover after cover. She’s a major star and her’s shines brighter than most. Her latest cover for Glamour Magazine is a case in point. It’s no small feat being the first black South African on the cover of a magazine title that has been in this market for over a decade. For Bonang it is certainly worth popping a bottle of Veuve Clicquot for as I am pretty sure it is for the editorial team at Glamour. For the rest of us it is also something we should view as a victory because 20 years after Mandela became the country’s first black President we are still faced with a situation where seeing black faces covering international titles like Glamour, GQ, even ELLE, Marie Claire and Cosmo is something that rarely happens.
I guess the natural question would be why? In a country where black people are the majority, how is it possible that magazines are still selling a particular standard of beauty over another?
A very interesting thread emerged over the weekend after stylist Bee Diamondhead posted on her Facebook timeline that it is actually sad that Bonang’s cover is the first black South African cover by Glamour South Africa, 100 editions in. Many of us who pitched in were industry practitioners and we all had our two cents' worth but the most interesting response, for me, came from Jason Alexander Basson, who works for Conde Nast, the publishers of Glamour and GQ.
Do note that we were all speaking in our personal capacities and not as representatives of titles but being an industry practitioner, Jason shed some insight into the whole dilemma of local covers/content and these were facts that hadn’t come up on the thread.
He pointed out that the local entertainment industry has only over the last few years gained such gravitas as to give publishers options by way of celebrity cover stars. I cannot agree with that. I think it is a reflection of how little attention is paid to what’s actually happening out there!
“Every magazine title has, irrefutably, been celebrating the achievements of local celebs and trying desperately to foster the local culture in so many ways and for so many years - it's undeniable.” True… but we need to do more!
“This thread doesn't take that into consideration at all and I find it quite surprising coming from some people here who have spent time working in local publishing, or some of you social media personalities who have such close ties with the magazines. And while there is undeniably a vast shortage of local celebs on covers, still, it's not for lack of trying.”
There’s absolutely nothing I can say to counter this argument because there are many industry practitioners that I know try very hard to do more local stories and cover local celebrities for their respective titles, but this is often met with resistance from publishers who obviously believe that their formulas have served them well over the years and moving away from that is something they perhaps are very sceptical about doing. There’s a bottom line to worry about at the end of the day.
There’s a very firm belief that what readers want is what they are being given but it’s not hard to see why magazine circulation figures are suffering. While there’s no denying that online plays a significant role in diminishing circulation figures, I am interested in how much content influences that decline.
I speak of content because I think few glossy magazine journalists would be able to make a case for local content because few are even as engaged with local popular culture as they should be to begin with.
How do you explain a situation where you find journalists asking questions like “who is Bonang?”. I’ve heard several instances of this happening and it’s simply embarrassing! How do you explain a situation where Lee-Ann Liebenberg covers Marie Claire’s naked issue cover and this goes virtually unnoticed as Boity eclipses her as the undeniable star of that particular issue? Surely, that shows that we are having the wrong conversations in our editorial meetings, no?
The challenge, in my view, is for content creators to be in on what is actually happening on the streets and what conversations the people they view as their target market are having. In the South Africa of today I refuse to believe that white faces is all that people WANT to see. If this is so, and research actually exists to back this up, then I have to say the publishers actually have proof that we, as black people, hate ourselves.
What I think also tends to drown in the noise, because this issue only comes up when black faces are put on mag covers, is the fact that magazines don’t hire a lot of black talent. When this happens we have seen the shift in content and it is interesting that you can actually see the change when a black journalist arrives at a publication. We’ve seen it at ELLE with Janine Jellars and Refilwe Boikanyo and we’ve seen it with Bee Diamondhead herself and the models she often used and still uses, not only at Marie Claire, but with other work that she does outside of the magazine world as a stylist (and I’m only talking here about professionals of my generation, I’m pretty sure history is littered with examples).
The fact of the matter is that this shift in content towards a more representative output cannot be separated from the fact that it happens when, well, black people are given the opportunity to create content and because they are in tune with what appeals to black people, the content will reflect that, now won’t it?
What I am simply trying to get to is that there are two problems that underscore the lack of local content in magazines and we need to stop making excuses for it; (1) white people still dominate editorial positions and few of them are engaging in South African popular culture (2) few black journalists are employed by glossies.
Whichever way you look at it, it is undeniable that this is an issue that is squarely informed by the stubborn status quo in magazines. Also, I don’t think it is by co-incidence that the international titles who believe they are giving their target market what it wants hardly ever crack the top 10 in terms of circulation figures. The top 10 is dominated by magazines who give their readers what is relevant to them: local! This is hardly about covers, it’s about content in general. I think very little attention is given to how much our failure to capture the zeitgeist impacts on circulation.
Without taking away from the fact that Glamour’s Bonang cover is a step in the right direction and we all ought to celebrate it, we must be cognisant of the fact that more can and should be done and debate around these issues must continue. If it doesn’t then the publishers have every right to believe they are giving us what we want. And if so, why should they bother not carrying on as if it’s all good in the hood?