The other day I was perusing through the covers of Seventeen magazine, a middle school staple read for waiting at the cashier line of Walmart. I was amazed at how white the covers remain, despite it being around since 1944. This inspired me to find the first black cover model for Seventeen and identify the magazine’s incentives for taking that first step towards diversity, as well as why it hasn’t improved on that field since. As it turns out, the first black cover model was Joyce Wilford on a 1971 issue, shown on the right below.
During the 70s, a number of issues — environmental protection, women’s rights, the anti-war movement, and Watergate, to name a few — led to a surge in political engagement among youth. It turns out that Seventeen published a number of political issues, reflecting the contemporary interests of their readers. In discussing hiring incentives for commercial models, Mears claims that “[c]ommercial producers are … more likely to embrace ethnic diversity models … in a conscious effort to reach a target consumer” (33). It’s no surprise then that the first black cover model would make her debut during this time, as implicit indicators of Seventeen’s “allyship” with their politically active readers. Having stayed away from politics before, Seventeen’s sudden engagement in racial and social discussion is suspect and shows an urgency to “relate to the consumer, please the client, and ultimately, sell products” (Mears, 32).
I found that many websites originally claimed that Whitney Houston was the first black model, appearing on a 1981 cover. Interestingly, the 1971 cover of Wilford and 1981 cover of Houston are laid out similarly, showing two women – one white, one black – enjoying their friendship.
On the left, models Bonnie Lysohir and Joyce Wilford frolic on the cover of a 1971 issue. On the right, models Diane Leicht and Whitney Houston sit and enjoy ice cream on a 1981 cover.
Although published 10 years apart, the position and poses of the models portray a similar story. On the left, the popular 70s model Bonnie Lysohir frolicks on the beach with her obscure black best friend (I measured popularity by the number of articles I could find on each). On the right, burgeoning model Whitney Houston gazes at her friend, who smiles at the camera with a knowing look that she is the center of this photo, with both the viewer and Whitney giving her their full attention. In their respective covers, Wilford and Houston accessorize the white models as symbols of racial camaraderie during a time of political turmoil around the world. The disarming smiles and poses of Wilford and Houston hide a more sinister revelation about the media industry, best explained by Susan Bordo: “[W]ithin the overall system of meaning they will not be permitted to overwhelm the representation and establish a truly alternative or “subversive” model of beauty or success” (25). It isn’t surprising to me, then, that the first black model for Seventeen would not get her own feature. Seventeen may have been trying to pull a radical move with the “first”, but not enough to cause an uproar among its white fanbase.
As quickly as the 70s brought along performative political awareness, the 80s swept Seventeen back to the usual topics of heterosexual relationships, mixed messages on fashion and beauty (the September 1989 cover included an issue “Who says I need to have a boyfriend?”, accompanied by another title issue underneath: “Sexual decisions, it’s up to you! (no matter what he says)”), and the next trending story among the youths. Mears perfectly encapsulates the actions and behavior behind Seventeen and other commercial producers: “Their imagined consumer upholds a heteronormatively restrictive and idealized vision of white middle-class suburban femininity, but it is just that: an ideal with mass appeal, but nothing too surreal” (34). Having Joyce Wilford on a cover may have been a revolutionary first for Seventeen, but the accessorization of women of color is no new concept.
Bordo, Susan. “Introduction: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body.” Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, 1-42. University of California Press, 1993.
History. “The 1970s.” Accessed May 1, 2017. http://www.history.com/topics/1970s.
Hu, Jane. “When We Were “Seventeen”: A History in 47 Covers.” The AWL, 2012. https://theawl.com/when-we-were-seventeen-a-history-in-47-covers-d53f4fa677ee.
Mears, Ashley. “Size zero high-end ethnic: Cultural production and the reproduction of culture in fashion modeling.” Poetics 38 (2010): 21-46. Accessed April 26, 2017. doi: 10.1016/j.poetic.2009.10.002.