Speak to Us, Jennifer: Cover-Girl Semiotics Is Big Business and Can Make or Break a Magazine. but What Are the Stars' Images Saying-And to Whom?
Tennant, Laura, New Statesman (1996)
What does Jennifer Aniston say to you? If the most detail you can summon up is "choppy hair, Friends, Brad Pitt", you're probably not a member of the magazine-buying public. Aniston is cover-girl magic; put her on the front of your title, and she'll speak to your readers on a wealth of finely nuanced and bestselling levels--or so editors and publishers hope. From her podgy-to-pert transformation pre-Friends, via her poor-little-rich-girl to sassy-single-mother character Rachel, up through Brad Pitt (the Hollywood god she married in real life) and the bitter-sweet finale of their separation, Aniston ticks all the right boxes. Accessible yet inspiring, sexy yet friendly, she shifts magazines like few other celebrities, which is why hers was the face chosen to launch the give-away preview edition of the Emap group's new venture, the weekly glossy magazine Grazia.
Cover-girl semiotics is big business. In the case of Grazia, [pounds sterling]16m is riding on getting the signals right. The subtle register of identification, aspiration, idle curiosity and mild titillation sounded by a famous face and body is what editors lie awake fretting about at night. That is what makes readers pick up their magazine and not someone else's--or so the industry wisdom goes.
It's a finely tuned business. Don't run away with the idea that Sarah Jessica Parker, for instance, would do the same job as Jennifer Aniston. Oh no. To the trained eye, SJP is a little too Manolo and Manhattan and, whatever her considerable appeal, she doesn't do girl-next-door. Any fool can tell the difference between smouldering siren (Liz Hurley) and wife material (Kate Winslet), but can you distinguish between types of chilly blonde? The magazine-buying public apparently can. Gwyneth Paltrow transmits a macrobiotic/highly strung/movie aristocracy vibe which is strangely unappealing, though we have warmed to her a little since she married a Brit and had a baby. Cate Blanchett is a kooky/private/serious jolie-laide, but we rather like her for her Aussie lack of pretension. Compare approachable blondes; this month Red magazine has put Charlize Theron on the cover because, explains its new celebrity director, Rosie Nixon, "She's a very happy, self-assured type of person, she's turned 30 this year, and her career continues to go from strength to strength." Or Kate Hudson, who graces the cover of New Woman, and always sells magazines because, well, she's petite and adorable and Goldie Hawn's daughter.
For magazines whose chief aim it is to have the babe-licious flavour of the month styled, shot and photoshopped to perfection on their cover, choosing a star is just the start. …