The Bizarre Launch of Olivia Wilde's 'Vogue' Cover
And the depressing state of media today.
Olivia Wilde directed her second movie, which is the ostensible news peg for her appearing on January’s Vogue, wearing Michael Kors. At first, I stopped at this in my feed because — huh? — she’s just wearing a bra? It’s actually the first look from Kors’s spring 2022 show, worn at the time by Kendall Jenner in bright red lipstick and a smooth, shiny updo.
Wilde’s look is definitely more post-coital and minimalist than the runway iteration in a way I appreciate, even if I found the overall effect slightly odd. Yet, it wasn’t the only odd thing about this cover rollout, which provides just one example of the current unfortunate state of media.
First, there’s the news peg itself. The cover line references Wilde’s “work,” “love,” and “life” (as though readers need to specifically know that anything she says deals with the act of being alive). The story goes on at some length about the film she directed — but that comes out in September.
So, why is she on the cover of Vogue now? Is she not September issue material? Or could it be that, as many of us can’t help but know, she’s also dating Harry Styles (“love”)? So for Vogue’s purposes, as long as they can get any comment from her about that today, their story will gain some traction in the clickosphere? Never mind that she’s talented and smart and her first movie Booksmart was actually pretty great, which bodes well for her second, the psychological thriller Don’t Worry Darling starring Styles and Florence Pugh and including what sounds like some kind of sex scene between them, Vogue reported, that will result in fan “hysteria.”
And indeed, Wilde did make a comment about her relationship. Sort of?
Since the first indications that they were a couple arose, Wilde and Styles’s relationship has been subjected to the glare of widespread obsession, envy, and tabloid-fueled cattiness. The celebrity press has been particularly harsh on Wilde, professing to be scandalized that a woman in her 30s should dare to find love with a man 10 years younger. “It’s obviously really tempting to correct a false narrative,” Wilde says, with rueful composure, when I ask if she’d like to address the furor. “But I think what you realize is that when you’re really happy, it doesn’t matter what strangers think about you. All that matters to you is what’s real, and what you love, and who you love.” Wilde connects the uncommon attention focused on her, a very famous person, to the ordinary kind that all of us face on social media. “In the past 10 years, as a society, we have placed so much more value on the opinion of strangers rather than the people closest to us,” she says. But, she adds: “I’m happier than I’ve ever been. And I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, and it’s just wonderful to feel that.”
It has always blown my mind that no matter what certain celebrities say about certain things, the quotes get picked up everywhere. Kim Kardashian could put in a disappearing Instagram story that she ate a piece of toast and it would be written up on every mass site as though she’s the most relatable person in the world and we’ll all be just positively gobsmacked by this scintilla of information. Such is the case with Wilde and Styles saying so much as a single sentence about one another, even if that sentence is, “That’s Olivia!” (Resulting headline: “Harry Styles Finally Addressed His Relationship With Olivia Wilde.”) Vogue’s nearly 4,600-word feature story was quickly subsumed by other outlets picking up its quotes. There was BuzzFeed, with a post I noticed trending on Twitter late last week, which contains seven photos of Wilde and Styles from Getty Images and a total of 312 words, 145 of them Wilde’s quotes from her Vogue story.
Of course, the Vogue piece also features a seven-image edit of an expensive-looking high fashion shoot by Anna Wintour favorite Annie Leibovitz. The BuzzFeed story neglected to include even the cover. I posted the cover in my Instagram story, resulting in a steady flow of DMs with passionate opinions about whether it was great or not.
I can only imagine how annoying it must have been to the editors of Vogue when BuzzFeed’s story trended over theirs. Vogue’s story was also outranked in Google News late last week by other random mass sites that had picked up the same quotes (Google is probably the single biggest pipeline for traffic for mass women’s outlets including Vogue these days).
Vogue must know its unique selling point — fashion photography — is a dying art. And as someone who adores fashion photography, this makes me sad! But in the current online ad environment, scale is all that matters, and the niche of people who do care who’s on Vogue and who do care what those people wear and what that says about our culture don’t create that scale.
Wintour and her team have made efforts to adapt to this frustratingly homogenous media landscape, now overtaken by low-budget outlets that would never have the money to produce something of the quality that Vogue still manages to regularly produce. These days, they might not even have the ambition to make something of comparable quality (which I blame on executives — who manage from spreadsheets — more or less insisting on low-quality work from the editors they hire). But Vogue still has to play in the same sandbox as the rest of the internet, which perhaps explains why we get cover videos like this one, which seems to be Vogue parodying TikTok (you must watch with the sound on):
The caption asks “How would filmmaker @oliviawilde direct herself in a Vogue cover video?” — then credits a different director!
Everyone loses in a media landscape like this. There’s Vogue, which seems to be trying to force its fashion shoot into a format that might go viral while also acknowledging TikTok. There’s BuzzFeed (where I once worked), which needs clicks more than ever because it sells scale, and its recent rather embarrassing IPO will pressure its writers even more to juice its numbers and make the site profitable. There are smart editors who have no choice but to awkwardly package up major feature stories in the hope that Google or Facebook or Instagram or maybe even TikTok might flush some audience down the funnel and into their grotto. There are readers, who are looking for a life raft in this frothy sea of garbage. And there are advertisers, who are funding this entire depressing business model, which does audiences such a disservice that they are going over to fully ad-free platforms like Substack and signing up for, of all things, more email. (Thank you, subscribers, for being here with me and enabling this newsletter. If you are not yet subscribed, you know what to do.)
Wintour recently gave an interview to the New York Times about Condé Nast’s current business strategy. This involves having “global editorial directors” instead of editors-in-chief around the world helming the various titles, and regional content heads reporting into those people. Basically, it’s a way to save money by employing fewer star editors like herself. It also sounds like these people have to do a lot more work. From the story:
“Before, you created stories for publication and it came out once a month and that was great,” she said, describing the old domain of an editor in chief. Now the global editorial directors and heads of content are working across platforms that include “digital, video, short and long form, social, events, philanthropic endeavors, membership, consumer, e-commerce,” Ms. Wintour said.
“You touch so many different worlds,” she added. “Honestly, who wouldn’t want that job?”
The Times then goes on to name the slew of star editors who have recently left, including Emmanuelle Alt, who ran Vogue Paris, and Michelle Lee of Allure.
Having just completed a biography about Wintour — and I will have much more to say about her around the time of the book coming out in May — I firmly believe she lends unique relevancy to her magazine. Anna Wintour running American Vogue is part of the reason people actually care to DM each other to discuss the styling choices that went into the cover (the same is true of Edward Enninful, who runs Vogue UK and oversees Condé’s European titles). But it’s both sad and kind of mind-blowing that this is where the historically most powerful title in fashion media has ended up: creating ambitious fashion photography and feature stories that are reduced to a TikTok-esque video and a 350-word post on BuzzFeed.
Condé Nast should be reinventing fashion media, not propping up the rest of the clickernet because it happened to have the reputation that lent it the opportunity to ask Olivia Wilde a question about Harry Styles.
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