The New York Review of Magazines


By Candice Chan

The walls of the cream-colored office are plastered with magazine covers. Gridded in straight lines from ceiling to floor, almost 36 Glamour covers can be found in sequential order. Keira Knightley, Victoria Beckham, Michelle Obama, Taylor Swift… all of the cover subjects since 2008. With only two free walls — the others are occupied by shelves and windows — every free inch of space is filled by either a Glamour alumna’s face, or by other images under consideration for the cover of the issue now in the works.

Peeking out of the May 2010 cover is Lauren Conrad from MTV’s The Hills, with her blond hair blowing in the wind. Sporting a striped white top and beaten denim shorts, she is every bit the free-spirited California girl. But there’s also an unmistakable Glamour X-factor: minx-like appeal and a healthy dollop of girl-next-door accessibility. A bold cover line, “sexy hair!”, is scrawled across the page in a cursive font, and damned if you don’t want to be Conrad — or date her — because of that sexy hair. It seems like she’s selling the fashion, health and beauty tips inside the magazine. That responsibility, however, actually belongs to a savvy and meticulous editorial team.

This office, filled with images of absurdly beautiful women, belongs to Geraldine Hessler, Glamour’s design director. Hessler, along with deputy editor Lauren Brody and me, are tucked inside the small room, 16 floors above Times Square, discussing the centerpiece of every magazine: the cover.

“The cover is the most important page of a magazine,” Hessler says. “This is what’s going to sell magazines — the image and the cover lines, all working together.” She should know. Hessler worked on Entertainment Weekly’s covers for 10 years before becoming creative director of Glamour in 2008.

In that single page, through the cover image and the words that accompany it, a magazine’s entire ethos must be expressed — and displayed for potential readers to see as they race to the subway in the morning. I wanted to understand the alchemy an editorial team performs each month to draw readers in.

“What do you think?” Hessler asks, pointing to the three potential covers for the June issue pinned to the wall behind my head.

“Uh . . . personally?”

She laughs. “Yes.”

It’s hard to make a snap decision, and what I’m looking at is already the culmination of a complex, multi-layered process. There have been several meetings before this. First, Brody and co-deputy editor Wendy Naugle gave the junior staff a collection of all the articles scheduled for that issue. Then the 12 junior staffers, prepared with about 50 suggestions each, met with the deputy editors to brainstorm ideas for cover lines.

The best moments are when “somebody will have one line, with just a great word or phrase we haven’t used before,” Brody tells me. “It feels like something you, your sister and your friend are all saying. Something very conversational.”

From there, Brody and Naugle compiled a shorter list with the best lines and — with images and words in hand — attended a meeting with editor-in-chief Cindi Leive (who is an ex-president of the American Society of Magazine Editors) and the senior edit team, where the whole process began again.

“We’ll come up with a few great suggestions for lines that will work,” Brody says. “But even after all of that, it will still evolve 30 times before it’s actually printed.”

Before my meeting with Hessler, Brody explained to me all the components of Glamour’s cover. I asked her about a statement made by J.C. Suares, a creative consultant who has worked on countless covers. He said that the average number of words featured on a typical magazine cover was 70, but Glamour, he pointed out, uses 80 to 100 words. (For more on Suares’s rules for making a hit cover, see sidebar on facing page.) Brody laughed. “I would like to attribute that to the fact that we have a lot of content,” she said. “We’re able to get away with using more than average because we have such poppy colors, and the white background helps with the contrast so people can see and read them.”

While I was with Brody, copy chief Alix McNamara came in and dropped off a copy-checked version of a working cover, along with a lengthy written note about it. The largest headline read: “The Sexiest Swimsuit for Your Body: Curvy? Skinny? It’s all Good!” In blue pen, McNamara had circled the word “skinny.” In her note, she raised some questions: Is “skinny” a positive or negative word, and how do people feel about it? Is “slim” a better option?

Brody told me that, typically, the boldest line (“sexy hair!” on the Lauren Conrad issue) needs to reflect the image on the cover and express what is likely to flash through readers’ minds when they see it. Many magazines use focus groups to determine which lines and designs will work best, and, during testing, Glamour found that readers respond particularly well when the largest cover line captures the atmosphere of the photo.

But all of the seven or eight cover lines featured each month, large or small, are combed over extensively. McNamara has noted use of the word “good” twice, which is a no go, and also that there are five exclamation points scattered about the page — far too many. Everything is meticulously critiqued and analyzed, including the sizes and styles of the fonts, because a single misstep can be disastrous. The numbers in some lines (“59 Cute, Casual Outfits That Look Good on Everyone”) have to be fact-checked. Brody herself, along with research editor Sally Dorst, will go through every page, counting to make sure there are actually 59.

For the upcoming cover now under consideration, there are 101 working versions on Hessler’s computer, but only three are tacked behind me. Cover design varies from magazine to magazine, but for a commercial women’s publication like Glamour, there’s a formula that is used each month to reinforce the brand: Celebrity woman + terrific clothes (possibly expensive, but must be something you want to wear) + snazzy, eye-catching blurbs = fabulous Glamour cover.

To be a Glamour cover girl, you need to be of the moment — with a few additions. Brody explained the three requirements candidates must satisfy: 1. Readers have to feel warmly toward her or, at least, be fascinated with her. 2. There must be a book, movie or project she is connected to that is released around the time the issue is published. Or, lacking that, 3. there has to be some kind of breaking news about her. An example Brody cited was Ashley Judd’s revelation that she had a behavioral addiction for which she had gone to rehab.

Of the covers Hessler is asking me to look at, each uses a different photo, though they feature the neon color palette and clean, thin lettering that have become Glamour staples. June is their annual swimsuit issue, and the cover will be a departure from the norm for two reasons. First, they are considering images of three women instead of their typical one (Cindi Leive’s idea) and, second, instead of the usual recognizable celebrity, the three women who have been selected are all models: Brooklyn Decker, from Sports Illustrated’s 2010 swimsuit issue; Alessandra Ambrosio, a Victoria’s Secret “Angel”; and Crystal Renn, a plus-sized model who has appeared in runway shows and on the covers of international versions of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.

Renn’s inclusion is important, especially since she’s wearing a purple bikini. Body consciousness has been on the minds of Glamour’s readers ever since a small photo of a “normal sized woman” (size 12 model Lizzi Miller), almost nude with a bit of belly falling over her thong, appeared in the September 2009 issue. It drew a huge response from readers reacting to seeing “a real woman” in a commercial magazine’s pages. (“The most amazing photograph I’ve ever seen in any women’s magazine,” wrote one reader from Georgia.) With this cover, Glamour is building on that buzz, displaying women of different sizes and swimsuit body shapes.

Which of the covers do I like? I take a closer look.

The one on my left has Renn leaning into Ambrosio in the middle, and Decker leaning into her from behind. They’re all laughing, and they could be gorgeous girlfriends asked on a lark to pose for a studio picture.

The middle image has Renn standing alone in her purple bikini, but bent slightly to the side so a crease of folded skin is beginning to show around her stomach. This is an obvious nod to the Lizzi Miller photo from September, particularly since there has been no retouching to make her look slimmer. It would be an interesting cover purely because Renn’s voluptuous body stands out. As an avid reader of women’s magazines, I can’t remember the last time (or any time) I saw a full-figured woman baring it all. (Except, notably, in the inaugural issue of Love. See page 66 for a review of that magazine’s first year.)

The third image is almost the same as the first, with the three women leaning into one another, but this one seems more posed. The smiles are more plastic, and Renn looks almost uncomfortable when you notice how her torso has been elongated to make her look thinner.

“I really like the one with her. It’s pleasing to see a normal body,” I say, referring to the cover in the middle. Then I point to the one on the left. “But I really like this image. They seem less posed, and more like they’re having a good time hanging out together.”

“Right, like a girlfriend vibe,” Hessler says. “These are girls you can have a cocktail with, talk about your boyfriend, and girls who aren’t going to steal your boyfriend.”

Take a look at the cover the Glamour editors chose (shown at the beginning of this article), and judge for yourself, but here’s my take: Looking at the three women together, there isn’t an unattainable air to the characters you’re seeing. They’re playful and charming — not the drop-dead hottie that Decker appeared to be on Sports Illustrated, or the unbelievably leggy Ambrosio strutting down the Victoria’s Secret runway. It seems like an honest moment that I want to be a part of. I want my girlfriends to be like that. The intimacy and comfort of these three women together would make me want to buy the magazine when I see it on a newsstand.

The cover is what gets the reader into the magazine, but what counts the most is what’s behind that door. “You have an obligation not to just attract a reader, but to make good on what you’re promising,” Brody says. “If you want a reader for life, you’ve got to be honest.”

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