Beyonce’s Vogue Takeover Is in Line With the Kind of Sketchy Agreements Stars and Magazines Make All the Time

Beyone looks over her shoulder at the camera in a black-and-white photo.
Beyoncé on Oct. 15, 2016, in New York City. Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tidal

Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour is giving Beyoncé “unprecedented” control over the magazine’s important September issue, HuffPost reported this week. According to journalist Yashar Ali, the magazine signed a contract giving the singer “full control” over the cover and the interior photos of Beyoncé. She will also write her own captions, which are apparently “long-form.”

Beyoncé is using that power to hire 23-year-old photographer Tyler Mitchell, making him the first black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover in the magazine’s 126-year history. The news has attracted attention in part because Wintour is widely rumored to be leaving the magazine sometime after the September issue, though Vogue’s parent company, Condé Nast, denies it. The imposing editor has headed the magazine since 1988 and taken on increasing power within Condé Nast. A historic September issue would be a worthy note to leave on, or so the thinking goes.

The practice of allowing a celebrity to be intimately involved in a magazine’s production is not unheard of. Vogue itself turned over the 50th anniversary issue of its French edition to Salvador Dalí in 1971, a fruitful collaboration that resulted in spreads including a now-iconic image of Dalí’s model muse Amanda Lear dressed as a nun, appearing to serve her own eyes on a platter.

More commonly, however, these partnerships generate nothing more than publicity for the magazine, and groveling coverage of the celebrity and their pet projects. When Bono guest-edited an Africa-themed issue of Vanity Fair in 2007, Annie Leibowitz shot 20 (!) covers, including George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Oprah; the features inside included “Madonna’s Malawi.” Wired has pulled the stunt at least eight times, including with J.J. Abrams (2009), Serena Williams (2015), and Barack Obama (2016); Stephen Colbert took over Newsweek in 2009, and Bill Gates helmed Time earlier this year. Next to Dalí’s Vogue gig, the most interesting editorial outcome of a guest editorship may have been in 1996, when several New Yorker staff writers quit after Tina Brown asked Roseanne Barr to oversee a women-themed issue of the title.

Beyoncé’s agreement with Vogue seems to be something other than a formal guest-editorship, however. It’s not clear how the magazine intends to present the arrangement in its own pages, but the HuffPost story makes it seem like some combination of a star contributing content (respectable, and done openly) and a star controlling content ostensibly produced by others (sometimes done openly in the form of a guest-editorship, sometimes done more sketchily behind the scenes).

The relationship between celebrities and the magazines that rely on them is always complicated. Stars (or more accurately, their “teams”) attempt to negotiate over who will write profiles, the precise conditions of the interview, which topics are off-limits, and whether the subject will appear on the cover. The amount of latitude they have to make these kinds of demands varies widely by publication. (New York Times journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a master of the celebrity profile, engaged in an interesting Twitter exchange about the process this week.) In glossy magazines more known for style than substance, the balance between collaboration and collusion can be subtle. Advertisers cannot directly pay to be featured in editorial content, but somehow their products often turn up there anyway. Celebrities cannot unilaterally retract things they said on the record, or veto specific photographs, but somehow they’re almost always depicted in a flattering light anyway.

Wintour knows better than anyone the trajectory of print as a medium. Perhaps her best bet is indeed to offer spectacularly glamorous images that will make people crave the magazine as an object. Why not aim to make one’s final issue of Vogue an event as big as Lemonade, and in that case, why not sign a contract with the one person who has proven themselves capable of creating Lemonade?

But even in a landscape of blurred journalistic scruples, the September issue of Vogue does sound like something unusual. Beyoncé bucked custom when she declined to sit for an interview for a Vogue cover story in 2015; remarkably, HuffPost reports that she will not be participating in an interview for the new September issue, either. In theory, that could result in a write-around gem like “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Gay Talese’s sparkling 1966 profile in Esquire. In practice, it will probably result in some gorgeous photos of Beyoncé (which are not exactly in short supply) and zero new insights into her work, psyche, or future. In other words, there’s a good chance the issue will be something worse than ethically murky, at least by the standards of lifestyle journalism: It will be boring.