10 Controversial Magazine Covers that Shocked the Globe

Stirring international controversy last week was the front cover of the May 21, 2012 edition of TIME magazine, which depicts Jamie Lynne Grumet, an American blogger and mother, breastfeeding her three-year-old son, Aram. Photographed by Martin Schoeller, the image has provoked intense debate concerning not just attachment parenting but also the appropriateness of the cover.

But this isn’t the only time the front of a magazine has stirred the pot and spun debate; indeed, countless rag covers have left constipated readers and non-readers alike with the urge to shout, complain and criticise. So, let’s leaf our way back through the many pages of publishing history, and take a look at ten of the most controversial magazine covers ever to grace a newsstand’s magazine rack and ever to shock and appall unsuspecting subscribers.

Vanity Fair, August 1991

The August 1991 issue of Vanity Fair promised “More Demi Moore,” and more it brought. The American actress, seven-months pregnant with her daughter Scout LaRue, was photographed entirely nude by Annie Leibovitz, her right hand shielding both of her breasts and her left holding her enlarged tummy. The image instantly sparked debate: was it a sleazy objectification of a pregnant Hollywood star, or was it a powerful symbol of female empowerment? Either way, it garnered insurmountable publicity, and has since been shamelessly recreated by many pregnant celebs, most recently by Jessica Simpson on the cover of Elle Magazine.

LIFE Magazine, November 26, 1965

This striking, startling and harrowing image appeared on the front cover of the November 1965 issue of LIFE Magazine, 10 years after the beginning of the Vietnam War. Captured by celebrated photographer Paul Schutzer, it displays a Viet Cong POW gagged and bound, his eyes and mouth covered with duct tape by American forces. Needless to say, it opened up many readers’ eyes to the true horrors of the conflict. It was photography and news coverage like this that helped turn the American public against the war.

Rolling Stone, January 22, 1981

The day before his murder on 8 December, 1980, English singer-songwriter John Lennon posed for this Rolling Stone piece captured by photographer Annie Liebovitz. Originally, the ex-Beatle was intended to pose by himself, but Lennon insisted he be photographed with his wife, Yoko Ono; she was fully-clothed and lying on her back while he was nude and curled around her. Published a month after his death, it was used by Rolling Stone as a tribute to the man and voted the greatest magazine cover of the past 40 years by The American Society of Magazine Editors.

TIME Magazine, June 27, 1994

In 1995, disgraced American football player O. J. Simpson was acquitted of the murder of his wife, Nicole, following a widely publicised and highly controversial trial. This result, however, was probably no thanks to the June 1994 cover of TIME Magazine, which saw the esteemed publication accused of darkening Simpson’s famous mugshot (and his skin tone along with it) in order to make him appear more menacing.

Rolling Stone, September 16, 1993

11 years before her infamous wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, pop princess Janet Jackson appeared topless on the September 1993 cover of Rolling Stone. Accompanying a story entitled “Janet Jackson – The Joy of Sex,” the black-and-white photograph was shot by Patrick Demarchelier and depicts Jackson with her hands casually resting atop her head and the top button of her loosely fitting jeans undone. And the lucky owner of the hands cupping her breasts? Then-husband René Elizondo, Jr.

National Lampoon, January 1973

Recently selected as the seventh-greatest magazine cover of the last 40 years, the image appearing on the front of National Lampoon’s infamous Death issue of 1973 nevertheless raised a few worried eyebrows. Photographed by Ronald G. Harris, it portrays a dog named Cheeseface with a revolver pointed towards its head, alongside a warning: “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.” A genius selling point, I think you’ll agree.

Vogue, April 2008

Intended to showcase the fit bodies of its two cover stars, the Shape issue of Vogue instead sparked quite a bit of outrage from oversensitive readers. Depicting Brazilian fashion model Gisele Bündchen alongside African American basketball player LeBron James, the cover, shot by Annie Leibovitz, was criticised for supposedly parading racial stereotypes: apparently, LeBron’s aggressive pose “conjures up this idea of a dangerous black man,” as one unhappy Philadelphian told USA Today. Some even claimed that the composition of the cover gives the impression of LeBron representing wild, savage beast King Kong and Bündchen representing his beautiful white victim, Fay Wray. Do you see anything of the sort?

Rolling Stone, February 9, 2006

Perhaps a not-so-subtle nudge at Kanye West’s allegedly inflated ego, this Rolling Stone cover didn’t exactly go down a storm in religious circles. Published in February of 2006, photographer David LaChapelle’s bold shot depicts the celebrated American rapper as (who else?) Jesus Christ, complete with a blood-stained face, ragged toga and of course a crown of thorns. Interestingly, in the cover story itself, West likens his own life to that of Christ, and also admits to having an addiction to pornography.

TIME Magazine, April 8, 1966

Three simple words written in red font against a black background stirred up international anger in this 1966 issue of TIME Magazine. “Is God Dead?” were the words, and the question they provoked caused uproar among readers, most notably those of a more religious persuasion. The story accompanying the cover was centred on the “death of God” movement of the time, which received much publicity thanks to the wide-reaching outcry that followed TIME’s attention-seeking front cover.

The New Yorker, July 21, 2008

Illustrated by cartoonist Barry Blitt, the cover of the July 2008 issue of the New Yorker was intended to serve as a satire of the scare tactics used by then-Senator Barack Obama’s detractors during his presidential campaign. Many, however, didn’t quite see it this way, instead viewing the cover (which depicts a turban-sporting Obama and his AK-47-sporting wife knocking knuckles in the Oval Office, with the American flag burning in the fireplace and a picture of Osama bin Laden hanging on the wall) as highly insulting – a spokesperson for the Obama campaign called it “tasteless and offensive.”

By Stephen Watson


  1. Time magazine is d most boring magazine in d world. While Rolling Stone mag is well know for its obscenity ever since in d beginning. \m/

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