When Vogue announced its April cover starring LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen, the magazine noted with some fanfare that James was the first black man to grace its cover.
But the image is stirring up controversy, with some commentators decrying the photo as perpetuating racial stereotypes. James strikes what some see as a gorilla-like pose, baring his teeth, with one hand dribbling a ball and the other around Bundchen’s tiny waist.
It’s an image some have likened to “King Kong” and Fay Wray.
“It conjures up this idea of a dangerous black man,” said Tamara Walker, 29, of Philadelphia.
Photographer Annie Leibovitz shot the 6-foot-9 NBA star and the 5-foot-11 Brazilian model for the cover and an inside spread. Vogue spokesman Patrick O’Connell said the magazine “sought to celebrate two superstars at the top of their game” for the magazine’s annual issue devoted to size and shape.
“We think Lebron James and Gisele Bundchen look beautiful together and we are honored to have them on the cover,” he said.
James told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer he was pleased with the cover, saying he was “just showing a little emotion.”
“Everything my name is on is going to be criticized in a good way or bad way,” James told the paper. “Who cares what anyone says?”
But magazine analyst Samir Husni believes the photo was deliberately provocative, adding that it “screams King Kong.” Considering Vogue’s influential history, he said, covers are not something that the magazine does in a rush.
“So when you have a cover that reminds people of King Kong and brings those stereotypes to the front, black man wanting white woman, it’s not innocent,” he said.
O’Connell, the Vogue spokesman, declined further comment.
In a column at ESPN.com, Jemele Hill called the cover “memorable for all the wrong reasons.” But she said in an interview that the image is not unusual — white athletes are generally portrayed smiling or laughing, while black sports figures are given a “beastly sort of vibe.”
For example, former NBA star Charles Barkley was depicted breaking free of neck and wrist shackles on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Dennis Rodman graced the cover of Rolling Stone with horns poking out of his forehead and his red tongue hanging out.
Images of black male athletes as aggressive and threatening “reinforce the criminalization of black men,” said Damion Thomas, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at University of Maryland.
But others say the image show James’ game face — nothing more. And they note that Bundchen hardly looks frightened.
“James is a huge, black beautiful masculine statue and Gisele is a feminine, sexy gorgeous doll,” said Christa Thomas, 36, a black account supervisor in Los Angeles.
“I didn’t see any kind of racist overtone to it,” she said. “I still don’t. I think there is such a hypersensitivity to race still in this country.”
Husni said it is too soon to know how the magazine is selling, though the controversy could increase sales as people rush out to get a “collector’s edition.”
If nothing else, Walker said the cover underscores the need for a more diverse workplace.
“If more people of color worked for Vogue in positions of editorial authority, perhaps someone in the room might have been able to read the image the way so many of us are reading it now, and had the power to do something about it,” she said.