“Essence” Magazine’s True Color

August 6, 2010 at 9:55 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments
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Guest Editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

There has been a color change at “Essence.” After forty years of having sisters from the African Diaspora as its fashion director, the new one is white. And the news is sending seismic shock waves to many of its subscribers here in the U.S. and across the globe.

New fashion director Ellana Placas, however, is no novice to dressing black women or to the cultural demands of black women’s fashion taste. Prior to her six months at “Essence” as a freelancer, Placas worked at two popular ‘zines — O: The Oprah Magazine and US Weekly, both of which are crossover successes.

Placas will make her official debut with “Essence” this September, commemorating the magazine’s 40th anniversary.

But in this post-racial era where the rigid reigns of race are supposed to be loosening up, should there be outrage in the selection of Ellana Placas as the magazine’s new fashion director?

“Essence,” like many fashion magazines, has a niche audience. And it’s a magazine with an impressive circulation of roughly over 1 million sister-readers monthly between the ages of 18 and 49. Some of the ire towards the hiring of Placas is the concern that she will “whiten” “Essence” up, thus destroying the inimitable girlfriend-to-girlfriend style, complexion, and tone of the magazine.

But if truth were told, the elephant in the fashion department of “Essence” is that the magazine “already takes its cues from non-African-Americans. Most of the stores, designers, TV fashion experts, and stylists that set trends that end up being attributed to African-American celebrities are not African-American,” BlackAmericaWeb.com wrote. “Case in point: Rihanna, considered by many to be black music’s preeminent fashion trendsetter, is styled by someone who is not black. Rihanna shares her stylist with the Smiths; Will, Jaden, Willow, and Jada use her as well.”

While the magazine purports to be for today’s black women, not every sister sees a glimpse of her countenance in its pages. Long before Placas walked into “Essence’s” fashion department, the magazine had always showcased a Caucasian-like beauty aesthetic of light-skinned sisters with processed hair on most of its covers, even during our cultural “black is beautiful” era.

Lesbian, bisexual, and trans sisters for the most part are invisible to the magazine. While LBT sisters have been reading “Essence” since its inception in May 1970, we got a glimpse of our reality in the May 1991 Mother’s Day issue when Linda Villarosa, then senior editor at magazine, co-wrote an article with her mother entitled “Coming Out.”

While Villarosa’s “Coming Out” piece signaled to the magazine that lesbians, bisexual, and transwomen are part of the “Essence” sisterhood, too, the piece wasn’t a breakthrough moment for more stories, photos, and articles about us.

Occasionally, however, we have a token moment. Case in point: This year the magazine for the first time featured “one” of us as same-sex couple.

“I am working on a relationship story for “Essence” magazine. The piece will highlight several couples and their keys to a successful relationship. I would like to include a Black lesbian couple in my piece. Would you or anyone you know be interested in speaking with me?” freelancer Niema Jordan wrote me in October 2009.

The shock wave about “Essence” for me is the paucity of out lesbians, bisexual, and transwomen featured and working at the ‘zine coupled with the fact that the lack of African American women and men throughout the ranks of the fashion industry is of serious concern. So, I thought the brouhaha about the new selection of “Essence’s” fashion designer was that it’s editor-in-chief, Angela Burt-Murray, finally hired a gay male or black lesbian. (And yes, that’s right. Many of us sister-lesbians do have style. Dr. Marjorie J. Hill, the Chief Executive Officer of Gay Men’s Health Crisis of NYC and my former mayor of Cambridge, E. Denise Simmons, are just a few of the classic examples.)

After Viacom’s acquisition of Black Entertainment Television (BET), Placas’ hiring at “Essence,” no doubt, raises grave concern about another Black business takeover now from both inside and out the company. In 2000 Time Warner purchased 49 percent of Essence Communications Partners, and in 2005, Time Warner purchased the remaining 51 percent.

In mainstream fashion magazines white women and gay white men dominate the industry ignoring the plethora of black talent and creativity.

But let’s not confuse a Caucasian-like beauty and heterosexist aesthetic that has dominated Essence’s fashion department since its inception from white business conglomerates vying to take it over.

Some are saying with Placas’ hiring “Essence” is now showing its true color.

Reverend Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker and theologian.  She has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)

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