Today, Kate Middleton is “guest-editing” HuffPo UK. She’s not the first and God knows she won’t be the last celebrity to turn her hand to gratis editorial work.
The idea of the guest editor isn’t new, of course. Sylvia Plath was famously a guest editor at Mademoiselle after winning the magazine’s annual college contest. Obviously, there’s an element of marketing in soliciting your young readers to enter a competition in which one can come Get That Life! for a time. Vogue’s French outpost regularly solicited guest editors, including Salvador Dalí’s 1971 stint. But in those days, it wasn’t necessarily simply “celebrities” so much as people who somehow made logical sense to come spice things up.
But magazines got a little weird in the 1990s! This was, after all, the era of George, when the very famous John F. Kennedy Jr. launched his own publication. Perhaps the most in/famous “guest editor” gig in history is the time Tina Brown got Roseanne to help out with a 1996 issue of the New Yorker dedicated to women. (All of ‘em.) When anybody wants to talk about Tina Brown’s enthusiastic and flail-y attempts to revitalize the magazine, roping in Roseanne makes the perfect synecdoche. Witness Maureen Dowd’s syndicated column in response (which ran in newspapers around the country with a whole series of headlines in this vein):
The article is very much worth enjoying in full. “Can this be?” Dowd asks. “The magazine of Dorothy Parker and Hannah Arendt joining forces with the boorish TV star who urges women to kill bad husbands and children to kill bad parents? The alliance struck me as inharmonius, so I called Ms. Brown for amplification.” Before it was all said and done, Jamaica Kincaid would quit the magazine (only returning once Brown was toast), establishing perhaps the greatest feud in the history of media—one which runs practically to this very day!
By 1998, there’d been enough celebs supposedly putting their stamp on issues that the New York Post did an entertainingly dismissive story. Spin and Civilization both regularly used them. Bill Bradley of the Knicks and the U.S. Senate did Sports Illustrated; “Hollywood star and Brad Pitt-ex Gwyneth Paltrow” did Marie Claire. Sure enough, this was a way for magazines to get media coverage, for instance this little write-up from The Hour (via Google’s newspaper archive):
The Post summed up the strategy like so:
Enlisting a guest editor is becoming an all too familiar way of creating buzz for a magazine.
“You never see it on the leading magazines of the category. You see it in Spin, not in Rolling Stone; Civilization, not Smithsonian,” said John Masterton, media group editor, Media Industry Newsletter. “At the risk of sounding too cynical, I look at it as a gimmick.”
The trend continued unabated and a year later the Wall Street Journal did another piece, characterizing the title as “increasingly common in the magazine world as publishers look for something—anything—that will help sell their publications. The number of magazines vying for attention has nearly doubled in the last decade; moreover, newstand selling space hasn’t kept pace. Guest editors, who are often celebrities, give magazines a monthly shot of hype and novelty in an overcrowded market.”
And make no mistake, it often worked. YM got Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson for the September 1998 issue, which the Journal notes he spent talking up talking up the show and his other projects. It was the mag’s second bestselling cover ever.
It’s not a risk-free strategy, though. Williamson was so late filing that YM sent him a joking-but-were-they-though threatening I Know What You Did Last Summer-style letter. In 2005 the BBC had HBSC banker Sir John Bond on its Today show and got accused of peddling “sycophantic drivel.”
The ranks of guest editors have only grown as the Internet opened vast new plains to seed with content, making outlets more desperate than ever to stand out. Meanwhile there are more who-lebrities on the make, willing to guest edit thirstier, lesser-known blogs, as coverage of the truly famous has grown cozier and cozier with A-listers needing journalistic platforms less and less and therefore able to dictate better terms to higher-profile magazines. A friendly little guest-editing gig meets a lot of people’s needs, is my point—especially for fashion, beauty, and women’s general interest magazines.
Piperlime (RIP) had Jessica Alba for a brief period and called Olivia Palermo a “guest editor” for years, apparently. Lauren Conrad has done a day at InStyle.com and an issue of Martha Stewart Weddings. Victoria Beckham has done Glamour, and Taylor Swift has done Glamour’s UK edition. People got Drew Barrymore, V got Lady Gaga. And that’s without even getting into celeb columns and contributions, like Rashida Jones and Zosia Mamet at Glamour.
Even Michelle Obama— perpetually popular with magazines and a real coup compared to some of these other names—has gotten into the act, doing More last year. Of course, it’s much easier to appreciate Middleton and Obama’s stints, given their public-minded agendas. Keeping kids healthy mentally and physically is more appealing as a goal than, you know, making oneself more famous.
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