The 20 Most Controversial Magazine Covers of All Time

Magazine covers have to be bold and attention grabbing so they’ll stand out on the newsstand. As long as magazines have been published, shocking magazine covers have existed. From the first woman to grace the cover of Playboy to a shockingly frank look at the Vietnam war, some of the most controversial magazine covers of all time are also some of the most iconic images, helping to define the decade they originated in. Others were more mindlessly controversial, the result of the “outrage for outrage’s sake” culture we live in. I kept those ones fairly low on the list but I felt they were worth including. For the most part, I avoided using covers that were controversial because the cover photo was digitally altered in some way. Anyway, that’s enough talking for now. Let’s take a look at 20 of the most controversial magazine covers of all time.

image via usmagazine.com

image via usmagazine.com

20: The Glee Kids Get Sexy

Featured Celebrity/Politician: Dianna Agron, Cory Monteith and Lea Michele of Glee
Cover Photo By: Terry Richardson
Publication: GQ
Date: November 2010
I will never understand why so many people got their undies in a bunch over this one. I get that Dianna Agron and Lea Michele play teenagers on television but they are not actually teenagers. These women are adults. If they choose to wear sexy clothes and pose in photos like the ones they posed for in this shoot, it really is their business. There are far worse things to get upset about in the entertainment industry. I looked at the cover and the photos inside the magazine and I thought they were fun, flirty and played up the love triangle between Quinn, Rachel and Finn on the show. Some of the controversial magazine covers on this list were controversial for very obvious reasons. I don’t believe this was one of them.

 

image via interestingtopics.net

image via interestingtopics.net

19: Lady Gaga’s Guns

Featured Celebrity/Politician: Lady Gaga
Cover Photo By: Terry Richardson
Publication: Rolling Stone
Date: July 8, 2010
I can understand the controversy here, at least a little bit, but I still think it was a little overblown. There was a lot of talk about the message this photo sends with some saying it was a positive message while others saying it was a negative message. To be honest, I’m not sure the general public would look at this photo and see any message – positive or negative. What was Gaga trying to say here? Well, my theory is that she’s saying a woman’s sexuality can be a powerful weapon and I think she’s right on the money – if that’s what she was going for. It’s also entirely possible she just thought it was an outrageous look and was therefore perfect for her. The machine gun bra was first seen in Gaga’s video for Alejandro and has since become part of her staple wardrobe on her Born This Way tour – for better or for worse.

image via benditodrinkpop.blogspot.com

image via benditodrinkpop.blogspot.com

18: Britney Spears Hangin’ on the Telephone

Featured Celebrity/Politician: Britney Spears
Cover Photo By: David LaChapelle
Publication: Rolling Stone
Date: April 1999
Speaking of sexy magazine covers, Britney Spears cornered the market long before anyone had even heard of Lea Michele and Dianna Agron. Back in 1999, Britney caused quite an uproar when she appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing little more than her undies; a come hither look in her eyes as she peered into the camera. The problem, of course, was that unlike Dianna and Lea, Britney was still a teenager when this photo was shot. It was argued at the time that Britney wasn’t showing us anything we hadn’t already seen in her videos and I think that is a pretty fair point. In the video for … Baby One More Time, Britney showed off her belly and her legs in a sexy schoolgirl uniform. This was different though. This was the pop sensation in her underwear. It was scandalous, sure but I’m not sure it deserved quite the outrage it got. By then, being sexy was part of being Britney and I think that’s something she understood long before anyone else. Perhaps this photoshoot was just an expression of that.

 

image via clutchmagonline.com

image via clutchmagonline.com

17: The Naked and Bloody Stars of True Blood

Featured Celebrity/Politician: Alexandra Skarsgard, Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer of True Blood
Cover Photo By: Matthew Rolston
Publication: Rolling Stone
Date: August 18, 2010
I get why this one made people so uncomfortable. There are two naked men sandwiching a naked girl and the trio is splattered in fake blood. That’s pretty racy stuff and as we’ve seen so far, there is little in this world that makes people hit the panic button like a little skin. To be honest though, I’m not sure it was really the implied threesome that had people so upset though. It was the blood. For me, that was the disturbing part of the cover. To understand the decision to include the fake blood though, you need to understand the kind of show True Blood is. It’s sexy. It’s bloody. It’s over the top. That’s what fans love about it. I’m not a big fan of the show personally but I get why this cover was so popular among fans and so unpopular among so many others.

image via neosoulman.tumblr.com

image via neosoulman.tumblr.com

16: The Love Between a Man and His Wife

Featured Celebrity/Politician: John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Cover Photo By: Annie Leibovitz
Publication: Rolling Stone
Date: January 22, 1981
This cover features an embrace between John Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono and has been referred to as one of the most controversial magazine covers of all time. I have never, and likely will never, understand what was co controversial about this shot. Sure John is naked and you can see a little bit of bum cheek but is that honestly such a big deal? This photo, to me anyway, captures the love he had for his wife. The fact that the photo was taken only hours before he was murdered makes it so much more powerful in so many ways.

image via spd.org

image via spd.org

15: The Dixie Chicks Take a Stand

Featured Celebrity/Politician: Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire, Emily Robison of The Dixie Chicks
Cover Photo By: James White
Publication: Entertainment Weekly
Date: May 2, 2003
No one should ever be subjected to the kind of backlash the Dixie Chicks were subjected to after lead singer Natalie Maines stated her opinion of then President George W. Bush. From boycotts of their music and public burnings of their albums to actual death threats against Maines and her fellow band mates, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that it all started with a few words uttered at a concert. Instead of backing away from the comment or apologizing, the girls owned the words. This photo was a defining moment in the saga; showing that the ladies were not only refusing to back away from the controversy but that they were also refusing to make any apologies for what was said. I found it inspirational. I found it moving. Many others felt much differently about it.

image via tumblr.com

image via tumblr.com

14: Cindy Crawford Shaves KD Lang

Featured Celebrity/Politician: Cindy Crawford and KD Lang
Cover Photo By: Herb Ritts
Publication: Vanity Fair
Date: August 1993
Over the years, Vanity Fair has seen its share of controversy over a few of the images they’ve chosen for their cover images but few struck a cord like this one. In it, we see gorgeous supermodel Cindy Crawford cradling singer KD Lang’s head against her breasts as she holds a razor to the lathered face of the singer. I was only a little thing with this cover hit news stands but I remember not understanding what all the fuss was about. I still don’t entirely understand. Sure, it was a very sexualized cover. I don’t think anyone would even attempt to deny that but the real controversy, at least as far as I can tell, lies in the fact that Lang is a lesbian. Would there been nearly as much made of this cover if there was a man in that barber’s chair? I sincerely doubt it. In truth, I think this is just a fun photo that probably wouldn’t even ruffle a feather if it were released today.

image via fotonica.tv

image via fotonica.tv

13: Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian

Featured Celebrity/Politician: Muhammad Ali
Cover Photo By: George Lois
Publication: Esquire
Date: April 1968
I think this photo is a beautiful representation of how much of an impact a single photograph can have on a generation. This image was hung in dorm rooms throughout the United States, not because of the man in the photo (although I’m sure that was part of it) but because of what the image represented. Muhammad Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam war and that refusal made him the target of all sorts of accusations. This photo represents his willingness to stand up for what he believed in no matter how hard that made life for him. In the end, many people really started to look at the Vietnam war and wonder if Muhammad had been right all along. Coupled with increasingly disturbing photos and videos from the war (one of which we’re going to talk about in a few moments), public opinion about the war began to change.

image via twistedsifter.com

image via twistedsifter.com

12: OJ Simpson’s Mug Shot

Featured Celebrity/Politician: OJ Simpson
Cover Photo By: Los Angeles Police Department
Publication: Time
Date: June 27, 1994
I tried very hard to avoid photo editing controversies on this list. First, it’s a subject we’ve already covered. Second, I don’t believe many of the photo editing scandals were nearly as bad as the other controversial magazine covers we’ve talked about or will talk about. At the same time, I think this one is more than just a photo editing scandal. While some African American celebrities have had their photos edited on the cover of magazines to lighten their skin tone, this is the flip side of the coin. OJ Simpson had just been arrested for the brutal murders of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman. The image you see is a darkened version of his mug shot. The idea that the editors felt they needed to darken the picture to make it more menacing is absolutely horrifying. This is one of the very few times that I think the controversy over a magazine cover was right on the money.

image via newsbusters.org

image via newsbusters.org

11: Satire That Missed Its Mark

Featured Celebrity/Politician: caracitures of Michelle and Barack Obama
Cover Photo By: Barry Blitt
Publication: The New Yorker
Date: July 21, 2008
There were a lot of accusations flying around about Barack and Michelle Obama during the 2008 Presidential election and the goal of this cartoon was to satirize those accusations. The problem was, of course, that a lot of people just didn’t get the joke. This is a common problem with satire but in this instance, not getting the joke likely meant being incredibly offended – or agreeing entirely with what the cartoon seemed to be saying which is troubling in and of itself. Every element of the cartoon is meant to play up a different attack lobbed at the Obamas but many people just didn’t get that and controversy ensued in a very big way.

image via standard.co.uk

image via standard.co.uk

10: Demi Moore and Her Baby Bump

Featured Celebrity/Politician: Demi Moore
Cover Photo By: Annie Leibovitz
Publication: Vanity Fair
Date: August 1991
These days, it’s unlikely anyone would even bat an eyelash at this shot. Why? Because it’s been copied time and time again by all sorts of celebrities but back in the day, it was pretty outrageous stuff. Demi was naked. She was pregnant. It was truly shocking and something that hadn’t really been done before. At the time, this was groundbreaking. What has happened since isn’t important. Sure the pose has been repeated by celebrities like Cindy Crawford, Jessica Simpson and countless others but Demi was the first; not just to strike this particular pose but to appear on the cover of a magazine naked while very, very pregnant. When I think about the most controversial magazine covers of all time, this is always one of the first to come to mind.

image via inquisitr.com

image via inquisitr.com

09: OK! Tries to Set Itself Apart

Featured Celebrity/Politician: Michael Jackson
Cover Photo By: unknown
Publication: Ok!
Date: June 2009
In my ever so humble opinion, these photo is an example of tabloid ‘journalism’ at its absolute worst. This photo should never have been published. Ever. It’s disgusting that anyone would ever think otherwise. Regardless of what you think about Michael Jackson, he was a human being. His fame doesn’t change that. Whether we like to believe it or not, celebrities are people too and while they don’t often have the benefit of a lot of privacy in life, we could at least give them privacy in death. What OK! did with this magazine cover is nothing short of exploitative. While many people exploited the singer’s death to advance their own careers or line their pockets, this takes it to a whole new level. It was shocking. It was disgusting and it was completely unethical. The photographer and those who decided to run the photo should be absolutely ashamed of themselves.

image via thesocietypages.org

image via thesocietypages.org

08: The First African American Woman Featured on the Cover of Playboy

Featured Celebrity/Politician: Darine Stern
Cover Photo By: Richard Fegley
Publication: Playboy
Date: October 1971
No one will ever be able to convince me that this cover should’ve been controversial at all – at least not any more controversial than the average Playboy cover. The model, a beautiful woman by the name of Darine Stern, was the first African American woman to grace the magazine’s cover alone. While other African American models had appeared on the cover, they were always grouped with other models. Darine became an icon as a result of the honor even if she proved racism wasn’t as distant a memory as some would have had you believe at the time.

image via ew.com

image via ew.com

07: Ellen Comes Out

Featured Celebrity/Politician: Ellen DeGeneres
Cover Photo By: unknown
Publication: Time
Date: April 14, 1997
Coming out is still far too big of a deal. Won’t it be nice when a person’s sexuality is no longer a topic of conversation? In all honesty though, we have come a long way since this cover hit newsstands. I have always admired Ellen’s decision to come out in such a bold, public way. There had been rumors about her sexuality for a long time and instead of continuing to hide from those rumors, she took them all the way out of the shadows and confirmed them in front of the entire world but in a very classy sort of way. It cost her a lot but she’s gotten back on her feet again. I think that alone speaks to how far we’ve come. I just can’t wait for the day that a magazine cover like this one is greeted with a yawn instead of moral outrage.

image via missinfo.tv

image via missinfo.tv

06: Really, Newsweek?

Featured Celebrity/Politician: President Barack Obama
Cover Photo By: unknown
Publication: Newsweek
Date: May 21, 2012
Oh come on. Really? I just … I can’t even. Inappropriate, offensive, enraging, misleading – this one just hits me wrong on all fronts. Barack Obama did not come out – he came out in support of gay marriage. Supporting gay marriage does not, in fact, make one gay. I mean, this one is just such an obvious attempt at grabbing headlines and pushing a few extra magazines that it warrants little more than an eye roll. Lots of people were offended by this one though and I think the reasons are obvious. Bad form, Andrew Sullivan. Just flat out bad form.

image via time.com

image via time.com

05: Hitler Names Man of the Year

Featured Celebrity/Politician: Adolph Hitler
Cover Photo By: not applicable
Publication: Time
Date: 1938
This one is definitely shocking but it isn’t just the photo that’s shocking, it’s the very idea that Time Magazine would name Adolph Hitler man of the year. It positively boggles the mind. At the same time, the logic behind the choice kind of sort of almost makes sense. Hitler was certainly one of the most influential men of the year – if not the most influential – even if he was influential for all the wrong reasons. Hitler was a monster. I don’t think Time was claiming otherwise but he certainly had a tremendous impact – although horrific – impact on the news of the year. Even so, it probably would’ve been much better to choose someone – anyone - else.

image via heartofcity.wordpress.com

image via heartofcity.wordpress.com

04: Kanye’s Crown of Thorns

Featured Celebrity/Politician: Kanye West
Cover Photo By: David LaChapelle
Publication: Rolling Stone
Date: February 9, 2006
Kanye West. Man, I just don’t even know. I love his music. I mean, I really love it. He’s perhaps one of my favorite rap artists but I really dislike the guy to a great extent as a person. I don’t really know how that’s possible. I was listening to Jesus Walks the other day and I thought to myself, “How can a guy that is possibly the douchebaggiest guy in the entertainment industry pen a song this incredible?” I just don’t get it. All that is beside the point. We’re here to talk about the raving bad idea this cover was. Kanye West is not Jesus. He’s not even similar to Jesus. I can’t see the parallell at all. Not even a little bit. I get that David LaChapelle loves to push the envelope and he’s particularly good at it but perhaps comparing a man I truly believe will go down in history as one of this generation’s biggest douchebags is so obviously a terrible idea. The photo is well done and David got exactly what he was going for but yeah, definitely in bad taste. I can see why this one was so controversial.

image via blog.zap2it.com

image via blog.zap2it.com

03: Breastfeeding a Toddler

Featured Celebrity/Politician: Jamie Lynne Grumet
Cover Photo By: Martin Schoeller
Publication: Time
Date: May 21, 2012
My, my – what an uproar this one caused. I am of the opinion that a mother should breastfeed her child as long as she wants/is able to but one has to question the motives of Time magazine for this cover. I know a lot of people were shocked by the photo but for me, it was the headline. Are you Mom enough? Are you kidding me? If a mother doesn’t breastfeed until her child is a toddler she’s somehow not a good mother, or not the best mother she can be? Bull! Just flat out bull. Tell that to women whose bodies stop producing milk after a few months. Tell that to women who have to work to support their families and aren’t able to continue breastfeeding when they return to work. Tell that to women who are unable to breastfeed in the first place for a variety of reasons. Tell that to women whose babies refuse to breastfeed. This is irresponsible journalism at best and, if you’re one of the women I just mentioned who was already feeling guilty about the breastfeeding issue, this is just flat out cruel.

image via nydailynews.com

image via nydailynews.com

02: The Truth About the War in Vietnam

Featured Celebrity/Politician: Vietcong Prisoner
Cover Photo By: unknown
Publication: Life
Date: November 26, 1965
This cover is certainly one of the most controversial magazine covers of all time simply because it was one of the first real, honest looks the world got at the Vietnam war. Although Life ran a series of photos showing the harsh reality of the war, this is one of the most enduring because of the very basic, very real feeling the photo elicits. I seem to recall the photographer responsible for this photo was killed not long after it was taken, or possibly published, but my source for that information seems to have vanished. If you happen to know who took the photo, please let me know in the comments below as I’d really like to properly attribute it.

image via followingyeshua.wordpress.com

image via followingyeshua.wordpress.com

01: Time Poses a Controversial Question

Featured Celebrity/Politician: not applicable
Cover Photo By: not applicable
Publication: Time
Date: April 8, 1966
Time Magazine has had its fair share of controversial covers but this one is definitely among the most notorious. It poses a very bold question in appropriately bold red font – is God dead? It’s no wonder more than a few feathers were ruffled with this one. This one hit the newsstand back in the 60s and it certainly got a lot of people talking. I have to imagine it would have the same effect today. This cover is notable for a few reasons beyond just the question though. It marked the first time nothing but text had been used on a magazine cover and it’s said that the cover itself triggered more letters to the editor than any other cover in the magazine’s history. The actual article the cover corresponded with focused on a counter-culture movement called “The Death of God” so it made perfect sense but it was still, in my opinion, the most controversial magazine cover of all time.

One Response

  1. Eli J.

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