Naked Lady Gaga Sells Magazines: The Good, the Bad, and the Puzzling

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Elle/Rolling Stone/Marie Claire


From Lady Gaga to Jessica Simpson to J. Lo., Women's Wear Daily is reporting which celebrity faces sold the most magazines in 2010, analyzing circulation numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Echoing a recent trend in Hollywood box office performance, the sporadic numbers show that star power is dwindling—recognizable celebrities aren't enough to move copies of glossies anymore. So what's good, what's bad, and what's puzzling about the biggest-selling magazines of 2010?

The Good:

While the annual report may be disproving conventional wisdom—that slapping an A-lister's mug on a cover sells copies—it does reaffirm a few time-tested editorial rules. To that regard, editors should be thanking their Little Monsters for Lady Gaga. The singer graced the covers of several magazines throughout the year—Rolling Stone, Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair—and helped each issue become the publication's best seller, demonstrating that controversial celebrities with public intrigue still have consumers reaching for magazines at the checkout stand. To call Gaga provocative is an understatement, as would be labeling her cover poses such. Corroborating the principle that pushing buttons still works, that Lady Gaga Rolling Stone cover—the one that sold more than three times its 2010 average—also featured the interview with Stanley McChrystal that WWD rightfully calls "one of the most explosive magazine pieces of the year."

And from a business standpoint—particularly a business in the midst of confusing change—the report reestablishes another of the industry's timeless, more unfortunate truths: sex sells. Lady Gaga fired up the Rolling Stone cover with guns blazing from her breasts and a completely exposed bottom. She donned a flesh-covered bra and panties for the Cosmo issue branded with the coverline, "50 Things to Do Butt Naked." For Elle and Vanity Fair, she was naked.

Also naked? The year's second most-successful magazine cover star, Rihanna, who appeared on one of the year's biggest GQ issues topless. For more, slightly depressing proof that sex is still supreme, look to the year's weakest issue of Marie Claire. The highly-publicized cover starred Jessica Simpson wearing no makeup. WWD's analysis pretty much sums up the failure of the stunt: "Simpson didn't wear makeup and said, "I don't have anything to prove anymore. What other people think of me is not my business." Evidently that doesn't make for good business."

The Bad:

While sex continues to move issues, wholesomeness appears still to be a liability. Despite being the second best-selling artist of the year (behind Lady Gaga), winning the Album of the Year Grammy, being dubbed Entertainer of the Year, and entering into a confusingly uncontroversial May-December romance with matinee idol Jake Gyllenhaal, the aw-shucks-isn't-she-sweet Taylor Swift is the year's poorest-selling covergirl. Her appearances on Elle, Glamour, and Marie Claire yielded some of their most paltry sales, respectively.

The Puzzling:

Simpson may have been a fresh-faced failure for Marie Claire, but her turn on the November issue of Lucky sold the magazines's most issues. Similarly, Jennifer Lopez fronted one of Elle's worst-selling efforts, but helped Glamour and Allure each to their second most successful issues of the year, respectively. Lauren Conrad bombed on Seventeen but scored on Glamour, while Anne Hathaway was a boom for InStyle but a bust for Vogue.

For an industry that loves trends—Sexy hair! Latest shoe craze! The music everyone's talking about!—editors can't be pleased that it's become next to impossible to predict how a celebrity's star wattage will translate to magazine sales. Unless Lady Gaga is plastered on your front page. So rest easy, Anna Wintour.

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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