A report today explains why magazines use dead or fading celebrities on their covers: Vanity Fair is obsessed with Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn because they're still hits at the newsstand. It makes total sense, in a way. Since magazine-reading is itself an act of nostalgia it's only fitting that buyers would be thrilled with old-timey stars of yesteryear.
Erik Maza of Women's Wear Daily looks at how newsstand sales for magazines like Vanity Fair and Town & Country show that the young hot star is not necessarily the best choice. For instance, Vanity Fair's best seller at 308,000 copies including digital replicas has been Audrey Hepburn, who beat similarly lithe but alive star Taylor Swift by nearly 100,000 copies. In the case of Town & Country a cover with Lauren Hutton—remember her?—was the year's best seller so far. That cover sold 44,343 copies—almost 7,000 more than a cover with Girls' Allison Williams. The Hutton cover featured the actress/model in her prime rather than the way she looks now.
Of course, some of this has to do with demographics. The average age of the Town & Country reader is 54 years old, meaning a Town & Country reader would be likely to remember when Hutton was a hot young thing in 1980's American Gigolo, and not as likely to be fans of Girls. (Though older men have been known to watch that show.) Vanity Fair skews slightly younger with a median reader age at around 42 years old, but the stars they put on their covers are timeless. Hepburn, for instance, has a strong Tumblr presence with users cooing over her vintage fashion sense and, disturbingly, her skinny figure.
Back in 2010, which Maza marks as the year the "most dead celebrities appeared on Vanity Fair’s cover," Brian Moylan issued a plea at Gawker, writing a piece headlined "Please Stop Putting Old Dead People on Your Cover." He wrote: "It's the worst kind of nostalgia, really: people wallowing around in things that they already know, rehashing old gossip and retelling the scandalous stories of days past as if nothing that comes today can ever top the already masticated gossip of yesteryear." And he's not wrong. But the actual act of flipping through a glossy magazine is also nostalgic. Christine Haughney of the New York Times reported that though sales of digital editions are going up, magazines are having problems on the newsstands and in subscriptions.
Obviously, it would be great if magazines like Vanity Fair changed their tune and decided on no more Kennedy covers, but it's an operation that runs on nostalgia. And it's not like the industry is entirely reliant on stars of yesteryear. Vanity Fair took a belated but important risk on Kerry Washington. Also, as Maza writes, if all else fails go for Beyoncé. Vogue's Queen Bey cover outsold the magazine's exclusive interview with Michelle Obama by about 60,000 copies including digital.