Kate's cover version: Faux pas or fair play?
South African and international magazine readers have been up in arms over the latest cover of Marie Claire, which features what appears to be Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, in a dress by local designer Clive Rundle.
The cover photo turned out to be a fake – or at least, a "hyper-real illustration" – according to Aspasia Karras, editor of Marie Claire South Africa. A closer inspection of the cover reveals that the picture forms part of a "fan art tribute" to fashion icon Kate, who "wears SA's best local designs".
"[Of course she doesn't. But she should]," explains a note at the bottom of the cover explains
By this week the news was swirling around the echo chamber of the internet, with hundreds of articles on international websites covering the topic.
"Kate Middleton Bizarrely Photoshopped onto Marie Claire Cover," wrote the feminist blog Jezebel, while the Huffington Post polled readers on whether the move was "cool or creepy". (In case you're wondering, opinion is divided, about 50/50.)
Elsewhere, it's been derided as a cheap attempt to sell magazines and clothes.
"I feel you have taken unjustifiable liberties," said Susan on marieclairvoyant.com, while Anna said, "You are basically putting words in Kate's mouth, when you do not have the right to," and Jompls complained that "[Marie Claire] didn't pay tribute, you wanted to make money."
But Dr Julie Reid, a Unisa lecturer who has done research in pop culture and visual communication, said the entire affair was a storm in a teacup, and that this use of Middleton's image – which did not portray her in an undignified or demeaning way – was not the worst thing that could happen in the media.
"Of course, it raises the Baudrillardian idea that everything produced by the media is just a simulacrum, and that nothing that we see in the media anymore is real. It's a very postmodern phenomenon and mode of thought. But really, audiences have been accustomed to that notion for at least 20 years now, so it's not new and not surprising."
"Whether it's smart or just a cheap shot will depend entirely on the individual perspective of each reader. Some will appreciate it or find it humorous and others won't," she said.
But media commentator Gill Moodie said she thought the cover was fun. She dismissed the idea that it had crossed the line when it came to ethics as the magazine had made it clear that the image was an example of fan art.
"I don't think it crosses an ethical boundary at all because it's obvious that Kate Middleton would never pose for a South African magazine anyway," she said.
But she questioned the logic behind the decision to use Middleton as the August cover girl.
Does this fit with Marie Claire's USP [unique selling proposition]?" she asked. "As I understand Marie Claire is for "the smartest girl at the dinner table". It's positioned as the magazine for an intelligent, thinking, older market. Is Kate Middleton of interest to the smartest girl at the dinner table?"
At the same time Moodie praised editor Aspasia Karras as a respectable editor who'd contributed to the magazine's resilience in tough market conditions.
"Marie Claire is doing very well. It's consistently growing and putting on sales," she said.
Karras told the M&G she was delighted with the response the cover had garnered online.
"We feel really thrilled to see that our cover would make it onto global world media space," she said.
She defended the cover as "a fantasy".
"Of course it was audacious but it was all in the name of fun and breaking the mould and we did it with the utmost respect for her person," she said, adding that the piece harked back to the fashion covers of yesteryear, where people used illustrations to represent fashion icons.
Karras said many of the people commenting on the issue had not read the magazine or read the associated story.
"I think it's important that people get into the meat of the story and debate it after that," she said.
Despite the misleading front cover, the spread on the inside pages features images that are more obviously artwork.
The story places Middleton in unlikely clothing and even more unlikely South African locales—on the train with her platform-shoed feet resting on the opposite seat or working out on the outdoor gym equipment at Cape Town's environmental park in a Gavin Rajah skirt.
If anyone missed the Ts and Cs and expects to find a story about Middleton between the pages, they'll be disappointed. The text accompanying the spread profiles the five illustrators who contributed to the spread.
The Middleton mashup was a first for Marie Claire but it's unlikely readers will be seeing another "hyper-real illustration" on the cover of the women's magazine any time soon.
"We've done this now and I can't imagine doing a fan art tribute for anyone else," Karras said.