If you saw Lupita Nyong’o’s remarkably visceral performance in last year’s “12 Years a Slave,” you know she deserved every accolade thrust upon her in the months that followed, including the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and the title of People magazine’s most beautiful woman in the world.
More recently, the actress landed yet another highly coveted designation: Vogue magazine cover girl. Nyong’o joins a rarefied group of black women who have graced the cover of Anna Wintour’s iconic fashion glossy. Since 1974, when Beverly Johnson became the first black woman in history to appear on the cover of U.S. Vogue, the magazine hasn't regularly featured women of color, and even fewer non-American women of color have appeared as cover models. (Nyong’o was born in Mexico but raised in Kenya.)
Retail sales for high-profile Vogue covers never fail to attract attention, and according to preliminary sales data for July, Nyong’o is more than holding her own against some of the magazine’s most notable heavyweights. In fact, she may just be saving Wintour & Co. from one of the most catastrophic summers the magazine industry has ever faced.
The reason why is a little complicated, but bear with us: In late May, the second-largest magazine wholesaler in the country, Source Interlink Distribution, announced abruptly that it was closing its doors for good. Its demise removed a major link in a complex retail ecosphere, the repercussions of which are still being felt. Sources say nearly every large publisher experienced a serious interruption in distribution as national retailers like Barnes & Noble Inc. (NYSE:BKS), Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE:WMT) and Walgreen Co. (NYSE:WAG) were left scrambling to hammer out deals with new distributors. Some magazine titles saw their retail circulation numbers cut in half overnight.
Gil Brechtel, president of the Magazine Information Network (MagNet), a research firm that tracks retail magazine sales, said about 30 percent of the total magazine industry was affected by Source Interlink’s closure, as stacks of magazines sat undelivered in printing plants and warehouses. “It was a total mess,” he told International Business Times.
And yet despite what might fairly be described as Magocalypse 2014, retail sales for Nyong’o’s Vogue cover are actually up 1.5 percent compared to the same period last year. That’s according to a sample of early retail sales figures obtained by IBTimes from MagNet. The July issue of Vogue has been on sale for only a little over two weeks, but Brechtel called the early figures “really great considering the disruption in service.”
It’s even more impressive considering the industrywide decline of single-copy sales that has been dogging magazine publishers since the digital revolution. According to MagNet, average single-copy sales of Vogue are down 22.5 percent over the past six months, despite notable high sellers like the April issue featuring Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. That issue, despite wide derision, sold an estimated 250,000 retail copies. In contrast, the May issue, which featured Emma Stone, sold 180,000 retail copies, according to the Alliance of Audited Media.
Vogue is published by Condé Nast Publications, a privately held company that doesn’t share internal sales data. A spokeswoman for the company declined to comment on the extent to which its single-copy sales have been affected by Source Interlink’s closure, but the publisher had an extensive relationship with Source Interlink, according to Jerry Lynch, president of the International Periodical Distributors Association. “It’s difficult to get your arms around what the impact is,” Lynch said in a phone interview. “Retail is a complicated environment with a lot of moving parts.”
Retail sales account for only a small percentage of Vogue’s total circulation. Like most popular titles, it sells the vast majority of its copies through paid subscriptions, and according to AAM, it had a total circulation in May of about 1.2 million.
Still, it's clear that a cover girl like Nyong’o can still generate impulse buys at the checkout counter. Nyong’o, who has dual Kenyan-Mexican citizenship, is the first African woman to appear on the cover of Vogue since Liya Kebede, the Ethiopian-born model who has graced the cover three times. Maybe if sales continue to hold steady, we’ll see more.
Rachael Battista, a spokeswoman for the AAM, said sales figures for Lupita Nyong’o’s cover issue will be available in early September, so check back then for a full report.
And if you haven’t seen “12 Years a Slave” yet, well, what are you waiting for?