The Most Controversial Magazine Covers of the 20th and 21st Centuries

Magazines have long been the resource societies have used to learn world news but also popular culture. Surprisingly, magazines are the no. 1 medium of engagement across the world, which is why so many magazine covers can be easily remembered and recognized by society, no matter how long it has been. Whereas people forget about what they see on television a short time after they view it, effective magazine covers will stay in the mind of the reader much longer.

David LaChapelle

Rapper Kanye West depicted as Jesus Christ on the Rolling Stones February 2006 issue cover sparked outrage in the community. Many were angry that West was compared to Jesus Christ.

Brian Adams

One of the most controversial Newsweek covers was a picture of Sarah Palin (initially taken for Runner’s World magazine) in 2009. Palin herself called the cover “sexist,” while many agreed and many disagreed, Newsweek still defended its choice of cover.


Sport’s Illustrated Swimsuit Issue of 2014 was a bit more controversial than usual. The brands Barbie and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue have been commonly criticized for depicting women as sexualized objects and not setting positive role models for young girls. Thus, this cover presented a double whammy to critics. Even more unrealistic standards for women represented here!

Robin Hammond

National Geographic’s January 2017 issue was the first time a young transgender girl was featured on a magazine cover. Although conservatives had issues with the cover, many people were thrilled and inspired by the issue. The article I linked is actually a very insightful article written after the issue was released. It details the reactions the public had to this groundbreaking cover.

Annie Leibovitz

This Vanity Fair issue of 2008’s cover caused a lot of controversy. Actress and singer Miley Cyrus is depicted naked only with a sheet wrapped around her, but at only 15 years old. Many thought she was too young for such a racy photo and that Vanity Fair shouldn’t have sexualized such a young girl.

Jean-Paul Goude

Paper, an independent NYC pop culture magazine “broke the internet” with this picture of Kim Kardashian on their winter 2014 issue. An alternative cover, that shows Kardashian bare bottom was the focus of the nation. I actually really enjoy Paper magazine because of its avant garde style and has some very interesting editorial pieces.

Steve McCurry

Probably the most famous magazine cover of the 20th century was National Geographic’s June 1985 issue. Famously known as “Afghan girl,” Sharbat Gula was photographed in a refugee camp in Pakistan during the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The photo caused the Western world to feel compassion for refugees. I remember I first saw this in a stack of old National Geographic magazines in my grandfather’s garage when I was young. I was instantly memorized and I asked him if I could take the issue home!

TIME-Life-May 21.jpg
Martin Schoeller

Jamie Lynne Grumet and her 3-year-old son were featured on the cover of Time magazine’s May 2012 issue. Many were uncomfortable with the small amount of nudity and/or the subject matter: the practice of “attachment parenting.” I personally don’t see anything wrong with showing a mother breastfeeding.


In Time’s March 2016 issue, Donald Trump is featured with the words “bully,” “showman,” “party crasher,” “demagogue” and “the 45th President of the United States.” These labels were selected by Time’s editors to write some of the more unusual aspects of his candidacy. I can’t agree with them more!


The June 2014 issue of Time was the first cover to feature a transgender woman. Laverne Cox, actress and activist, emerged into the scene as Sophia Burset on the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black.

Annie Leibovitz

In 1981, Rolling Stone magazine’s John Lennon tribute issue hit newsstands. John Lennon curled up naked in a fetal position holds on to a fully clothed Yoko Ono. This cover is iconic because only twelve hours after this photo was taken, Lennon was murdered outside of his New York City apartment. Annie Leibovitz took this photo, as well as the one of Miley Cyrus for Vanity Fair.


Newsweek’s March 1970 issue featured a cover symbolizing the women’s movement of the 1960s. Not only was this subject material a first for the magazine, but that same morning, 46 women on the magazine’s staff held a press conference to announce they were suing Newsweek for gender discrimination. A great show that details the lawsuit is Amazon’s original series Good Girls Revolt. I highly recommend you watch it if you are at all interested in journalism, or just like kickass women!

Paul Schutzer

Life magazine, now owned by Time magazine, published their November 1965 issue with a Vietcong man being held prisoner by U.S. Marines. This cover exposed Americans to the harsh realities occurring during the Vietnam War.

Annie Leibovitz

Vanity Fair’s June 2015 issue stirred up buzz when they featured Caitlyn Jenner (formerly known as Bruce Jenner) on their cover posing in lingerie soon after her transition into a female. Her transition was the focus of a lot of media, considering she was once known as Bruce Jenner, olympic gold-medalist and reality tv show star. And again the photographer for this magazine cover was Annie Leibovitz. I may just do a blog post about her and her work…!



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