Hello again, and welcome to a new edition of the Gossip Reading Club. Thanks so much to our readers old and new, especially for your enthusiastic response to our previous issue with the lovely Emma Fraser! We’re sticking to Vanity Fair this week (mostly because I need to get as much use out of this subscription as possible to justify its cost) and focusing on perhaps the most iconic cover the magazine has ever had.
You know the image. Everyone knows it. Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair, heavily pregnant and naked. By now, it's almost a joke, an expected part of the celebrity pregnancy cycle. You show off the Clear Blue test on Instagram, you do the nude bump photoshoot, then you reveal the baby to the world via artful black and white pictures of their teeny hands holding your thumb. Britney did it. So did Cardi B and Beyonce. Even Vanity Fair would copy themselves, most recently with a cover shoot for Serena Williams. It's standard stuff now, a mundane part of the celebrity industry that's as common as sponsored content and red carpets.
As I wrote about in our issue dedicated to the unveiling of Suri Cruise, the fascination with celebrity children, both before and after birth, is a major one. It reveals much about our understanding of pregnancy, of the expected roles of womanhood, and how even something as common and incredible as childbirth can be commodified and softened into something more focused on beauty over reality. In her book Pregnant with the Stars: Watching and Wanting the Celebrity Baby Bump, Renée Ann Cramer writes that these cultural ideas of the celebrity pregnancy are actually a means of social control, a way to further restrict and define pregnant bodies and parenthood. Tabloid features like "Bump Watch" are "attempts to take power and control from famous women", a way to encourage the public to demand more from celebrities, and by extension the rest of us, when it comes to childbearing. I feel like we’ve seen something of a shift over the past year or so, especially during the worst of COVID lockdown. Some major celebrities had babies and kept it completely under wraps. There were no glam photoshoots or “reveals” or even confirmation over the kid’s name. it’s a dramatic contrast from the days of when Suri Cruise, Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, Sean Federline, and so on were obsessively documented from conception to toddlerhood. There are exceptions, of course, such as the omnipresence of the Kardashian-Jenner-Disick kids, but long gone are the days of People paying seven figures for the first glimpse of a newborn.
Still, the bump pictures remain popular, especially if you’re the first photographer or publication to confirm it. I’ve never had kids, nor do I plan to, so I cannot speak to the desire to want to document something like your pregnancy. I imagine it’s an indescribable moment of your life that you’d want to treasure and some of those bump pictures are just stunningly composed. Besides, it’s 2021: we’re long past pretending that the pregnant body is something that should forever be hidden away, shielded by caftans and to be ashamed of until you’re “back to normal.” That trend didn’t wholly start with Demi Moore but it’s undeniable that her nude photographs dramatically changed our general perceptions of pregnancy and the changing body during this impactful time.
The main cover image is undeniably beautiful: Moore looks sexy but a tad coy, her bump protruding yet seemingly still delicate. Annie Leibovitz is the queen of this sort of aesthetic, that classical painting approach that is nonetheless concerned with the uniquely human. Maybe it's my 2021 eyes but I find the cover image, and the other ones inside the issue, to be kind of modest. It's certainly not lurid or pornographic. Moore wasn't showing any more skin than your average supermodel in a bikini, a staple of glossy magazine covers then and now. But it’s that very notion of a heavily pregnant woman, out and proud and steeped in glamour, that seemed to set off something in the public eye.
In "Shooting the Mother: Fetal Photography and the Politics of Disappearance", Carol A. Stabile wrote that "the pregnant body-even clothed-is a source of abjection and disgust in popular culture: the pregnant woman is represented as awkward, uncomfortable, and grotesquely excessive. In a culture that places such a premium oil thinness, the pregnant body is anathema." It was certainly not viewed as something to be glamourized for the purposes of selling magazines. Moore has said many times over the decades, including in her rather excellent memoir Inside Out, that the photographs let her "feel glamorous, beautiful and more free about my body. I don't know how much more family oriented I could possibly have gotten."
When I decided to cover the Moore piece for the newsletter, I had assumed that I’d already read it. After all, I was so keenly familiar with the photographs that surely I must have read the accompanying article at some point. Nope. It had entirely passed me by. Really, nobody talks about the piece or Moore’s words or even her experiences with motherhood and pregnancy. The images are so overwhelmingly the focus of the narrative, which feels somewhat apt given how much of Moore’s career was defined by her looks and not her work. By 1991, Demi Moore was a star. The year before, Ghost had become the highest-grossing film of 1990 and catapulted her into the upper echelons of the A-List. She was about to earn some major paydays for upcoming movies Mortal Thoughts and The Butcher's Wife (the Vanity Fair profile is ostensibly to promote the latter.) Mostly, however, she was known as Mrs. Bruce Willis, a celebrity spouse who many industry types seemed deeply cynical towards. She was a star, but not necessarily an actress, so the narrative went. She could sell a magazine but not a movie.
The cover was a huge boon for Tina Brown, then the editor of Vanity Fair. She had risen to prominence in the UK as the editor of Tatler, the British high society magazine beloved by the upper classes. Her coverage of the rise of one Lady Diana Spencer helped to drastically increase the magazine's sales, which led to her being headhunted by Vanity Fair. Struggling to make a name for itself in the '80s, the magazine was, according to Brown, "pretentious, humourless. It wasn't too clever, it was just dull." She hired big writers, leaned into the glamour and power angle that made Tatler so juicy, and went hard on the celebrity angle. That balance of fizzy and serious - celebrities and true crime, parties and foreign policy, royals, and White House drama - saw sales of the magazine's circulations rise from 200,000 to 1.2 million.
Anne Leibovitz became the unofficial photographer of the magazine, a position she still holds to this day. Some of Vanity Fair's most iconic images come via her camera, from Whoopi Goldberg in a bath of milk to the reveal of Caitlyn Jenner to the lion’s share of Hollywood Issue spreads. Her work is glossy but fun, the epitome of that kind of champagne glamour and witty irreverence that Vanity Fair would long define itself by. You know a Leibovitz image when you see it, for better or worse. Indeed, her formula is somewhat overused to the point of parody, and her failings in lighting Black models are evident. Ideas of glamour have changed but Leibovitz’s stock notions haven’t, although I imagine a lot of those restrictions are also editorial mandates. Anyway, the point is that the combination of Demi Moore, Annie Leibovitz, and Tina Brown ensured that this cover image would instantly become a Very Big Deal.
And indeed, it was. Some shops refused to carry the magazine. Others sold it only if Moore's body was concealed under brown paper like a porno mag. The Houston Chronicle claimed that around 100 million people had seen the cover. It became a hot button topic on TV, radio, newspapers, and around watercoolers in every workplace. Parodies sprung up everywhere, with Lebovitz even taking Paramount Pictures to court for copyright infringement with the poster for one of the Naked Gun movies (they won on fair use.) The letters to the editor displayed the sheer force of emotion the cover elicited. One reader declared Moore to be "a new Eve". Another called it "a desecration." "I felt categorized and violated. Where have morality, discretion, and self-respect gone?" Asked one. Another applauded her local supermarkets for banning the issue. I wasn’t surprised by some of the pearl-clutching (although I did laugh at the one reader invoking Sodom and Gomorrah in relation to Moore's belly) but it still seemed somewhat shocking. A married woman having her second child and showing what the body looks like when you go through that madness was comparable to displays of public indecency?
It wasn’t just that it was seen as Vanity Fair showing too much; it was seen as yet another example that Moore was overexposed. Who did she think she was to break this taboo? Why her over anyone else? That’s a notion that plagued Moore throughout her career, especially as she rose through the ranks to become the highest-paid actress in Hollywood. Granted, she was still not even close to wage equality with her male co-stars, but the notion that she deserved to be paid well for her work was mocked viciously in Hollywood. She was seen as selfish, greedy, not the “right” woman for that task. A lot of people were very eager to knock her down a peg or two. It could be said that Vanity Fair was one of those people, or at least the interviewer was.
That’s one of the things that surprised me about sitting down with this piece: Vanity Fair may have shot Moore with utmost beauty and care, but in words, they seem oddly sneering towards her. Moore herself even noted this in her memoir. Much is made of her rising career coinciding with one of her husband’s more notable flops, his passion project Hudson Hawk, which is described as a “$65 million mega flop.” Her very professional response to a question on how she feels about "its sensational flameout" is described as "remarkably detached." Her desire to engage in charitable acts is seen as "foggy altruism."
And then there's her career. A hell of a lot of people seem keen to stress to Vanity Fair (anonymously, of course) that Moore’s success with Ghost was pure luck, more likely related to her marriage than her own work. One unnamed "top producer" claims that the distinction of being in the biggest film of the year "and the fact that she’s Mrs. Bruce Willis all went to her head at the same moment, swelling it unmercifully." Jeez. Her large entourage on the set of The Butcher's Wife, which reportedly included "an assistant, a dialogue coach, a masseuse, a psychic consultant, Rumer’s nanny, and a bodyguard", is another sign of her apparent Diva behaviour, which she refutes. "If you're a woman and ask for what you want," she notes, "you’re treated differently than if you’re a man... It’s a lot more interesting to write about me being a bitch than being a nice woman." The more things change, the more they stay the same, right?
Willis gets dragged too, with more anonymous producers bragging about how happy they were at Hudson Hawk flopping because Willis "was getting pretty smug" and a failure will "chasten Bruce. Actually, I think the public is turning off on both of them. A lot depends on The Butcher’s Wife for her." It's a curious angle for a Moore profile, the notion that she is intrinsically part of a double package with her husband rather than an independent star, but certainly indicative of how she and Willis were viewed. The perils of the celebrity couple narrative are plentiful, as we discussed in our issue on Chrissy Teigen and John Legend.
Overall, Moore sounds very savvy and self-aware discussing not just her career but her husband's, especially the way that Hudson Hawk's flop status "became about baggage attached to the film" as much as the quality of the product (she even compares it to Ishtar in that regard, although Ishtar is way better and, alas, Elaine May never truly recovered from that implosion.) She’s also very open about her turbulent childhood, including her parents' divorce and addiction problems, all of which are documented in her memoir (seriously, go read Inside Out.) The profile really wants to dig into her past in a way that she often seems hesitant to do so (understandably so.) Moore is certainly keen not to deify herself, especially when it comes to discussing her previous problems with alcohol and drugs. She says, "I hate stories about people who did drugs and don’t anymore. When I read about people talking about themselves in programs, it infuriates me. I’ve seen too many people use it to make themselves look good. It’s such a trend."
One aspect of the profile that is very refreshing is Moore's honesty about her ambition. She wants to be a star. She wants to be a great actress. She wants all of the opportunities that her fame can offer her, and she doesn't want to downplay that drive. The piece at least ends on that note with less scorn than it could have, especially given the anonymous sources eager to position Moore as someone with more ego than talent.
Moore would go on to have more hit movies, including A Few Good Men, Indecent Proposal, and Now and Then, which she also produced. By 1995, she was the highest paid actress on the planet, landing $12.5 million for Striptease, but this achievement wasn't lauded as a step forward for women in the industry. Rather, Moore was slammed as greedy, opportunistic, undeserving of the honor. The coverage of Striptease focused obsessively on her willingness to be nude for the part, even though she'd been naked in other films before that point. She earned the dubious nickname "Gimme Moore." After G.I. Jane, which I think is her best performance and an underrated movie overall, she semi-retired and moved to Idaho to raise her kids. She returned in 2003 with Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. At the grand old age of FORTY, the headlines obsessed over her age, her body, and her relationship with Ashton Kutcher. There's an entire thesis to be written on the ageism of the media as viewed through the prism of Demi Moore from 2003 to 2010. Her memoir helped to reshape a lot of the cynical and often cruel assumptions made about Moore's life and career, and nowadays, she's back to doing bit-parts in film and TV and modelling for the likes of Savage x Fenty. Her Instagram is full of cute pictures of her with her kids and ex-husband Willis, with whom she remains close. I like her a lot. I hope she gets at least one more great part she can really sink her teeth into. Get her in a Magic Mike sequel!
So much of celebrity writing is about what’s left unsaid, which is partly why those images of a pregnant Moore in the nude have continued to spark our imaginations. As our ideas of pregnancy, bodily autonomy, and beauty standards shift, the pictures reveal more to us about how we live. Nowadays, glamorous pregnancies are the norm, to the point where it’s yet another unfair and unreasonable standard to try and live up to. Remember how much Kim Kardashian was mocked during her pregnancies for getting “too big” or not dressing “properly.” We don’t get to see a lot of these pregnancy photoshoots with stretch marks on the belly. Meghan Markle was chewed out by the British press for not wanting to walk out of the hospital holding a newborn for the paparazzi to snap pics. Breastfeeding images are still prone to censorship on social media. Black mothers face staggering levels of medical discrimination and shockingly high death rates during pregnancy, with Serena Williams sharing her own terrifying experiences following the birth of her daughter. And that doesn’t even get into the painfully and ever-relevant issue of bodily autonomy and freedom of choice, both of which are consistently at threat in the U.S. and beyond thanks to anti-choice legislation. Glass ceilings are broken but quickly replaced with further barriers. The uterus will never stop being a battleground.
If you liked this issue, please consider supporting a charity dedicated to supporting issues pertaining to abortion rights, and pregnancy and medical discrimination. Five X More is a group committed to highlighting and changing Black women and birthing people's maternal health outcomes in the UK. The National Birth Equity Collaborative is one of America's leading experts and an advocate for change in the Black maternal health and infant mortality crises. As always, Planned Parenthood could use your support too.
You can find my work on Pajiba.com as well as sites like SYFY, IGN, Uproxx, Slashfilm, RogerEbert.com, and many other places. This past fortnight, I made my debut on Little White Lies (yay) talking about the sinfully underrated Jane Campion adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady. I also reviewed the new season of Tiger King (bad) and the fifth season of Big Mouth (good but a step down). On Slashfilm, I talked about Will Smith as a megastar, a serious actor, and what happens when he tries to blend the two. I'm also making mini embroideries for sale this festive season because I'm broke (yay?) so check them out on my Twitter!
The Gossip Reading Club is free to read and shall remain so. However, if you would like to donate a couple of dollars towards its upkeep, you can do so on my Ko-Fi page. It takes a lot of work to put these together and now I have to pay for the newsletter service (and write this stuff on a laptop that has crashed twice during the posting of this dang issue.) Thanks so much to everyone who has been so generous in recent weeks. I seriously appreciate it!
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