The Most Talked About Magazine Covers of All Time
At this point in human history, magazines are kind of a relic. While some companies are still faithfully publishing away in the physical medium, there's no denying that real magazines are not as nearly as popular as they used to be.
However, magazines have a long and interesting history that has raised more than a few eyebrows over the years. Some magazines just can't seem to resist the temptation to publish something that they know the public is going to have strong feelings about. Sometimes that works out and brings new fame to the publication, but other times, it backfires and everyone ends up outraged.
Today, we're taking a look at some of the most talked-about magazine covers in history. Not all of these covers were beloved (some were downright hated!), but they kept people talking long after these issues hit newsstands. Were some of these covers over the line? Maybe. But for the most part, people just like having something new to be angry about. Magazines have clearly learned this over the years, which means that we get more and more polarizing covers just for the sake of having something controversial that will get people talking.
Let's get started!
Vanna White (Playboy)
Of all the people we thought we'd see in the pages of Playboy, we never imagined we'd find Vanna White there! The Wheel of Fortune superstar is definitely beautiful enough to appear on the cover (even to this day), but people were shocked when they saw how much she revealed in her 1980s photoshoot.
Even White herself had regrets about the scandalous photos. While reflecting on the controversy, White says she remembers, "going on ‘Johnny Carson’ and saying, ‘I’m so sorry … I made a mistake, I’m sorry and I just hope I don’t lose my job over it.’" Thankfully, she's still on Wheel of Fortune turning letters!
Dolly Parton (Playboy)
Dolly Parton was an old pro in the music world by 1978. That was the year she released her TWENTIETH studio album. So, she decided to try her hand at something else.
That something else just happened to be the cover of Playboy. Southern belle, Playboy bunny--Dolly can do it all!
Carmen Electra (Playboy)
For most celebrities, posing for Playboy once is enough. However, that wasn't the case for Carmen Electra! The model and actress has posed five times for the magazine, and we're sure that fans aren't mad about it. Her first appearance came in 1996, and her most recent was for Playboy's 55th anniversary.
While she had some misgivings at first, Electra says her time with Playboy was positive--"I realized that Playboy was very … They were very respectful. There weren’t people hanging around on set. The lighting was amazing. The photographers were very friendly and aware that you’re a woman and you’re posing nude, and so it did make it easier."
Paris Hilton (Playboy)
Paris Hilton definitely did not need Playboy to help increase her notoriety (or infamy). That being said, it should come as no surprise that the hotel heiress and entrepreneur made an appearance.
Hilton appeared on the March 2005 cover, all decked out in red. It seems more appropriate for December or February, but I’m sure that Playboy patrons were not complaining.
Pamela Anderson (Playboy)
We can’t talk playboy without talking about Pamela Anderson’s “girl next door” flavor. It’s almost like this blonde bombshell was made for posing for Playboy. She drove all the boys, and probably some girls too, wild in the ‘90s and 2000s. Her smoldering eyes and naughty pose made this a cover to remember.
Pamela is so Playboy that she holds the record for most appearances in the magazine. She’s quite literally the original Baywatch babe, and she’s probably one of the most famous playmates of all time. Everyone wants a few minutes with Pamela…
Marilyn Monroe (Playboy)
Marilyn Monroe on the cover of Playboy would be historical enough. But this iconic Hollywood star took things a step further.
Monroe was featured on the very first issue of Playboy magazine--which was published all the way back in December of 1953.
Goldie Hawn (Playboy)
Goldie Hawn has had plenty of hilarious roles over the course of her career. So, it should come as no surprise that she got a little funny with her Playboy cover.
Hawn appeared on the January 1985 cover of the magazine. And while she looks great, fishnet stockings inside a giant champagne glass is definitely not the most serious, sensual look.
Farrah Fawcett (Playboy)
Farrah Fawcett had a lot going on in her impressive career, but the Charlie's Angels actress still managed to find time to pose for Playboy multiple times during her life! Her first appearance was in 1978, where she appeared scantily clad on the cover, but at the time, she refused to go fully nude.
However, that all changed by the time 1995 rolled around. That was the year she really caused a stir by appearing nude in the magazine for the first time. However, it wouldn't be her last. She appeared again in 1997 where she introduced the world to her strange art style of painting with her nude body.
Jayne Mansfield (Playboy)
Jayne Mansfield, a sex symbol for the ‘50s and ‘60s was no stranger to publicity stunts. Constantly compared to Marilyn Monroe, it’s no surprise that she found herself posing for the cover of playboy and even wearing the crown as Miss February 1955. She wasn’t afraid to show off what she had!
At the time it was as if people couldn’t keep her name out of their mouths, so she gave them something to talk about…constantly. But being a nice silhouette to look at wasn’t her only talent. She was a singer, a nightclub entertainer, and even an actress for Fox Studios.
Anna Faris (Playboy)
While it may not be her best work, Anna Faris' first big claim to fame was her starring role in the 2008 comedy The House Bunny where she plays a former Playboy bunny working as a sorority house mother. It seems painfully obvious that Playboy would want her on the cover, and they managed to get their way!
While hers was not the most risque appearance of all time (she did not appear nude), she looked great in the pages of the magazine. Despite being self-conscious about her body in high school, it's clear the actress had a change of heart before her time in Playboy!
Crystal Hefner (Playboy)
Crystal Hefner appeared in the pages of Playboy a few years before she would become Hugh Hefner’s third wife. She was the last woman married to Hefner before his death in 2017.
They worked things out, but the relationship between the two did not start off great. The two were originally supposed to be married in 2011, but Crystal called off the wedding five days before it took place. They finally worked things out and married in 2012.
Mariah Carey (Playboy)
All I want for Christmas is that one-piece Mariah Carey wore on her cover of Playboy. The singer and (sorta) actress was just one in a long line of beautiful and famous women to grace the cover of the magazine.
Carey appeared on the March 2007 cover. She wasn’t completely nude--but not for lack of trying!
Cindy Crawford (Playboy)
Supermodel Cindy Crawford has appeared for Playboy not once but twice! Her first nude photoshoot appeared in the magazine's July 1988 issue, and another one was featured a decade later in October of 1998. Unsurprisingly, she looked amazing both times!
Crawford has no regrets about baring it all for the magazine, and she doesn't particularly care if people disagree with her decisions. She told Playboy, "People have to compartmentalize me. They can't deal with a woman who has a serious career taking off her clothes and being sexy."
Lindsay Lohan (Playboy)
Say what you will about Lindsay Lohan--her Playboy cover is one of the most memorable ones out there. She appeared on the January/February 2012 issue.
Not willing to be encumbered by clothing, the infamous starlet decided to just use a bunny-shaped chair to cover up her most important bits. What else would you expect from Lohan?
Jenny McCarthy (Playboy)
Jenny McCarthy made a full-blown career out of her time at Playboy. Unlike some who appeared on the cover, McCarthy went all in on the scantily clad life and managed to make a name for herself out of it. And, unlike cover stars, McCarthy was an unknown the first time she posed.
Her first appearance for Playboy was in 1993 after catching Hugh Hefner's eye. She would go on to win Playmate of the Year for her work. However, the appearance caused a stir back in her hometown, with her family's home being hit with eggs and her relatives harassed.
Christie Brinkley (Sports Illustrated)
Christie Brinkley is another icon of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit world, and in 1981 she made history with the magazine. This appearance made her the first model to appear three consecutive times on the cover.
Christie Brinkley is a model and actress who was the face of CoverGirl for 25 years. She also starred in the film National Lampoon's Vacation had appearances on The Cosby Show, Mad About You and The Goldbergs.
Michael Phelps (Sports Illustrated)
When Michael Phelps made it onto the cover in August of 2008, he was fresh off the high from the 2008 Summer Olympics. There, Phelps had managed to dominate the swimming categories, with a record-breaking eight gold medals. The world had never seen anything like it before and we were all impressed.
But those wouldn't be the only medals for the best swimmer in the world. With a total of 28 medals from all the Olympic competitions he participated in, Phelps would become the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time. Are there more Olympic competitions in his future? That remains to be seen.
Beyonce (Sports Illustrated)
Beyonce isn’t an athlete or a swimsuit model - yet the iconic singer still managed to find her way onto the cover of Sports Illustrated. She may not be an official model, but she definitely knows how to wear a bikini as her 2007 Sports Illustrated cover showed us all.
Beyonce has achieved legendary status as a singer, actress and entertainer. She rose to fame as part of the group Destiny's Child which was active from 1997 to 2002. Now she is going it all alone and is more popular than ever before. And through multiple business ventures, including a fashion line, she's become a real entrepreneur.
Mike Tyson & Michael Spinks (Sports Illustrated)
Mike Tyson was probably thrilled to be on the cover of this 1988 issue of Sports Illustrated. Michael Spinks? Probably not so much. This cover shows the iconic moment Tyson knocked out Spinks in the ring, just 91 seconds after the match had begun.
Mike Tyson competed from 1985 to 2005. he competed in 58 fights total and won 50 of them. He's been the subject of many controversies over the years but none of those have seemed to have had an effect on his legacy as a boxer.
Cheryl Tiegs (Sports Illustrated)
There's not a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model more iconic than Cheryl Tiegs, and she was making history with the magazine all the way back in 1975. Her appearance on the January cover made her the first model to be featured twice.
Cheryl Teigs is often credited as America's first supermodel. In addition to SI, she was also featured multiple times on the cover of People and Time. Her celebrity status helped her launch a clothing line for Sears and got her appearances on a number of television shows over the years.
Michael Jordan & Shaq (Sports Illustrated)
Not many people were a match for Shaq on the basketball court, but if there was anyone to put him back in his place, it was Michael Jordan. On this 1995 SI cover, Jordan blocks a shot by Shaq at the NBA playoffs.
Michael Jordan and Shaq are some of the biggest names in basketball, so this iconic cover was undoubtedly one that everyone was psyched about. Both players have been featured in films and are pretty much household names.
Tyra Banks (Sports Illustrated)
The swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated had been a thing for decades by 1997, but previous issues only had a few pages of swimsuits, while the rest was standard sports fare. However, that all changed in 1997. This issue, featuring Tyra Banks, was the first time an issue had focused solely on swimsuits.
Tyra Banks has certainly had success beyond the cover of Sports Illustrated. She was one of the highest-paid models in the early 2000s and was a Victoria's Secret Angel from 1997 to 2005. She created the show America's Next Top Model and hosted her very own talk show, The Tyra Banks Show.
Kathy Ireland, Elle MacPherson, & Rachel Hunter (Sports Illustrated)
In 1994, three titans of Sports Illustrated swimsuit covers came together for an iconic spread. This issue featured Kathy Ireland, Elle MacPherson, and Rachel Hunter. It is easily one of the most memorable covers of all time and also one of the best.
Rachel Hunter, who first appeared on the 1989 cover, managed to appear on multiple covers over the next five years, including the 1994 Dream Team cover with Ireland and MacPherson. She did another cover with six models in 2006.
Steve McQueen (Sports Illustrated)
Steve McQueen may have been an actor and veteran, but he was no professional athlete (or swimsuit model!)--which makes his appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated that much more unique. McQueen was an avid fan of off-road motorcycles and appeared on the cover of an August 1971 issue riding one.
Steve McQueen is of course one of the most famous actors of the 1960s. He was one of the biggest box office draws of the decade and one of the highest-paid actors by 1974 as a result. This made him an ideal subject for the cover of SI at the time.
40th Anniversary Issue (Sports Illustrated)
2004 marked the 40th anniversary of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, and they definitely went all out for the occasion. For a magazine issue about swimsuits, she’s sure not wearing much of one!
Veronica Varekova was featured on the 40th-anniversary cover. The model would appear on the cover of SI for 8 covers in total. She has also appeared on magazines such as Maxim, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and Vogue.
Babette March (Sports Illustrated)
The official Swimsuit Edition of Sports Illustrated wouldn't be invented for another few decades, but 1964 marked the first time a woman appeared in a swimsuit on the cover of the magazine. The woman on the cover was German model Babette March.
Babette March was allegedly the highest-paid model of her time, earning $86,000 per year in the mid-1960s. She was also active in the celebrity scene, partying with people like Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger. Sher retired from acting in 1976.
Kathy Ireland (Sports Illustrated)
By the '80s, Sports Illustrated and swimsuits were one and the same in the minds of many. This 1989 cover, featuring Kathy Ireland, marked the 25th anniversary of the swimsuit issue and was the best-selling swimsuit issue of all time.
Kathy Ireland was a prominent supermodel from 1980s to the 1990s. She appeared on 13 consecutive issues of SI Swimsuit Issue. She also founded the Kathy Ireland Worldwide marketing company which made her one of the wealthiest former models in the world. By 2015, she had a $420 million personal fortune.
Elle MacPherson (Sports Illustrated)
Elle MacPherson appeared on the cover of SI a total of five times which is a record. This 1988 issue marked the third appearance for the Australian model. Because of her appearances on SI, she earned the nickname "The Body," coined by Time in 1989.
Elle MacPherson has since started a number of business ventures, selling numerous beauty products and fashion items. From 2010 to 2013, MacPherson was Britain & Ireland's Next Top Model. On top of all this, she's done charity work, helping raise money to eradicate AIDS in Africa.
Allen Iverson (Sports Illustrated)
When Allen Iverson took the NBA by storm, he clashed with a lot of the “classic” players that weren’t too keen on his new approach to the game and to fame. But that never stopped Iverson from being who he was--including on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Allen Iverson played in the NBA for a whopping 14 seasons. He is an 11-time NBA All-star and won the MVP title in 2001. The Philadelphia 76ers acquired him 1996 and he played for them until 2006 until he played for the Denver Nuggets until 2011.
Paulina Porizkova (Sports Illustrated)
Model Paulina Porizkova raised a few eyebrows when she graced the cover of the SI Swimsuit Issue in 1984. Her appearance made her the youngest model to be featured--she was 18 at the time. After the first issue, she was put on a second consecutive issue in 1985.
Paulina Porizkova has been featured in numerous advertising campaigns over the years, including Versace, Chanel, Perry Ellis, Ellen Tracy, Calvin Klein, Revlon and Ann Taylor among others. Other appearances have included a role as a judge on America's Next Top Model and some acting roles as well. She also co-wrote a children's book called "The Adventures of Ralphie the Roach."
Hilary Duff (Women's Health)
I'm sure no one was actually complaining when Hilary Duff bared it all for the cover of the Women's Health May/June 2022 issue. The long-time actress looked great in her birthday suit, but there was something that people found particularly obnoxious about her cover and article.
Namely, she framed her appearance as "body positivity," saying, "I'm proud of my body. I've gotten to a place of being peaceful with the changes my body has gone through." As if having a smoking hot body is something you have to make peace with! It's a good thing celebrities are hot because some of them are truly clueless.
Muhammed Ali (Esquire)
Muhammed Ali may have been a world-famous boxer, but he courted his fair share of controversy as well. As a conscientious objector because of his religion, he refused to fight when drafted in the Vietnam war. His cover for Esquire also caused controversy...with the boxer himself!
On the cover, Ali stands with his body pierced with arrows—a clear reference to the artistic depictions of the Christian martyr Saint Sebastian. When Ali found out that Sebastian was a Christian (he was a member of the Nation of Islam at the time), he didn't want to take the photos. However, he was eventually convinced to pose and created this iconic magazine cover.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono (Rolling Stone)
The Beatles may be one of the best bands of all time, but absolutely no one wanted to see John Lennon in his birthday suit. Unfortunately, that's exactly what we got on the cover of Rolling Stone's January 1981 issue.
Photographer Annie Leibovitz wanted Ono to bear it all as well, but she was more reluctant than Lennon. However, what makes this cover particularly memorable is that, later in the day after the photo shoot, Lennon would be assassinated by Mark David Chapman.
Janet Jackson (Rolling Stone)
You haven't really arrived as a celebrity until you've posed nude on the cover of a magazine. Janet Jackson got her turn at this rite of passage in the September 1993 issue of Rolling Stone. The photo itself is not particularly shocking, but the story behind it is.
While the photos for most magazine covers are taken by a photographer for the magazine. However, Jackson actually offered up this photo to Rolling Stone, and they loved it so much it got used. At the time, the director of photography for the magazine said, "We had a choice of shooting her ourselves, but they offered us this, and the image is very powerful."
Angelina Jolie (Esquire)
In the early 2000s, Angelina Jolie was looking for a way to reinvent her public image, and one of the ways she did this was with a gorgeous and risque cover for Esquire magazine—complete with a glowing celebrity profile in the issue.
This may not be the raciest magazine cover of all time, but it definitely is one of the sexiest. It may not have actually reinvented her image in the mind of the public, but she definitely looks good in green!
Kim Kardashian (Paper Magazine)
Kim Kardashian caused a stir when she posed for the cover and pages of Paper magazine in their Winter 2014 issue. It was alleged that Kardashian's butt "broke the internet", and while the cover did get lots of attention, that might be stretching it.
We're not sure why people are so into a woman whose backside is so deformed she can rest a champagne bottle on it (surely there was some photoshop magic too), but the public and media were happy to provide the socialite with all the attention she clearly craved for the stunt.
Britney Spears (Rolling Stone)
One of Britney Spear's earliest magazine covers was the March 1999 edition of Rolling Stone. ...Baby One More Time had just been released, and she was at the top of her game. However, people didn't appreciate the highly sexual image of Spears when she was just 17.
These days, one of the craziest things about this cover is just how '90s-centric this cover is. She's rocking a landline phone and a Teletubby doll—both of which would be unthinkable in today's era.
Girl group TLC made an appearance on the cover of the November 1994 issue of Vibe. While they all look great in the photo, it wasn't a particularly controversial picture. What really caused drama was the headline that accompanied it.
"TLC Fires It Up: Burning Up the Charts, Burning Down the House" probably doesn't mean much to people 30 years later, but, at the time, it was shocking because it referenced the fact that TLC member Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes had recently been convicted of burning down an ex-boyfriend's home.
Kanye West (Rolling Stone)
Kanye West has had a messianic complex for pretty much as long as he's been famous. He may refer to himself as "Yeezus" these days, but even before he adopted that ridiculous nickname, he was more than eager to compare himself to J.C. himself.
He took this comparison to ridiculous heights on the cover of Rolling Stone's February 2006 issue. On it, he was dressed and made up to look like Jesus Christ during his crucifixion—complete with a crown of thorns.
Princess Diana (People)
When Princess Diana died in a car crash in August of 1997, it rocked the world. Despite being a member of British royalty, she was beloved by people worldwide for her humanitarian efforts and the raw deal she got with the royal family.
Diana actually appeared multiple times on the cover of People magazine during her life, but her most memorable appearance was on the cover of her memorial issue that released only a few weeks after her death in September of 1997.
Demi Moore (Vanity Fair)
When Demi Moore appeared on the cover of the August 1991 edition of Vanity Fair, it caused a major stir. Moore, who was seven months pregnant at the time, appeared completely nude, and people lost their minds.
Some retailers refused to stock the issue of the magazine, while others treated it like racier skin magazines and covered up the photo in stores. We're sure that Moore's daughter, Scout Willis, is just thrilled her mom posed nude while pregnant with her!
Kim Kardashian (Sports Illustrated)
If there's one thing that Kim Kardashian is good at, it's courting controversy. Her photo on the 2022 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition wasn't the reality star's first controversial magazine cover, and it probably won't be her last!
Most of the outrage about her appearance in the magazine had to do with her interview in the magazine and not the cover itself. However, some were miffed that Kardashian got prime real estate on the cover while other female athletes were overlooked.
Ellen DeGeneres (Time)
When Ellen DeGeneres publicly came out as a lesbian in the '90s, she famously said, "I never wanted to be the spokesperson for the gay community. Ever. I did it for my own truth." However, that's not how things panned out for the comedian.
Whether she wanted to be or not, the public saw her as a spokesperson, and her publicist even warned DeGeneres that coming out could ruin her career. This era in the comedian's life is most famously exemplified by her cover photo on Time magazine's April 1997 issue.
Caitlyn Jenner (Vanity Fair)
Bruce Jenner will always be known for his appearance on Wheaties boxes, but Caitlyn Jenner will always be known for her cover on Vanity Fair. The transgender former athlete appeared on the June 2015 issue with the headline, "Call me Caitlyn."
It was a perfectly anodyne photo—not particularly racy in any way—but it still managed to garner controversy among the usual online suspects. Some hated Jenner for being transgender while transgender activists wrote her off for being a "rich, white woman." There's no pleasing anybody these days!
Azealia Banks (Dazed and Confused)
Azelia Banks may not be the best rapper in the world, but she knows how to court controversy as good as Kanye himself! People found themselves outraged at her once again when she appeared on the cover of Dazed & Confused blowing up a pink condom.
She may have "blown up" on the cover of this magazine, but it looks like this photo may have actually hurt the rapper's career. After the issue was released, the magazine alleged that their upcoming Azelia Banks tour had been banned in seven countries because of the shot.
Stella Tennant (Vogue Italia)
Vogue is known for magazine covers that push limits, so no one should really be surprised that this cover from the 2011 Italian edition was created. Additionally, no one should be surprised that people were outraged when they saw it.
The beautiful and daring cover shows model Stella Tennant in an extremely restrictive corset that reduced her waistline to an unbelievable 13 inches. Was it a realistic shot? No. But was it captivating? Absolutely!
James Franco (Candy Magazine)
James Franco's cover photo for the winter 2010 issue of Candy Magazine was a real drag. The controversial actor posed dressed as a woman, complete with ridiculous eyeshadow and blood-red lipstick.
People should wear what they want, but whoever styled Franco for this photoshoot did him dirty. He doesn't look fabulous as much as he looks like a drag queen putting on makeup for the first time. That square jaw of is in serious need of more contouring!
Are You Mom Enough? (Time)
The May 2012 issue of Time magazine caused waves when author Jamie Lynne Grumet was photographed breastfeeding her three-year-old son. According to Grumet, extended breastfeeding can help strengthen the emotional bond between mother and child.
Regardless of how you feel about breastfeeding, this cover photo absolutely deserved all the flak it got. Put yourself in this kid's shoes for a moment: you're now a teenager and people have found this photo of your mom breastfeeding you long after the age it's appropriate. She may love her son, but she definitely did him dirty with this picture.
Lindsay Lohan (Purple Fashion)
Depicting people as Jesus is nothing new when it comes to magazine covers, but this depiction of Lohan as the son of God on the cover of Purple Fashion's Spring 2010 cover is just ridiculous. At least the poor girl can still find work, we guess.
Obviously, these sorts of religious references always spawn outrage, but this one was just sad. It's not particularly daring, edgy, or imaginative. It's pretty boring by magazine cover standards. This one isn't good enough to deserve the ire of the public!
September 2007 (Vogue Italia)
In 2007, the American invasion of Iraq was just getting underway. This was also when Italian Vogue published this cover of impossibly beautiful models donning military gear. Needless to say, this is one photo that didn't go over well with the public!
Why an Italian magazine needed to be more mindful of the American public is beyond me, but this is another instance where the outrage just isn't worth it. It's not a terrible photo, but it's not particularly imaginative or beautiful. But, for the American public, there's no hill too petty to die on!