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The Emperor’s New Rag

Those newspaper readers who don’t buy the Independent – which is most newspaper readers – last week missed out on one of the year’s more unusual front-page photographs.

The Independent, formerly known as a newspaper, handed over design for a day to an Italian rag merchant for their latest so-called Red issue. The designer for a day thought long and hard, doubtless consulting with Independent journalists, finally reaching the conclusion that the best way to illustrate the African AIDS crisis was with a picture of Kate Moss. To be fair, this was not the Kate we’ve come to know and love – trotting down the runway, snorting in recording studios, that kind of thing. No, this was the new black Kate Moss, looking like a cross between Gollum and an extra from the heyday of BBC light entertainment.

Naturally we’re sure that the use of Armani and Moss was solely intended as an original way to draw attention to Africa’s AIDS crisis, and entirely unconnected with Armani’s launch of his new Red line the following day at London Fashion Week. Product Red, you see, is the AIDS charity founded by U2’s Bono and linking the likes of the Independent and Armani with American Express, Gap, Motorola and others.

So how original was the Independent’s front page? The answer: not very. Only a few weeks before US Vanity Fair magazine had run a ludicrous advert for a different AIDS charity featuring that well-known African Gwyneth Paltrow. Vanity Fair would of course be required reading in the Armani household, and in the world of fashion it doesn’t take a very great leap of the imagination to get from rich white female celeb in beads and face-paint with the slogan “I am African” to rich white female celeb blacked-up to look African.

Of course attempting to illustrate the complexities of the AIDS epidemic with any fashion model is crass, but even if the Emperor’s imagination extends no further than the end of the catwalk there are actually some models – supermodels even – who are already black: no boot polish required. And the continent in question does have a few million real people who are not only really black, but also really African. Some are rather photogenic, if that was what was required. And more than a few – after all that was supposedly the point of the issue – are also HIV positive.

The following day’s Guardian devoted not one, but two, articles attacking the Independent as “gratuitous” and “a disgrace”, but that had the air of rival carping, and anyway – inevitably – the real reaction surfaced in the blogosphere. “I expect that the internet will erupt into flames” was one prediction. The internet did not disappoint. “Oh. My. God.”, “totally creepy”, “offensive”, “WTF” were among the comments, along with lots of references to nose candy. Some readers claimed to identify what they coyly referred to as “unresolved colonialism issues” at the Indy. The most practical observation however came from Manhattan media news site The Gawker: that putting Kate Moss in blackface makes it much easier to see the coke you’re cutting on the cover.

In fact the entire cover was a hoot. With its offer of a free Kate Moss poster [is that a poster for free or a Free Kate poster?] and the promise of Leonardo DiCaprio’s favourite movies, the Indy seemed to have parted company with adult journalism for the day and to be aimed firmly at the tweenie market. Its big offer on serious analysis was Bill Gates on the fight for global justice – a thought that on any normal day could only be prompted by generous consumption of Class A drugs.

Once inside what was flagged on the cover as The Africa Issue readers were presented with what seemed like a respectable number of articles on Africa: seven. At least it seemed respectable until one counted the number of fashion articles also presented: er, seven. Presumably the Indy’s future fashion spreads will be equally generous in allocating space to problems in Africa, and indeed elsewhere.

Only a cynic would speculate that the whole exercise was more to do with boosting the Indy’s sales and Kate’s image than anything else – after all the cover did promise that half of all revenues would go to help fight AIDS in Africa. And sure enough within hours the edition was on offer as a collectible on Ebay: whether the resellers also plan to donate 50% of all revenues to the fight against AIDS in Africa is unclear.

But in the end neither the Indy, Armani or Kate will worry much about the flak the ill-judged cover has attracted. In the year before the Daily Mirror’s shock revelation that some people in the fashion industry take drugs Moss’ reported earning’s were in the region of £4 million; in the year since £30 million. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, and there’s no business like snow business.

But one other thing about that cover: black people don’t usually have black lips – even if their nostrils are white.

Out Of Africa: AIDS poster girls Kate ‘n’ Gwyneth

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