In her March 2014 editor's letter, Elle editor-inc-chief Roberta Myers explains just how that black and white cover featuring Mindy Kaling came to be.
As you may recall, Kaling's cover was one of four published for Elle's women-in-television-themed February issue. Had she been the only actress featured, the black and white photo might not have seemed strange, but since the other three (white) actresses were portrayed with color photographs, Kaling's stood out. When you looked at all four covers together, it looked like a game of "one of these things is not like the other." Myers is fully aware of the kerfuffle:
The reaction to the Kaling cover was swift and fierce. While the majority of people who responded were pleased that a fashion magazine finally put Kaling on a cover, there was a very vocal minority who thought we'd somehow dissed both Mindy's body and ethnicity because we shot her in black and white at a close angle. We produce just 15 to 20 covers a year, depending on each month's theme and timing. It's pretty rarefied real estate, and the women we select are people we really admire and believe are making an interesting contribution to the cultural conversation.
Still, the juxtaposition of black and white when everyone else was in color was weird. Myers explains how she made the call thusly:
The notion that we would try to hide Kaling's shape or ethnicity is counter to everything we believe in. There was another picture of Mindy, in color, that was cropped right above her knees. She looked good in it, but she'd been shown like that before. At ELLE, we want our cover images to surprise, to reveal a side of someone that you might not have seen, and to convey that she's more than just a pretty face in a cute dress. In the black-and-white photo, I thought that Mindy looked powerful, beautiful, potent, and sexy in the best sense of the word: When she looks at the camera, you see a woman who's alluring and in control, a woman who's not afraid of her own desires.
Can't disagree with that.