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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Inside the Making of People's Iconic '50 Most Beautiful' Issue

Inside the Making of <i>People</i>'s Iconic '50 Most Beautiful' Issue
Graphic: Jezebel (Photos: People Magazine)
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It’s no surprise that the editors of the very first issue of People’s now-iconic “50 Most Beautiful People” issue were two men: Eric Levin and Roger R. Wolmuth. “They were clueless! Totally clueless,” Maddy Miller, the magazine’s former photo editor for special issues, laughs. “They were great guys, and great editors, but they were completely clueless.”

The inaugural 1990 issue crowned Michelle Pfeiffer, who had recently starred in The Fabulous Baker Boys, as its most beautiful. “[The editors] would have to think about it some, look at her, and then look at her from this angle and look at her from that angle, and then this angle again,” Miller, who was with People for 26 years, reminisces. “Like, oh! Come on.”

It’s been 30 years since the first issue was published, three decades since it changed the course of People magazine and became a cultural touchstone. Before People was the juggernaut of the celebrity media, it was a magazine “about people.” Hillie Pitzer, the magazine’s longtime art director, described those people as the kind that “my neighbor, my friend, my sister, my mother could relate to.” Pitzer remembers a time when the focus was on human interest stories, and things that really affected people’s lives: drug addiction, nursing home abuse, teen pregnancy, and true crime. All coupled with, of course, features about the personal life of, say, Kirstie Alley or the financial woes of the then-spoiled brat and New York tycoon Donald Trump.

Celebrities always existed in the pages of People, except, exactly that: just people, disrobed of their public radiance. The red carpets were replaced with kitchens, and living rooms, and children’s nurseries with fresh wallpaper and a smiling newborn. It was Vanity Fair for everyone else. Now, People is unabashedly about celebrity—ones in movies and magazines, the ones that become increasingly hard to relate to, even as social media bridges physical and metaphorical distance. It’s an entirely different publication than it was in the 1990s when Miller, Pitzer, Levin, Wolmuth, and others collaborated on the very first roundup of the most beautiful people in the world.

The first feature of the inaugural “Most Beautiful People” issue is titled “A Short History of Gorgeous,” in which the first two photographs are of Meryl Streep and Sandro Botticelli’s Renaissance masterpiece The Birth of Venus. “For a touch of Venus, it’s hard to beat Botticelli’s heavenly Birth of Venus—or her modern counterpart, Meryl Streep.”

It’s an indisputable historical fact that standards of beauty are as whimsical, cruel and ever-changing as the stock market. Take that current exemplar of high style and attractiveness, the society matrons dubbed “social X rays” by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Pretematurally skinny, they seem thinner in direct proportion to their husbands’ wealth. The prosperous burghers of Rembrandt’s day, who liked their women ample, would have fled them in horror.”

Reading the issue now, it’s almost hard to imagine one is still reading People.

In the essay, the writer lays out a grand philosophy of beauty standards, involving famine and poverty and billionaires and the increasing gap between social classes. They quote art critics and psychologists, cite studies about fat distribution in the human body, vivisect Victorian conventions, and in eloquent prose, layout their theory connecting the Puritan Work ethic with movie stars like John Wayne and Robert Redford. “Who knows? One day soon, our standards of beauty may even cease to exclude most of the human race,” the piece intones.

It’s a predictive, almost irreverent takedown of the issue’s own ethos (and very of its era), in ranking 50 socialites and celebrities and ballerinas and artists and musicians. Self-aware, it pokes fun at itself, until the entire issue almost collapses in from the burden of its psychological ennui. As Miller jokes, the issue’s editors were “thinking men,” the type that cited scholars and Victorian philosophers in the opening pages of a tabloid weekly.

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Further in that first issue is the actual list. Miller can’t remember if photographer Terry O’Neill’s studio provided the photograph, or if it was one that Pfeiffer provided herself. “Enchanting, saucy-to-sublime actress and golden goddess of the Golden state,” the caption beside her reads. In the accompanying essay, another nameless writer reiterates many of the prior points in the “Short History of Gorgeous,” like this enchanting aside:

After the innocent perfection of childhood, a good-looking face needs to reflect a certain flair, serenity, wit, spunk or kindness —in short, character—to attain true beauty. But even as we think these high-minded thoughts, a ravishing specimen can pass by and distract us in an instant. Hello there! How to explain our humbling hypocrisy?

In that same essay: “The happy chore of choosing the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World turned out to be like working an intriguing puzzle with no single right solution.” Among its final shape: Denzel Washington at #6, Audrey Hepburn at #10—and perhaps most puzzlingly—then recently elected Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello, the first to be democratically elected after the collapse of the military-run government. Julia Roberts is also on the list at #33, surprising only because a year later, she would take the title of most beautiful (Roberts has been named “most beautiful” a total of five times, the most in the history of the special issue.)

Celebrities undoubtedly care about their ranking. Miller says that Jodie Foster’s publicist once phoned the People office to complain about her demotion on the list from one year to the next. “I don’t understand how last year she can be number one, and this year she is #2,” Miller remembers him saying. “Well, last year she had a bigger movie!,” she laughs. The movie at the center of the conversation 1991’s Silence of the Lambs. Miller also recalls shooting Stevie Nicks, the year she made it onto the list. “Her and the photographer got along like a house on fire.” Miller says that during the shoot, Nicks asked “‘Will there be a party for all of us beautiful people?’ I said I wish we could have our own party, so she took us all out for dinner.” Years later, she also shot legendary Diana Ross. “Oh, she came with her hair and makeup done. And she had her kids, and no entourage. And it was like, there you go! There she is, the biggest diva of them all, in her own hair and makeup. What a deal.”

Pitzer recounts an experience she had with Harrison Ford, on his ranch, for the August 1997 issue cover story. They had all flown out to Wyoming for the shoot, and he had been obstinate the entire day. He’d refused to smile, appeared outright distrustful of the cameras and interviewer, and Pitzer was worried they’d return to New York empty-handed. “It was really, really bad,” she remembers. But, towards the end of the day, she got to talking with him in his living room, “sunken, like two steps, like they did in the ’70s,” even though Ford, she says, was “not an approachable person at all.”

An idea struck Pitzer: “I said to him: can I just ask you, this is the last request, can you sit here on these steps? Very relaxed, your hands on your knees. Just relax, and kick off your shoes.” She stops to chuckle. “He looks at me and he starts to crack up. ‘You want me to kick off my shoes?’ Yeah, I said, this will be different, and taking off your shoes will put you in a more relaxed mood.” The photograph of Ford, beaming at the camera with no shoes on, went to make not just the cover of the magazine, but the nightly news as well.

These days, the issue often makes the news for less wholesome reasons than Han Solo’s feet. For much of its run, the cover was a story of whiteness. Halle Berry was the first woman of color to grace the issue’s cover in 2003. There wouldn’t be another until Jennifer Lopez in 2011, followed by Beyonce in 2012 and Lupita Nyong’o in 2014, amid the press for 12 Years a Slave. Nyong’o shared the cover with three white women: Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lawrence, and Julianna Marguiles.

By 2015, the special issue dropped the “50 Most Beautiful” name entirely, rebranding as “The Most Beautiful Issue.” Rankings, it seemed, were finally passé. But despite a few passing nods to diversity, Most Beautiful still largely values whiteness. During the Trump administration, Julia Roberts appeared on the cover for the fifth time in 2017, Pink in 2018, Jennifer Garner in 2019, and Kate Hudson for the second time in 2020. It’s as if the issue acts as a divining rod for the temperament of greater American culture, its fixation on whiteness is telling. Its veneer of congeniality and unassuming blondeness can only be seen as tactically political.

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Despite the special issue’s limited conception of beauty, both Miller and Pitzer agree that it was the magazine’s transition away from other features in the issue, like “Beauty on Your Block,” that fundamentally changed the tenor of Most Beautiful. In its inception, for the 1990 inaugural issue, “Beauty on Your Block” was a tie to People’s roots as a magazine of human interest stories. It featured average people from around the country, scouted by the magazine’s photographers. Pitzer remembers: “It was supposed to make you say, ‘If I had a photographer on my block, I could have ended up on those pages.’”

“It happens every day, on the street, in the mall, on the bus, in the car, your head is turned by someone who catches your eye, looking so marvelous your pulse all but percolates and your mind burbles inane odes to joy,” the feature boldly proclaims. In it, Paul Piercey, a fisherman from Seattle, admits: “The Milky Way at night on the sea is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.” There is Jeanne Weaver, a salon owner, Gina Lane, a flight attendant, Josh Fernandez, a furniture maker, Diana Endsley, a “homemaker.” Pitzer sighs, as she recalls the now-defunct feature. “We asked ourselves: how do we connect back to the people who are reading these magazines, who will be interested to turn the page? And I remember, “Beauty on Your Block” got a tremendous amount of letters, tremendous.”

Miller tells me that “Beauty on Your Block” was her idea, and Pitzer agrees. “I think it might have been my idea? I’m taking credit for it. I’m pretty sure it was,” Miller laughs. It was to balance the superficiality of the premise, she says. “Now it’s all superficial crap, but in the beginning, we really tried. There was that essay, ‘The Short History of Gorgeous,’ and that was all very interesting!” Both women stress that the magazine wasn’t considered a tabloid in the ’90s. And, in that 1990 newsroom, Pitzer remembers an environment of collaboration.

The spirit of collaboration appears to be what emboldened these journalists and editors and photographers, who seem to genuinely love the magazine they worked to create. “The feeling of working there, it’s unmatched for me. It was just so enjoyable,” Pitzer says. “It’s a hard thing to describe, but the team was unique.” She also reiterates how many women worked as editors and directors on not just the special issues, but the magazine, something she sees as unique for the time.

As the decade waned, the focus of the issue changed, and then gradually, the magazine. Editors shuffled in and out. After editor Carol Wallace, who oversaw People from 1997 to 2002, came editor Martha Nelson, the founding editor of InStyle, and who would later go on to become editor-in-chief of Time Inc. “Martha Nelson took over and her interest was in a different direction,” Pitzer recalls. “I think that because she had such tremendous success with InStyle, they thought she could bring in some of that inspiration to People and make it better. I didn’t think she made it better.” “We fought that, the whole tabloid thing,” Miller says. With new editors, came a new direction according to Miller. “We would get editors who said they didn’t want any human interest stories at all.” People eventually moved away from its roots, becoming instead a magazine that focuses almost exclusively on celebrity. “Most Beautiful” now reflects that pure embrace of celebrity.

Miller says that, at the inception of the issue, “we were able to get that really good beauty and cosmetic advertising.” It “worked for everybody [...] the celebrities too. They wanted to be in it.” But by the end of her tenure in 2004, she claims that “the readership went down, the weekly sales went down.” Pitzer also feels like “they wanted to get rid of the ones that had been there forever because our benefits were hitting sky high. So they wanted to stop that.”

But it wasn’t just the publishing world that changed in the 2000s—it was celebrity too. Miller tells me stories of trawling Greenwich Village with Linda Rondstadt, having a ball, as a photographer for LOOK Magazine in the ’70s. “When people wanted to see celebrities in their kitchens, or in their backyard and what that looked like, or with their kids; we always strived for that.” Access was the key.

Miller tells me that “right about the ’90s was really the loss of access. Everyone had a publicist, then. You’d get to shoot them and work with them some but it became controlled.” Pitzer agrees. In its first “Most Beautiful People” issue, celebs like Jaclyn Smith, iconic star of Charlie’s Angels, gladly agreed to sit down and photograph for her spot at #29. Pitzer stresses that this was nearly unimaginable by the decade’s end. “We’d have to make a case for why they would have to shoot for our session, and not just give us something they had selected.” Access now determines not just who makes it into a magazine, but what especially since most celebrities have stringent “do not ask” lists. Besides, why tell magazines anything, when social media fans are much more zealous and understanding.

I ask Miller how she feels, having helped create an issue of the magazine that has received pretty robust criticism in the recent decade. Audiences now have, in many ways, less of an appetite for rankings of women by conventional beauty standards. At least in the magazines. She laughs with me, and says, “We were wrestling with the superficiality of it; beauty on the inside, beauty on the outside. We got so much heat from readers later about that stuff.”

I come back to Miller and Pitzer’s own admission that, in 1990, People was not a tabloid as most know now it. It was a human interest magazine that featured celebrities. Pitzer tells me of the issue she’s most proud of, 1994's “Special Report: Babies Who Have Babies: A day in the life of teen pregnancy in America.” She recalls that her intention was to “shine a light on all these young girls who got pregnant, and were abandoned. Nobody talked about it.” By 1999, issues instead focused on Jennifer Love Hewitt’s style, or a special issue on Edward and Sophie, Countess of Wessex’s “royal wedding.” That May, there was a “suddenly rich” issue featuring Drew Carey, Oprah, Leann Rimes, and Matt Damon. In August, a peek into the auction of Marilyn Monroe’s belongings, with a banner about the troubles in Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s then marriage.

Both Pitzer and Miller, directly and indirectly, tie the momentum away from human interest stories and physical reporting to the shift created by “50 Most Beautiful.” Perhaps it wasn’t this sole issue that changed the course of the magazine forever, but it certainly heralded a wave of branded ventures that enriched Time Inc., the then owner. Pitzer tells me of another of her creations, People’s iconic StyleWatch special issue, which launched in 2002. “StyleWatch was actually my idea. They made billions of dollars from it.” So successful was the branded venture, that for a time, Time Inc. increased its publication rate from an annual issue to 10 times a year, practically a full magazine.

In a 2010 report, the New York Times noted StyleWatch’s pivot to full-blown advertorial content, away from even the usual fluff of celebrity that was housed in People. “In the first quarter, consumer magazines lost 9.4 percent of their ad pages on average, but StyleWatch’s grew by about 130 percent, and the magazine is profitable.” Martha Nelson summed up the new ethos quite perfectly to the Times: “I thought that, oh, we need to do photo shoots, because that’s what magazines do. I realized they actually love the merch.” According to Nelson, paparazzi shots were also just cheaper—$150 apiece, but never more than $800. Gone were the full-page photo spreads and longform essays puzzling over the history of beauty.

It’s hard not to hear the pride and joy Miller and Pitzer feel without a lingering sense of dread, having charted the course of the magazine since. But I listen some more, and that melancholy gives way to more sunshine. Miller tells me that these days, “the only thing that really triggers my memory of so many things in my life are my photographs,” of which those early issues are filled. Pitzer goes quiet as we wrap up our conversation, and then her infectious laugh bleeds through the telephone, and back into those gorgeous, full-color spreads in the issue, where “thinking” men and women, alongside Greek goddesses and garbage men, set a bold new course for beauty in the ’90s. “We shared a period of such wonderful times in those days. The world was truly a different place.”