Does Vanity Fair have the "white is right, black get back" mentality? The November issue featured a very light-skinned Beyonce Knowles on the cover, sporting a weave to the middle of her back, hazel eyes and the headline "Beylightful, Beylicious, Beylovely."
Her look raised some suspicion, and Radar Magazine quoted a source at Vanity Fair saying the magazine digitally altered the photo to make Beyonce appear several shades lighter.
It's an allegation Vanity Fair has vigorously denied. But whether or not the image was altered, the attention surrounding the magazine cover has caused a sensitive question to resurface: How do race, color, identity and celebrity interact in 21st-century American culture?
According to the online version of Radar, a source who refused to be named said, "Everything on the cover is bright, including the white background, to make it seem as white as can be." The source also said Beyonce's "medium-to-dark skinned complexion was airbrushed to a 'Jennifer Lopez shade of bronze' to fit in with the magazine's cheery aesthetic," according to Radar, which calls itself the "magazine version of 'The Daily Show.'"
Drew Kerr, a spokesman for Radar online, said several people who work for Vanity Fair verified the account of what happened. He said Radar spent three days reporting and confirming the story.
A touchy subject becomes even touchier when you look back at Vanity Fair's covers through the years: The last time the magazine, which has a primarily white readership, had a black woman all by herself on the cover was 1993. (It was Tina Turner.)
Yvette Noel-Schure, Beyonce's personal publicist, did not return a call for comment. But she told Radar Magazine she didn't think Vanity Fair had lightened her client's skin tone. "There are very fair-skinned black people in the world, and Beyonce is one of them," she said.
Whatever it was that seems to have pale-ified Beyonce -- lighting? makeup? -- we'll never know, says John Long, a photographer at the Hartford Courant and chair of the ethics committee for the National Press Photographers Association.
It's not as obvious to the eye as when Time Magazine darkened O.J. Simpson's mug shot on its June 27, 1994, cover. Newsweek ran the unaltered photo on its cover.
Long says he looked through several old pictures of Beyonce from her Destiny's Child heyday. In some, she was light-complexioned. In others, she had a medium skin tone. Earlier in her career, her whole look was more urban: She wore black leather pants, shoulder length spirals and darker makeup.
"If they just inadvertently printed her light because of the lighting situation to make a glamorous picture, that happens," says Long. "But if they consciously did it they're wrong. Intention is a slippery thing."
Samir "Mr. Magazine" Husni, chair of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi, says lightening someone's skin to appeal to white folks is a big no-no. But he doesn't think Vanity Fair did that.
"Beyonce is a great entertainer," says Husni. "Why should I darken or lighten her skin to get people attracted to her?"
Seriously though: If Beyonce were dark-skinned with an afro, would she have made the cover?
Probably not, says Kumea Shorter-Gooden, a psychology professor at Alliant International University and co-author of the book "Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America."
"I do think she's more familiar, more comfortable to them in part because she has such a Euro-American look," Shorter-Gooden says. "I think this is a problem. We continue as a society to privilege those who look more Euro-American."
Shorter-Gooden listed a number of other black celebrities who fit that description: Vivica Fox, Vanessa Williams, Halle Berry, Tyra Banks, even Queen Latifah, who as spokeswoman for Cover Girl makeup, sports a weave down her back. She has also lessened the Afrocentricism she embraced when she entered the music scene in the late 1980s.
While Shorter-Gooden acknowledges that a few dark-skinned sistas made it because of their Afrocentric looks, including models Naomi Campbell, Iman, and Alek Wek, she says, "I don't think our 13-year-olds were saying, "Mommy cut my hair like Alek."
She says these days the message to the "brown skin girl with nappy short hair" is that she should change herself -- get some contact lenses and some hair for a weave.
Shorter-Gooden calls it cultural racism.
"We have dealt with Jim Crow, legal barriers and obstacles," she says. "It is not that you can't go to this school or drink out of this water fountain. It's telling the brown skin girl that you are ugly. If you want to be popular, lovable, successful you need to look more white. That's what kids of all ethnicities get bombarded with."
asap reporter Megan Scott admits she's worn a weave. But only a few times.