The legendary nineteenth-century showman P.T. Barnum is credited with first uttering the words, “all publicity is good publicity.” Barnum had the good sense to die a century before he had the chance to see the Zelenskys’ Vogue photo shoot.
Biden: Let's continue to send billions of dollars in foreign aid to Ukraine, they need it!
Reality: The Zelensky family graces us with a photo shoot to be on the cover of Vogue magazine pic.twitter.com/NRdTWZOS3j
— Mayra Flores (@MayraFlores2022) July 27, 2022
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife posed for renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz. In one shot Olena stands near Ukrainian female soldiers at the Antanov airport. In another she holds hands with her husband in the presidential office compound in Kyiv as the pair stare pensively at the camera. In perhaps the oddest photo, Zelensky is sitting behind his wife, pressing his cheek to hers and looking pointedly at the camera in a manner best described as Zoolander-esque.
zelensky has done an extraordinary job in beating the russians in information warfare
vogue wartime photo shoot:
bad idea pic.twitter.com/8O9jjlL5Gn
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) July 27, 2022
Nowadays it’s all too common to see political leaders featured in the pages of magazines. (Leibovitz’s Vogue cover shoot for Beto O’Rourke, for example, proved fatal for his presidential prospects.) What is far more irregular is seeing a nation’s leader posing and chatting with an American fashion magazine as his country is in the middle of a full-fledged war.
The interview, which garnered less attention than the glamour shots, was just as weird as Leibovitz’s overstated snaps.
While some parts were compelling and raw, others read like a Ukrainian J. Peterman catalog. After describing Olena’s “rust-colored button-down shirt”, journalist Rachel Donadio wrote that she “couldn’t help but think the shirt had the same rusty hue as the burned-out Russian tanks that I saw lining roads in Irpin and Bucha, suburbs of Kyiv where Ukraine pushed back the Russians.” Really Rachel? Couldn’t you help it? Don’t you know there’s a war on?!
In a piece ostensibly about a first lady in wartime, do we really need to learn about her “ecru silk blouse with a black velvet bow tied around the neck and a black mid-calf skirt, her ash-blond hair swept up in a loose bun”? Even Donadio acknowledged the bizarreness: “It is strange to talk about Ukrainian extermination and Ukrainian fashion in the same conversation, and yet this is the cognitive dissonance of today’s Ukraine, where designers and professionals of all kinds are mobilizing at home and abroad to support their country.” It is strange! That’s why the couple should have passed on sitting down with America’s fashion bible in the first place.
While the piece did focus on Olena, her husband also gave his two cents. Donadio asked the president of Ukraine about the fact that “international attention” on the Russia-Ukraine war has been “flagging” due to other issues in the world. He did not mince words.
– I will be very honest and maybe not very diplomatic: Gas is nothing. COVID, even COVID is nothing when you compare it to what’s going on in Ukraine. Just try to imagine what I’m talking about happening to your home, to your country. Would you still be thinking about gas prices or electricity prices? –
Any sane person would take high gas prices over war. But is shaming people for their own concerns and demeaning their problems the best way to garner more support for Ukraine’s fight? Perhaps Zelensky isn’t familiar with the old adage that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar…
Bear in mind that the United States has been far from stingy when it comes to helping the Ukrainian government combat Russia. The Biden administration has sent over $7 billion to Ukraine. Add in Zelensky’s dismissal of the concerns of the average American from the glossy pages of Vogue — well, it’s no wonder he got roasted on the internet.
Some critics supported the couple’s decision to take their fight to the magazine shelves. The Washington Post’s Sonny Bunch posits that the Zelenskys were smart, not silly, for appearing in Vogue. He provocatively argued that Americans have short attention spans and that we have lost focus on the war in Ukraine. According to Bunch, by “appearing in celebrity-focused magazines,” Zelensky is “taking advantage of our unseriousness” and keeping the crisis at the forefront of people’s minds.
When most Americans think of Vogue, they think of the celebrities dressing like clowns at the annual Met Gala, and thick magazines full of progressive thinkpieces, and ads for expensive face creams. Perhaps the unserious American will see that the president of Ukraine is posing in Vogue and deduce that things can’t be as dire as they were before if the first couple has time for fashion photoshoots. Before you know it, that person — due to their news ADD — has moved on to the next trending topic on Twitter.
If staying in the public discourse is important to Zelensky — and doubtless it is — then he should rethink the Anna Wintour method. A picture is worth a thousand words and an Annie Leibovitz picture is worth that plus a few eyerolls to boot.