It isn’t that Julia Roberts does not deserve to be called beautiful. It’s not that I don’t find it heartening how great she looks at 49, because I do, although I highly doubt the majority of Hollywood is honest about how that actually transpires. It’s not even that I dislike Julia Roberts. Indeed, for as much as she is the BEC for a lot of people — she might be, in fact, the Queen BEC — and as much as she has made me roll my eyes and groan and shout, “IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU,” at my TV screen, I also find Julia Roberts to be charismatic and watchable. Hi, my name is Heather, and I enjoy The Julia Roberts Experience (acting-wise, at least), despite all the reasons that exist for her to rub me the wrong way and the rumors that she’s not terribly nice (“A Low Vera” will also always live in infamy; that was truly rotten, and she doesn’t care, as evidenced by the end of this Oprah interview).
Yet I still wouldn’t have put her on here. For the fifth time. It’s to the point where I thought, “What is Julia Roberts promoting? What is she selling? What is the angle?” All I can find is Wonder, which is based on an acclaimed book (and co-stars Jacob Tremblay and Daveed Diggs and Mandy Patinkin and Owen Wilson, for those who care), but that doesn’t come out until November. The only other thing that sticks out are the hotly smoking rumors that her marriage is on the rocks and that Danny Moder has been living across the street. Obviously, that could be apocryphal, but landing this cover feels sometimes like it’s part of the hustle, which isn’t usually a Julia Roberts move. I mean, she doesn’t have anything on IMDb after Wonder, so maybe she’s just trying to remind everyone she is around, and expensive-but-worth-it.
The lack of imagination in choosing Julia — if People simply flipped through The Big Book Of People Our Readers Pay For and landed on her — is also problematic, but hardly astonishing. People seems to have put most of its eggs in the basket labeled Our Readers Want Us To Celebrate Women Over 40, which would be great if it were also making interesting choices in that regard. Since 2010, its subjects have been, in order: Julia at 42, J.Lo at 41, Beyonce at 30, GOOP at 40, Lupita at 31, Sandra Bullock at 50, Jennifer Aniston at 47, and now Julia again at 49.
Sidebar: Isn’t the proper peg to give it to Julia when she’s 50? That it’s a non-milestone year and a seemingly random choice only fuels my curiosity about what’s driving this train. Because otherwise, not much has changed since she was last featured. If you want to go all Ron Obvious with your picks, Jennifer Garner at 45 (and flirty and thriving, and whose birthday dovetailed with the issue’s release) is right there, as is the majestically maternally ripe Beyonce. Hell, Meryl Streep — hardly someone who is low on press coverage — would at least be more logical, having just broken the Oscar-nods record and being something of a beacon to actors who are cresting a certain chronological hill.
Look again at that list, though, and the above slideshow. Beyonce and Lupita and J.Lo. Three women of color out of eight. You know how many non-white women in total have been on the Most Beautiful cover since the issue’s inception in 1990? Four. (Halle Berry is the other.) People feels ever more like a limping dinosaur when it ignores the world around it in this way, and I think the magazine is better than that. Test your readers, People, rather than pandering to what and who you think they are.
You know who would’ve been a really nifty choice? Tracee Ellis Ross. I don’t know if she moves magazines, but she’s a recent Golden Globe winner, she headlines a super-hit sitcom, she’s fabulous-looking over 40, and she’s cool as hell. You could even put her on a cover with her mother (if Miss Diana Ross is doing press these days). But even if your only criteria is “a groovy and fascinating lady,” what about Kerry Washington, or Jessica Lange? Why not a representative from every decade that includes Yara Shahidi and Brie Larson? What of Melissa McCarthy? Chrissy Metz is apparently inside the issue, and as the star of the fall season’s main bona-fide hit show, wouldn’t she have been a good choice? I get that Thandie Newton might not be widely known enough to move a magazine, but why not ride the Hidden Figures wave and give it to Taraji? Or there’s Serena Williams (whose pregnancy announcement today would’ve been awesomely timed), the Greatest of All Time, who represents an athletic and strong beauty rarely seen on People’s cover.
In truth, I can’t pretend to have insight about the kind of metrics that go into these decisions, or whether these covers are bought and paid for in any way. But, assuming People is operating off a short list of bankable newsstand-worthy cover stars, maybe it could also step back and check itself as The Granddaddy of Them All — the Rose Bowl of entertainment mags — and widen its scope. Lead, don’t follow. If anyone can, it should be People.