Set the scene.
It’s finally 2020, the dawn of a new decade. You’re part of a core team tasked with putting together a milestone magazine issue to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the ESSENCE brand—a pillar in the Black community for five decades whose continued existence has become a remarkable anomaly in an ever-evolving digital era that’s seen even the most iconic of media publications bid farewell.
Halfway through production, your entire team unexpectedly finds themselves in the middle of a worldwide crisis, which prompts an indefinite work-from-home mandate and not-so-enforced, yet very strongly-recommended travel restrictions, leaving you with one hell of a milestone to commemorate while the world struggles to keep from falling apart.
Outside of work, you’re also mothers, spouses, daughters, friends, philanthropists—or a combination of all of the above, depending on the day. While you remain grateful to be among the employed, the weight of the all-too-familiar balancing act seems to be at it’s heaviest.
So, what do you do?
Well, if you’re Naomi Campbell, you do what you’ve always done in the face of the “impossible,” you rise to the occasion like never before—and you make history in the process. Forced to come up with a quick solve in the absence of a traditional photoshoot set up, Campbell took matters—and the camera—into her own hands. Specifically, she did her own hair, own makeup and own styling before turning the lens on herself to do what would become the first-ever ESSENCE magazine cover shot entirely on an iPhone. It would also mark the first time in the brand’s 50-year history that a cover star was her own photographer.
“It was a very special honor and unusual experience for me to be able to shoot and style my own cover for ESSENCE’s 50th anniversary issue,” Campbell says. “While it was a sad reminder for me of all the people in media and production who are not able to work due to the coronavirus, it also brought me hope and encouragement to know that our people and our infrastructures are resilient.”
The fight against the spread of the novel coronavirus became more personal than she could have ever imagined for ESSENCE Chief Content & Creative Officer MoAna Luu. Yet and still, she says, the importance of getting the issue completed was never lost.
“It was a very special honor and unusual experience for me to be able to shoot and style my own cover for Essence’ 50th anniversary issue.”-Naomi Campbell
“Bringing this issue to life in the midst of a global pandemic represents everything that Black women are and illustrates how we will continue to show up for them in the best and worst of times, as we have done for the past five decades,” Luu said. “We are resilient and we wanted to show that resilience. The same resilience that motivated our team to make this cover happen. The same resilience that resulted in Naomi and I relying on FaceTime to talk through how this shoot would be brought to life because I couldn’t be there with her in person. The same resilience that allowed us to close this issue while working entirely remote for the first time in our brand’s history.”
ESSENCE Deputy Editor Allison McGevna was home navigating new motherhood while simultaneously working feverishly with the ESSENCE squad to pull off the impossible. A feat that she says was only as achievable as the extraordinary team behind it.
“It was a challenge to have our major shoots canceled, all showrooms closed and not be able to physically produce such a historic issue in the traditional sense,” McGevna said. “We spent the weeks leading up in a sea of shoots and late nights editing copy for the biggest issue in our history. But just a few days before our shoot with Naomi, the world as we knew it, quite literally, stopped. Everything closed down and people in the office and our communities started getting sick as COVID-19 began to wreak havoc around the world. But we knew we had a responsibility to our audience, maybe more than ever, to inform her and bring her joy. So, we put our heads together and asked an iconic supermodel to shoot herself in her home, making history for the brand. And to our surprise, she was willing and ready. In addition,we wanted the most personal of stories and content that was focused on self-reflection, which this issue really represents. I’m so proud of what we accomplished.”
With 20 years under her belt at Black Girl Magic headquarters, Entertainment Director Cori Murray has done more than her fair share of pulling off history-making covers. Still, even for her, nothing quite compared to this.
“Working at ESSENCE for 20 years, I’ve seen very few cover stories make drastic shifts at the last minute and when they did, it was only one or two variables,” Murray recalled. “We had to re-shoot Boris Kodjoe because his striped shirt caused a moiré pattern. Vanessa Williams’s beautiful pregnant bump had to be cropped out because her daughter, Sasha Fox, was born before we went to press. But when the entire world stopped days before finalizing the photo shoot details for our 50th anniversary cover, I felt like a runner jumping hurdle after hurdle racing toward the deadline.”
The issue itself and the process it took to get it completed represents everything that Black women are. We are resilient.-MoAna Luu, ESSENCE Chief Content & Creative Officer
Having an A-1 writer penning the coverstory and a consummate professional as the cover star proved the ultimate winning combination when all was said and done.
“Luckily, working with supermodel and entrepreneur who’s core business is her brand, getting Naomi Campbell’s self portraits were the least of my worries,” she continued. “Finding time for her to complete her solo photo shoot and interview seemed insurmountable as Naomi’s work schedule seem to double as the world slowed down. Then, connecting her with TV host and writer Lola Ogunnaike, who’s in Nigeria, became a juggling act of time zones and WhatsApp chats. Then at 1 a.m. Nigerian time one night, Lola called me and said what every editor loves to hear: “the interview went fantastic.” After that, the pieces just fell together.”
A proud ESSENCE alum, Ogunnaike said she was honored to take on the task.
“This cover is the epitome of a full circle moment for me. My very first internship was at ESSENCE Magazine,” she said. “I was a junior in college with dreams of making it big as a writer in New York City and landing at ESSENCE felt as if I’d won the publishing world lottery. All these years later, I feel deeply honored to have penned this historical cover. Many models have come and gone. Many magazines too. That both Naomi and Essence are here celebrating a 50th milestone is a testament to the enduring and remarkable strength of Black women. ”
Creative Director Nia Lawrence had nothing but praise for her fellow team members as she reflected on how the team managed when the crisis hit.
“Directing a photoshoot with one of the most iconic models in the world was it’s own challenge. Then COVID hit,” Lawrence said. “I’m amazed by our team. The offices closed on a Thursday were able to pick up right where we left off from our homes the very next day. It was a learning experience for all of us, but I think we created one of the most iconic covers in ESSENCE history.”
Luu also recalled the viral video of Campbell sanitizing her area on a plane while outfitted in head-to-toe protective gear—and wearing a face mask to shield herself from unwanted germs. Though the world found humor in the clip, it seems Campbell was indeed onto something we’d all soon come to know as reality less than a month later. This, paired with the happenstance of the supermodel and avid philanthropist turning 50 in the same year and month as ESSENCE, led Luu to believe that the shoot was indeed, destiny. A destiny that came to life when Luu, Campbell, Team ESSENCE and Apple put their heads together in the name of innovation.
“Naomi shot herself with an iPhone,” Luu added. “We couldn’t send a team so, she had to do her hair, her makeup and her styling herself. We were on late night calls trying to figure out how she was going to do the shoot with her phone in her hand. Then, we had to do a re-shoot because the photos didn’t come out how we imagined. So, there were technical challenges, there were human challenges; but Naomi did it all without asking any questions, she never quit. What’s amazed me the most about working with Naomi to do this cover shoot during the pandemic is the way that she embraces the fact that she truly controls her own narrative. She’s never waited for people to do for her; she’s created her own opportunities. She’s been a pioneer in so many ways and now she’s a pioneer in ESSENCE history because she’s completely and literally controlling her own narrative in this issue from the cover to the in-book story. “
For Campbell, this moment marks one she’ll never forget as she joins the nation in remaining hopeful and leaning into the resilience that brought us all this far to carry us ahead.
“We are rooted in knowledge and creativity and continue to take back full control of our narratives,” Campbell said. “We will come out of this stronger than ever. Happy anniversary ESSENCE Magazine. As we both turn the century together.”Share :