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Olena Zelenska's Vogue cover sparks backlash

July 28, 2022

Right-wing politicians in the US criticize the cover shoot featuring the Ukrainian first lady, while Ukrainians say they need the publicity to fight Russia.

A Vogue cover with Olena Zelenska, a blonde woman
The 'Vogue' cover that caused a political stormImage: Annie Leibovitz/Vogue

Olena Zelenska, the wife of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was a comedy scriptwriter who preferred to stay behind the scenes until her husband became president and she became first lady.

In 2019, she reluctantly did her first Vogue Magazine shoot and this month, in the wake of Russia's invasion of her country, she is the subject of a cover story for the same magazine.

Titled "Portrait of Bravery," the cover sees Zelenska sitting hunched on a stair in an unremarkable outfit and with flat shoes. It is one of several images shot by star photographer Annie Leibovitz that include pictures of the first lady with her husband, and amid sandbags and a destroyed aircraft.

"These have been the most horrible months of my life, and the lives of every Ukrainian," she told the magazine. "Frankly I don't think anyone is aware of how we have managed emotionally."  

But the day after the cover story was published, a host of conservative politicians and pundits in the US and beyond ignited a social media storm over the images.  

"While we send Ukraine $60 billion in aid Zelenskyy is doing photoshoots for Vogue Magazine," tweeted far-right Republican congresswoman Lauren Boebert. "These people think we are nothing but a bunch of suckers."

There is no proof that the Vogue shoot was paid for with the weapons money, but that did not stop a wave of recriminations framed within an ongoing culture war between the right and pro-Ukraine liberals.

"I don't remember Saddam Hussein's wife being on the cover of Vogue when Iraq was illegally invaded," stated another tweet.

Some were more subtle in their critique, believing the stylized images were not good publicity for the Ukraine cause.

"The Vogue cover for Zelensky is the first genuine PR misstep I've seen him make," read one tweet. "Five months into a war and only one propaganda miscalculation is good, he's pretty much landed everything else."

Keeping global focus on an ongoing war

But many supported the Ukrainian first couple's decision to do the Vogue cover.

"It's nice to see the far left and far right united in losing their minds over the first lady of Ukraine raising greater awareness of the genocide in her country with a Vogue cover," tweeted Andrea Chalupa, a US journalist, author and co-host of the Gaslit Nation politics podcast.

Ukrainian Melaniya Podolyak, who covers the war in social media, called much of the criticism "westsplaining."

"I love the pictures," read another tweet. "They show Ukraine's fight for survival and freedom. I think it's important to show this to the world, so that they won't forget this fight and help your beautiful country. And that is the goal of these powerful pictures."

"Ukraine is doing everything it can to keep Western focus on the tragedy unfolding in their country and for the Western public to keep supporting weapon shipments to Kyiv. People who complain about Olena Zelenska's Vogue shoot don't understand why she did it," tweeted news aggregator Visegrad 24.

Indeed, Zelenska's mission to raise awareness extended to a recent unannounced trip to Washington. 

"I'm asking for something I would never want to ask for: I am asking for weapons — weapons that would not be used to wage a war on somebody else's land but to protect one's home and the right to wake up alive in that home," she said in an address to the US Congress last week.

A woman stands behind a mic and is backgrounded by the Ukraine flag
Olena Zelenska addressed members of the US Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 20Image: picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS

An empowered female leader

Val Voshchevska, a self-described digital creator and Ukrainian activist and organizer, on Instagram described the cover as "an iconic feminist photo."

"Ever thought you'd see a First Lady WOMAN spreading like a boss on the cover of a magazine," she asked. Providing an in-depth explainer of the cover photo, she described how Zelenska sits on the stairs without striking a pose, simply being herself.

"The lack of heavy photoshop, layers of fancy make-up, perfect hair," make Zelenska "come across as a real person," she wrote.    

"With this one photo, Olena destroys the sexist expectations that a First Lady needs to be an impeccable Stepford wife."

"Wow Olena Zelenska and Annie Liebovitz - you smashed it," Voshchevska concluded.

Romanian-German novelist Herta Müller has said that women expressing their individuality through make-up and fashion has been a means to maintain dignity during war and under oppressive regimes. "This is about dignity," said the Nobel Prize for Literature winner, who endured harassment from the Romanian secret service. "If you give yourself away, then of course you no longer have any dignity."

Müller is quoted in the book "Ein Hauch von Lippenstift für die Würde" ("A Touch of Lipstick for Dignity") by Henriette Schroeder, which shows how women in the Balkan wars, or living under dictatorships in China and Iran, have maintained their femininity as a symbol of dignity and resistance.

For some, the Ukrainian first lady is seen as part of this tradition.

"The 'outrage' over this shoot is just plain old sexism," read one tweet. "It's a Vogue profile on Olena and the incredible work she is doing for her country. She's helping keep Ukraine in people's minds and hearts. Also, it's a beautiful picture of strength, resilience, and love."

Edited by: Brenda Haas

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.