- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

The most provocative photograph in the Annie Leibovitz-inspired spread in the April issue of Vogue magazine shows Michael Phelps and Caroline Trentini in an underwater pose — Phelps in Speedo swimwear and Trentini in a peach halter dress priced at $3,295, presumably after it has dried out.

Leibovitz shoots the athletes and models in a creative but playful manner, in a series of appealing poses that celebrate art, fashion and the human form.

There is discus thrower Jared Rome holding lithesome Raquel Zimmermann aloft, to the right of his massive frame, with Rome looking into the camera and Zimmermann casting her gaze to the sea.

Leibovitz attempts to capture the essence of the athletes, with the models serving to enhance the visual connection, as with both Apolo Anton Ohno and Doutzen Kroes shown on ice in skates.

Of course, these captivating photographs have not elicited a whisper of complaint, unlike the Vogue cover that shows a raging LeBron James dribbling a ball with one hand and clutching the waistline of a smiling Gisele Bundchen with the other.

This has resulted in criticisms that say Vogue’s editors are perpetuating racial stereotypes, with James seen as the angry King Kong and Bundchen as the frightened Fay Wray.

That is lot of social baggage to extract from a photograph, even in a grievance-plagued culture like ours.

To be fair, James is merely flashing the emotion that he routinely displays on NBA courts. His on-court antics are neither menacing nor threatening. They are mostly annoying. He is the player with a thousand scowls. And this is not to trivialize his basketball talents and MVP-quality season.

If Bundchen is supposed to be playing the part of the frightened white woman, she blew the assignment because of a winning smile that shows no fear.

She appears to be having a fun time, as you might expect from someone destined to be on the cover of Vogue.

A Vogue spokesman, in borrowing from the NBA vernacular, says the magazine “sought to celebrate two superstars at the top of their game.”

That the hypersensitive are not in a mood to celebrate is hardly surprising, given the capacity of racial guardians to be offended by the most benign things.

America is so racially and culturally hostile that James and Bundchen are famous multimillionaires who transcend their chosen professions.

James has become the leading pitchman of Nike, while the Brazilian hipster pops up as much in gossip columns as she does in fashion magazines because of her relationship with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

James has dismissed the criticism.

“Who cares what anyone says?” he said to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

He could have added: “Lighten up, everyone.”

Image is not an unimportant consideration of James, who has not succumbed to any off-court problems since entering the NBA out of high school in 2003.

Far from being a controversial figure, James is almost too bland in most interview settings, as if he is following the script of his marketers.

He is not out to make a social statement. He is looking to make a few bucks and win an NBA championship. It is not much more complex than that with him.

Leibovitz encouraged James and Bundchen to ham it up, and they gladly obliged.

The two also consented to an interview, which produced the following insight from Bundchen: “He doesn’t really make you feel small, even though he is big.”

That possibly is because the 5-foot-11 Bundchen is hardly diminutive.

The interviews involving the athletes and models are littered with innocuous prose intended to flatter the principals.

It was all in fun, the photographs as well as the interviews.

Yet critics see King Kong and Fay Wray on the Vogue cover.

Only in America could a fashion magazine have a black man and a Brazilian woman on its cover and it be a sign of America being unable to move beyond the same old racial stereotypes.

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