Every age and culture has its gods andgoddesses. That’s what I was thinking about in May, walking through “Serial Classic,” one of the inaugural exhibitions of the mind-blowing Fondazione Prada museum, in Milan, designed by the architect Rem Koolhaas. For this exceptional show, examples of well-known classical statues like Crouching Venus, Hercules, and Discobulos were assembled from the best collections in the world and shown as a series—from the Greek antiquity originals to the Roman-period copies. The beautifully crafted bodies were mostly nude, though somewere painted in garish colors or covered in gold leaf to illustrate how historians believe they were intended to be seen by their adoring audiences thousands of years ago. Almost simultaneously, but across the globe, a different group of gods and goddesses was on display at another temple of culture—the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York—to celebrate the opening of the exhibition “China: Through the Looking Glass.” Rihanna, Beyoncé, Kim, Miley, all decked out in shimmering, ultra-embellished gowns that clung to their Venus-like curves, were offering themselves on the red carpet to their adoring audiences on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr.
Celebrity worship and self-promotion are as old as mankind itself, but they have become a huge driving force in contemporary culture. When putting together this Pop issue, we started by looking at who commanded the highest number of followers on social media—and quickly realized we had already featured most of them in our pages. So we turned to a medium that is sometimes overlooked: television, which is enjoying a new golden age thanks to quirky programs that appeal to both sophisticated niche audiences and the global masses. In “Ones to Watch”, we gathered a diverse cast of characters from wildly different shows, including a tech geek, a teen queen, and a zombie slayer. But during our TV-watching “research,” we became particularly obsessed with Lee Daniels’s hit series Empire. What would the fabulously unpredictable Cookie Lyon—fiercely portrayed by our cover star, Taraji P. Henson—do next after beating her son with a broom, accidentally ordering someone’s murder, and sleeping with her ex-husband’s head of security? Sometimes described as a hip-hop-inflected version of Dynasty, Empire has all of the elements of a classical Greek tragedy: It’s a story about brothers competing for the love of their father while dealing with a pantheon of strong-willed women. As Cookie, Henson has become an indelible pop-fashion icon. With all due respect to Kim et al, nobody is better at making an entrance in body-strapping dresses, brightly hued furs, and dangerously high heels. Still, as Editor at Large Lynn Hirschberg discovered, there is also a drop-dead-serious side to the Oscar-nominated actress. In “One Tough Cookie”, Henson talks about challenging Daniels, herself, and, ultimately, the show’s viewers. “Cookie is living, breathing, walking truth,” she asserts.
Finally, we discovered that when it comes to today’ssocial media, some of the old media rules still apply: Nudity and sex are guaranteed to drive ratings. After all, who can resist a little voyeurism? The su-permodels featured in “Privacy Settings” know exactly how to engage their followers and keep them hooked. When the photographers Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott transformed the women into ultra-sexy pinups, none of them batted a flirty eyelash. “I am the most comfortable in my own skin. Literally. Just my own skin,” purrs Chrissy Teigen knowingly in the behind-the-scenes film on Video.wmagazine.com. The Greeks knew it, and so do the new goddesses of pop culture: A great body can often inspire an even better body of work.