It was March 2003, and the Dixie Chicks (now known as the Chicks) had kicked off their new tour. During the opening night in London, on the eve of the Iraq War, lead singer Natalie Maines criticized George W. Bush and changed her and her bandmates’ lives: “We’re on the good side with y’all,” she told the audience. “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” Suddenly, the country music trio — America’s top-selling female group of all time — was engulfed in controversy as enraged fans and others called for a boycott, country radio stations pulled their songs and album sales started to drop.
A month later, the members of the Chicks (Maines, Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire) responded in an in-depth interview with Entertainment Weekly — and, in a move deemed especially shocking, posed nude for the cover, their bodies painted in words that people were calling them: “Dixie Sluts.” “Proud Americans.” “Traitors.” “Fearless.” The image was so striking that it went viral before going viral existed.
The cover set the group’s defiant tone going forward; they were not going to back down or apologize for being women who had opinions. It changed the course of their career — paving a path for their 2006 Grammy-sweeping album, “Taking the Long Way” — and influenced countless other country acts. To some, especially those already inspired by their music, they were heroes. To others, they were a cautionary tale, and considered, to this day, to be the reason many Nashville singers refuse to say a word about politics. It’s also why most country stations still won’t play the Chicks.
But even as Entertainment Weekly fades away (much to the disappointment of showbiz fans who grew up on the magazine), the Chicks cover will never be forgotten. Here’s the story of how it happened.
John McAlley, who was the music editor for EW, frequently had to push for the magazine to prioritize music coverage, given that the publication was heavy on TV and movies. But he knew the Chicks controversy was going to be a massive story, and it needed to be front and center. So he was determined to land the interview — his biggest concern was that he was going to be scooped by Time magazine, which had a tendency to “bigfoot” EW for stories, even though they had the same owner.
“The news weeklies at the time were really powerful and really high profile,” he said. “There was so much prestige and visibility attached to being on the cover of a news weekly, that on more than one occasion, we lost a battle for a story because Time was promising the cover. But Time never gave the cover — it would always end up being an inside story.”
Meanwhile, Rogers & Cowan PMK Chairman Cindi Berger, the Chicks’ publicist, could tell this backlash was not going away. She and the band’s team determined the trio needed to do three interviews: a syndicated radio show, a broadcast TV interview and the cover of a popular magazine. So she booked them on country personality Bob Kingsley’s radio show, an ABC special with Diane Sawyer, and then called … Rolling Stone.
Berger wanted the cover to run at a specific time in May to coincide with the Sawyer special, as well as the start of the Chicks’ U.S. tour dates, but Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner declined, she said. Her next phone call was to McAlley, who was eager to make it happen, and they began negotiations.
Berger wanted to make sure they were guaranteed the cover and that the editors and art directors would collaborate with the band on the photography concept.
“It was many, many days of back and forth, great uncertainty whether we would land the cover or not,” McAlley said. He vividly remembers receiving the go-ahead call: “I was in the living room of my parents’ house in suburban New York when my flip phone rang on a Saturday morning. It was Cindi Berger. She said, ‘We want to do this.’ ”
Brainstorming began, and the EW staff felt pressured to come up with the perfect idea.
“We all felt like, ‘Wow, we got the scoop — now we need an image that’s going to be equal to the fact that we got the exclusive on it,’ ” said Geraldine Hessler, EW’s creative director.
Ideas began to flow between the team and the band: Because people were screaming that the Chicks were unpatriotic, the initial idea was to wrap Maines, Maguire and Strayer in an American flag. But then the editors were concerned it would look like they were denigrating the flag. Someone else suggested the singers wear American flag earrings or kerchiefs. Fiona McDonagh Farrell, the photo editor, recalls being on the conference call where Maines said so
mething along the lines of, “We should all be naked and branded with the things they’ve been saying about us.”
“The publicist, naturally, was like, ‘We are not doing that!’ ” Farrell said. “I waited a few minutes and then said, ‘Let’s go back to the idea Natalie mentioned, because it could be a really, really interesting concept.’ ” Farrell liked the idea of juxtaposing some of the horrible things they had been called (“Saddam’s Angels,” for example) with some of the positive reactions (“brave” and “heroes”). Near the end of the call, they decided the Chicks would wrap themselves in bumper stickers with all the phrases.
Indeed, Berger was mildly horrified by the idea of a nude cover. But the band always had very specific creative ideas. “The cover needed to be important and needed to make a statement,” Berger said. “When the girls came up with this, I said, ‘Well, that’s a statement.’ ”
The photo shoot was booked in April, and it was a scramble — Hessler recalls they had five days, at most, to prepare for the shoot, which took place in a remote airplane hangar in Austin. Though Maines, Strayer and Maguire maintained a sense of calm and good humor, it was an intense atmosphere: Death threats were still rolling in against the band, and security was everywhere.
At that point, they agreed on the bumper sticker idea, and the art department designed them. Yet Farrell started to worry that the stickers wouldn’t arrive in Austin on time — and more importantly, even if they did, that they would look awful. She conferred with the photographer, James White, who agreed stickers might not be the best look. They decided to hire a body makeup artist who could paint the words on the Chicks, just in case.
Sure enough, the stickers never showed up. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to have to get to set and have to tell Cindi we don’t have stickers — but we do have this other person,’ ” Farrell said. “Fortunately, all the stars aligned. And while Cindi was justifiably terribly nervous about this concept, the three women at the heart of the story were brave enough to say, ‘Yes, let’s do it. Let’s go for it.’ ”
“Terribly nervous” may have been an understatement for Berger, who was making panicked calls to the EW editors back in New York. Her biggest fear was that the cover was going to be deemed too explicit and wrapped in brown paper on newsstands, which would defeat the whole purpose. “I remember saying, ‘I don’t think this is going to work,’ ” she said. “And James White said, ‘I’m going to place them perfectly.’ And he did.”
White recalled the shoot overall was a “very nice day” despite the tense circumstances and admired the trio’s bond in difficult times. “They were very supportive of each other,” he said. “They stuck together, and I loved seeing that.”
In 2013, on the 10th anniversary of the cover, Strayer told EW that “it definitely was the most bold thing” the band had ever done: “I felt like we knew the gravity of that shoot while it was happening.”
McAlley assigned the story to Chris Willman, a respected country-music writer who had already been trying to get a feature story going on the Chicks and their latest album, “Home.” At EW, he said, it was “always a big fight” to get country music in the New York-based magazine. Suddenly, the tables had turned.
Willman wasn’t allowed at the photo shoot, so he met the band later at a sushi restaurant for the interview. He said it was hard to grasp the enormity of the controversy at the time, and thought maybe everything would blow over in a few months. But once he saw the cover images, he realized that for the band, there was no going back.
“We all realized what a defiant statement it was,” Willman said. “The cover was expressing them as being vulnerable and having been victims in some sense in all of this, but it was also the biggest middle finger you can put up to the world.”
In New York, Farrell started editing the photos, and it was a “no-brainer” about what was going to be the cover. Hessler said that typically, EW put a lot of text and additional imagery on covers, given the importance of newsstand sales. This was different.
“You didn’t have to have a lot of words on the cover because the image was so strong,” she said. “We were just overjoyed by it — it was that thrill when you have a creative vision and then it completely comes together, and not only as executed, but in a way that is so much better than you ever thought it could be.”
Despite Berger’s concerns, the magazine was not wrapped in brown paper; some retailers, such as Walmart, wouldn’t display covers with nudity. But as Hessler said, the magazine “wasn’t about to compromise its editorial mission” based on that possibility.
EW doesn’t allow cover approval from subjects, so when Berger finally saw the magazine, she felt a huge wave of relief and was blown away by the image. She immediately faxed it to the band. “It was a powerful, powerful moment,” Berger said. (She said she received a call from Wenner at Rolling Stone, who said, “Well, that’s the cover of the year.”)
Over at EW, the editors were overwhelmed by the reaction — it was on every news show and reprinted on the front of the New York Post. The magazine received hundreds of letters from readers. “It just immediately kind of exploded in the culture,” McAlley said. In a rare occurrence, he received a bottle of Dom Pérignon from Berger, who expressed gratitude that the story treated the Chicks with respect and let them speak their piece. “Thank you. You are a man of your word,” read the note.
All of the EW staffers interviewed say it was a career highlight, even as Willman joked that his lengthy Q&A with the band accounted for a mere 1 percent of the reaction. In 2005, the American Society of Magazine Editors named it one of the top 40 covers of the last 40 years. “It was one of the those moments where we took a risk, and the Dixie Chicks, they took a huge risk,” Farrell said. “Sometimes a cover can be the least interesting image, but sometimes, it can be a real statement.”
The staffers also spoke with a hint of wistfulness — magazine covers don’t make quite the same splash these days. “This was an act of defiance and strength and it was just a super-bold cover,” McAlley said. “And one of Entertainment Weekly’s greatest moments, for sure.”