Kathie Lee Gifford. She's sassy, she's attractive, she's popular and she's a mom. In the world of women's service magazines, she's a cover to judge the book by.
McCall's gambled last December by replacing its traditional gingerbread-house cover with Ms. Gifford -- and newsstand sales soared to 770,000 copies, tops for the year. Redbook followed in July with a warts-and-all cover story that Ms. Gifford urged her TV viewers not to buy. But of course they did, taking home 130,000 more copies than the previous July. Ladies' Home Journal last month and Good Housekeeping this month were next to the well with Ms. Gifford covers of their own.
When women's magazines find a personality who reflects their accessible, unintimidating image and also ranks as a top celebrity, they use her. Or him. Again and again.
Candice Bergen, Oprah Winfrey, Joan Lunden, Princess Di and Ms. Gifford are among the recycled stars in the shrinking universe of cover talent. Another mega-face that looks to become even more popular is the "Today" show's Katie Couric.
In this crowded and competitive field, December issues are usually the biggest sellers, as readers look for holiday cooking and decorating ideas. But the magazine covers hold great importance throughout the year because they spur newsstand sales, which account for much greater revenues than subscription copies.
However, editors say, the proliferation of cable, video and other media has made it increasingly difficult for them to identify those who will sell hundreds of thousands of magazines.
"The United States used to be tied together by three networks which made us more visually unified," said Redbook's editor in chief, Ellen Levine. "But with so many cable channels, it's hard to become a big star. There are fewer hit shows anymore. Therefore, we have fewer people that we can say are truly major celebrities. So everybody's using the same people."
In addition, the magazines have to decide on their cover subjects months ahead of time, and then battle for sales on the checkout line with the National Enquirer, People and other celeb-driven books whose weekly frequency puts them in tighter step with the day's news.
Sometimes, the outcome of cover decisions surprises even the magazines themselves. Warren Beatty, a daring choice for McCall's, was a disappointing seller in February, which may have been too long after all that "Bugsy" fever.
On the other hand, Ms. Levine said, "our biggest hit was Cindy Crawford, in September. We obviously hit her at just the right time, and sold more than a million copies on newsstands."
Meanwhile, Ladies' Home Journal continues to toy with what its editor in chief, Myrna Blyth calls "event covers." In April, Roseanne Arnold never looked so coiffed and bejeweled ("Yes, it's Roseanne. How we did our best make-over ever"); in a July cover "exclusive," a swim-suited Christie Brinkley declared, "This it! I never want to pose in a swimsuit again!" On the December cover, klutzy TV handyman Tim Allen is brushing holiday-red paint onto the logo.
Ms. Blyth noted that the public's growing appetite for news of the moment helped turn Ross Perot into "the No. 1 cover personality of 1992. "But," she added, "I just wish he were prettier."