‘Cosmos’ Host Neil deGrasse Tyson Gets Lightened Up – Are Magazines ‘Whitewashing’ Black Talent?


Tyson jokes about the photo, but to other entertainers of color, it’s less of a laughing matter

“Cosmos” host Neil deGrasse Tyson is the latest celebrity of color whose skin appears lightened on the cover of a magazine — and this time, he called the magazine out for it.

“Nothing like being overexposed,” the famed astrophysicist tweeted on Wednesday, referring to a particularly bright photo of him that appears on the March/April cover of Mental Floss.

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While Tyson let Mental Floss off the hook in an email to TheWrap — he said a misapplication of the halo effect in the editing process was a “rookie mistake” that caused the lightened result — others are not so quick to forgive what many see as a “whitewashing” of black celebrities and other people of color in magazines.


Academy Award nominee Lupita Nyong’o was featured in a spread for Vanity Fair in January, and immediately the photos faced backlash for what some alleged was a deliberate lightening of her skin.

Lupita Contrast

“Vanity Fair will likely make the argument that it was lighting and not lightening – that is to say that instead of ordering some photoshopper to lighten Nyong’o’s skin, they’ll pretend that the light in the room blew her out,” wrote Julia Sonenshein of female-centric blog The Gloss.

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“In an industry where every single detail is manipulated to be perfect, it just isn’t possible that everyone fell down on the job and forgot that her skin tone was totally off. There’s just not a chance that this was an accident.”

Photoshopping magazine pictures is nothing new. Feminist blog Jezebel offered $10,000 for the unretouched photos of February Vogue cover star Lena Dunham, and by comparison, the hue and brightness of the final photos are drastically different than that of the originals.

But when it comes to cover models of color, sensitivities are understandably high.

Gabby SidibeGabourey Sidibe landed one of four covers of Elle in 2010 for the magazine’s 25th anniversary issue. Beyond the fact that she was the only one whose body was cropped out of the photo, many, including Jezebel, called out the magazine for putting a noticeably lighter picture of Sidibe on the cover.

But Elle denied any prejudice or wrongdoing.

“We have four separate covers this month and Gabby’s cover was not retouched any more or less than the others,” the magazine told the Telegraph at the time.

“We had 25 cover-worthy subjects in our portfolio and we chose Gabby because of who she is,” it added. “We shot this as a story of exuberant young women changing the world. If you take a look at the portfolio, each of the women were shot in different ways and for different reasons.”

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Elle was accused of the same racial “whitewashing” and body-hiding in January with its cover featuring comedienne Mindy Kaling, the only one of four “Women in TV” covers to be shot in black and white and cropped to a close up.

The Gloss’s Sonenshein weighed in on that controversy as well, writing that Kaling’s image was deliberately diluted to make it more “palatable” just a week before the Vanity Fair photos of Nyong’o were released.

Though Kaling said she thought the photo of her was beautiful, and Tyson dismissed the brightened image as “more a fun, factual reaction to the photo than an expressed concern for what they did,” observers remain hyper aware of magazines’ Photoshop tricks, especially in an awards season where black actors and actresses are being accoladed for their tremendous performances last year.

Also read: Mindy Kaling, Elle Magazine Respond to Cover Controversy

Writes Sonenshein, “To perpetuate an idea that the most flattering picture of a black actress is one where her blackness is altered is straight up racist, and if you don’t see that, then you’re frankly part of the problem.”

  • Michael Difani

    This is not the first time magazines have done this…Dr. Tyson is a famed astrophysicist and head of the Hayden Planetarium. He made a great comment about the Mars or Bust Lobby (my term) as he imagined the Pentagon and NASA finding out about a secret Chinese memo to make a manned landing on Mars to establish a military base by 2030 at the latest. Does anyone doubt that we would find the money, the brains and the crew to beat them to it? Deju vu the space race in the mid to late 60s vs. the Russians and their military plans for the Moon. Apollo 11, July 20, 1969–we made it. For real, not a staged hoax, folks.

  • hupto

    Conversely, there’s the infamous TIME cover photo of O.J. Simpson where his skin was noticeably darkened to emphasize his then-presumptive guilt. It’s asking a lot to believe that all of this is accidental.

  • Malby

    Give me a break–deGrasse Tyson is no more “colorful” than I am. What about people who spray tan to get darker? Get over yourselves, people.

  • Greg Thrasher

    White America is petty…

  • zennebula

    If I ever do something and become famous for it, remind me to reject all magazine shoots.

  • srsrbizz

    nigga u racist

  • Bob Roberts

    Are you two (James Crugnale and L.A. Ross ) really that stupid. Do you just make this garbage up as you go along. This whole article is a waste of space. You should be ridiculed and laughed at by your peers for promoting this racist bullcrap. The only thing this trash does is undermine todays society. You guys are not part of the problem. You ARE the problem.

  • Jen Funk Segrest

    I am a graphic designer. It’s easy to accuse the designer or editors of bias, usually it’s just sadly technical issues. As advanced as we are photo correction is still an art, and often it’s subjective.

    think with the Tyson pic they were going for a hip “instagram” filter look. Trying to make a pretty meh picture POP a bit… I don’t mind
    the pic as much as the pink… PINK?

    The problem with the other pic of
    Lupita Nyongo in the article, is she is SO dark, you HAVE to lighten a BIT
    to get any tonal range with her skin at all from the printing process and differences
    in screen calibrations. Skin typically has highlights, midtones and shadows – when skin is darker it’s harder to maintain those midtones and not lose them in the shadow tones. So you tweak.

    In the one pic she’s on a very light background,
    which can cause a faked visusal eclipse effect with your eye. If you cut her off
    the background and put her on something more neutral she’d look fine,
    but against that light background she looks darker to your eye, and would be a shadow with eyes and teeth – so they
    lightened her up more. Just my guess. Trying to balance the picture out so you actually see HER. In a pic such as that one if they likely left it alone (even with a dead on perfect skin match) she would have appeared darker thanher skin inthe pic actually was and the eclipse effect would have had everyone roaring they darkened her up as a racist dig. Personally? I’d have made the background and balloons a bright color, but the editor might have had something in mind with the white balloons for the spread. (Sometimes layouts have a tonal theme).

    I don’t think there is ANY
    bias from photogs, designer, pressmen and publishers (usually very left
    leaning people) but black skin presents some unique problems for all
    that not everyone is conditioned to work around. Pink and asian skin has
    it’s problems too, but it’s easier to fix. Black skin you have too
    light, too dark, too red, too blue, too yellow, too “ashy”, not enough
    contrast, too much contrast, not enough middle tone, desaturate to fix
    and it’s too monotone… Some will pump contrast to bring out
    highlights, but it makes shadows burn in… There really is no way to
    win with some pics.

    • Ava Daniel-Johnson

      You are wrong about Lupita. Why is it on one magazine she looks fine but then in Vogue she is lightened? She is not too dark that she can’t be seen. Mental Floss is wrong to lighten Neil up as well.

      • Jen Funk Segrest

        Each pic is diff, the conditions and photographers are diff, the designer working on it are diff. It’s not right, but it’s at best laziness, at worst incompetence, but not bigotry. That’s my point.