By People Staff
April 12, 2004 12:00 PM

Big Hits

What makes a good cover? Fame, news, timing and voodoo

Over the years, through trial, error and frequent dumb luck, we’ve learned a lot about what interests readers. Among the basic rules: Celebrities: Good. Royals: Good. Celebrities marrying celebrities: Very, very good. Politicians: Not so good. And, of course, never put a pop star in a fez (see page 200).

But there’s always an X factor. Despite being married to a politician, Hillary Clinton was a hot cover in January 1993—and a disaster in April. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman‘s split was a barn burner in February 2001, but an update flopped that December. If Sigmund Freud joined the staff, he’d give up wondering about women and instead ponder the PEOPLE editor’s eternal question “What do readers want?” Here’s a look at some top sellers, and more, from 30 years.

By The Numbers

  • Princess Diana, 85
  • Julia Roberts, 18
  • Michael Jackson, 14
  • Jackie Onassis, 13
  • Sarah Ferguson, 13
  • John Kennedy Jr., 13
  • (including Star Tracks, Chatter, Insider, etc.)
  • 1. Madonna (1,486 stories)
  • 2. Elvis (1,109)
  • 3. Princess Diana (1,025)
  • 4. Frank Sinatra (863)
  • 5. Michael Jackson (838)


“Vietnam Today” (5/01/00), a look back 25 years after the war (still, we’re proud of the issue)


Rose Kennedy, 104, when she died (2/6/95)


Five-month-old Weston Kilpatrick (12/24/90), for a story about his battle with a rare heart condition


Robert Blake, when he starred on Baretta (9/19/77), and when he was under suspicion for the murder of his girlfriend, Bonnie Bakley (5/21/01)


Star Wars’ C-3PO (7/18/77) Miss Piggy (9/3/79) Yoda (6/9/80) ET (8/23/82) Garfield (11/1/82) The Oscar (4/4/83)

Memorable Moments

Sales aren’t everything. Among the staff, everyone recalls certain covers because of a lesson learned, a difficult assignment or a quirky twist

FEBRUARY 21, 1983

Editors were stunned when this cover, a last-minute choice, nearly sold out. Carpenter’s sudden death and the mystery of anorexia struck a powerful chord.

SEPTEMBER 19, 1983

Korean Airlines flight 007 strayed into Soviet airspace and a fighter shot it down—killing 269. We learned a compelling story didn’t need a famous face.

SEPTEMBER 24, 2001

The attack came on a Tuesday, the day we go to press. Like all Americans, we were initially numb. Ground Zero was three miles away; we worried about loved ones. Then we asked ourselves what we could do. The answer was make a magazine, in 22 hours, that tried to tell the story and honor the heroes and those who were lost.

FEBRUARY 13, 1984

Jackson caught fire filming a Pepsi ad. Our reporter, unexpectedly invited into the hospital, happened to have a camera with him and got an exclusive shot of the injured singer.

OCTOBER 29, 1984

He wasn’t a celebrity, and there was no breaking news. But an especially moving story about a boy with a rare immune disorder became one of the biggest issues of the year.

FEBRUARY 4, 1985

We had a great picture and story, but were stumped for language. Half in jest, an editor suggested “The Sexiest Man Alive!” Hey—good idea. We’ve done it almost every year since.

OCTOBER 30, 1989

The San Francisco quake struck at 5:04 p.m. on a Tuesday—only hours before press time. A chartered plane, great reporting and helpful printers got the issue out.

  • OCTOBER 21, 1991
  • In one sense, there was nothing special about it—no reporter heroics were required, no deadlines tested. Still, the wedding of Elizabeth Taylor, her eighth, and Larry Fortensky, a construction worker 20 years her junior she had met in rehab, was a one-of-a-kind, era-in-a-photo, this-won’t-be-happening-again-soon moment. The mix-and-match guest list included Nancy Reagan, Brooke Shields and Eva Gabor. Michael Jackson, at the time still the unblemished King of Pop, hosted the do at his Neverland Ranch.


While preparing a story after Hepburn’s death, we were struck by the volume and beauty of photographs taken during her 40-year career. An editor suggested a special tribute issue—our first. A team created the 80-page magazine in about a week.


Many of us knew very little about the Tejano superstar when she was murdered in March 1995. But when 50,000 fans turned out for her funeral, we noticed. A tribute issue sold out in Texas and helped inspire PEOPLE EN ESPAÑOL.

JULY 4, 1997

We were working on a story about heroes. And another about pets. At a meeting someone blurted out the words “Hero pets!” We laughed. Then we started thinking. Unbelievably, it outsold that year’s cover on Brad and Gwyneth’s engagement.

FEBRUARY 17, 2003

A heartbreaking moment and a challenge to report, with thoroughness and sensitivity, in four days. The resulting story, in keeping with PEOPLE’s focus, looked not so much at the disaster as at the lives and hopes of the seven astronauts who died.

You Had to Be There

Flipping though back issues, some covers stick out like Dynasty-era shoulder pads. Like disco balls and mood rings, the covers below, from 1981 to ’89, made sense and sold well at the time—but there’s no explaining them to future generations.

The Way They Were

Once upon a time, these still-famous celebs were newcomers who had just landed on their very first PEOPLE cover

Chronicling a Crisis

The death of Rock Hudson in 1985 gave AIDS a face everyone knew. The story of Ryan White–who bravely and gracefully battled AIDS acquired through a blood transfusion and appeared on three covers–moved millions of readers.

Her Life And Times

Who knew? She first appeared in our pages in 1981, as a blushing British nanny said to be dating Prince Charles, a bachelor much in need of a bride. And then the world changed. From Shy Di through marriage, motherhood, bulimia, Squidgy, Camilla, Morton, divorce, Dodi and her sudden, sad end, Princess Diana appeared on our cover 85 times. The cover after her death carried no headline and no name—the only such occasion in PEOPLE’s history.

What Were We Thinking?

Hey, the covers below seemed like great ideas at the time. Really, they did. Honest. (You weren’t buying)

The Dumbest Decision We Ever Made

Elvis Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977.That week we ran a cover of…Ann-Margret and Marty Feldman? It’s true; we thought death was too macabre to put on a cover. Elvis’s passing was noted in a 27-line item on the Star Tracks page.

Obviously, we’ve learned a lot since then. Below, for the first time: a mock-up of the cover we should have run 27 years ago.