Lisa Bonet’s May 1988 cover of ‘Rolling Stone’ is timeless in its confident rebellion
The bold photo was the precursor to the carefree black girl movement
Wild and peaceful. Confident, yet vulnerable. Unconventional, but unpretentious. Since she was a teenager, Lisa Bonet has balanced on this tightrope with effortless aplomb, radiating a perfect storm of energy through a glance, a smile — or a magazine cover.
Bonet was thrust into the spotlight at the age of 16 via the 1984 premiere of The Cosby Show, the lauded, occasionally divisive study of black affluence. Her flighty, restless Denise Huxtable stood out from the other Cosby Show kids, and in 1987 she became the focus of A Different World’s first season, as the Cosby Show spinoff centered on Denise’s adventures at her parents’ fictional alma mater, Hillman College.
But after spending her wonder years under prime-time television’s microscope, Bonet was still searching for herself. Her quest was punctuated by moments that read as acts of rebellion: the blood-soaked sex scene in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, appearing topless in Andy Warhol’s Interview and eloping with Lenny Kravitz at the age of 20 — all before 1987 was complete. Gracing the cover of Rolling Stone’s Hot Issue in May 1988 was a fourth and emphatic exclamation point.
On the cover, Bonet wore an oversized translucent shirt and a blank expression. Staring directly into the soul of everyone who laid eyes on the magazine, she laid herself bare, literally stripping away any lingering notions about where Denise Huxtable ended and Lisa Bonet began. Bonet asserted herself as a grown woman. The cover of Rolling Stone — Tina Turner was the first black female cover star in 1967 — was a key moment in Bonet’s liberation: her bohemian rhapsody, but above all, her declaration of independence.
Control. It’s the thesis of the album that launched Janet Jackson’s musical career, and what she sought by firing her domineering father. Beyoncé did the same to have the career she wanted. Bonet didn’t know her father growing up, and Bill Cosby became a de facto father figure — regardless of whether she wanted that.
Needing Cosby’s clearance, even for things unrelated to The Cosby Show and A Different World, kept her in a state of perpetual adolescence, even as she left that phase of life behind. “Lisa knows that if I’m upset about something, like, say MAD, I don’t bite my tongue,” Cosby told Ebony in 1987. “She knows that if I don’t like something, I will say it at the level that I don’t like it.” During a November 1986 appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, she mentions coming to Cosby for Angel Heart approval.
“I asked him before — I told him that I was gonna do this film, and it had a little nudity in it,” she told Letterman. “He was very good. He said, ‘Well, I know that this is just a job,’ and, you know, it is a Cosby show, and we know what Cosby spells backwards.” When Letterman asked what it spelled, Bonet replied, “King of … I don’t know” before trailing off. And when asked why she accepted the move to A Different World, she said it was because “they told me to,” as if it was obvious that her opinion was never considered.
Los Angeles native Matthew Rolston is one of the most prolific visual artists of his generation. While studying photography at Art Center College of Design during the 1970s, he caught the attention of Andy Warhol. His first professional assignment was to shoot a post-Jaws Steven Spielberg for Interview, which led to opportunities at Harper’s Bazaar and Rolling Stone — all while he was still a student. He’s shot Oprah Winfrey more than any photographer for O, The Oprah Magazine and is said to be the last photographer to have formally photographed Michael Jackson — another one of his first clients. Rolston, responsible for more than 100 Rolling Stone covers alone, points to Bonet’s April 1987 Interview cover as their first interaction.
“I knew Lisa because I’d photographed her for Interview, so I must’ve called up my editor and said that I wanted to shoot Lisa Bonet,” said Rolston, who’s also worked with Vogue, Vanity Fair, W and The New York Times, besides directing music videos for Beyoncé, Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, David Bowie, Madonna, En Vogue, TLC and many others. “That’s how it started.”
Bonet was the perfect subject. Although Rolston doesn’t remember the specifics that went into conceptualizing the photo shoot, he identifies a simple, proven formula. “If you want to shock everyone, put a gorgeous person either naked or near naked on the cover of a magazine,” he said. “Believe it or not, that used to be something that got a lot of attention. In today’s culture we don’t care, but back then, that was an event. And I always wanted a picture to be an entertainment event, not just a picture.”
But Rolston wasn’t merely playing provocateur. The Rolling Stone cover was built on trust cultivated during that Interview photo shoot, and Rolston’s vision simply matched Bonet’s contribution: an undeniable, magnetic warmth. “Lisa’s always had this hippy thing going on, and it’s very appealing,” said Rolston. “She must’ve been enjoying the fun of it, and she was a rebellious one.” He recalls a time between the Interview and Rolling Stone photo shoots when Bonet accompanied him to a Vanity Fair dinner as his “photo-op date.” She asked whether her “brother” could pick her up, and his arrival toward the end of the dinner caught Rolston off guard. “In comes a very handsome man named Romeo Blue — not yet known to the world as Lenny Kravitz,” he said. “I figured out pretty quickly what was going on: This was subterfuge for getting away from whatever parental control.”
The Rolling Stone Hot Issue was part of her domino effect path to freedom. “One of the reasons that photo shoot was so talked about is because she had been in Angel Heart,” said Rolston. “She played this voodoo priestess. That was considered very shocking to the wholesome image of this girl from The Cosby Show. I was likely playing that up a little bit.” So was Bonet. The two-page spread inside the magazine featured the actress completely (yet tastefully) nude, covering her breasts with her hands and tresses. And on the second page, Bonet offered her definition of “hot.”
“People think you’re hot if you’re on TV,” she said. “I don’t even have a TV, really. I’ve seen, like, two episodes of my own show. To me, hot means uncompromising. It means nonconforming, not afraid, just be what you are and what you feel. I think if you’re gonna go for it, you might as well go for it.” And according to the May 9, 1988, issue of New York Magazine, Bonet actually wanted a more polarizing cover: one featuring the nude photo. Citing an unnamed source, the magazine said Bonet demanded to meet with Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner after learning that it wouldn’t be on the cover: “She explained to him that her philosophy was ‘Go for it’ — since she agreed to be photographed naked, she might as well go all the way.”
In the long run, it didn’t matter. Partially clothed or artfully exposed, Bonet had made her point. The young biracial woman who grew up “stuck in the middle,” as she told the Los Angeles Times in 1987, ascended to the cover of one of the most reputable glossy magazines in history, back when it was the size of a vinyl cover or small pizza box. Rolling Stone’s Hot Issue celebrated the year’s most relevant people, places and things; the misfit became the “It Girl.” But, more importantly, it was a high point in her transition into formal adulthood and away from Cosby’s reach.
Bonet left A Different World after its first season because she was pregnant with her eldest daughter, Zoë Kravitz. Debbie Allen, who took over as showrunner for the remainder of the series, has said she wanted to write Bonet’s pregnancy into the plot, but Cosby vetoed this immediately. Lisa Bonet could be pregnant, but not “Denise Huxtable.” And so he brought his prodigal surrogate daughter back to The Cosby Show nest, but the reunion was short-lived. Bonet was fired in 1991 because of “creative differences” and not invited to participate in the series finale. In a 1992 People article about the show’s end, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who played her brother, Theo Huxtable, said he always “[admired] the way she followed her own drummer.”
Today, both Bonet and her Rolling Stone cover are iconic. It exalted the “black hippy” archetype and helped cement Bonet as the prototypical boho queen who birthed generations of Tumblrcore descendants. Looking back on the cover after nearly 30 years, Rolston is struck by its agelessness. “It looks really timeless to me,” he said. “With the style and look of it, it could almost be a current photo.” And, like Bonet’s aesthetic, it lives on through popular culture: It’s referenced during the homage-heavy Netflix original Luke Cage’s first season, where the namesake anoints Bonet and Zoë Kravitz The Godfather and its remarkable sequel. Bonet’s style and spirit endure — just like the cover. No wonder J. Cole, like many others, wishes he wasn’t too young for her.