‘Paper’ Magazine Founder David Hershkovits on Kim Kardashian’s Internet-Breaking Cover: “It’s Almost Like Israel and Palestine”

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Kim Kardashian has appeared on magazine covers nude before. But this week, when Paper Magazine positioned Kim K ass-first on its Winter 2014 issue under the tagline “Break the Internet,” the world took the command seriously — for better and for worse. For a magazine that routinely places movie and music stars on its covers, the Jean-Paul Goude photographs of Kardashian are some of Paper‘s finest visual work. But for a 30-year-old print publication trying to sell its downtown Manhattan view of the arts to an Internet overloaded with pop culture, the Kim K cover was an inspired jackpot.

Yesterday, I hailed it as brilliant camp, but certainly the cover and its accompanying full-frontal spread works on a number of levels, depending on the audience. This morning, I called up Paper‘s founder and editor, David Hershkovits, to see what he makes of the cover and the public’s reaction to it (including the bevy of memes it’s spawned). He tells me it’s a bigger art project that the world may not fully understand without seeing the Internet-themed print issue, which Paper hopes to translate into a piece at the Miami Beach Art Basel Fair next month.

Flavorwire: What did you think when you first saw the Kim Kardashian photos?

David Hershkovits: I thought they were amazing. When we went into the shoot, the idea wasn’t really that she’d take off her clothes. She got into it with Jean-Paul Goude, and this is what came out of it. I just thought this was a great way to feature her on our cover, because anything else wouldn’t really make sense for Paper to do Kim Kardashian on the cover.

It seems like a daunting task to shoot Kim in a new way, considering just how many covers she’s graced.

Right. Well, the whole idea is really an art project. That sort of got lost in the shuffle of the sensationalism, but there’s a note in the actual issue that I think we’re going to run [online] today probably, that explains a little bit more about the concept. It’s not just about Kim “Breaking the Internet” — it’s a conceptual art piece that we hope to bring to life in some form at the Miami Basel Art Fair.

We have all these other people in the issue. James Franco is doing a big piece with us — a calendar and a Google Hangout. Snoop Dogg’s artwork and an amazing interview with him is in the issue. The Fat Jewish [Instagram sensation Josh Ostrovsky], you know him? We’re running him for the President of the Internet, and we’re talking about his platform and what he’d do. We’re consciously going after major players in social media for the whole issue, doing legitimate stories with them, and hoping it’ll drive everyone crazy online.

When the cover first emerged two days ago, people definitely seemed to think “Break the Internet” was just a tagline for Kim K. But those who are familiar with Paper know that the magazine regularly runs themed issues. Is it frustrating to see that people might not understand what you were trying to do, even if they understood the reference to Jean-Paul Goude’s famous Champagne Incident photo?

Oh yes, of course we’re excited for everyone to see our intentions with the rest of the issue. This is just the beginning; we don’t want everyone to be over it and move on in three days when they’re sick of the Kim story. We’re hoping to keep the hashtag — #BREAKTHEINTERNET — going beyond her story. People really got into it more than we ever really anticipated and ran with this whole “Break the Internet” thing. You can try these kinds of things, and, you know, they don’t always work. Then they went off and did all these memes based on the cover. Jimmy Fallon did a whole segment on it last night. All these different news shows are making fun of it and the whole Kim Kardashian phenomenon. It’s fantastic! We couldn’t ask for anything more.

What’s your favorite meme you’ve seen based on the cover?

I’m a big Simpsons fan, and there are several involving Homer, including one with her butt in place of his mouth. People did whole parodies of the cover, like Nissan. They were tweeting that their trunk is bigger than hers, next to a picture of their car. It seems that caught on.

She’s really a divisive figure. For us to be caught up in the middle of this controversy is kind of a study, to see all the tweets and comments, how different kinds of people react. It’s almost like Israel and Palestine [laughs]. People really have strong opinions in both ways.

From the outside, it seems like this was a success for Paper, in terms of translating a print vision into a social web product.

People just think of us as a magazine, which we are and are going to continue to be. It’s wonderful to produce a magazine for a number of reasons, but now we’ve figured out how to use the magazine to launch a bigger experience online that could come to life and engage with people in a different way. We’re looking forward to doing more packages like this. It’s something we’ve stumbled on, in a way, as we’ve gone along. It’s not enough to have a magazine that you want to read and hold in your hand; there’s another version of that online, which is where people are really spending most of their time reading these days. I’m happy we were able to make that leap, and this issue succeeded in doing that.

Paper has put big stars on the cover over the years, but I couldn’t find any that have appeared naked or even semi-naked. Is that accurate?

We didn’t really go for that in the past, or even in the future. If it feels right, we can do it. But a sexy cover is not really what we’ve been doing over the years. It’s very art-y, fashion-y — that world. If there was ever a time to do it, this was it. Given the reaction, I guess it was a good call.