Poet Amanda Gorman, new 'Vogue' cover star, draws wisdom from Oprah and 'spiritual grandmother' Maya Angelou

Kamilah Newton
·3-min read
Photo: amandascgorman  via Instagram, Annie Leibovitz
Amanda Gorman as the first poet on the cover of Vogue, "I am eternally grateful & do not expect to be the last—for what is poetry if not beauty?" she wrote on Instagram. (Photo via Instagram, by Annie Leibovitz)

Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman is the star of Vogue's May issue, photographed by Annie Leibovitz for a striking split cover.

In the feature story, written by Doreen St. Félix, the 23-year-old opens up about topics from her support system (including none other than Oprah Winfrey) and her love of Lin-Manual Miranda, to how she drew writing inspiration from Anne of Green Gables and aims to one day become president (with the blessings of Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama). 

She also shares about the disconcerting time when the American Girl doll company seemingly borrowed her likeness, without permission, and then asked her to present the doll to the public.  

“They might get angry at me for saying this," she said, referring to the 2017 incident, when Gorman was an 18-year-old Harvard freshman already making a name for herself as the first ever National Youth Poet Laureate. That's when Mattel, which owns American Girl, invited Gorman to celebrate the arrival of their new “Girl of the Year,” Gabriela.

Gorman said the company called her the night before the big event to explain a bit about the doll’s story and, to her surprise, learned that the doll was a Black girl with curly hair who used poetry to help make a difference in her community. “She was a Black girl with a speech impediment!” just like Gorman herself, she recalled.

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Despite the awkwardness of the situation, Gorman attended the event anyway. “I felt like if I backed out of the event, I would have been failing the girls who would have this Black doll," she said. (American Girl told Vogue that the doll was not based on Gorman.)

That all seemed far behind her by the time she received the call, in December of 2020, that would change her life: inviting her to recite a poem at now President Joe Biden’s 2021 inaugural ceremony. Gorman was flattered at first, diving into research of the inauguration poets who had come before her, from Maya Angelou (her “spiritual grandmother") to Elizabeth Alexander, who read at President Obama's first inauguration.

But then, as she thought about traveling by plane, she began to worry about the pandemic — especially since she’d been self-quarantined for almost a year — as well as about the fallout from the Capitol riot. 

Amanda Gorman, seen here speaking during the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on January 20, 2021. (Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Amanda Gorman, seen here speaking during the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on January 20, 2021. (Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images)

“Not that no one else could have done it,” she said, “But if they had taken another young poet and just been like, 'A five-minute poem, please, and by the way the Capitol was just almost burned down. See you later.' ... That would have been traumatizing.”

Ultimately, Gorman said, "It took so much labor, not only on behalf of me, but also of my family and of my village, to get here.” One of the many people she consulted for advice was Oprah Winfrey, to whom Gorman has been “a fame doula,” she remarked since they first met. As she explained it, Winfrey told her to “look to the example of Maya Angelou."

With many new opportunities falling in her lap, Gorman has since been enjoying her newfound popularity, but is careful not to become too self absorbed — and is openly cautious of becoming a slave to consumerism. She said that she’s turned down approximately $17 million in offers, doesn’t want to be known as a model and is avoiding anything that doesn’t align with her personal mission.

“When I’m part of a campaign,” she told Vogue, “the entity isn’t my body. It’s my voice.”

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