Beyoncé Knowles, who appears on the cover of this month’s Vanity Fair, is the first African-American woman to front the glossy solo since Tina Turner flashed her gams in 1993. But is she too black for Graydon Carter? Publishing insiders have been whispering about the cover girl’s strangely pale visage ever since the November issue hit newsstands. Now, a high-level source at Vanity Fair is alleging that the mag digitally altered Beyoncé’s image to appear several shades lighter.

African-American entertainers have long complained about being ignored by mainstream magazines, which often avoid covers featuring black celebrities for fear that they will underperform on newsstands. Vanity Fair, which has drawn some of the sharpest criticism, has not featured a solo black person on its cover since the late nineties, when it showcased Michael JordanWill Smith, and a clown-faced Chris Rock.

A pronounced dip in newsstand sales earlier this year has Carter feeling especially skittish. Convinced that a series of gloomy covers has contributed to the slump, says our source, the wing-haired editor ordered his art department to lighten up its act. Unfortunately, staffers got so carried away they ended up lightening Beyoncé as well. “Everything on the cover is bright, including the white background, to make it seem as white as can be,” says the source, who claims that the pop diva’s medium-dark complexion was airbrushed to a “Jennifer Lopez shade of bronze” to fit in with the magazine’s cheery new aesthetic.

But the brightening of Beyoncé caused other problems: According to our source, the singer’s cover photo clashed with inside photos, which pictured her with longtime boyfriend Jay-Z. “All the photos of Beyoncé had been made so white that Jay-Z literally looked like [Sudanese supermodel] Alek Wek standing next to her, so then he had to be lightened up, too,” says the source.

Not suprisingly, VF is outraged by the claim that it manipulated Beyoncé’s image. Asked about the charge, the magazine’s spokeswoman, Beth Kseniak, insisted that the singer’s portraits were “absolutely not” manipulated and said that any change in her skin tone was a result of lighting and makeup. Furthermore, she claimed that inside shots of the couple were pick-up photos acquired at the last minute that ran unaltered. A spokeswoman for Beyoncé did not return repeated calls or e-mails for comment.

UPDATE: Reached for comment this morning, Yvette Noel-Schure, Beyoncé’s personal publicist who set up the photo shoot, said that while she had no knowledge of procedures at Vanity Fair and could not speak for the magazine, she didn’t think VF had lightened her client’s skin tone. “There are very fair-skinned black people in this world, and Beyoncé is one of them,” she said.