Before being known for making anti-Semitic statements while drunk, for being accused of ill-treatment and for surviving the culture of cancellation, because everything happened to him when it didn’t exist, Mel Gibson inaugurated in 1985 a tradition that arrived in 2021 in full way and with other rules: the annual cover of the North American magazine people naming the sexiest man alive. In English, the sexiest man alive.
Enjoying the success of Mad Max 3: Beyond the Dome of Thunder, clean-shaven, hair gelled like a good boy whose blue eyes swallowed his cape, Gibson was the first in a series of famous (and often normative, undisputed, sometimes conventional handsome) men who struck a golden deal with the publication. They posed for its cover, boasted of being the prettiest, and promoted the current movie. The magazine, in turn, gained international notoriety by transforming each year the news of the sexiest man in the world into news that fills space in newspapers and news programs. Here we are, talking about her. In November it will happen again.
Over the next few decades, heartthrobs like Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Pierce Brosnan, Ben Affleck, Johnny Depp, Hugh Jackman, Matthew McConaughey and Jude Law were elected. Some more than once. Glorious exceptions sometimes occurred: in 1989 the sexiest man alive was Sean Connery, white-haired and proudly alopecic in his late 60s. In 1992 it was Nick Nolte, at 50. In 1998 it was Harrison Ford, at 56. The real milestone happened in 1996: Denzel Washington, a black man. No non-white men would appear again until 2016, when Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, half black, half Samoan was elected. Since 2018, the people elected only black men (Idris Elba, John Legend and Michael B. Jordan). So far, no Latinos and Asians.
But he chose, at least if we take into account the criticism and ridicule that surfaced on Twitter, something far more unthinkable: an ugly man. In 2017, country singer Blake Shelton demonstrated the cruel way in which beauty labels work: just being named “the world’s sexiest man alive” is enough for a clearly attractive and canonically desirable man to pass, just for not achieving the excellence of winners of the previous titles in the area of sculpted bodies and privileged bone structure, to be considered practically a cockroach. “Blake Shelton is not even the sexiest man named Blake Shelton,” you could read on social media. It is, perhaps, one of the cruelest fables about what can happen to you when you are chosen the most beautiful anywhere.
Since 2019, and perhaps to get rid of this shadow of an arcane pact, the magazine people opens the polls that allow the public to choose their favorites in a series of strange categories (and that do not influence, in any way, the man who will finally crown the magazine’s cover chosen as the sexiest. This year, through the site during this This week, readers got to choose from the sexiest Olympic champion, the sexiest first-time dad, the sexiest newlywed, the sexiest cook, the sexiest TikTok star, the sexiest foreign accent (his particular Oscar de Best International Film), the sexiest vaccination selfie (“best biceps” would have sufficed) and, in a meta swerve, “2001 sexiest man is still sexy,” among them George Clooney and Pierce Brosnan.
There are no nominations and annual cover for “the sexiest woman alive”. Only for man. It is, perhaps, the answer of the people – whose audience is 70% female – to the reification of women that other magazines still practice: the men’s magazine Maxim continues to publish its annual number choosing the sexiest woman in the world and for the first time this year chose a black woman. And it is also the argument of some to justify the contemplation of the beauty of the two sexes and the objectification of bodies if it is done in an egalitarian way. “But it’s not egalitarian”, says Semiramis González, art historian and exhibition curator who claims the role of women in contemporary art. “These lists have a different impact for men and women because they are the ones who live in a social context that rewards and punishes them for their physical appearance. In a world where the dominant standard is sexist, continuing to classify men and women by their beauty doesn’t have the same effect on both. Beauty is mediated by a patriarchal system and perhaps the most interesting thing would be to start thinking about lists based on intellectual and professional criteria, not on the physical aspect”.
In 2013 something happened that, very remotely and in the wrong way, evokes this idea. In what seemed like a big joke gone wrong, the financial and business news outlet Business Insider published the list of the 50 sexiest scientists choosing men and women who, in addition to science geniuses, were canonically beautiful. The idea only managed to cause a small fire on the Internet. Just three weeks ago the British newspaper The Guardian named on his Instagram profile doctor Anthony Fauci – 80 years old, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States and the kindest and most ubiquitous face of the pandemic in that country – the sexiest man alive in the world, in a clear reference to the magazine list people.
In fact, a petition on the Change.org website had already asked the people that he was named the sexiest man alive. He said his iron will to demonstrate the truth and face power (ie Trump’s flirtations with denial) was sexier than anything else. The magazine paid no attention: it named Michael B. Jordan, new actor for black Panther, whose abdominal muscles and biceps were as steely as Fauci’s will.
And the issue of beautiful women for the people, then? To talk about them, we need to go to another iconic list published annually by the magazine, the one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world (Michelle Pfeiffer was the first). This list is mixed and men have been elected (sometimes men who are also the sexiest, like Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt, who appeared on both lists), but they have almost always been women. To the people, the term for women is beautiful (beautiful) and not justexist.
In the inaugural issue of this series of reports, published in 1990, the text opened with a mixture of photographs by Meryl Streep, Clara Bow and Sarah Bernhardt with captures of pictorial works The born of Venus of Botticelli and the three graces of Rubens. For González, the comparison between the beauty of women on the canvas and the beauty of classical painting is “quite ridiculous”. “In both cases, these female representations are mediated by a dominant male and patriarchal context that does not make those who look and those who believe innocent. What we need is more women creating and reflecting others in all the diversity of who we are. We cannot forget that when we admire beautiful things, we do so crossed by social, historical and aesthetic parameters that are not casual”.
In the text, in addition to concessions to art, one could find some history lessons: “In the 17th century, when famine was common in Europe, wealthy merchants wanted their wives to reflect the abundance that was at their tables, but now that we are awash with cheap and greasy food, it is the poor who are habitually portly, while the rich sweat in the gym”. It was an excuse like any other to cover skinny women (Cindy Crawford, Meg Ryan, Courteney Cox, Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman) with some concession to more non-standard beauties (Jodie Foster in 1992). The first black woman came 7 years after the first black man on the sexiest list: Halle Berry in 2003, when she won the Oscar for The last supper. These lists of beauties (but without crowning them) also featured mature beauties like Audrey Hepburn (in 1990, three years before her death) and even presidents (like the Brazilian Fernando Collor de Mello), something that could never be seen on the list of the sexy ones.
In just one year the magazine awarded the title to the sexiest woman: it was in 2014, during the first People Awards party (which also did not happen again). The image of model Kate Upton showing a trophy for being the sexiest is still eye-catching if we take into account that that same night, at her side, Nicaraguan activist Nora Sandigo received one for the most heroic woman. But Upton’s election had been for an alleged cause: the model was under scrutiny for gaining weight. The title of sexy did not come without an air of claim, even if it was given to a woman unanimously considered attractive by anyone who looked at her. “The ranking itself is based on a sexist inequality criterion, so that any marketing attempt to incorporate non-normative bodies seems to me to be pamphletary,” says González. “The really transformative thing would be to see these bodies in any advertising space and make normality something attractive. It is not a question of incorporating other bodies into these rankings, but rather of not classifying women and their beauty solely on the basis of physical appearance. The beauty of people is measured by many parameters in addition to their appearance”.
It is possible that by 2021 the sexiest lists are already an anachronism: this competition takes place every day and every hour on social networks. Normative beauty is quoted on Instagram, sculpted bodies earn likes for their mere exposure, without a speech and an alibi, and being in good shape can become a lucrative profession that attracts brands. As early as 2003, before social media, the expectation of being the sexiest person anywhere went anonymous when it turned into a short-lived, nefarious-critical contest on NBC called Are You Hot? (Are you hot?), with ex-model Rachel Hunter and the show’s official handsome Falcon Crest, Lorenzo Lamas, as part of the jury that needed to choose the sexiest man and woman in the United States.
THE people, in any case, does not renounce the beauty lists and continues to create some new ones: since 2019 the publication has chosen the cutest baby alive (cute baby alive). In 2019 the title went to Benjamin Allen, son of presenter and producer Andy Cohen. In 2020, for Wyatt Morgan, son of fellow presenter Anderson Cooper. Again, the sign of the times: the two are gay men who had their children through surrogate motherhood. The cutest baby of 2021 has yet to be chosen. Perhaps, like certain consciousnesses, it is being born now.