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The Gossip Reading Club: Issue Ten – A Brief History of People’s Sexiest Man Alive

People Magazine doesn't do thirst so much as it does respectful fawning over non-threatening handsome men.

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Kayleigh Donaldson

Aug 13 2021

13 min read

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Welcome to the newest issue of the Gossip Reading Club. First, an apology. A lot of you weren’t being sent out copies of the newsletter. It turns out that I’d reached my limit on free subscribers, so Letterdrop just didn’t bother emailing out the issue to anyone who signed up after my thousandth subscriber. I’ve upgraded my plan so hopefully, you’re all getting it now! Please let me know if you're not and I'll sort it out as soon as I can.

For issue ten (!) I thought we’d get thirsty.

A Brief History of People’s Sexiest Man Alive.

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The first edition of People was published on March 4th, 1974, with Mia Farrow on the cover as part of the promotional cycle for The Great Gatsby. The magazine was conceived as a less stuffy and more, well, people-oriented alternative to the likes of Time-Life. While the premier issue had a major celebrity as its face, the cover also centered decidedly serious topics such as the wives of M.I.A. Vietnam soldiers, the arrest of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the widow of Lee Harvey Oswald. Really, People of 1974 had far more in common with the weekly news magazines of its time than the People of 2021. Aside from the cover, the entire issue was in black and white, and words came before images in terms of importance. They weren’t quite as bombastic or obsessive in their adoration as the old era of fan magazines were. People’s ethos was still one of seriousness, albeit on a more intimate level.

Obviously, that formula changed over the years, and People’s shift towards a more celebrity-oriented focus, with a major emphasis on glossy and well-manicured narratives centering the rich and famous, turned them into one of the true publishing behemoths of the late-20th century. In its footsteps followed many People wannabes, from Us Weekly to the TV series Entertainment Tonight to the entire E! Network to bloggers like Perez Hilton. By the mid-2000s, People’s circulation was estimated to be around 46 million adults. People had $997 million in advertising revenue in 2011, the highest advertising revenue of any American magazine. Even in a time of drastically reduced magazine circulation, People is a major boon in the stable of the Meredith Corporation.

Professor Richard Dyer, one of the leading figureheads in the development of star studies, described fame as "the image of the way stars live." It's an image that needs constant maintenance and is comprised of countless components, from the clothes they wear to the names they give their children to the anecdotes they share on talk shows. People Magazine tapped into this ecosystem arguably more effectively than any of its competitors. Their issues were highly readable, image-heavy, and clear in their messaging. You knew what you were getting and the narratives formed around the celebrity of the moment were simply digested. Frankly, People didn’t exactly encourage readers to look beyond the surface.

At their height in the mid-2000s, People also outspent the competition. Janice Min, then the editor of Us Weekly, complained that People "are among the biggest spenders of celebrity photos in the industry. They pay staggering amounts for the most nominal things to the huge things. One of the first things they ever did, that led to the jacking up of photo prices, was to pay $75,000 to buy pictures of Jennifer Lopez reading Us magazine, so Us Weekly couldn’t buy them." People made much of their use of fact-checkers and willingness to wait for 100% confirmation, even if rivals rushed forward with exclusives. It's also widely understood that People (as well as Us Weekly) are celebrity-friendly, meaning that they are a reliable platform for "sources" and publicist details. You'll roll your eyes when you see news that, say, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck are back together on the cover of In Touch or written up on Radar Online, but you know it's true when People say it is.

Add to that People's penchant for human interest stories. Check out their site and see how long it takes you to lose count of its inspirational pieces on loving parents of adopted kids or missing pets found safely by kind strangers. That’s been a regular feature of the magazine from the beginning. Nowadays, it’s accompanied by a surprisingly extensive amount of true crime coverage as well as wall-to-wall gossip on the British Royals, both of which are serious click-bait money-makers in 2021 (the latter is basically the new version of the Jackie Onassis obsession that polluted the media during her post-marriage life.) Still, it all fits in well with People’s original and evolved aim: approachable human-interest stories that you can satisfyingly consume with little strife.

All of this adds up to something pretty sturdy. People knows what it offers and how to package it in a way that pleases both the consumer (widely characterized as a middle-class white mother) and the subjects they dedicate so many column inches to. That brings us to 1985, when the magazine put Mel Gibson (eh) on the cover. Someone in People's offices reportedly exclaimed, "oh my god, he is the sexiest man alive", to which another replied, "You should use that as a cover line." Captain Hindsight is obviously a harsh mistress.

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It's super easy to grumble about People’s annual Sexiest Man Alive issues. It’s a representation of the most milquetoast definition of beauty and masculinity, defined by a corporate offshoot with no interest in rocking the boat or challenging those (very white, cishet, six-pack focused) ideals. Nobody’s surprised to see people like Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Chris Hemsworth, or Hugh Jackman here. Even seemingly left-field choices (add heavy air quotes to that part) like Blake Shelton, Nick Nolte, or John Legend are hardly incomprehensible. They’re the adult version of the non-threatening teen boy magazines Lisa Simpson reads.

The contrast between People’s aesthetic of male sexiness versus how men’s magazines define the sexiness of women is stark. Hell, the way these men are packaged for male consumption versus assumed majority female audiences follows a similar track. Idris Elba may wear a sharp suit or Brando-esque leather biker get-up when he's on the cover of GQ, but as People's Sexiest Man Alive, he's in a sensible knitted cardigan. He shows off those forearms but there’s not even a hint of abs. You get to see Channing Tatum's muscly arms but it's all remarkably tame. Rather, the focus of these covers tends to be the man's face, and more often than not, he's smiling. Playgirl, this ain't. I wouldn’t exactly say this is the female gaze at work, mostly because I think the defining force here is capitalism and the demands of a focus-group-oriented industry primarily concerned with not pissing anyone off. Yet there is an interesting femininity to this approach, even if it is one that’s, to put it bluntly, not particularly horny. It’s cozy more than anything else. The raunchiest it’s ever gotten is with John Legend’s cover photo, which featured him soaking wet and emerging from a pool, but even then, he had his shirt on.


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In a sense, there is something undeniably appealing about this kind of sexuality, even if it is extremely limiting. John Legend's sexiness is defined less by his looks than by his music, his solid marriage, and love of his children. We may laugh at Nick Nolte receiving the title in 1992 but then we remember The Prince of Tides and the specific kind of emotional openness that he represented in it (and how genuinely sparky his chemistry with Barbra Streisand was -- seriously, go watch The Prince of Tides on the Criterion Player. Streisand knew exactly what she was doing in casting him as her love interest.) It is true that men have a longer shelf life in Hollywood than women, but we can still feel some sort of joy in seeing men in their late 50s like Harrison Ford pick up the mantle of hot. Really, you're more likely to get the title if you're over 35 than under it.

These men are also, more often than not, married. When Richard Gere won for the first time in 1993, it was alongside his partner, Cindy Crawford, with the pair of them being a package deal of sexy domestic bliss. Denzel Washington, the first man of color to nab the cover, was in large part sold as the male ideal because of his long-term commitment to his wife Pauletta. Even the bachelors the magazine chose, like George Clooney, were never seen as especially predatory or skeezy in their seductions. Clooney was probably about as gentlemanly a long-time singleton as one could get, pre-Amal. The closest we get to a truly enigmatic and unknowable figure with People’s choices is their 1988 winner, John F. Kennedy Jr., a near-iconic figure of bachelorhood whose distance from the press at the time made him all the more obsessed over. There's a reason Leonardo DiCaprio's never been on the front page, and not just because he would probably turn down the offer.

And that's another key point here: You land the Sexiest Man Alive title because you are willing to play ball. Especially in recent years, it's imperative that the subject agrees to the fawning interview, the comfy photoshoot, and the mild objectification that barely approaches PG-13 levels. In 2017, the title went to Blake Shelton, the human equivalent of an unwanted acoustic guitar at a toga party. Attractiveness is subjective, yes, but Shelton has never been the country music hot guy, or even one particularly interested in such a title. Yet the choice made sense. He's happy to be front and center in the gossip press, often with his new wife Gwen Stefani by his side in her twee country gal clothes (don't get me started on that whole evolution.) He's well-known to People's demographic and, even after the messy split from Miranda Lambert, never mired in scandal. The accompanying interview emphasized his life as a stepdad to Stefani’s kids, which can’t hurt in terms of public image. It wasn't tough to sell the image of a doting boyfriend who loves his girlfriend's sons, works alongside her, sings cutesy songs, and won't stick his nose up at a beneficial brand expansion media deal.


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This is one reason the JFK Jr. issue was so fascinating. He was a figure of such obsessive fervour during his lifetime, and it only made sense for People to lead the charge, even though he was never ever going to be the kind to do the cheesecake shoot and softball interview. He was American royalty, we were so often told. What’s the difference between giving him that kind of fairy-tale allure and doing the same with a British prince? It wasn’t just fame with John John either: it was power. But it was also horniness. Seriously, this issue was way more sexual in tone than anything we really saw with the more traditional leading men honourees. It's, frankly, kind of bizarre to read a piece on a private citizen that geeks out over his "extraordinarily defined thighs" and "tushie." This, to me, feels like the only time People ever spun one of these sexy men as a tangible possibility for readers. He was about as attainable as George Clooney but being “America’s favorite son” made him seem as though he was really up for grabs.


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But there is more to the issue than the man on the cover. Other hot people are given their dues, and sometimes, they get to take their shirts off. Common did it, although his story was still mostly focused on his life with new girlfriend Tiffany Haddish. Domesticity is a big theme of this issue. Last year, Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka were crowned the "Sweetest Dog Dads" while Anderson Cooper's baby son Wyatt was labelled the Cutest Baby Alive. Weird category to have. Did none of these people see the Baby of the Year sketch from I Think You Should Leave? I have a lot of questions over the judging process for such an award. It’s also pretty revealing how gay men are framed in this context: cisgender, white, wealthy, preferably in conventional family structures.

Ultimately, an honour like this is clearly kind of daft. I doubt Michael B. Jordan’s going to keep that cover on his wall or keep it on his shelf next to any awards he’s likely to win in the future. I can’t see the award itself playing much of a part in, say, a studio choosing an actor’s bankability for the next Marvel franchise entry, but it certainly doesn’t hurt as a reminder of one’s marketability and willingness to engage in that cycle. People does a good job in creating a conventional and easily accepted image of celebrity, one that somewhat changes with the times but happily reinforces the often-rigid status quo by which it thrives. Hollywood has never pretended, even for a moment, that it wasn’t wholly focused on appearances, and to their credit, People’s Sexiest Man Alive issue never did either. Beauty may be skin deep but the selling of it is something very different.


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Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments below, or feel free to hit me up on Twitter at @Ceilidhann for a chat about books, gossip, and my panting efforts to return to regular exercise. If you like this newsletter, please share it online and recommend it to everyone who you think would enjoy some vintage gossip analysis. If you have any feedback or recommendations for future issues, please get in touch through email at hello@kayleighdonaldson.com.

You can find my work on Pajiba.com as well as sites like SYFY, IGN, Uproxx, Slashfilm, RogerEbert.com, and many other places. If you like esoteric vampire pop culture, you can listen to my latest podcast Fangthology. This past fortnight, I reviewed The Suicide Squad (I liked it!), I lamented Disney's continued flubbing of LGBTQ+ representation with Jungle Cruise, and I got excited over a book about a housewife who gets down and dirty with a six foot seven human-frog. And I also wrote about why King Shark is hot. Accept the truth.

The Gossip Reading Club is free to read and shall remain so. However, if you would like to donate a couple of dollars towards its upkeep, you can do so on my Ko-Fi page. It takes a lot of work to put these together and now I have to pay for the newsletter service. Success is tough, kids.


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