Understanding the 'Sexiest Man Alive'

How a casual remark turned into a pop culture phenomenon.

November 11, 2010, 1:53 PM

Nov. 16, 2010 — -- It's one of the most successful franchises in People magazine's history, but the annual "Sexiest Man Alive" issue had humble beginnings.

Twenty-five years ago, at an ordinary business meeting, the magazine's staff was discussing Mel Gibson, then known as the gritty and gorgeous star of "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome."

"Everyone loved Mel Gibson at that moment ... and someone pretty much jokingly blurts out, 'the sexiest man alive.' And he was kind of astonishingly hot at that moment," People executive editor Cutler Durkee recalled. "So we did it. There was a bit of jokingness to it, but what the heck, we put it out there."

Watch "25 Years of Sexy: People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive!" here.

The editors never dreamed that a cover line would morph into a pop culture phenomenon: The issue sold almost 2 million copies and inspired an annual tradition.

"I think what makes 'Sexy Man' work so well is that it's fun," said People managing editor Larry Hackett. "So the decision that we make is based on what we sort of hear out there among the public. ... Whose movie did you see? Whose record did you buy? Whose television show did you watch? How are you feeling about these individuals? So we try to reflect that."

In the early years, it seemed as if sexy was all about the boy next door: clean-cut and all-American, like 1987's "Sexiest Man Alive" honoree Harry Hamlin, who remains modest about the distinction.

"I kind of went, aaah no!" Hamlin said. "I have never felt that I have projected sexiness at any part, any moment in my life."

The following year, John F. Kennedy Jr., at the age of 27, became -- and remains -- the youngest man crowned "Sexiest Man Alive." The year after that, Sean Connery was bestowed the "Sexiest" honor at age 59.

Which raise the question, are there any age limits on the "Sexiest" honor?

"This is the Sexiest Man Alive -- this is not the Sexiest Teenybopper Alive," Durkee said. "You don't want to go too young. I think, perhaps, Justin Bieber -- it's not his moment to be 'Sexiest Man Alive.'"

Among the franchise's milestones: Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford were named "Sexiest Couple Alive" in 1993, while People named Denzel Washington the first black "Sexiest Man Alive" in 1996.

Reluctantly Sexy: The Matt Damon Campaign

Stars George Clooney and Brad Pitt were among the select few to win the distinction twice, and by 2006, when Clooney claimed his second Sexiest Man cover, the pair decided to launch a tongue-in-cheek campaign to convince people to give the crown to pal Matt Damon.

"We felt bad for Matt Damon 'cause he really wanted it. He campaigned hard for it," Clooney jokingly told David Letterman.

The 2002 "Sexiest Man" (and Damon best buddy) Ben Affleck joined in the fun on the "Regis and Kelly" show, quipping that Damon was getting "a little long in the tooth" and might have his "last crack" at the title.

In 2007, the pressure paid off, but when People told Damon he was its pick, the "Bourne Identity" star wrote the magazine a letter, asking to bow out of the honor.

"Matt wrote a letter basically saying thanks, but I just can't," said People magazine special correspondent Julie Jordan.

"Fortunately, he was a good enough sport to let us reprint that letter 'cause it kind of backfired on him," Jordan said. "We knew once the reader saw his letter, they'd be like, you know, that's exactly why this man is so sexy."


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