Chris Hemsworth is the Sexiest Man Alive 2014: A look back at People’s most enduring brand.

A History of the Sexiest Man Alive: Three Decades of What People Magazine Thinks Women Want

A History of the Sexiest Man Alive: Three Decades of What People Magazine Thinks Women Want

What women really think.
Nov. 19 2014 6:33 AM

How the Sexiest Man Alive’s Sausage Gets Made

Three decades of what People magazine thinks women want.

People's sexiest man alive
The sexiest covers alive.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos courtesy of People magazine.

The Sexiest Man Alive was born in Rockefeller Center, on the 29th floor of the Time-Life Building, inside the offices of one of the most popular magazines in America. This was the mid-’80s, and People had been oiling its Hollywood-human interest machine for a decade. Focus groups of supermarket shoppers would inform the magazine of their current obsessions, editors then beamed that intel to the magazine’s international bureaus, far-flung stringers were dispatched into the field, and eventually, a file would appear back in People’s offices containing semi-digested reporting on that week’s hot topics. Michelle Green, a young People writer at the time, was tasked with scouring the files for the good bits, marking them with a grease pencil, and cooking them into stories aimed at sweetening up the checkout line: the 30-year-old cardiologist beau who mended a “heartsick” Mary Tyler Moore, the congressman’s mistress bludgeoned to death in bed.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a David Carr fellow at the New York Times. Follow her on Twitter.

One day in 1985, a news clerk dropped a delicious morsel onto Green’s plate: a mountain of dirt shoveled straight from Sydney, where People reporter David Wallace had located rising Aussie action star Mel Gibson mouthing off on the set of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. In between takes with a wind machine and a chain-mailed Tina Turner, Wallace witnessed Gibson work through a pack of cigarettes, a smuggled-in six pack, and a generous helping of personal issues. “I don’t want to be doing this interview,” Gibson told Wallace, who wrote that down. “I don't even want to be making this film. It’s just a piece of shit. Don’t print that.”

Green printed it. With notes on Gibson’s regressive rants (he managed to work in a casual dig at a “5-year-old Mongoloid”) and backstory (he was beaten regularly by Catholic schoolmasters), Green spun Wallace’s reporting into a rare deconstruction of a guy struggling to strike the pose of an international sex symbol while actually being a classic drunk. She ended the feature on an ironic note: “And then the sexiest man alive slouches away, alone.”

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“Yes, I have the dubious distinction of having coined that phrase,” Green told me recently. “It’s something that I sort of hate having unleashed upon the world.”

Twenty-nine years later, Gibson’s bad-boy rep has calcified into that of a bad man. But in the pages of People, the Sexiest Man Alive is reborn each year as a younger, purer specimen. After experimenting with some outliers (Sean Connery, JFK Jr.), the magazine’s picks have inched closer and closer to a particular hot-guy demographic (Channing Tatum, Bradley Cooper). The Sexiest Man Alive of this moment is reliably white, straight, mid-30s, handsome to women, relatable to men, ideally suitable for both your grandmother’s coffee table and your niece’s Tumblr, mired in no known scandals, famous enough to have starred in a blockbuster film or high-rated television show in the past year, but desperate enough to agree to subject himself to a revealing shirtless pictorial and embarrassing psycho-sexual interview in People’s pages. Also claiming the cover of People this year: Paula Deen, Steve Irwin’s daughter, 60-year-old Christie Brinkley in a one-piece, and a woman raised by murderers. So, it’s a big ask.

This year, Chris Hemsworth has answered the call. It could have been worse: Last year, People majorly misfired by allowing deflated douche bag Adam Levine to steal the crown. But the annual lead-up to the Sexiest Man Alive’s naming has always promoted the illusion that it could, just maybe, get better. Before Hemsworth was crowned in a segment on Tuesday night’s Jimmy Kimmel Live, and America shrugged, a People “insider” floated the rumor that universally beloved schlub-turned-superhero Chris Pratt and Doogie Howser-turned-debonair-host Neil Patrick Harris were neck and neck for the win. For a precious moment, the American public delighted at the idea that People would finally pick the funny guy or the gay guy. Instead, they picked That Guy, and we should have known. The secret history of the Sexiest Man Alive reveals that the franchise that feigns to know what women want never really has.

On the Run From His Own Sexcess”: Mel Gibson, 1985

Mel Gibson Sexiest Man Alive
Mel Gibson, c. 1970.

Courtesy of the Michael Ochs Archives

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For the Feb. 4, 1985 issue, People editors repurposed Green’s sardonic kicker into a come-hither coverline: “MEL GIBSON: SEXIEST MAN ALIVE” was printed in yellow to offset Gibson’s arctic eyes, which confronted shoppers with a look equal parts smoldering and seething. In 2007, Washington Post gossips Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts attempted to reconstruct the cover’s origin story in their Reliable Source column: The “title was created almost randomly back in 1985,” they wrote, when an editor spied Gibson’s steamy pictorial and squealed, “Oh my God, he is the sexiest man alive!”

Green ices that narrative: “That makes it sound like it was a high school yearbook, and we were all looking at pictures of football players,” she says. People’s editors were pros, and if they were hot for anything, it was a spike in sales numbers that would help subsidize less salacious stories. “The very idea of a ‘sexiest man alive’ is such a false concept. … It’s not ‘Do I want to fuck this guy?’ It’s a very calculated feature that’s all about selling magazines,” Green says now. “I can’t believe people fall for it.”

Enough people fell for that first “Sexiest Man Alive” that People’s leaders spied the potential for annual returns. The franchising of the SMA was the brainchild of People managing editor Pat Ryan, who had plunked into the Time Inc. secretarial pool as a typist, then swam upstream to become the company’s first female newsroom leader. Ryan recast the SMA as a yearly print pageant, narrated in the voice of an omniscient American straight lady playing a particularly randy game of Mad Libs. “Honestly, if it had been a male editor, I’m not sure if it would have even happened,” Ryan’s successor, Jim Gaines, told me this month. (Ryan died late last year at age 75.) “The magazine was trying to appeal to women, but most of the editors were male.” The feature’s success “proved that women deserved to be in those roles.”

Mark Harmon Sexiest Man Alive

Ryan bequeathed the SMA title to middleweight TV stars Mark Harmon in 1986 (“slaving over a hot scalpel as Dr. Robert Caldwell, St. Elsewhere’s charming plastic surgeon”) and Harry Hamlin in 1987 (“that mellifluous voice makes Tom Selleck sound like a canary.”) If these guys were grappling with Gibsonic issues, People didn’t tattle. In fact, the chosen ones seemed almost too eager to conform to the hunk mold, posing for photo shoots and producing quotes about what they looked for in a woman. In his 1986 pictorial, Harmon appeared cross-legged on his bedroom floor, gleefully tossing an armful of Nikes over his head, like he’d accidentally tripped onto a shoot for Tiger Beat and decided to go with it.

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There was something brilliant about casting a grown man at the center of a preteen daydream: It tossed female readers a bit of eye candy while neutralizing the pearl-clutching over aroused women. The SMA provided a safe, sanitized outlet for female desire—a minor indulgence for successfully married women. As Green puts it: “If you didn’t want to be seen with Cosmopolitan, you got the People take.”

 “The Pecs, the Pedigree, the Charm, the Torso”: John F. Kennedy Jr., 1988

JFK Jr. Sexiest Man Alive

When Ryan hopped to Life in 1987, the Sexiest Man Alive was transferred to male control. “The fact that the final decision was now being made by men was not particularly disturbing,” Green told me. After all, it would have been tough to lower the discourse from the level of, “For L.A. Law’s Harry Hamlin, a Hot Night With the One You Love Is Champagne, Vivaldi, and Sharing.” The editor’s job was to give the people the People they wanted, and getting the mag’s majority female readership to pick up a copy required more statistical recall than womanly experience. Still: “I gotta say,” says Gaines, now Reuters’ global editor-at-large. “It was a little bit weird for me to be choosing the Sexiest Man Alive.”

Gaines was interested in dimming People’s spotlight on Hollywood actors, and he often expanded coverage by peering across the pond. In the late ’80s, People readers were so obsessed with the British royals that Time Inc. “should have erected some sort of monument to Princess Di, given how many magazines she sold,” former People writer Joyce Wadler told me. (Cover stories printed in People in 1988 included: SEVEN YEAR HITCH: Happy anniversary—or is it? Charles & Di … face that awful moment when marriage can feel like a bad dream” and “GROWING UP ROYAL: How to raise an un-spoiled, tiny monarch-in-waiting in a world of ponies, palaces, and mini Jaguars.”) That year, America’s own pseudo-prince was a 27-year-old law student who shied from the spotlight but showed up shirtless at pickup games in Central Park, and People’s editors were eager to roll him into their wheelhouse. So they plugged him into the Sexiest slot.

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“We all thought it was a hilarious choice,” says Victoria Balfour, the reporter tasked with sniffing out juicy details about Junior. “I don’t recall anyone choosing John because they thought he was sexy. I never thought he was. He always seemed like a kid, wandering around the Upper West Side like an anxious, lost soul.” But from the vantage point of Middle America, “he was a Kennedy,” Balfour says. “He was good-looking. And he was the son of an assassinated president.” The choice, she says, “was a marketing ploy,” and it paid off: “After that, John in the papers was always referred to as ‘The Sexiest Man Alive.’ ” Gaines says the cover moved between 1.5 and 2 million copies, a standout seller in a banner year. The buzz established People as a beefcake oracle, and the SMA as a franchise capable of generating its own publicity.

Kennedy wasn’t in on the joke: His cover was the SMA’s first write-around, a formula the feature would replicate for the next 15 years—all the better for constructing a fantasy. Balfour, who lived a few blocks away from Kennedy in Manhattan, painstakingly extracted minor revelations from his “third-tier friends” from Brown University, a model ex-fling, and even RFK Jr. (who penned a nasty letter to the editor when he discovered his quote on his cousin’s moral fortitude—“He has a tremendous sense of duty and responsibility”—had been leveraged for a meditation on his muscle). Wadler filled in the blanks with lusty speculative fiction. “What do they say? ‘If you don’t got it, write it,’ ” Wadler says today. “So, having nothing, I ended up writing about how his thighs had the strength to crush walnuts or something.” Actually, the line was: “Legend has it that if he lived in Tahiti, instead of Manhattan, he could crack coconuts with them.”

 “What Women Want Is a Guy Who’s Been Around—and Who Still Is”: Sean Connery, 1989.

Sean Connery Sexiest Man Alive

Having seriously boosted JFK Jr.’s heartthrob status, People decided to resuscitate the sex appeal of a 59-year-old Sean Connery. Maybe they got a little cocky. “Being an older guy myself, it felt like a bit of revenge for all the young hunks that we put on the cover,” says Jim Seymore, an editor at the time. After the issue dropped, a People reporter based in L.A. sighted “a group of middle-aged, paunchy bald guys having dinner in some chic Los Angeles restaurant,” Seymore says. When Connery walked in, “They gave him a standing ovation.”

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Some women at People weren’t clapping. One former staffer told me that when Connery was suggested for the feature, “quite a few of the women were vocally opposed, concerned that he had advocated for spousal abuse.” (In 1965, Connery had told Playboy, “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman,” and in a 1987 interview with Barbara Walters, he doubled down.) “They felt this made him not sexy,” the staffer says, “and quite understandably so.”

On the other hand, he was James Bond. Brotherly love for Connery outweighed female objections, and after the boys won this Battle of the Sexiest, appealing to straight men became a central conceit of the franchise from then on. “The secret of Connery’s Gibraltar-like survival in a throwaway world is a nearly universal charm, a man’s man appeal that KO’s women without alienating males,” People wrote at the time.  (In retrospect, “KO’s women” was not the wisest turn of phrase.) When the magazine asked Connery to suggest his own candidate for the Sexiest Man Alive, he proposed Mikhail Gorbachev: “I can’t answer for women, but I find him very attractive as a man’s man,” he said, pinning Gorbachev’s allure on an “extraordinary combination of intelligence, baldness and serenity.” Over the next decade, the magazine would throw in a grizzled pick for every few pretty boys: Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Nick Nolte; Denzel Washington, George Clooney, Harrison Ford.

Richard Gere, Cindy Crawford Sexiest Couple Alive

In 1993, People ditched the Sexiest Man framework altogether. The magazine awarded its first and only “Sexiest Couple” cover to Richard Gere (age 44—huh) and Cindy Crawford (age 27—oh), introducing some equal-opportunity objectification into the proceedings: “She, of course, is the Supermodel, with the tousled hair, the clothing snugly clinging to voluptuous curves.” Crawford had to be more sexually exciting to straight women than the actual man People editors were considering for that year’s title. “We have a confession to make, which is that we came within a hair of naming the President PEOPLE’S Sexiest Man Alive in 1993. And we didn’t do it,” People admitted to Bill and Hillary Clinton in a December 1993 sit-down. “You could run a little article,” Hillary replied.

Back then, the SMA cover was a rolling feature with no set print date—it would get pushed off in favor of breaking news, and published in an editorial lull. In 1994, that lull never came. There were too many high-profile white, female victims to write about: Nancy Kerrigan (crowbar), Tracey Gold (anorexia), Paula Jones (there’s your “little article,” Hillary), Jennifer Capriati (drugs), Jackie Onassis (cancer), Nicole Brown Simpson (O.J.), Sally Field (loneliness), and Princess Di (herself) kept the staff very busy. Capping off the year’s coverage was a feature on teen parents titled “Babies Who Have Babies.” (It’s actually really good. And prescient—editors understood that this was a topic supermarket readers would tune in for, 15 years before MTV’s 16 & Pregnant.) The teen pregnancy cover was a success, as then–managing editor Landon Jones told the New York Times at the time: “People were so glad to see something that wasn’t the usual celebro-trash that they leapt at it.”

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“The Heart Makes a Pitt Stop”: Brad Pitt, 1995

People readers may have been ready to ditch celebro-trash in ’94, but that was before they saw Legends of the Fall. Brad Pitt’s “studly swagger can do strange and wondrous things to a pair of chaps,” People admitted. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the SMA’s resurrection coincided with a lousy year for traditional marriage: The magazine announced it “The Year of Big Splits” and populated its covers with Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett’s fizzled Hollywood union, an overdue investigation of O.J.’s  history of domestic violence against Nicole Brown, housewife Susan Smith’s killing of her two children, and a serious shaming of one regular-dude deadbeat dad who cheated his kids out of half a million in child support.

So the pump was primed again for an innocent, able-bodied male star, and the magazine took its promotional task seriously. It put eight reporters on Pitt’s case, filing copy from London to Missouri. The result was a delicious, pre-Internet Very Serious Investigation into how exactly one man could heat untold women’s loins. Quoted in the Pitt profile are: a waitress who worked near his house (“When he looked at me, I was worried I would drop his roast chicken and lemonade in his lap”); an assistant director on Legends of the Fall (“a classic American lover”); Julia Ormond (“not egotistical”); brother Doug Pitt (“a regular Joe”); the piano accompanist from Pitt’s boyhood church (“his face was so expressive”); the assistant principal of his high school (“a super kid”); the producer who cast him in an episode of 21 Jump Street (“Brad walking into a room was more exciting than most actors doing a scene”); his onetime manager (“He fell in love very easily”); a friend of ex-girlfriend Juliette Lewis (“the most laid-back young star I can think of”); a crew member on Cape Fear (“absolutely charming”); the director of Kalifornia (“just gets through to women, no matter what”); a Thirtysomething producer (“caused such a stir on set”); David Geffen (“one of the most attractive and talented men in the world”); and a current friend (“it’s a little overwhelming”).

“Achieves True Sexiness by Keeping on His Clothes—and His Dignity”: Denzel Washington, 1996

Denzel Washington Sexiest Man Alive

“They’re all white,” the Washington Post’s Donna Britt noticed back in 1992, on the occasion of Nick Nolte’s crowning that year, over the likes of Antonio Banderas, Michael Jordan, and Jimmy Smits. “I can’t help wishing that the magazine would go on the record and acknowledge what everyone already knows: that women of every shade find all kinds of men sexy. Or get real and call itself ‘White People.’ ”

In 1996, People finally broke its 10-man Caucasian streak and gifted the cover to Courage Under Fire star Denzel Washington. Then: seventeen more white dudes. 

When I talked to Landon Jones, People’s managing editor at the time, he was shocked that Washington remains the sole nonwhite man to snag the title. “I’m proud we published the first,” says Jones, who also oversaw a deeply reported 1996 exposé on racial discrimination against black actors and filmmakers in Hollywood. “I’m not proud that he was the last.”

This year, former People senior editor Tatsha Robertson—the first black journalist to rise to that level in the mag’s history—filed suit against the magazine, Time Inc., and former executive editor Betsy Gleick, alleging that People is “a discriminatory organization run entirely by white people who intentionally focus the magazine on stories involving white people and white celebrities.” After owning the 2008 election coverage at Essence, Robertson was recruited to People in 2009, and says she was swiftly informed that her pedigree wasn’t up to People’s standards. “You need to talk like everyone else here,” the suit alleges Gleick told her. “You’re not at Essence anymore.”

In Robertson’s five years at People—she was laid off earlier this year, before filing suit—she says she was told to mold stories to cater to “white middle-class suburbia” and focus her attentions on “white suburban women in distress.” The suit refers to the magazine’s track record of swooning over hot white men: “Since 1985 … only one of the individuals selected as the ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ has been black,” Roberts’ suit notes. “The clear implication is the offensive proposition that white individuals are somehow inherently ‘sexier’ and more ‘beautiful’ than African-Americans.” (In a filing, Time Inc. denied most of Robertson’s allegations—though it admitted that “People Magazine’s current top editors are white.” The suit is currently in mediation.)

“From Star Wars to the Cold War to the War Between the Sexes, the Force Has Never Left Him”: Harrison Ford, 1998

In the Sexiest Man Alive’s early days, “you could point to a guy in his 50s, and peg him as a sexy, sexy man,” says Robin Micheli, who served as People’s assistant managing editor from 2001 to 2007. Today, “the magazine, and pop culture in general, has become much more youth-centric.”

But age has always been a complicated factor. In its attempt to satisfy both older paid subscribers and younger, hipper freeloaders/newsstand buyers, the SMA has invented various strategies to split the difference. It tried age-group handoffs: Between 1988 and 1992, the age of the SMA yo-yoed from 27 (Kennedy) to 59 (Connery) to 28 (Cruise) to 38 (Swayze) to 51 (Nolte). It tried intergenerational endorsements: In 1992, Nolte’s year, Micheli was dispatched to the Golden Globes to earn a blessing for People’s choice from the 20-year-old stars of 90210. (“Yeah, he’s attractive,” Shannen Doherty allowed). And in 1998, the magazine went all in: When 56-year-old Harrison Ford clinched the title—on the auspicious occasion of the release of Six Days, Seven Nights—the magazine got Ford’s Air Force One onscreen first lady, Wendy Crewson, to say: “My daughter loves him from Star Wars, I adore him, my mother adores him, my grandmother adores him. … He just spans the generations.” Never mind that Crewson’s daughter would have been lusting after Ford freeze-framed at age 35.

When Ford asked the magazine, “Why this sudden outpouring for geezers?,” some magazine staffers were wondering the same. “That one was, um, yeah,” Micheli says. “A lot of us thought that choice was really wrongheaded.” A vocal contingent of Micheli’s fellow Americans agreed. Lacking a platform of their own, they aired their grievances in the mag’s weekly reader mailbag. “Sexy? Sure ... if you’re 50,” Denise Clarke wrote in from Madison, Wisconsin. “Harrison Ford? Jeez! Who picks these men? My grandmother?” exclaimed D. Bralley from Leavenworth, Kansas.  What Denise and D. didn’t know was that they were on the vanguard of what would soon become its own cottage industry: the annual hating on the Sexiest Man Alive.

“Hollywood’s Quirky Charmer Balances Stardom With the Family”: Johnny Depp, 2003

In 2003, People inched just outside the mainstream to anoint Johnny Depp that year’s SMA. (The profile quoted both Keira Knightley and Jim Jarmusch.) But now, competitors were rushing the magazine from left field. Upstart bloggers with no access to stars (or their choir teachers) started recycling Hollywood reporting from places like People and posting it all for free, often to make fun of the tabloid and its stars. Just before Depp was crowned, Elaine Lui began typing up a snarky celebrity gossip download and emailed it to her friends and relatives, culminating in a critical close-read of People’s Sexiest pick. By 2004, Lui had leveraged the newsletter into LaineyGossip.com, which she says now attracts 18 million page views per month. (That’s about one-tenth of the page views People got over the past month, according to Quantcast.) “I launched my blog as a reaction to People and the people who love it,” Lui told me. “I call them the ‘minivan majority’: the readers who respond to obvious bullshit. You know, ‘This guy is the Sexiest Man Alive, because he comes home and he gives his wife a foot rub.’”

Now, in the lead-up to People’s annual announcement—the SMA had settled into a fixed late-November/early-December cover slot to better capitalize on the publicity potential—Lui handicaps the chances of various culturally relevant famous hunks snagging the title. She bases her bets by weighing their age, relationship status, sexual orientation, name recognition, résumé, and willingness to pose without a shirt against the magazine’s most recent picks. “It’s not YOUR Sexiest Man Alive,” Lui reminded readers this year in the runup to the big reveal. “It’s PEOPLE Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. … The PEOPLE reader is a Blake Lively fan. The PEOPLE reader can’t wait for Jennifer Aniston to get pregnant. The PEOPLE reader wants a gender reveal party when she’s pregnant. The PEOPLE reader will tell you that she’s OK with gay people but secretly hopes her son isn’t gay.” In the past 10 years, Lui has successfully predicted People’s pick half of the time. This year, she biffed: Lui favored Chris Pratt with 3-to-1 odds.

On a personal level, Lui hopes People will pick a gay SMA, a guy with abs shiny enough to reflect a more progressive worldview. If Neil Patrick Harris or Matt Bomer had snagged the title, “I’d take out my credit card and buy a subscription,” Lui concedes. But professionally, People’s regressive pandering provides a perverse pleasure—and a profitable angle—for Lui and her readers. “It’s like judging people’s outfits,” she says. “People is placing a man on a throne, and nobody likes That Guy. They’re just begging for us to drag him down. It’s always a fun time of year.”

 “He’s Chivalrous, Passionate, and Cooks a Mean Marinara”: Matthew McConaughey, 2005

Matthew McConaughey Sexiest Man Alive

The SMA tradition of discretion—where the chosen man coquettishly declines to grant an interview—was always a bit of a farce. Ben Affleck didn’t speak to People when he was bequeathed the title in 2002, but he did permit his mom to gab. (For the record, she predicted that Affleck’s then-fiancee, Jennifer Lopez, would be her “ideal daughter-in-law.”) Back in the ’80s, “a lot of guys were kind of reluctant to toot their own horn as the Sexiest Man Alive,” Jim Seymore told me. “But perhaps shame is a quality that has been lost in society.”

And how: In 2005, perennially shirtless Matthew McConaughey, straddling the releases of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Failure to Launch, was the first to drop the act by submitting himself to People’s SAT (“Sexy Aptitude Test”). The exclusive interview produced revelations like: “I haven't worn deodorant in 20 years” and "I love tuna fish. I add sweet corn Niblets. Do you know how good it tastes?” When People asked who McConaughey’s “hero is,” he replied: “Me in 10 years”—an answer that would blossom into a catchphrase a decade later, when McConaughey’s now-hero would repeat his then-answer in his first Oscar acceptance speech.

From then on, People’s SMA picks were compelled to bow to the honor. “Unlike TIME’s Person of the Year, which is bestowed, Sexiest Man has to be accepted,” one recent former staffer told me. Now, “whoever it is does a photo shoot, sits for an interview, does a lot of press.” These days, People’s access to the Sexiest Man Alive is more important than his assets. “Blog discussions started to eat in to People’s influence,” Lui says. “Suddenly, we had access to paparazzi shots through image agencies. And we were willing to write things they wouldn’t”—unverified rumors, unflattering asides. In order to outplay the upstarts, Lui says, “the angle People needs now is ‘exclusive’ ”—quotes from the source, and shirtless photos to match.

The newly minted conceit fueled a few years of PR-friendly celebrity fun. When the mag tapped Clooney for the second time in 2006, he dutifully granted an interview and mischievously set off a self-effacing prank war that eventually ensnared fellow double-winner Pitt, ultimate 2007 inductee Matt Damon, and unsuspecting 2008 honoree Hugh Jackman. The antics simultaneously boosted People’s sales while cementing the boyish public personae of those deemed Sexiest Men Alive, but the fun wouldn’t last: Straight-lady monoculture was on its last legs. Between the decline of cable TV and the rise of Internet enclaves, “we’ve run out of universally appealing men, because everyone now is so focused on their own little trends,” Lui says. “There’s no one guy anymore who represents the tastes of everybody.” In response, People has inched ever more centric, picking guys who reliably appeal to the few people who still buy the print People. But at the same time, its reserve of muscled men willing to reveal their assets in that venue has atrophied. “I don’t know that this is a title that many men want anymore,” Lui says.

“Any time everyone wonders why they didn't pick the obvious choice … it’s because that guy didn’t want to do it,” a former People person told me. And these days, enthusiasm about promoting the magazine goes a long way. “Bradley Cooper, who got it the year everyone wanted it to be Gosling, apparently went above and beyond.” For People, publicity has become more important than positive public opinion—Facebook is the new supermarket checkout line, and everyone’s a media critic. Cooper’s pick in 2011, on the heels of The Hangover, compelled BuzzFeed to stage a protest in Rockefeller Center, where staffers and hangers-on held signs reading “BRADLEY COOPER DOESN’T EVEN HAVE A DOG” and “NOT MY PEOPLE.” When People picked Channing Tatum the next year after he pelvic-thrusted through Magic Mike—he willingly donned a white, ribbed muscle tank for the cover shoot—BuzzFeed deemed him “basically a gyrating human potato.” Which is good enough for People.

“He Cries at Movies, Can’t Wait to Be A Dad, and Loves Being Naked!”: Adam Levine, 2013

Adam Levine Sexiest Man Alive

Oh, hell no.

A surface inspection of Adam Levine reveals that he satisfies the bulk of People’s criteria: He is thirtysomething, white, American, starring on a popular television show (yes, reality counts), certainly successful, and definitely egotistical enough to vigorously self-promote. And yet, the choice mystified even People’s most studied watchdogs. Deeming Levine the Sexiest “honestly makes no sense to me,” Lui told me. “I don’t think he’s sexy at all.”

The one SMA category that Levine fails to satisfy is one that you shouldn’t have to actually say: that the Sexiest Man Alive should be nominally appealing to other human beings. As Jezebel’s Madeleine Davies put it, “Adam Levine is not the Sexiest Man Alive.” He is “the human equivalent of testing positive for chlamydia.” Levine was the magazine’s most hollow choice ever: not the Sexiest Man Alive, but perhaps the most Sexiest Man Alive-y man alive.  

Fittingly, the greatest champion of the Adam Levine pick was Adam Levine himself. “Of course Adam Levine would accept it,” Lui says. “Like, ‘I love myself, for sure, give it to me!’ ” If Cooper went “above and beyond,” Levine stooped lower than ever. The Maroon 5 frontman with the perpetual 10-day stubble cemented his middlebrow status with an indulgent SMA announcement on his show, The Voice, culminating in a group hug between Levine and fellow co-judges Blake Shelton, Cee Lo Green, and Christina Aguilera.

“A Hammer-Wielding Norse God”: Chris Hemsworth, 2014

Hemsworth checks all of People’s boxes now that “A-list” can’t be one of them—he’s got Brad Pitt’s hair, Ryan Reynolds’ body, Levine’s willingness to subject himself to the obligatory Sexy Manhunt on national television, and as a bonus, Marvel marketing opportunities. But at this point, even the perfect specimen constitutes a missed opportunity. A win by Chris Pratt would have signaled a reclamation of the monoculture—from the view outside the checkout line, it seemed that everyone was gunning for him. And in a perfect world, a Neil Patrick Harris pick would be a delicious PR coup: The idea of a sexually appealing gay guy would stir up controversy among more traditional readers while inspiring celebration for more progressive ones. In the end, the Harris idea, floated to press like a trial balloon earlier this fall, was just a tease: What’s good for women and hopeful for society rarely bodes well for People’s bottom line.