The man show

Paul Constant

November 27, 2018

People magazine's annual Sexiest Man Alive issue is a brilliant gimmick. In a time when magazines are starving and dying on newsstands, it's one of the few recurring magazine features that is covered by the media as though it's real news — only Time's Person of the Year and arguably the cover model for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue garner that kind of attention.

It's such a smart gimmick because even if you've never read an issue of People in your life, you still likely feel invested in who the Sexiest Man Alive is. I know I was repulsed by Blake Shelton's time in the spotlight last year, and this year's selection of Idris Elba felt like some sort of vindication.

But what, really, does the title of Sexiest Man Alive mean? How does People rank sexiness? Can any measurable data be mined from the piece marking Elba's elevation to this year's Sexiest Man Alive?

As for making a connection, Elba has learned the importance of “eye contact and empathy. You know, sort of reading someone’s vibe,” he says. “I love being confident, but also I know when to rein it in and just stay humble and grounded.”

For now, the actor strives to live with as few regrets as possible.

The whole article goes on like that, an amiable stew of cliches mixed in with several dismissive quotes from Elba. It's frothy and meaningless and forgettable. It's hard to imagine anyone but Elba's publicist taking any of it seriously.

Seattle poet Amber Nelson seems to take the business of Sexiest Man Alive seriously. Her new collection of poetry is titled Sexiest Man Alive, and it features one poem for every Sexiest Man Alive between the title's inception in 1985 (that's Mel Gibson) through The Rock's coronation in 2016. (George Clooney, Richard Gere, Johnny Depp, and Brad Pitt have all been named Sexiest Man Alive twice; they only get one poem each in this book.)

The poems here are in first person, and they often relate directly to the celebrity's public image. Mel Gibson warns, "I'm a work in progress. I'm still extremely flawed." "The Boston accent is more of an attitude/than an accent," warns Ben Affleck. Harrison Ford laments:

...See, I'm not the youngest

or prettiest anymore. I'm like old shoes.

I still haven't played a really bad guy, a guy

who's really interesting

I don't know if every line in the book is drawn directly from quotes on the public record from the celebrity in question, but certainly a vast majority of them are. (Yes, Mel Gibson's drunken rants about Jews are included in his poem.)

Each poem reads like a confession in the celebrity's own voice, and Nelson does admirable work catching their unique deliveries. Keanu Reeves is quiet and either very artistic or a little bit dumb. Matthew McConaughey is full of himself but his voice is entrancing. Matt Damon is a prose poem, of course, and not verse.

Like the magazine feature it celebrates and lampoons, The Sexiest Man Alive is a great gimmick for a poetry collection. It appeals to people who have an interest in celebrity culture — which, let's be honest, is pretty much everyone — and it rewards readers who spend too much time thinking about Hollywood. If that were all the book aspired to do, it would be worth your time.

But Nelson isn't a gimmick poet, and the poems in The Sexiest Man Alive can't just be dismissed as satire or fluff. Individually, any of these poems might be a lark, or a fun piece to read at a group show. Taken all together, though, there's something more interesting at work.

The celebrity chorus in The Sexiest Man Alive becomes an investigation into masculinity: what it means to be a man, what it's like to be seen as a man, what we celebrate in our masculine idols. Nelson is doing some deep thinking here about responsibility and morality and how an individual interacts with society, and vice versa.

Through the lens of celebrity, Nelson seems to be directing some serious thought to the performative nature of manhood. Even in 2018, there are still a very proscribed set of actions that men are allowed to do and not allowed to do in public. Vulnerability is frowned upon. Weakness is seen as death. Eagerness to please isn't viewed as, well, sexy. All of these celebrities are acting out their ideas of manhood — or what they think others expect from manhood — and the whole thing feels as artificial as a plastic bottle of diet grape soda.

I don't think you're going to come away from The Sexiest Man Alive with a better idea of what it means to be sexy, or with a better understanding of what's in Tom Cruise's head. But you will come away from the book with an ear for the way that men talk in public — the stilted dance between expectations and reality, the awkward performance of masculinity that unfolds in thousands of ways every day.

It's the kind of book that creeps into your brain and casually changes the way you look at the world. You'll never hear the tortured conversation between two bros sitting on a bus in the same way again. Nelson gives voice to those silences, fills them with doubts and worries and hopes. She speaks for men with a clarity and an insight that most men couldn't begin to muster.

Books in this review:
  • The Sexiest Man Alive
    by Amber Nelson

    October 01, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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