The US magazine People has crowned Idris Elba the sexiest man alive, bringing an end to the reign of 2017’s winner, the country singer Blake Shelton, and marking a sad conclusion to a year when everybody in the world could justly claim to be both more intelligent than the president of the United States and sexier than the sexiest man alive.
With the awarding of this consummate honour, Elba becomes only the third man of colour to hold the title in the 33 years since it began. He follows in the steps of Denzel Washington (1996) and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson two years ago.
This is fun, and even interesting, news to keen followers of this most bizarre award. For one thing, it’s heartening that Elba, long held to be a favourite to become the next James Bond, has cracked another predominantly white institution.
The People award for sexiest man alive is so white that Nick Nolte has won it (tagline: “Strong, sensitive and squared-away at last, he’s a man’s man that women can’t resist”). It is so white that Richard Gere has won it twice. When Shelton clinched it last year, the good people of Twitter duly lost their collective rag, which may be what induced People to course-correct with the incontrovertibly loin-tugging Elba for their latest pick.
In another sense, Elba fits squarely into an amusing pattern that People has been building up over the years, which sees them plump for decidedly masculine, established, patriarchal figures. The award, in other words, is relentlessly straight: this makes it feel weirdly detached from contemporary public discourse, which has clearly cross-pollinated with queer culture where the attractiveness of men is concerned.
People magazine traditionally favours the lantern-jawed hetero – when they call Nolte a man’s man, they don’t mean he’s a man’s man – who eats well, stinks of money and conjures up the word “ranch” when pictured.
The magazine’s most beautiful people award, which usually goes to women, has traditionally crowned a similarly easygoing white gal who oozes straight femininity (Julia Roberts has won it five times, Jennifer Aniston twice). This fits in with People’s origins as a magazine associated in its infancy with your Gloria Vanderbilts and your Kennedys, but it has left its choice of the pinnacle of attractiveness feeling deliciously at odds with modern times – something the Elba selection has remedied, up to a point.
The prize tells us a good deal about the cult of masculinity still prevalent in the world, which equates male looks with “sexiness” rather than beauty. This emphasis on sexual attraction brings power and dominance into consideration alongside mere aesthetic qualities.
The ages of the winner attest to this: Elba is the fourth man in his 40s in a row to win the award. The last man in his 20s to win the award was Tom Cruise, who is now 56; the only other twentysomethings to win it are John F Kennedy Jr (but of course!) and Mel Gibson in 1985. The average age of winners is 38.7 years old.
In this, the list echoes the Oscars: the last man to win best actor while in his 20s was Adrien Brody (the youngest winner at 29) 16 years ago. Conversely, four out of the last 10 best actress winners have been in their 20s. This shows, I think, that the culture prizes status and power in men above all – while in women it celebrates freshness, innocence, even vulnerability.
This can feel surprising in the era of the internet, when gay twink culture has fed into straight desire, with men such as Timothée Chalamet (age 22) hitting the scene. This sort of desire, which abstracts men from status up to a point, and privileges a gaze that is unafraid to objectify, is nowhere to be seen in the People list. Not that People has a duty to reflect all sorts of beauty, but its museum-like display of strong, mostly white, straight-acting men does tell us something about the dominant culture, and is, let’s face it, funny.
Whether People will choose to go with the flow at some point or just keep adorably selecting Clive Owen until kingdom come, only time will attest. For now we celebrate Idris Elba as their least terrible pick in memory, and eagerly await sexy developments.
• Caspar Salmon is a film writer based in London