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Courtesy of Esquire, meet Emilia Clarke, Sexiest Woman Alive:
Between Esquire's Sexiest Woman Alive and GQ's Woman of the Year, the Game of Thrones star has been awarded two utterly meaningless titles in 2015. Every year, Esquire triumphantly declares it has discovered the Sexiest Woman Alive: Rihanna, Minka Kelly, Angelina Jolie. (All still alive, incidentally, but apparently the victims of diminishing sexiness.) And every year, media outlets dutifully line up to report the celebrity who has been selected.
Only one question remains to be answered: Who cares?
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I ask because the answer — based on the sheer amount of coverage this Esquire cover has received — seems to be "everyone," and I can't figure out why. It's not like Clarke isn't worthy of superlatives; she's a beautiful and talented actress coming off a big year, with starring turns in Game of Thrones and Terminator Genisys. And Esquire's doing fine too. The story that accompanies the Sexiest Woman Alive cover is a perfectly serviceable celebrity profile.
But Sexiest Woman Alive certainly doesn't seem to merit this level of coverage. How was Clarke selected? She was "hands down the number one choice of Esquire's staff, friends, and family," said the magazine's editorial projects director. So the selection process is basically just a random grab bag of Esquire-affiliated people saying, "Yeah, sure, we like her," and a representative for Clarke calling back and saying, "Sure, she'll do it."
In a similar vein, a 2010 video of the editorial meeting for People's annual Sexiest Man Alive issue offers a revealing glimpse at how a celebrity is selected for that magazine's buzziest cover. In a conference room full of People staffers, everyone pores over a whiteboard of possible contenders: Ryan Reynolds, Jon Hamm, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Matthew Morrison.
Then the debate begins. One staffer makes the case for Jake Gyllenhaal. "He's in this new movie, Love and Other Drugs, and he is incredibly sexy in this movie." A second staffer argues that 2010's Sexiest Man Alive should be best-known for his roles on television. "We keep hearing that TV viewership is higher than ever before," she says. "I don't know if a movie star is quite the era that we're in right now." In the midst of a global financial crisis, another argues, the Sexiest Man Alive should be a "recession-buster": "Someone that's fun, happy…and hot."
In short, it's a fairly standard-issue editorial meeting: maybe a dozen writers and editors, spitballing a bunch of half-formed ideas before settling on a Sexiest Man they can all agree on. (For the record: They went with Ryan Reynolds.)
But the meeting also shows how these Sexiest Man Alive candidates are vetted. It's a gooey and ill-defined set of factors: famous, handsome, and somehow zeitgeist-y. Above all, cooperation is a must; when People faced a backlash for passing over Ryan Gosling yet again for its Sexiest Man Alive cover, an insider told The Wrap that the magazine has actually offered Gosling the title several times — only to have him reject it on the grounds that he's too "serious" and "artsy."
Now, if anyone has expertise in the Sexiest Man Alive business, it's probably People, which chronicles the lives of sexy, living men every single week. But why does a single superlative on a cover merit any more attention than the rest of the magazine's dogged, wall-to-wall celebrity coverage?
Because it works, apparently, which is why the market on these glossy magazine titles have become a small phenomenon unto themselves: Esquire's Sexiest Woman Alive, GQ's Woman of the Year, People's Sexiest Man Alive (and, as of last year, a rival Sexiest Woman Alive category, with Kate Upton as the inaugural winner). More awards-that-aren't-really-awards are probably on the way. Esquire's latest cover happens to dovetail with the news that Playboy will no longer run the nude pictorials that served as its bread and butter for decades. Why? Because anyone seeking nudity in 2015 has an entire internet's worth of pornography to explore. Playboy will still feature provocative photos of women — they'll just be "PG-13," allowing the magazine to compete on the same playing field as Esquire, GQ, and the rest.
You could make the case that there's something sexist — or, at the very least, a little unseemly — about trotting out a celebrity, like a particularly choice cut of meat, and declaring her sexier than the rest. The discomfort only grows when the honor is accompanied by a particularly shallow or idiotic story, as in Esquire's 2014 Sexiest Woman Alive feature, when writer Chris Jones spent thousands of rambling words on bullfights between facile odes to the "bottomless brown eyes" of the "impossibly beautiful" Penelope Cruz.
Still, both sides get what they want. A magazine scores a buzzy cover, and a celebrity scores a huge platform to promote her latest project, alongside a guaranteed puff piece and a glossy photo shoot. Seems like a win-win to me.
The part of this deal that I've never understood is why so many other media outlets earnestly report the Sexiest Person Alive stories as if they're actual news, and not a thinly veiled piece of PR for a competitor. This year, as every year, Esquire's decision to name someone the Sexiest Woman Alive has resulted in mountains of inexplicable free press from outlets like Entertainment Weekly, The Wrap, and the Associated Press — and all for handing out a made-up award to an actress selected through a secret and apparently arbitrary process.
And hey, if it's really that easy to score so much free press, I want The Week to get in on it. With Goosebumps hitting theaters on Friday, allow me to formally announce that we're naming Jack Black this year's Sexiest Actor Playing a Children's Author in a Major Motion Picture. Tell all your friends.
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