Since People magazine started giving out the honor in 1985, there have been 29 different Sexiest Men Alive. Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Richard Gere have all won twice, although Gere’s first win was as part of People’s only “Sexiest Couple Alive” award, along with Cindy Crawford. Some winners are still sexy even now, while others were trendier selections or were sexy in a down year for attractiveness or just had a movie coming out — and a persuasive publicist. Now that Idris Elba has joined the ranks of People-certified Sexy Men, it's time to ask whose sexiness has stood the test of time and which award makes you say, “Man alive, how did they ever pick Nick Nolte?”
There's no real explanation for how Blake Shelton ever became the Sexiest Man Alive. Maybe the editors are turned on by seeing someone spin around in a chair? Or maybe People responded to the election of Donald Trump by honoring a man who also t weets a lot of racist stuff. But no matter what your politics, or tolerance for mediocre country music, it's hard to believe that there's no one sexier than a man who won't take his shirt off in public.
Nick Nolte certainly has a rugged charm, especially back in the '70s when he spent half of "The Deep" with his shirt off and played a Dallas Cowboy in "North Dallas Forty." But by the time he won Sexiest Man Alive, Nolte was 51 years old. Some Sexiest Men use the award as a springboard to sexy roles; Nolte went on to play Thomas Jefferson. Also, it's hard not to think of Nick Nolte these days without thinking about the greatest DUI photo of all time. (Nolte still wears the shirt.)
The lantern-jawed Harry Hamlin wore a toga and fought monsters in "Clash of the Titans," but he became Sexiest Man Alive when "L.A. Law" was a hot show in 1987. There's something vaguely caveman-like about Hamlin's forehead and features, but it may just be that he's sexier in a period piece. At age 62, Hamlin was quite handsome on "Mad Men." Also, Hamlin deserves credit for poking fun at his sexiness — his loathsome "Veronica Mars" character was also People's Sexiest Man Alive in 1987.
Sexy note! Hamlin was expelled from the University of California for allegedly running a hippie brothel.
The publicist for "The Voice" should be named Greatest Publicist Alive for getting Blake Shelton and Adam Levine these awards. Yes, Levine has a great body and is clearly a yoga enthusiast. He's got a lot of tattoos, so if you're into flying mermaid body art, Levine is right up your alley. The problem is Maroon 5. Levine may have moves like Jagger, but Maroon 5 has songs like earworms. Levine's nasal singing voice still haunts our eardrums after hearing "This Love" approximately a thousand times, and it's hard not to imagine him slipping into an annoying falsetto while whispering sweet nothings.
Ben Affleck was a sad Sexiest Man Alive in 2002. People chose him at the height of the "Bennifer" era when he was dating Jennifer Lopez and co-starring with her in one of the worst movies in history, "Gigli." He'd taken over the mantle of Jack Ryan in "The Sum of All Fears," which did not get a sequel. He was a disappointing superhero in "Daredevil" before anyone figured out how to make Marvel movies. Affleck was the Sexy Man we didn't know we needed in 2002.
Mark Harmon dates back to an earlier time in the Sexiest Man Alive Award, where People magazine seemed to be scouting the ranks of potential sexy man rather than drawing from the established pool. Mark Harmon is also a cautionary tale in being too sexy too young. He was a college football quarterback at UCLA and a handsome young actor after that, and America just did not trust him for a while. He had to get older, more rugged and get murdered on "The West Wing" before his career could achieve its sexy potential.
Ryan Reynolds is the only performer from "Two Guys, A Girl, And A Pizza Place" to be recognized for sexiness by People. He's certainly handsome, and he looks like he's sculpted out of marble, but he's really quippy. The relentless wisecracks translate to success in action movies that aren't about a green guy with a power ring, but to us it diminishes the sexiness. Save it for the open mic, Van Wilder! Reynolds is also dinged in our rankings because this award was most likely timed to hype up "Green Lantern," one of the worst superhero movies ever made.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is almost cartoonishly large. He is the rare wrestler to actually get more muscular after his career was over. Super-ripped actors haven't done well in Sexiest Man voting, with no representation from Arnold, Stallone, Van Damme or the rest. So while The Rock indisputably is a national treasure and displayed impressive musical skills in "Moana," he still seems unreal. Finding The Rock sexy is like finding an animated character sexy, or a mountain, because there’s just so much of him that does not seem real. Also, with no evidence to support this, it seems like kissing The Rock would feel like getting punched in the face, with lips.
Patrick Swayze, one of two sexy man on this list who are no longer alive, does not seem incredibly sexy at a glance. As they say in the movie "Road House," we thought he’d be bigger. But what Swayze brings to accentuate his more pedestrian facial features is his talent for dancing and singing and his genuine emotional connections, as in the iconic pottery scene from "Ghost." It was classic Swayze: passionate, sweet and an art form primarily done by women. Plus his body is great, especially in contrast to Chris Farley.
Jude Law had quite a run of attractiveness in the late '90s and early 2000s, often in roles where inherent to the character's description was his incredible attractiveness or physical perfection: see "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Gattaca." Though "Ripley" has its own revealing bathtub moment, Law himself credits a bath scene in a stage production of "Indiscretions" for launching his career, saying, "Face it, I didn't become famous until I took my clothes off." However, Law gradually fell from the peak of sexiness after his hairline started to recede, and he started sleeping with his children's nanny. Incidentally, given auteur Tommy Wiseau's obsession with "Ripley," Law deserves some indirect credit for the cult film "The Room."
A truly beautiful man and a great bender of balls, David Beckham curiously won Sexiest Man Alive two years after his footballing career had ended. Beckham was a great player for England and Manchester United, once scoring an amazing goal from the midfield line, coincidentally the same week his future wife's group, the Spice Girls, put out their first single. Beckham had an amazing right foot and was deadly on dead balls and free kicks, though he couldn't dribble or tackle particularly well. The lack of versatility implies his sexiness might not be as well rounded as that of some of the others on the list.
Hugh Jackman can do it all. He's a song-and-dance man, he's a dramatic actor on stage and screen and he can robot fight. Jackman was already an accomplished theater actor when he got his big break: being cast as Wolverine, after Dougray Scott got injured filming "Mission Impossible 2," and Jackman beat out contenders like Viggo Mortensen and Glenn Danzig for the part. He'd go on to spend 17 years playing Wolverine and being an impossibly jacked man, though despite his beauty and muscles, there's something lacking in his sexiness. Maybe it's because he peed his pants on stage?
Matt Damon had to wait six years longer than his life partner, Ben Affleck, to win Sexiest Man Alive, but, Matt, it's not your fault! It probably took until Damon was 37 because of his ability to, as New York Times critic Manohla Dargis said, "recede into a film while also being fully present, a recessed intensity, that distinguishes how he holds the screen." Recessed sexiness is more like it! Damon is also very willing to make fun of himself and look schlubby, as in "The Informant!" and the "Oceans" trilogy, but he hits peak sexiness with his work as Jason Bourne. Arguably, Damon is more cute than outright sexy, but "The Martian" proved that his sexiness is not limited to our planet.
We would probably think Tom Cruise were sexier if we knew less about Scientology, if we'd never heard his attempt at an Irish accent in "Far and Away" or if he'd been less abusive to Oprah's poor couch. Nevertheless, in 1990, Cruise had just received his first Oscar nomination for "Born on the 4th of July," he was getting physical with Australian beauty Nicole Kidman, and he was just a few years past filming one of the most homoerotic scenes in movie history: the volleyball game from "Top Gun." Look, Cruise is a great movie star, he's extremely intense, and he's also only about 5-foot-5, which would make him a leading contender for Sexiest Hobbit Alive, but maybe not Man. Our apologies to Tom, but he can handle the truth.
There was a time when Mel Gibson was a genial, charming Australian star, and no one had heard any of his drunken, racist anti-Semitic rants. But in 1985 he was a burgeoning star when a People reporter tracked him down on the set of "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome" for a revealing, alcohol-fueled profile in which Gibson said, "I don’t even want to be making this film. It’s just a piece of s---. Don’t print that." Racism is never cool, but Hollywood has a long tradition of leading men with drinking problems saying inappropriate things. Errol Flynn definitely thinks that's sexy. Gibson has apologized, and the industry has welcomed him back with plenty of Oscar nominations, but no one could have imagined the lasting impact of the last line of this profile: "And then the sexiest man alive slouches away, alone."
Though Elaine Benes would put him at the top of this list, John F. Kennedy Jr. is the only person on this list who could be considered a civilian. His placement on the list in 1988 speaks more to his status as American royalty and his long reign as the most eligible bachelor in America. But he had great hair, a great family pedigree and great abs. The only knock on him was his inability to pass the bar exam. R.I.P., JFK Jr. Remember the "words" of his father: Ask not what the Sexiest Man Alive can do for you, but what you can do for the Sexiest Man Alive.
By the time People picked the half-Italian, ice-blue-eyed as Sexiest in 2011, "The Hangover" movies and "Limitless" had made him a big star. It's almost like he used the honor as a springboard, because he proceeded to garner Oscar nominations in three straight years, showing chops that were only hinted at in "Wedding Crashers." He's also transformed himself — bulking up for "American Sniper," greasing it up for "American Hustle," and for "A Star Is Born," he turned himself into a bearded, hard-partying musician with an unrecognizable baritone voice. Despite the grunginess of the movie role (Cooper wrote, directed and starred while writing 19 songs for the soundtrack), based on how audiences responded, it wouldn't have been a surprise to see him repeat with People.
Whoa. Keanu Reeves was Sexiest Man Alive only once and was the first of only two Canadians to win. Keanu has unique looks, perhaps due to his Chinese, Hawaiian and English heritage, and amazing hair. He has both an inner calm and an explosiveness to him, making him perhaps the only actor who could have played master assassin John Wick and the Buddha. Keanu has played the bass in a band, Hamlet on stage, goalkeeper during his hockey career and the voice of Keanu the kitten from the film "Keanu." And as befitting such a unique man, Reeves was only awarded Sexiest Man Alive for 1994 21 years later in 2015. Better late than never!
As a lifetime achievement award, giving Sean Connery the Sexiest title is completely justified. He was James Bond, his brogue is legendary, he rocked a mustache and a future-speedo in "Zardoz," and his glorious chest hair is like a one-man refutation of the manscaping trend. But we've got to ding him a couple of notches because the award came at age 59, when all his hair had turned gray. Barry Bonds may be the greatest hitter who ever lived, but you wouldn't call him the Greatest Hitter Alive at age 54. Sexiest Man of the Century, quite possibly, but there were sexier living men in 1989.
Richard Gere essentially has won Sexiest Man Alive one-and-a-half times; he shared the award in 1993 for Sexiest Couple Alive with then-girlfriend Cindy Crawford. Gere has always had sexiness as a core of his on-screen identity, from "American Gigolo" to "Pretty Woman" all the way to "Unfaithful." One thing that has helped Gere in his long-term sexiness is that he went gray before the age of 40 and doesn’t dye his hair. The result is that by looking older when he was clearly a young man, he looks much younger as he ages. Scientists call that the Steve Martin Effect.
Harrison Ford is one of the sexiest man to ever live despite receiving this award late in his career, at age 56. In fact, the award marks the beginning of a rough stretch of movies for Ford — "Six Days, Seven Nights," "K19: The Widowmaker" and "Hollywood Homicide." His co-star Sean Connery from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" won the award in 1989 despite Ford being right in the middle of his sexy prime. Sure, People was not giving this out while Ford was at his sexiest, playing Han Solo, so this award was more of a lifetime achievement honor — an Irving Thalberg award for sexiness. Luckily, People honored Ford before he got his ear pierced, because that honestly ruined it.
If People ever does a Sexiest Brothers Alive issue, the Hemsworths are shoo-ins for the cover. Chris Hemsworth won in 2014, just a few years after arriving in America from Australia. His first director summarized his appeal succinctly: "Here's a guy who is young, has the right look, is a very good actor and, let's face it, he's beautiful." He's made a variety of films, but it's hard not to think of him as Thor, because Thor is fantastic, stealing "Avengers: Infinity War" from the other hundred or so actors in the cast, even with just one eye. Hemsworth still has a limited body of sexy work, but he's an excellent bet to be Sexiest Man Alive again.
Channing Tatum deserves special recognition for starring in the sexiest movie of the Sexiest Man era, "Magic Mike," and re-introducing a new generation to Ginuwine's "Pony." Twice. Best of all, it's his own story! Tatum is ripped, he can do comedy and as shown in "Hail Caesar!," he's a wonderful dancer even with his clothes on. Plus he's a gay icon, thus expanding the usually heteronormative universe of the Sexiest Men Alive. He may not have the most beautiful face, by Sexiest Man standards, and yes, he looks like a guy who wears a baseball cap backward all the time, but he's still quite sexy.
All right, all right, all right. Matthew McConaughey and the Sexiest Man Alive list is like Julianne Moore at the Oscars: perennial contenders who could win every year, who both also like to take their shirts off on camera. In fact, McConaughey deserves special distinction for making taking his shirt off an integral part of his personal brand. McConaughey's laid-back Texas sexiness has also been a pioneering force for other mini-Matts who followed, in particular Taylor “Tim Riggins “Kitch. You may not consider him the sexiest man of all time, but it'd be a lot cooler if you did.
Johnny Depp is a two-time winner of the Sexiest Man Alive title and someone who seems like he could’ve won a full decade earlier than he did the first time. It’s important to remember Depp's legacy of sustained, versatile sexiness in the context of how problematic he has become now. He's been in bands, he owned a rock club, he dated Winona Ryder and Kate Moss, he was friends with Hunter S. Thompson and he had a sexiness that didn't depend on hypermasculinity. Depp used to be associated with eternally youthful looks and bold artistic choices. Now his personal brand is excessive wine consumption, personal bankruptcy, wearing lots of rings and not showering. However, at his peak, which was indeed a much-sustained peak, Depp was nearly on the Mount Rushmore of Sexiest Men Alive.
Our new Sexiest Man Alive is such a no-brainer. The name Idris Elba is always invoked every time a new Sexiest Man is announced. For example, "I can't believe they picked Blake Shelton over Idris Elba!" Though Elba became a star playing Stringer Bell on "The Wire," his first prominent role was, appropriately enough, playing a gigolo on "Absolutely Fabulous." Elba stands 6-foot-3, he's got a deep powerful voice and a British accent, and it certainly helps that his most famous roles are of highly competent men with a lot of darkness in their souls. And if that weren't enough, he also DJs as "DJ Big Driis."
Pierce Brosnan is one of two James Bonds on this list, and look, if you're playing James Bond, you should be sexy enough to appear here. Brosnan was 48 at the time he made Sexiest, though producers had been wanting him to play Bond for nearly 15 years before "GoldenEye." Like Sean Connery, he's proof that the best Bonds were born outside of England. Brosnan's charming, suave, looks amazing with his shirt off and has remained sexy well into his 60s. The only thing he can't do is sing. Mamma mia, that's a bad voice!
Brad Pitt is a two-time winner and absolutely on the Mount Rushmore of Sexiness. He broke out as a sexy boy in "Thelma and Louise" and stayed sexy through three "Ocean’s Eleven" movies, even though he was eating in 99 percent of his screen time. Brad Pitt is so sexy that his name was used as shorthand for a sexy guy by Shania Twain. The only real knock on Pitt is his tendency to ape the appearance of whatever girlfriend he has at the time. But his performances in "Legends of the Fall," "Fight Club" and "Meet Joe Black" are very sexy — he even makes the devil sexy!
Denzel Washington won Sexiest Man Alive just one time and became the first and only African-American winner for the first 30 years of the award. But he has a compelling case for being one of the sexiest men to ever live. It feels like unconscious prejudice might have kept Denzel from more Sexiest titles, though it may have been that he didn't try for the award until he needed to promote "The Preacher's Wife." But he's the best actor of his generation, one of the last true movie stars and despite his seriousness, he has one of the best laughs in the movie business. He also scored five times on future Hall of Famer Ray Allen in "He Got Game," even though he was supposed to get shut out. And starting with his time on "St. Elsewhere," Denzel has now delivered over 35 years of unbroken sexiness.
George Clooney got his first Sexiest Man Alive right when he was about to disastrously play Batman in "Batman and Robin." But the next year, Clooney made "Out of Sight" with Steven Soderbergh, who jump-started both their careers, especially through this beautiful seduction scene. Maybe it took Clooney finding the right director or maybe it took him time to age into his beautiful eyebrows, but nine years after his first win, Clooney was an even Sexier Man Alive at age 45. He's basically the modern-day Cary Grant: an actor who makes his charm seem completely effortless with a highly sexy interest in international justice and better brows. Clooney is such an iconoclastic distinguished older man, that when a woman of means is attracted to a handsome older man, psychologists call it the "George Clooney Effect."
Sean Keane is a comedian residing in Los Angeles. He has written for "Another Period," "Billy On The Street," NBC, Comedy Central, E!, and Seeso. You can see him doing fake news every weekday on @TheEverythingReport and read his tweets at @seankeane. In 2014, the SF Bay Guardian named him the best comedian in San Francisco, then immediately went out of business.