WANDERINGS, with Walter Brasch
Week of May 3, 2009
People. People Who Don't Need People
By Walter Brasch
From a pool of about seven billion, those hard-working geniuses at People magazine have managed to find the 100 most beautiful people in the whole wide world. And—get ready for the surprise—almost all of those beautiful people are rich American celebrities.
Since 1989, People's editors believed they were given the divine right to anoint who they believe are the most beautiful people on the planet. The ethnocentric celebrity-fawning People editors are so secure in their self-imposed knowledge that they don't even reveal the criteria they used to make their determinations. Not even an "editor's note," common in most magazines.
People etches its version of reality into our minds by attaching cutesy capsulated biographies to full page color pictures of the most beautiful, and drop the 60–80 page section among myriad $254,000 a page full-color ads every May. Advance stories about some of the selections appear in just about every American newspaper and major website, all of which think stories about celebrities are more important than stories about the recession, thus assuring that the Beautiful People Special will be one of the best-read issues of the year. The reality is the lists are really the "100 most noticed celebrities," but that probably wouldn't get as many sales.
For several years, People had the "50 Most Beautiful" list, but apparently had trouble deciding how to reduce those seven billion people to only 50, so the editors doubled the number. But, they still had to squeeze 100 into the space of 50. So, the editors killed quality writing, and made most of the pictures the size of matchbook covers.
People editors, showing how attuned they are to the young demographic, have given us teenagers and barely-20s TV ensembles. In 2008, the seven member cast of TV's "Gossip Girl" made the list. "Onscreen," People told us, "they are gorgeous, scheming, backstabbing high schoolers." Just what America needs. More future business executives and politicians. In 2009, the group was "The Girls of 90210," each of whom was identified by a short quote. One said she collects wigs; one said hair is her "security blanket"; one said she discovered and misused bronzers in the 10th grade; and one said she needs to constantly "pinch my cheeks" because she never flushes.
The first few years, when the editors could find only 50 beautiful people, there was a fairly even split between men and women. The 2009 edition revealed that about three-fourths of all beautiful people are women. One of those beautiful women, given a full page and a minimal quote, was Michelle Obama. Although the editors have become more socially conscious, minority representation in the list is minimal, and certainly not in even close proportion to the reality that one-third of the world's population are Black and another third are Asian. In the United States alone are 45 million Hispanics.
Five years after the first list came out, People recognized the elderly. Of course, the elderly were celebrities Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, and Barbara Babcock. The following year, the "elderly" included 51-year-old Queen Silvia of Sweden and 61-year-old journalist Gloria Steinem who should have been honored for being beautiful, but embarrassed by her inclusion on a list that is distinguished by hyperbole and ethnocentrism. The 2008 and 2009 editions included two page color spreads deep in the magazine for 40 celebrities, 10 in each of the age categories of 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. Obviously the editors couldn't find any beautiful 60 year celebrities like Dolly Parton, Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler, Neil Diamond, or Robert DeNiro; or 70-year-olds, like Bill Cosby, Rita Moreno, Marlo Thomas, Robert Redford, or Quincy Jones; or 80-year-olds, like Tony Curtis, Neil Simon, Burt Bacharach, Tony Bennett, and Sidney Poitier. The editors did find some real oldies. They put pictures of historical figures online, and asked readers to evaluate them as "hot" or "not hot." The two "historical hotties," first disclosed in 2009, were Nefertiti and Martha Washington.
In 1994, the editors expanded their section to include expanded bodies. Trying to make us believe that People thought beauty came in different sizes and shapes, the editors claimed that 5-foot-11 180-pound size 14 model Emme was a beautiful person, representative of the "burgeoning large-size modeling industry." It's hard to explain to these anorexic editors that size 14 isn't fat, and that half of America's women are at least a size 14. Not wanting to set a trend, People made sure all of the next year's beauties were modishly thin. As in previous years, the current edition includes no large-size beauties, but it does include ads for Jenny Craig and Atkins diets, Medifast appetite suppressants, low-calorie Twinkies and cupcakes, and fat-free Florida grapefruit.
In 1994, after an incestuous five years of casting entertainers at more than three million subscribers, People widened its scope of inclusion. For the first time, it "elevated" four of their professional colleagues to anointed status—former journalist and Vice-President Al Gore, a husband-wife documentary film team, an ABC "Wide World of Sports" interviewer, and an NBC "Today Show" host.
. Teachers, social workers, and medical researchers, no matter how beautiful, don't make the final cut. But, they shouldn't worry about it. Neither do Miss America, Miss World, Mr. Universe or, for that matter, Miss Crustacean, Ocean City, New Jersey's, salty tribute to hermit crabs, and a spoof of the beauty contest that once inhabited next-door Atlantic City. Miss USA, however, for the first time in 20 years did make the list, but wasn't a big enough celebrity to rate more than a thumbnail mug shot.
To its credit, People editors, probably as an afterthought, might have been concerned about why none of us "commoners" made the list. So, in 1993, the editors did what was expected of People editors—they went "cutesy," and found two cities in Kentucky—Lovely and Beauty—and awarded "booby prizes." Of the seven people whose lives were each compressed into one paragraph were three women and four men, all of them White. The following year, People found no beautiful "commoners," but in 1995, the editors searched their loading docks and found nine UPS drivers, all male, to feature in the "booby prize" section. Commoners haven't made the list for several years.
Like all people, we in journalism tend to report about, are attracted to, and understand people and ethnic groups that are like our own, or of which we are a part. For the most part, we are White, middle-class, sometimes even upper-class, college graduates who talk a lot about equality, but look, act, and dress as if we are part of the establishment we report about. We determine the "newsworthiness" of a story and, equally important, we decide the standards for media coverage—whether source credibility or beauty. If we see only certain groups of people, we will report only about those people, leaving everyone else as invisible as the billions of people who weren't even considered. Indeed, it takes some ugly and very shallow people to think they can make up a list of the 100 most beautiful people in the world.
[Walter M. Brasch is a university professor of journalism, social issues columnist, and the author of 17 books. His current book is Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush, available from amazon.com, bn.com, and other stores. You may contact him through his website, www.walterbrasch.com]