Men on Top
Our fifth annual celebration of what real sexiness looks like -- with 15 prime examples, including our new No. 1
15. Conan O’Brien
Late-night's goofy lamb turns into a lion
Why, Mr. O’Brien, we never knew. All those years, you hid behind your jokey persona, all gawky and weird with your loose limbs and carroty mane. Sure, we liked you. But we didn’t like like you.
Then came January. The disaster spectacle known as the late-night wars erupted, and as you became exponentially angrier at NBC, Jay Leno and the whole stinking mess, something unexpected happened. You totally got sexy. By the time you said farewell to “The Tonight Show,” in a blisteringly embittered finale, you were positively smokin’. And that last speech about “If you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen”? We haven’t swooned like that since Lloyd Dobler, and he, to our eternal disappointment, wasn’t even real.
But your disappearance from late night didn’t dampen the crush. You grew back your classic writers’ strike beard — and it looked good. You got on Twitter. You strapped on your six string to play with Vampire Weekend, and dammit you know how we get about guys with guitars. Sure, some of us here think you overplayed your hand, but the rest of us think you played it just right — as evidenced by the through-the-roof ratings for your new talk show. Once, you were silly and charming and maybe just a little too happy. This year, at 47 years old, you got roughed up, depressed and angry, and in the process, proved your integrity and independence and resilience. By the time you stood on the stage of Radio City Music Hall this summer with a passel of heartthrobs including John Krasinski, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Paul Rudd, all we could see was you. You’re damaged goods now, Coco — and that’s just our type.
14. Brian Wilson
A Giant on the baseball field -- and in the barber's chair
Relief pitcher Brian Wilson helped the San Francisco Giants win the World Series this year — and grew a really impressive beard. It might sound like heresy to mention those two accomplishments in the same breath, but Wilson’s thicket of facial hair is so beloved by fans that it practically deserves its own jersey. (It already has its own Facebook page.)
The romance began when 28-year-old Wilson decided he wouldn’t shave until the Giants won the World Series. And after the scruffy mane transformed from his natural light brown to “Just for Men” midnight black, it took on a mythology all its own. Soon, fans showed up to stadiums wearing fake black beards and chanting as Wilson took the mound, “Fear! The! Beard!”
But his hirsute eccentricity is only the start of Wilson’s sly charm. Just check out his cheeky television interviews, like the one from his home in which a man in a leather thong and S/M head gear wanders around behind him, rendering the show’s host speechless. (“Oh, that’s The Machine,” Wilson says with just the hint of a prankish grin. “He comes over for sugar every once in a while.”) The Machine even made a guest appearance on “Late Night With Jay Leno.” While there is so much to admire about Wilson — he’s one of the fastest pitchers out there, and has a physique to match — it’s the way he brings City by the Bay wackiness to the rest of America that we most adore. Yes, he knows how to throw a ball — but he also knows how to let his freak flag fly.
13. Austan Goolsbee
Obama's economic advisor gives the recession a silver lining
As the economy continued to sputter, and we slogged through a particularly rancorous — and just plain rank — political year, we found ourselves seduced by the calm but emphatic explanations from economist-turned-emerging video star Austan Goolsbee. Sure, he’s a partisan. Now chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, Goolsbee’s job is to defend the White House and explain its actions to the American people. And you could say that — with the drubbing Obama took on Election Day and in polls — he hasn’t been a particularly rousing success.
But maybe we just didn’t see enough of him. Whenever Goolsbee popped up on cable news or on “The Daily Show,” armed with clear data and even clearer blue eyes, we turned up the volume. In a climate of simmering panic and fear, Goolsbee’s media appearances and more recent White House White Board summaries were direct and lucid, as he patiently explained the reasons for Obama’s trip to Asia, or outlined — with all the polite zeal of your favorite high school math teacher — why the Republican tax plan favored the wealthy to a financially calamitous degree.
A college (Yale) debating champion, the 41-year-old speaks with a forceful clarity in short, clipped sentences. He has the unabashed, and slightly goofy, smile distinct to male professors — men who spend most of their time talking to students about what they care about, and not having to muzzle their enthusiasm for a corporate or cubicle culture. But he also has the sort of low voice that surprises you — like a kid whose voice grew up before he did — and makes you listen a little more closely, as though, beneath that chipper earnestness, he’s got something particularly important to tell us. As his boss might say: We’re all ears.
12. Tom Hardy
The pansexual "Inception" star haunts our dreams
Those who recall his brooding Heathcliff in 2009′s television adaptation of “Wuthering Heights,” his appropriately named Handsome Bob in “Rocknrolla,” or his pugilistic leading man in “Bronson” know 33-year-old Tom Hardy is an actor of depth and intensity. This year, it was his turn as dream invader Eames in the summer blockbuster “Inception” that made him an international star — and an icon of fluid sexuality.
When a woman cops to her same-gender dabblings, it’s cause for titillation. But when a man does it –as Gavin Rossdale learned this year – it’s a scandal. So cue wild applause for Hardy, who has an ex-wife, a fianc
11. The Situation
"Jersey Shore's" king of comedy
When he arrived a little over a year ago as a cast member of MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino seemed less like a person, and more like a character from a “Naked Gun” movie. The 28-year-old from Staten Island, whose nickname famously refers to his six-pack abs, was a cartoon of New Jersey stereotypes: a bronzed meathead who loves “gym, tanning and laundry” and spends his time drunkenly picking up girls and grinding to euro-techno. But in the past year, he’s revealed himself as something far more interesting — a self-aware charmer with macho sex appeal and a knack for comic performance.
His endearing, bizarre “Dancing With the Stars” performance found him struggling against his pigeon-toed clumsiness to be more than just a punchline. And he almost single-handedly redeemed a lousy second season of “Jersey Shore” (which ill-advisedly relocated the gang to Miami) with his wit and timing. On a show crammed with trash-talking drama queens, he became something of a moral center, dispensing wisdom and wisecracks amid the drunken chaos. (“I’ll be flipping pancakes while people are punching each other in the face.”)
Sure, his machismo can sometimes go too far. And “The Situation” is more of a summer fling than the guy you bring home to your parents (or your friends). But if, like us, you’ve got a weakness for unself-conscious fun, a chiseled chest and a wicked sense of humor, he’s probably already fist-pumped his way into your heart.
10. Mark Ronson
A musician who's retro and cutting-edge at once
Mark Ronson is simply one of the coolest people on the planet. The British-born producer, musician and former New York DJ (not to mention brother of Lindsay Lohan’s former flame, Samantha Ronson) is responsible for some of England’s biggest acts. He produced Amy Winehouse’s instant classic “Back to Black,” an album good enough to rise above the blotto shenanigans of its star. He worked with Lily Allen on her album “Alright, Still” and appeared in the video for their collaboration, “Oh My God,” slinking into a nightclub to watch a seductive performance by a cartoon version of the singer. But our eyes were on Ronson: a tall drink of water with a boyish face, soulful eyes and a bouffant hairstyle that makes him look like the baddest nerd in a London prep school.
Ronson has made a name as an artist in his own right; this fall’s “Record Collection,” his third studio effort, is an album of danceable soul-infused pop featuring contributions from Simon LeBon and Ghost Face. His video for “Bang Bang Bang” mashes up Japanese television and ’80s pop in a way that’s both delightfully retro and cutting edge. He also has good taste in women: He was once engaged to “Parks and Recreation” star Rashida Jones. GQ named Ronson the “most stylish man in Britain,” and while he doesn’t have that kind of name recognition (yet) in the states, we’re glad to see him bringing some style — and some soul — to our music scene.
9. Isaiah Mustafa
The pitchman you wish your man could smell like
You had us at “Hello, ladies.” The shirtless thing doesn’t hurt either. From the moment he magically stepped out of that shower and onto a boat and then astride a horse and swan-dived right into our hearts, the Old Spice guy proved he wasn’t just another bit of aftershave beefcake. Isaiah Mustafa, owner of the luckiest towel in America, may have landed on our radar for the year’s most hilarious ad, but look again! It was his brilliant comic timing, his gift for embodying the most ridiculously over-the-top version of the irresistible man’s man that assured his appeal wasn’t just a fleeting fancy. And when the Old Spice campaign went instantly viral, Mustafa proved a charming, gracious guest on the talk show circuit and saw his acting career get a well-deserved boost.
Not many men can do an adept silverfish catch or crack jokes about exotic car-throwing contests; even fewer could make you believe that if there were such things, he surely would win them. But beneath his “strong muscled body and wildly handsome face parts,” he’s a former NFL player. He’s a comic book nerd. He’s a vegan. He’s a dad. And when, on a radio interview last spring, he was asked why guys cheat, he shrugged, “They’re insecure.” In short, Mustafa is even more likably adorable than his fresh-scented persona. He’s not just the man your man could smell like. He’s the man you want your man to be.
8. Cheyenne Jackson
Broadway baby with the killer baby blues
Let’s get this out of the way: Cheyenne Jackson is a beautiful man. His piercing blue eyes could make a Ken doll weep with envy. Marble sculptures hang their heads with shame when he walks by. Angels want the name of his stylist.
But Cheyenne Jackson, 35, is not just eye candy. He can sing. He can dance. He can roller-skate. His dashing performance in Broadway’s “Finian’s Rainbow” was a bewitching throwback to a day when the Great White Way was awash in old-fashioned razzle-dazzle, not just “American Idol” castoffs. (Please indulge yourself with his smoldering striptease performance of “I’ve Got Your Number” at Broadway Under the Stars. One of the many grateful YouTube comments reads, “Boom! I’m pregnant!”) And if it weren’t cool enough to be a featured player in television’s most reliable comedy, “30 Rock,” as disgustingly good-natured Canadian Danny Baker, this season Jackson is a featured player in television’s buzziest show, “Glee,” as the new coach of rival choral group Vocal Adrenaline. Yes, Jackson is part of a growing number of proud Americans unafraid to come out of the closet and declare: He loves show tunes.
Oh, and he’s also openly gay. Born to an evangelical family in a teensy mill town in Idaho (his brother was a preacher on the “700 Club”), Jackson made peace with his sexuality in his late teens. He was an ad exec in Seattle until the age of 27, when he finally shot the moon and moved to New York. Lucky for us, he comes into his own at a moment when Neil Patrick Harris and “Modern Family” have kicked down the doors for out actors in Hollywood. Of course, a pretty face might get you in the room — but it’s Jackson’s jaw-dropping talent that keep bringing the house down.
7. Scott Pelley
"60 Minutes'" real silver fox
We will admit that, not too many years ago, the name “Scott Pelley” might have just conjured a blur of different, reasonably good-looking but generic TV anchormen, with that voice, that hair, those teeth. Maybe we would’ve thought he was that guy who made fun of himself on Colbert, or the other one who busted perverts.
But Pelley, 53, has become the real silver fox on “60 Minutes.” He’s the show’s resident gotcha guy — popping up through trap doors, dropping down chimneys — to catch bad guys in the act. A great recent example came when Pelley, in Mexico, dramatically interrupted a quack who promised bogus stem-cell therapy cures to people suffering from neurological diseases like ALS, to tell him that the patients he’d hoped to bilk for tens thousands of dollars had been working with “60 Minutes,” and they had everything all on tape. Bam! Housewives be damned — that’s reality TV we can get behind, and the investigative face-offs on TV’s oldest newsmagazine remain the most riveting programming on the small screen.
Mike Wallace — the show’s original shock jock — had a flair that made his ambushes the stuff of theatrical drama. Pelley pulls it off with a seriousness more appropriate for skeptical times. There’s never anything that seems trumped up with Pelley; we remember his 2006 and 2007 reports from the Sudan, when he and a crew snuck across the border after being denied entry from the government and exposed the hell on earth that was unfolding in Darfur in a low-key, straightforward manner. Or the time he rattled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (which had the Iranian president yelling at him: “Are you a CIA agent? Is this Abu Ghraib? No, this is Iran and I am president of this country!”).
Pelley’s great because, his conventional good lucks notwithstanding, he’s no teleprompter-reading actor, but a real journalist approaching his job in a transparently honest way. He restores a little of our faith in TV news while performing hugely important, world-bettering reports along the way. And that really makes our clock tick.
If you haven’t heard of Fran
5. Nev Schulman
The "Catfish" star who hooked us
The sleeper hit “Catfish” raises thorny questions: What is documentary truth in this “reality thriller”? What is intimacy in the age of Facebook? Also, who is this hot guy Nev? The last question, at least, is easy to answer. Yaniv Schulman is a 24-year-old native New Yorker and photographer whose portraits of dancers spark a friendship with a Michigan family and, in particular, the alluring older daughter Megan. You can see why his brother Ariel (who made the documentary with Henry Joost) might be moved to pick up the camera and film him: Nev is delightfully unguarded and charming, with a classically Semitic handsomeness not often seen in Hollywood films. The scene in which a giggling, embarrassed Nev (wearing his nighttime retainer) reads naughty text messages aloud to the camera while hiding under his bedcovers is one of the most seductive moments in American film this year.
Of course, that scene has also come under scrutiny for accusations that it was reshot, and you could certainly read “Catfish” as a cynical, orchestrated hoax. (Morgan Spurlock famously said at Sundance, “That is the best fake documentary I’ve ever seen.”) Still, even with the questions raised about the film, Nev’s blushing phone conversations and incautious e-mail exchanges remind us how much we all long to be the object of singular devotion, how blinkered we can be — and how adorable men are — in the face of a knee-weakening crush.
4. Jonah Lehrer
The brainiac who's also a heartthrob
The mind is a mysterious thing. Even as we read Jonah Lehrer’s provocative essays on neuroscience — about why failure is essential to scientific discovery, about how depression has an uncanny upside — there’s always some cooing schoolgirl kicking around in our brain stem, twirling her hair and saying: But isn’t he sooo cuuuute?
And indeed, 28-year-old Jonah Lehrer is heart-crushingly cute. He is also a Rhodes scholar who worked in the lab of a Nobel-winning scientist Eric Kandel and has appeared on “The Colbert Report.” His splashy 2007 book “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” attempted to bridge the gap between those endlessly warring factions, the sciences and the arts, by looking at what innovators like Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky and Virginia Woolf can teach us about the mind. In 2008, he followed up with the election-year catnip “How We Decide,” which explains how everyday decisions get made on a neurological level. Like Malcolm Gladwell, Lehrer has become a breakout star in the wonky business of explaining how the world really works, transforming the murky arts of brain science into clear, eminently engaging narratives for Wired and the New York Times. His blog, the Frontal Cortex, is a tribute not only to his endless inquisitiveness but also to the muscle of his prose. This guy can write. And amid a marketplace of sensationalism and polarizing debate, he’s ultimately a voice of reason. “Embrace uncertainty,” he has cautioned us about science. But we’re sure about one thing: Jonah Lehrer is sooo cuuuute!
3. Aziz Ansari
The underground comedian who can outsex R. Kelly
He called his comedy album “Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening,” so let’s do this thing. The 27-year-old comic and scene-jacking costar of “Parks and Recreation” has been steadily disarming the ladyfolk since his early “Human Giant” days and his breakthrough as the slick, self-promoting braggart of “Funny People.” But this year Ansari — and his alter ego Raaaaaaaandy — achieved fantastic new heights of swaggerosity. He hosted the MTV Movie Awards, declared open war on that murderous thug Justin Bieber, and even got the New Yorker to gush about his “half-crazed wonder.”
Like Danny McBride and Will Ferrell, Ansari makes behaving like a clueless jerk look like his greatest joy in the world. The difference is, he does it while remaining eminently, undeniably hot stuff. With his meltingly beautiful brown eyes and that hint of a South Carolina accent as he’s dropping F-bombs with shock and awe, he’s one suave mofo. That’s how it is with Ansari — he can out-R. Kelly R. Kelly. He can toss off a line on “Parks and Recreation” like, “Ladies. Is there anything you desire at all? Besides me?” with such smarmy conviction it evokes guffaws — and yet, he is still exactly what the ladies desire. He can joke about his sexiness all day long, but his actual sexiness remains fully intact. That’s not just sexy, it’s practically miraculous. Can we get an aw yeahhhhh?
2. Michael Fassbender
The future Hollywood superstar who refuses to go Hollywood
Ever since the entertainment media first noticed Michael Fassbender — around the time he appeared in the Steven Spielberg-Tom Hanks miniseries “Band of Brothers” in 2001 — the roguishly handsome Irish actor with the German name has been hailed as a future superstar. It could still happen: In 2011, we’ll presumably see Fassbender in Steven Soderbergh’s action film “Haywire,” in Cary Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre” (as Rochester), in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” (as Carl Jung) and in the latest “X-Men” sequel (as Magneto). But as that range suggests, Fassbender has spent the last decade pursuing roles and projects that interested him, without much regard for a celebrity-oriented career path. And that might be the sexiest thing about him.
Mind you, as anyone who saw Fassbender in Andrea Arnold’s creepy-erotic British indie “Fish Tank” can attest, he’s got an astonishing physique, a zillion-watt smile, powerful bedroom eyes and deeply embedded Irish charm that can go from friendly uncle to nasty seducer after a couple of pints. He’s fully equipped to take on the surly he-man roles played by Russell Crowe and Mel Gibson, or, for that matter, the more sophisticated shaken-not-stirred parts played by Daniel Craig or Ralph Fiennes. Thing is, he may not be all that interested.
Fassbender’s signature role to date remains his mesmerizing but distinctly unsexy turn as IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s near-experimental “Hunger.” One way of understanding Fassbender’s career, in fact, is to see that he’s a genuine movie buff who’s followed a distinctive high-low trajectory and picks his directors carefully: Along with Arnold and McQueen, he’s worked with Zack Snyder (in “300″), Fran
1. Russell Brand
Randy comic ditches the clown mask and lets us see how sexy he really is
You’d be forgiven for never noticing how gorgeous Russell Brand is. When he first hit America in 2008 — as the host of MTV’s Video Music Awards — he was a cartoon of British wankery: the knotty spray of hair, the gothy eyeliner, the kinky leather pants and the shirt open down to there. Brand was constantly purring about his own raunchiness, constantly pawing the audience for attention, as if Mick Jagger somehow mated with Robin Williams. Roles in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Get Him to the Greek” played up his swashbuckling British badness, blurring the line between the movie’s debauched star and the real-life sex and drug addict playing him.
But it’s time to reconsider Russell Brand. Notice, for a moment, the finely sculpted cheekbones, the luminous skin, the twinkling eyes. Notice the loose tumble of dark curls. Like his idols David Bowie and Marc Bolan, Brand possesses a slithery movement that is part feminine, part space alien. And at the age of 35, he finally ditched the pirate drag and let his talent take center stage. His performance in “Get Him to the Greek” was one of the year’s great comic turns, and the fact that it sputtered at the box office while his movie “Despicable Me” became a smash only speaks to the strange no-man’s land in which clever adult comedies not written by Judd Apatow often fall. Later this year Brand plays Trinculo in Julie Taymor’s daring “Tempest,” but it’s his leading role in an unlikely reboot of the 1981 Dudley Moore vehicle “Arthur” that has eyebrows raised. It’s a part Brand seems born to play: The self-sabotaging lush who finds his way thanks to the love of a good woman. Oh, did we mention that Brand married pop star Katy Perry in October? After a decade of threesomes and coke, getting hitched is its own kind of punk rock.
Now, having lived through the divine madness of substance abuse, Brand is a nimble, fascinating interview happy to spill about his days scraping bottom. (“Let’s start with dressing as Osama bin Laden on your TV show the day after September 11,” Terry Gross asked him on “Fresh Air,” to which he responded, “I don’t know if you’ve ever taken crack, Terry. It makes you do some very, very eccentric things.”) In an age of phony publicist spin and tabloid fictions, Brand’s rigorous honesty is a kind of intoxication in itself. “My life is just a series of embarrassing incidents strung together by telling people about those embarrassing incidents,” he wrote in his hyperactive, confessional bestseller “My Booky Wook,” probably the best celebrity memoir in years written by the actual celebrity whose name is on the cover. Even his most scandalous tales have a touching hint of melancholy: “You don’t truly know loneliness until you’ve spent ten minutes in not-so-glorious isolation at an orgy.” Brand’s book proved so antic and engaging that he released a sequel this fall. The shocker about Russell Brand is not how hopelessly wrecked and naughty he is — but how normal he is. It took us a while to notice that thrilling downshift, but now that the mask has come off, we just can’t take our eyes off him. Russell Brand may do a brilliant sendup of a big star — but this year, he officially became one. And he is Salon’s Man on Top.