Salon's Sexiest Men of 2011
Our annual countdown of the sexiest men of the year -- and none of them are Bradley Cooper
13. Andrew Luck
Andrew Luck has a half-dozen cities drooling over him, cities that want him so badly that they’d happily root for their favorite football team to lose. The Stanford quarterback — whose team was undefeated and a national championship contender before a loss to Oregon last week — is the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL draft. Millions of dollars and a wild reception await him, whether in Indianapolis, Miami, St. Louis or Minneapolis. But first, he’s got a degree to finish — in architectural design, inspired by teenage trips to Europe with his family.
The horrific child sex abuse scandal at once-idealized Penn State makes it easier than ever to be cynical about college sports and suspicious of amateurism. But Luck seems chiseled from a classical hero’s mold, and it’s not just that statue-ready tousled hair. $50 million guaranteed? Who needs it. This is a guy who doesn’t look for the easy A, but instead calls his most satisfying collegiate experience busting himself to get a B in Engineering 14, a course that combined architectural, civil, mechanical, aerospace and biomedical engineering topics.
Luck could have an entourage escorting him everywhere; instead he’s so unpretentious and not self-conscious that he cycles across the Stanford campus on a mountain bike with a seat covered with plastic bags from the bookstore. It’s a practical engineering solution to fight morning dew and wet pants. Of course, only someone who looks so good that he’s highly rated on “hot or not” sites for both gay men and straight women, doesn’t have to worry about what he looks like. Safe to say all eyes will be lingering on him for awhile.
12. J.C. Chandor
It takes a very talented person to turn a subject as complex and depressing as the financial crisis into gripping drama. And yet J.C. Chandor’s recent feature film, “Margin Call,” which he both wrote and directed, manages to do just that. His sleek, gorgeous thriller follows a group of finance employees who are, to various degrees, about to destroy the American economy over the course of one interminable night. The film’s dazzling cast includes Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons — but the real star of the film is Chandor’s writing and direction. In his first feature, Chandor managed to make one very polished and sexy indictment of financial greed.
Chandor, as it turns out, is quite the sexpot himself. Charming and affable in interviews, with a dry sense of humor and long stallion-esque hair, he’d mostly worked on commercials and documentaries before he wrote “Margin Call” in just four days. Chandor’s writing accomplishes a truly extraordinary task: allowing us to both understand his characters’ decisions, and be utterly disgusted by them. By turns darkly comic (one of the film’s funniest jokes is that nobody at the company seems to know what the company actually does) and emotionally wrenching, it’s disturbing and immediate enough to make you want to run to the nearest Occupy protest.
Although Chandor’s career is just beginning — he’s signed to a two-picture deal in the wake of “Margin Call’s” success — he’s already become one of our favorite new directors. Right now, America needs more storytellers who aren’t afraid to take on tough, important subject matter. And we need more J.C. Chandor.
11. Marcus Samuelsson
When Marcus Samuelsson was 24, the Aquavit chef became the youngest ever to win the coveted three stars from the New York Times. But the chef — Ethiopian-born and Swedish-raised — has always been a four-star heartthrob. After 15 years of ups and downs — a win on “Top Chef Masters” followed by some embarrassing closings — we fell hardest for Samuelsson in the last year, as his white-hot Red Rooster restaurant helped drive a new Harlem renaissance.
That was exactly Samuelsson’s goal when he opened Red Rooster on Lenox Avenue, near Harlem’s historic cultural heart of West 125th Street. It takes its name from a long ago Harlem hangout for the likes of Willie Mays and James Baldwin. The menu looks to classics of working-class soul food, and the drinks list looks back to the days of Harlem speakeasies. But what’s most remarkable about Samuelsson’s achievement is that at a time when our cities have never felt so stratified by wealth and class, the Red Rooster is a neighborhood joint where all of New York comes together. On any given night, the mix is electric — locals dressed to the nines, fancy cars backed up along Lenox — and folks enjoying fried chicken and infused bourbons at communal tables. Now that’s a man who knows what he’s cooking.
10. Cary Fukunaga
A 34-year-old California native with a Japanese father and a Swedish mother, Cary Fukunaga looks like one of the hottest young American filmmakers in years — and that’s talking about his two feature films, not his admittedly dreamy polyethnic looks. But what movies they are! To this point, Fukunaga has avoided both self-indulgent autobiography and indie-film affectless attitude, and stayed away from the Hollywood production mill, a seemingly impossible combination that’s gotten him compared to Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick, wunderkinds of another era. OK, it’s way too early to draw parallels like that, so let’s state the facts: Fukunaga’s debut feature, “Sin Nombre,” was a violent and gripping thriller shot mostly in Mexico and entirely in Spanish, while his second was a smoldering, rough-hewn adaptation of an English-lit classic, Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre,” built around tremendous performances by Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. That bespeaks a director who’s unafraid of any subject or narrative form, with a vision and confidence many more experienced filmmakers would envy. Fukunaga, who was educated in California, New York and France and speaks three languages, will now reportedly tackle American history with “No Blood, No Guts, No Glory,” a railroad-heist flick set during the Civil War. Let’s put it this way: Whatever he does next, he’s got our attention.
9. Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer
Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer’s story isn’t exactly that of your typical sex symbols. In 2009, the two men (along with Bauer’s girlfriend and now-fiancée, Sarah Shourd) went for a hike in Iraq while on vacation. A few days later, the three were imprisoned in Evin Prison, in Iran, facing charges of espionage. Fattal, an environmental activist and teacher, and Bauer, a freelance photojournalist, were accused of crossing the Iranian border (though witnesses disputed that claim). Over the next two years, they became a cause célèbre and symbol of the nefariousness of the Iranian regime, prompting outrage from everyone from Desmond Tutu to Noam Chomsky.
But when they were suddenly released in September, we discovered another surprising fact: These guys were not only interesting and cute — they were extraordinarily principled. In a press conference a few days after their return to the U.S., Bauer, with Fattal and Shourd standing behind him, described a horrific ordeal and talked about their experiences facing Iranian brutality. But he also made a point that was too provocative for many American news outlets: “In prison, every time we complained about our conditions, the guards would immediately remind us of comparable conditions at Guantánamo Bay. They would remind us of CIA prisons in other parts of the world, and the conditions that Iranians and others experience in prisons in the U.S. … We do believe that these actions on the part of the U.S. provide an excuse for other governments, including the governments of Iran, to act in kind.”
To come through that experience and remain not only compassionate and levelheaded, but true to their convictions, isn’t just extraordinary — it’s inspiring. Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal may have gone through an unimaginable ordeal, but they’ve managed to come out of it with more insight than most Americans will have in a lifetime. It’s about time that we show them just how grateful we are.
8. Manny Pacquiao
In his real job, Manny Pacquiao needs blood lust and a killer instinct. It has served the world’s greatest boxer well in 59 fights. But outside the ring, the boxer — with the Bieber-esque moptop — has an ability to croon romantic ballads that’s just as deadly. On Jimmy Kimmel’s show, he teamed with Will Ferrell for a soaring “Imagine” — and his rendition of “Sometimes When We Touch” makes the sentimental downright swoonworthy.
It’s unlikely for a man with ferocious fists to know his way around a love song. But even hotter? Pacquiao has a humanitarian side that hasn’t been seen in any boxer since Muhammad Ali. In his native Philippines, Pacquiao is considered the greatest national icon in the world (beating out Nelson Mandela, including all others). That might be national pride talking, but Pacquiao — elected to the Filipino Congress in 2010 on his second try — has quickly built a humanitarian record that’s every bit as impressive as his collection of championship belts.
He’s used his platform to push for good works; instead of bad-mouthing opponents in the run-up to a fight, he urges the audience to wear yellow to call attention to the fight against global poverty. When he gets an audience with Sen. Harry Reid before a fight, he uses it to lobby for a bill that would help the garment industry, and in turn, his fellow countrymen. At home in Congress, he’s taken on typhoon relief, improving medical conditions and raising literacy rates. What he can’t achieve politically, Pacquiao handles himself, donating millions to improve living conditions in his poverty-stricken nation.
It’s one thing to be humble and universally adored. It’s something else to put all that personal magnetism on the line to do something more than sell sneakers or collect endorsements. And these days, nothing makes you look good like doing good.
7. Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver
He’s just like your hipster boyfriend — cute, bearded and clad in flannel — only his band is a million times better. In general, Justin Vernon, the falsetto lead singer of indie darling Bon Iver, seems to do everything better. He may appear to follow the ironic woodsman aesthetic of trendy urbanites, but for him it isn’t posturing: He lives in Eau Claire, Wis., hunts and even makes his own sausage. That is, when he isn’t headlining Coachella with collaborator Kanye West. The same goes for his sensitive, romantic vibe: He minored in women’s studies in college and his first critically acclaimed album, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” was written in response to the breakup of a relationship (and his former band) and while holed up by himself in a cabin in the woods.
The eponymously titled “Bon Iver,” released in June, has the same dreamy quality that first enchanted fans — he says his lyrical storytelling aims for “the right kind of opaque, like freezing a painting — but it’s a more collaborative effort than the intensely solitary album that came before it. Despite tremendous successes in the last few years, Vernon is set on keeping the Bon Iver project “manageable and safe” and has elected to get paid the same amount for performances as his bandmates. That sense of integrity and Vernon’s romanticization of simple, everyday American life makes “Bon Iver” just the sort of fairy tale that we need right now.
6. Marc Maron
Comedian Marc Maron likes to quote his old friend Louis C.K. by saying “comedy is for ugly people,” but who is he kidding? Maron may be riddled with neuroses. He may obsess about his weight. But at 48, he is nothing short of a stone fox.
2011 has been quite the year for Maron. He spent decades in near-miss territory, first as a stand-up known for his satiric, philosophical style, and more recently as a host on Air America. When the embattled radio network sacked him (for the third time, he likes to point out), he gave a stiff arm to mainstream success and set up his own podcast in his Los Angeles garage. “WTF With Marc Maron” launched in 2009 as an experiment: An angry guy with nothing to lose, talking about his divorce, his cats, and the one subject he knew better than any other — comedy. But it became a sensation, thanks to controversial interviews with stand-ups Carlos Mencia, Dane Cook, Gallagher (who famously walked out) and his estranged buddy, Louis C.K. Those jaw-dropping conversations are an intoxicating blend of personal disclosure, confrontation and true empathy. Earlier this year, a handful were picked up by NPR. Between a book deal, a new relationship and a smoking hot stand-up career, Maron’s challenge is no longer finding an audience but keeping up with his fans’ insatiable demands. So far, he’s succeeding: Fascinating recent interviews range from Chris Rock to Carrot Top.
Maron is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, and the phrase that might best describe his style is that hallmark of 12-step work, “rigorous honesty” (which can sometimes backfire, as during his attempt to poke fun at former GOP chairmanKen Melhman). He’s hilarious, yes. Those sparkling brown eyes and the whole “hipster John Lennon” look is knee-weakening, yes. But what makes Maron utterly irresistible is the fact that he is exactly the man he claims to be. At a time when the world hungers for authenticity — Marc Maron is the real deal.
5. Aloe Blacc
Aloe Blacc is just the blues singer for our time. The 32-year-old’s pleading but upbeat hit “I Need a Dollar” has been called the anthem of the recession (it was even snagged by HBO as the theme for the series “How to Make It in America”). This isn’t an empty marketing maneuver: He wrote the single with chain-gang songs in mind, while working a corporate gig that soon laid him off. Blacc calls his album “Good Things,” released late last year, a “discourse about capitalism in America.” Even his Twitter feed is regularly peppered with shout-outs to the Occupy Wall Street movement.
In a similar spirit, he’s blindsided reporters by sneaking mentions of things like, oh, the AIDS epidemic into otherwise lightweight interviews. His intellectualism isn’t just for show, either: He graduated on a full academic scholarship from the University of Southern California with a degree in psycho-linguistics. But here’s the best part: Not only is he a smart, well-intentioned artist, but, damn, his music is good too. Critics have made flattering comparisons to Bill Withers’ voice and Gil-Scott Heron’s lyricism. His retro ensembles — fedora, vest, slacks — and James Brown moves are similarly reminiscent of a previous era, one in which music regularly channeled pain into joy.
It doesn’t hurt that he also has a killer smile, knows how to wear a suit and is good with kids.
4. Justin Torres
At a time when it’s easy for a newly minted alum from Iowa’s prestigious MFA program to sign a six-figure book deal on graduation day and revel in the spotlight as the hot literary wunderkind, Justin Torres held back. He spent six years working on his first book, “We the Animals,” and when he finally put the book forward this fall, at 31, his sensitive, autobiographical tale won raves. The Washington Post called him “a tremendously gifted writer whose highly personal voice should excite us in much the same way that Raymond Carver’s or Jeffrey Eugenides’s voice did when we first heard it.”
It’s not that he didn’t have the goods for a first book. The son of a Puerto Rican father and an Irish-Italian mother, Torres grew up poor in upstate New York. He tried drugs, ran away and spent time in a mental institution. That history, as well as a turbulent coming-out story, all informs his beautifully lyrical “We the Animals” – a slender 125 pages, told in short, poetic chapters that capture all the exuberance and complications of sibling bonds
The intense, soulful gaze on his author photo, one that had literati across Brooklyn dreaming of meeting those empathetic eyes, earned Torres a second MFA — as our Most Foxy Author of 2011. But we love Torres’ patience, his commitment to the work, even more. Midway through the book, in a chapter called “Heritage,” the three young brothers are dancing in the kitchen when their father interrupts them. “You ain’t white and you ain’t Puerto Rican,” he shouts. “Watch how a purebred dances, watch how we dance in the ghetto.” It’s a beautiful moment — both poignant and joyous, as these children who will always feel the burden of being mixed-race also celebrate what makes them who they are. And that’s what makes Torres’ writing so electric — he brings us into worlds he’s transcended.
3. Thom Yorke
Thom Yorke’s career has been filled with more unexpected twists than an epic Radiohead song. In the mid-1990s, Radiohead’s frontman proved that he was a great pop musician — releasing two albums of sublime, catchy alt-rock, “Pablo Honey” and “The Bends.” In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he became an avant-garde prophet, defining an era with “OK Computer” and “Kid A.” Then in the late 2000s, he and his bandmates became music industry rebels — pioneering a risky pay-what-you-can business model that could point the way to a future in which artists have no need for record labels. And now, as he’s turned 43, he’s transformed into the most unexpected thing of all: a heartthrob.
His newfound sexiness caught our eye in the music video for “Lotus Flower,” the first single off Radiohead’s gorgeous 2011 album, “King of Limbs.” The clip shows Yorke dancing enthusiastically in front of a series of unremarkable backdrops, dressed in a hip white shirt and jeans. It was a simple image, but it also revealed a playfulness (and physical flexibility) that none of us associated with Thom Yorke. And, as he’s has gotten older and more grizzled, it turns out, he’s matured into his gaunt, unconventional looks.
Then we watched him do the media rounds. Although the rumored Radiohead concert at Occupy Wall Street never happened, he’s spoken out about his support for the movement. (In the past, he’s come out as an environmental activist and spoken out for human rights and Tibetan Freedom.) Yorke used to be the rock icon for indie rockers who wanted to wallow in their own thoughts. Now he’s the rock star for people who actually give a damn. And we couldn’t think of anything sexier.
2. Zach Wahls
In February, 19-year-old Zach Wahls stood before Iowa legislators in his Sunday best and made the strongest argument he could against a constitutional amendment that would outlaw same-sex marriage — and, well, he was it. That’s because the Eagle Scout and University of Iowa engineering student — a model son in all respects — was raised by two women. He said as much in his three-minute speech, even going so far as to venture, “If I was your son, Mr. Chairman, I believe I’d make you very proud.”
We don’t know about Mr. Chairman — the Iowa House ultimately approved the resolution — but his impassioned plea did make quite an impression on us, as well as nearly 2 million YouTube viewers. His viral video even inspired a blogger at Feministing to declare, “Marry me, Zach Wahls” — and she was only one of a dozen complete strangers to propose at that point. It’s no surprise that his show of confidence, bravery and righteousness would garner him attention. Better still, it doesn’t seem to have gone to his head. When Wahls went on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” he deflected her praise by saying, “Well, I’m really a testament to my parents.” If only he’d bring us home to them.
1. Gregg Breinberg
Grade-school choir instructors aren’t typically associated with sexiness — but Gregg Breinberg is hardly typical. The handsome 38-year-old lobbied to start the fifth-grade singing group at Staten Island’s PS 22 in 2000, only to buck choral tradition entirely. The kids didn’t sing classics like “Do-Re-Mi” but rather renditions of pop songs like Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” Instead of carefully choreographed routines, he instructed them to each do their own thing — “feel it, don’t fake it,” as he says.
His ingenuity has paid off. Mr. B, as his kids affectionately call him, started uploading videos of their performances to YouTube in 2006. A link from Perez Hilton — possibly the kindest thing the gossip blogger has ever done — sent them speeding toward viral fame. Since then, the choir has performed for everyone from Tori Amos to Lady Gaga and President Obama. This year alone, they have taken the stage at the Oscars and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” alongside Katy Perry. Their videos have been watched more than 38 million times.
And yet Breinberg, whose brown eyes truly seem to perpetually sparkle, says the choir’s true success is measured in how self-expression through music changes each individual kid. Each year’s group is typically made up of 60 to 70 kids of varying ethnicities and economic backgrounds. Some are academic all-stars, others are barely making the grade; some come from stable families, others from abusive homes. He often finds himself acting as an informal therapist and social worker — but he loves his job and shows no wear from working in a strained public school system, or from how poorly we reward teachers. The level of joy that he conveys while bouncing at his piano bench and gesticulating toward his kids is in especially short supply these days.
To see how Breinberg reacted to the news that he’s our sexiest man of the year, read our Q&A with him, in which he also talks about how music saves kids’ lives and why the choir is his greatest joy, even though it’s killed his personal life (yes, he’s single).