DREAM ON

Esquire's sexy starlet is the hoax with the most


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David Futrelle
November 1, 1996 5:23PM (UTC)

It's a stunt reminiscent of Esquire's glory days in the '60s: The current issue of the men's mag offers up a breathless profile of "Hollywood's Next Dream Girl," budding starlet Allegra Coleman. Writer Martha Sherrill chronicles the life of "the Allegra Coleman nobody knows," from her minor movie role as a deaf swimmer in "Cliffhanger" to the scandalous nude photos of her with "on-again, off-again boyfriend" David Schwimmer that burst their way into the tabloid press some months ago.

Coleman, Sherrill suggests, has a "simple, irresistible vulgarity" that Gwyneth Paltrow and Matthew McConaughey can never match; she's "one giant ka-boom of a girl." Her fans include Woody Allen, Bernardo Bertolucci, Andrew Dice Clay — and even new-age faith healer Deepak Chopra. "She is without blind vanities," Chopra tells Esquire. "Her nature is spongy and luminescent."

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And fictional. Yes, Allegra Coleman is altogether imaginary — a dreamy creature cooked up by writer Martha Sherrill and "played" by model Ali Larter in the sometimes-doctored photos that accompany the piece. It's a wonderful parody of celebrity puff profiles — and one that's reportedly garnered Larter herself more than a few calls from morning TV shows and others who want to make her a star in the real world.
And Coleman, if she were taking calls, would have received more than a few. "There are some people in the entertainment industry who haven't gotten the joke yet," Esquire publicist Peter Vertes says. After the piece came out, he fielded a series of "increasingly frantic calls" from talent scouts at 20th Century Fox anxious to get their hands on the budding starlet — until he finally clued them in on the prank. A gullible reporter at
the St. Louis Post-Dispatch angrily denounced Esquire's seeming celebration of Coleman's brainless banality. And one irate friend of David Schwimmer called to protest Esquire's invasion of privacy.
Neither Larter nor Coleman has a web page devoted to her yet — and I can't find those nude pictures of Allegra and David on the beach anywhere. But Coleman seems to have snuck herself onto the All-Time Glamour Girls Survey, a regularly-conducted Net poll rating some "1,850 gorgeous women from all fields of entertainment." She's now nestled safely between Claudette Colbert (rated number 527 by survey-takers) and Joan Collins (number 75). It's an honor, of sorts, for a glamor girl who isn't even real.
The hoax may have jump-started Ali Larter's career. But can it jump-start Esquire's as well? The sheer ingenuity of the faux story is leading many to ask if the usually-listless magazine, after years of irrelevance, is back to its old tricks at last.

Up until recently, the news for the magazine was all bad: Esquire's ad pages have been dropping precipitously of late, making the magazine thinner than ever, and its trademark mixture of fashion "sophistication" and retro masculine pleasures seems increasingly out of touch with the times. Its circulation, a little under 700,000, has slipped below that of GQ, its nearest competitor — and is approximately the same as it was back in its early years in the Depression 1930s. This past July, a prominent article in the New York Times suggested the magazine was undergoing a "fundamental crisis of identity," and asked rhetorically: "Has Reading Esquire Gone Out of Style?" It's the kind of question — like "Is that your real hair?" or "Did you know you look like Michael Bolton?" — that has no good answer.
While magazines like GQ are content to proffer a softer kind of manliness, Esquire seems determined to hang on to its old code of macho. In the September issue, for instance, contributing editor Michael Segell offered up a lengthy paean to the "Alpha Male" — a tough-guy go-getter in both the "boardroom and the bedroom" — and a seven-page spread on the joy of cigars.
(Cynics might note that cigar makers are among the magazine's few remaining advertisers.) The Summer Fiction issue drew readers in with a scantily clad beach bunny on the cover; other recent issues have featured stories about the subtle pleasures of dangerous women, Al Pacino, James Bond, the Rat Pack, "human cockfights," and women's butts.
Esquire has always been just a teensy bit defensive about its manhood. When the magazine was launched in 1933, editor Arnold Gingrich knew he had a tough sell to make: he was trying to get a fashion magazine into the hands of those most resistant to fashion. And so, from the beginning, he tried to reassure his readers that Esquire was a magazine with "ample hair on its chest," alternating fashion spreads with unapologetically misogynist cartoons and manly fiction by the likes of Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett.
The mix of effeminate fashion and manly misogyny seemed to work — though it
wasn't until the 1960s, under the editorship of Harold Hayes, that Esquire finally hit its stride. In the Hayes years, Esquire helped to launch the career of photographer Diane Arbus, regularly challenged its readers with provocative covers designed by George Lois, and provided an outlet for the unclassifiable literary journalism of Norman Mailer, Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe — in the process helping to invent what Wolfe called "the new journalism."

Since then, though, the magazine has lost its novelty, its purpose — and now, it seems, its audience. It's still running
pieces by Mailer, Talese et al — and when '60s literatus Thomas Pynchon returned, momentarily, from his self-imposed exile, he headed straight for Esquire ... with a dull little interview of an obscure band that never would have been published had his name not been attached at the top. (Sample question: "So how does touring in Europe compare to touring in the U.S.?")

It's not hard to see why readers and advertisers have switched over to GQ, a magazine that offers a similar mixture of serious journalism, celebrity puffery and "service" features — but without Esquire's overcompensatory masculine preening. Sure, GQ offers up some pretty trite stuff from time to time — its current cover story on Elizabeth Shue is exactly the kind of celebrity droolfest that Sherrill's piece so effectively skewers. But at least GQ seems to be a magazine of its time, rather than a strange holdout from the swinging '60s.
The Allegra Coleman hoax is likely to offer the sexy grandpas in Esquire's audience a pretty hefty shock to the system — as will Jonathan Van Meter's November-issue disquisition on the "post-gay man," a smart and subtle celebration of "faggy" guys of any and all sexual orientations.
I wonder, though, if Esquire will have the courage (or the imagination) to go any further. After all, there are undoubtedly many "Alpha males" amongst its readers who'd prefer the brainless perfection of an Allegra Coleman to the complex imperfections of real-world women, and who won't appreciate Esquire's little joke at their expense. And there are undoubtedly many more who won't even get the joke at all — or even realize there is a joke to get.
I somehow doubt that the November issue presages a return to the glory days a third of a century ago. Still, it's heartening to see a little bit of the old Esquire back — if only for a moment. As Allegra Coleman might say, I'm,
like, tra-la-la about the whole thing.


David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

MORE FROM David Futrelle

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