Who wants to be the sexiest geek alive?

Instead of cheesecake poses, techies on parade answer questions like "What's a meta tag?" in a geek pageant that the media is eating up.

Published March 7, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

There will be no pasty-white swimsuit competition. And the earnest contestants aren't expected to muse about their dreams of world peace or ending hunger. But the first Sexiest Geek Alive pageant, to be held next week as a part of the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, has spawned its own breed of pageant puffery.

Mainstream media outlets from "Good Morning America" to the Montel Williams show have piled onto the event, which began as a charity fund-raiser designed to let geeks strut their knowledge of operating systems and "Star Trek" in front of their peers. It's become an opportunity for TV viewers to gawk at those brainiacs who actually know what ASCII stand for: "Hey come here honey, it's those guys who play Quake instead of having sex."

"It's a unisex brains pageant, not a beauty pageant," says the creator of the event, Steven Phenix, public relations director for ClubCastLive, which will be webcasting the fanfare March 14.

The 12 finalists, who have been chosen from more than 18,000 applicants, will be evaluated on their brains, personality and technical creds. "The judges will be instructed that looks are not a part of this," says Phenix, adding "the biggest, most attractive sexual organ is definitely the brain." Anyone can vote for their favorite brain on the pageant's Web site.

The pageant joins a crowd of other recent efforts to ferret out sex appeal in the Net economy. But unlike, for instance, Women.com's recent Valentine's list of Silicon Valley's most eligible bachelors -- which sought out hunky, stock-option holders -- this pageant encourages the thinking that geekiness equals sexiness.

Finalist Tod Beardsley of Pittsburgh got the Microsoft Windows logo tattooed on his leg just to up his candidacy. "I'm out of shape, but I'm not a bad-looking guy," boasts another finalist, Tony Northrup of Watertown, Mass., an engineer at GTE Internetworking, in his online application.

But will recasting "geeky" as "sexy" play not just at an industry conference but in the rest of the country? The networks apparently think so. "Good Morning America" last week flew 11 of the finalists and Phenix to New York, after spotting a story about the event in USA Today. Co-host Charles Gibson was scratching his head in gee-whiz amazement as he quizzed the geeks about some of the questions they'd answered to make it to the finals: "What does PCMCIA stand for? Whoa!" he gushed. "And what is a meta tag? Anybody know what a meta tag is?" The geeks gamely ponied up the answers, no doubt to the amazement of viewers at home. Tune in next week when the sexiest veterinarians alive show off their canonical knowledge of basset hound ailments!

Phenix, ever the promoter, didn't miss the opportunity to shamelessly plug his company, appearing on the popular morning show wearing a T-shirt with ClubCastLive's URL emblazoned on the front. He says that one of the show's producers worried about the free advertisement and asked him to change his shirt, but relented and later decided that the URL on the TV just looked, well, geeky.

"Good Morning America" will film the pageant in Austin and conduct a live satellite interview the following morning with the winner, who takes home nothing but bragging rights -- and a lot of free press. Meanwhile, Montel Williams will have a number of the finalists on his show to do a "mentoring session" to reach out to high school geeks, and show them that they're not alone. And that's not all: "Regis and Kathie Lee are interested," Phenix gloats.

Geeks, it seems, will inherit, if not the earth, the tube, because what could be "sexier" than a contestant who reveals that he was the first person hired (wink, wink) by Broadcast.com, which he reminds us merged with Yahoo in a $5.4 billion deal last year. And what could be an easier way into the "human story" behind the Net than a gaggle of techies on parade?

But the irony is that the stereotypical geek -- the very archetype that the media wants to put on display -- is more comfortable behind a screen than on a stage. In fact, Lisa Harvey, a database administrator who started programming in BASIC when she was 6, was so nervous about the "Good Morning America" appearance that she had to bring her mom with her for moral support. Of course, for some geekophiles, that might be sexy.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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