Exercise. Cosmetic surgery. Publicists. These are just a few of the things people will endure in the hopes of becoming the sexiest people alive and getting all the fame and wealth that could come with it. But for some people they either get stuck with it or they achieved that status in ways we or even they never would have seen coming. This list will contain a variety of reactions from the people involved and names both familiar and obscure.
10. John Cleese
Comedy fans know him best as a variety of flustered or haggard authority figures who just can’t seem to get ahead, or gain any respect, in an assortment of roles in Monty Python productions or Fawlty Towers. These days he’s likely to have bit parts in cartoons or play the straight man in family movies, but for years, particularly around the time on his 1988 hit film A Fish Called Wanda, Cleese became enough of a surprise sex symbol that he got jobs like unironically playing a bronzed beach bum in a Schweppes commercial.
Cleese himself was particularly cruel in mocking the idea that he should ever have become a sex symbol at all. He went on the UK show Aspel and revealed that even in his late forties, he’d lost all his original teeth and hadn’t bothered to get half of them replaced at the time of the interview, commenting, “I am told I am a sex symbol now…if I have some teeth implanted in there, I will be able to chew on both sides, which is essential for a sex symbol.” Even without all his teeth having been replaced, his jibes had plenty of bite.
9. Ruth Snyder
On March 20, 1927, lovers Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd Gray ruthlessly (no pun intended) murdered her husband Albert, and attempted (very badly) to stage a burglary to collect insurance. They were found out swiftly, and quickly confessed to the murder. The result was that the pair became media fixtures to a very ridiculous extent. As Bill Bryson wrote in One Summer, the murder and trial received more coverage than the sinking of the Titanic even though the couple had already confessed, so the result would have been effectively a foregone conclusion.
Ruth Snyder was not conventionally attractive by current or contemporary standards. Still, the fact the murder was performed by people in an extramarital affair added a sexual element that compelled the media to insist she was a beautiful seductress with attributes like “perfect… blond hair,” which was clearly wrong. She received numerous fan letters and offers of marriage, enough to fill a neighboring jail cell. Tacky media coverage continued to the end, with a write up for the newspaper The Mirror saying of her execution, “The body that once throbbed with the joy of her sordid bacchanals turned brick red as the current struck.” Can you imagine a report of an execution today in even the most tawdry tabloid saying “the body that the condemned had used for sex was deprived of life?” Today the story is probably best known for inspiring the classic 1944 film noir Double Indemnity.
8. Jeremy Meeks
No one looks their best when they’re getting a mugshot taken. But in the summer of 2014, repeat offender Jeremy Meeks had his taken when he began a 27 month sentence for unlawful possession of a firearm and Crips gang membership. The result was a mugshot that would take the internet by storm. Under the title “Hot Felon,” the above picture of his piercing blue-eyed stare became so popular that modelling agencies, and even porn companies, sought him out.
Initially, 30-year-old Meeks didn’t seem particularly interested in this attention, but by 2016 he’d completely changed his mind and sought out Jim Jordan to be his manager. Since his release in March of 2016 there’s been little word about how successful his new career has been, although Jordan insisted he was receiving constant messages from clothing designers and the like saying that they wanted Meeks to model for them. However true that is, it seems like a particularly good way to get a potentially violent repeat offender off the streets.
7. Shakir Wahiyib
ISIS is likely the most feared organization in the world, with its surprising power and willingness to commit extreme violence in the name of religion. They’re also a very surprising organization in that they’re very willing to do hypocritical and foolish things in a public manner. One of the most memorable of those was when, in 2014, an executioner named Shakir Wahiyib gained a lot of publicity. He was unusual in that when he was filmed murdering people, he didn’t cover his face like most active members of ISIS. Because of his rugged good looks, he gained something of a following in the Middle East, even in the areas where he could be executing people. He even began taking glamour photos, like the one above. He actually became a cover model for jihadi magazines.
Despite how ISIS itself poses as an ultra-conservative Muslim organization, Wahiyib’s form of self-promotion through sex appeal actually isn’t that out of line with ISIS strategy. There are numerous attempts on their part to try to recruit people on Facebook and other social media, and similarly themed methods. Still, shameless hypocrisy is really only rarely a barrier to success in the real world.
6. Bernice Smith
The use of sex appeal for military recruiting is nothing new, and a case somewhat similar to Wahiyib dates back to 1917. Bernice Smith, a 20-year-old from California, was passing a recruiting center when she remarked something along the lines of, “I wish I were a man, I’d join the Navy.” A poster illustrator named Howard Christy happened to be present when she said that, and talked Smith into posing for a sexually suggestive (especially for around the time of World War I) poster, the first of its kind for the purpose of Naval recruiting.
Despite the arguably base nature of the job, Smith was not speaking idly, and actually did join the Navy. She was the first California woman to do so, and her career was fairly distinguished beyond that. She rose to the rank of chief yeomen (meaning she was promoted six times), and after she was told she was too old for a second tour, she switched to enlisting in the army instead. Apparently, she didn’t bother posing for a landmark recruiting poster for that group.
5. Ernst-Hugo Järegård
Riget (or as it’s known to English speakers, The Kingdom) is a Danish TV show from the early ’90s created by Lars Von Trier, that was basically a combination of a hospital drama and a supernatural thriller. It’s also a comedy. That sort of thing might sound like it wouldn’t fly in America, but you need to watch the pilot of the attempted American adaptation Kingdom Hospital to really see just how much it would fail.
The main character for the series is a Dr. Stig Helmer, who had the personality of Dr. Gregory House but without much of the competence. Despite the man who portrayed him, Ernst-Hugo Järegård, not being a very conventionally handsome by television standards, the character became something of a sex symbol in Denmark. This left Järegård himself very surprised, as the character is not only unlikable, but is so bigoted towards the Danish that his trademark was to go onto the roof of the hospital and yell, “Danish scum!”
4. Scarlett Johansson
Hold on a second before you start throwing things at the computer screen for this one, okay? Today, Scarlett Johansson enjoys such prominent status as a sex symbol that a man spent fifty thousand dollars developing a robot replica of her. Esquire magazine put her at the top of the “sexy” charts in both 2006 and 2013. She’s basically the modern day epitome of the term “sex symbol.”
But you know what? It wasn’t something she wanted in the slightest, as she said in an interview in 2012. She refused to diet as much as was expected for a Hollywood star and sought roles that would make her a character actor. After all, who would have watched unconventional films like Ghost World and Match Point and thought she was a performer going for mainstream success and a glamorous image with those? Part of what she disliked about it was that she felt “pigeonholed” when she was elevated to the rank of star/sex symbol, but couldn’t turn down roles offered by Joss Whedon and Woody Allen. In light of the aforementioned robot, her issues with being that sort of public figure become pretty understandable.
3. Barry White
For decades, White was such a prominent sex symbol in the entertainment industry that his name became shorthand for music that was used to get someone in the mood. With his voice and his classic songs like “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” and “My First, My Last, My Everything,” this might seem inevitable. But Barry White didn’t even enter the music industry intending to sing, let alone attempting to become a worldwide audio aphrodisiac. His interests were in being a songwriter and a producer, and he actually had to be pestered for months in 1972 by media mogul Larry Nunes to try and provide vocals for his own album.
While we associate his sort of music with lounge singers and all the now-dated elements such as mood lighting, garish clothing, etc., White dismissed all that stuff even when it was trendy instead of (at best) retro. He claimed that the only thing that mattered to him was producing high quality music. To that end, he spent years turning down offers that would have would have exposed him to audiences nationwide because he didn’t think the sound equipment was good, or that the presentation of him as a sex symbol would have been “plastic.” Rarely has a performer had greatness so completely thrust upon them.
2. Ariana Grande
If Scarlett Johansson became a sex symbol reluctantly because it might interfere with her ability to perform as a character actor, singing megastar Ariana Grande claims that she was downright uncomfortable with being considered an object of desire. She stated in a 2013 interview with the San Francisco Gate, after she’d made her name on the squeaky-clean Nickelodeon TV show Victorious, that she not only didn’t consider herself one, she didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of being one or doing any of the stuff that would come with being one.
She wasn’t “comfortable being sexy,” and had nothing to prove as far as fashion choices went, or demonstrating her maturity through her sexuality. Like Barry White, she wanted the focus to remain on her music instead of her appearance. Considering that in March of 2016 she released the music video “Dangerous Women,” which included her performing in lingerie, it seems that she eventually overcame her issues with presenting her body in a sexualized way while providing worthwhile music.
1. Colin Firth
In 2004, this internationally acclaimed actor was named one of the sexiest men alive by People magazine, mostly because of his role as Mr. Darcy in the first Bridget Jones movie. It was an especially impressive trick to pull off, considering he was in his 40s, and in 2008 he said that he had never wanted to be a sex symbol. His issues with it seemed to come down to finding it bizarre, and thinking that if he embraced it, it would make him vain enough that a few years down the line he would be worrying about why no one thought of him as sexy any more. He was, however, fine with being, “what the Americans call a ‘hottie.’”
Even after more than six years of hearing stories about he had become one, and having in the meantime won an Academy Award for The King’s Speech in 2014, he still didn’t feel like a sex symbol at all. Keep in mind, he’d heard stories about how his elderly fans were being advised by medical professionals that they couldn’t safely watch his movies. The man is literally so sexy it hurts (other people, anyway). Presumably, for a married, middled aged man with children, being a sex symbol without having to make even the slightest bit of effort is the best of all possible worlds.
Adam & Dustin Koski co-wrote the exciting and hilarious fantasy book Forust: A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong.