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The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

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Objectify Yourself

Mark Simpson on the (self) sexualisation of today’s male body & why straight young men crave gay adulation

(Originally appeared in Out Magazine, February 2015)

Male self-objectification is, as they like to say on social media, a “thing.”

There’s been a rash lately of so-called “gender flip” memes, in which people pretend to be impressed by male hipsters pretending to subvert sexism by ironically adopting the clichéd poses of sexualized women. Although sometimes funny and instructive, especially when it involves licking sledgehammers, the anti-sexism of many of these gender flip memes depends on a (hetero)sexist assumption that men just aren’t meant to be objectified — so it’s hilarious when they are.

Rather than, say, that the men adopting these cheesecake poses usually just aren’t very attractive.

It also relies on jamming your eyes shut in order not to notice how men who aren’t meme-generating hipsters prefer to stake their claim to our attention not on faux feminism but rather on sweat-soaked gym sessions, pricey supplements, plunging necklines, and general shamelessness. And as with sex itself, there’s nothing ironic about it. It’s a very serious, very profitable business.

At the multiplex, Chris Evans keeps blinding us with his all-American oiled bazookas. Channing Tatum and his bun chums keep whipping their pecs and asses out and — who knows? — may even finally deliver the man goods in this year’s sequel, Magic Mike XXL. Meanwhile, Guardians of the Galaxy recently wowed the world by proving that even previously pudgy Chris Pratt (of Parks and Recreation fame) can be a Men’s Health cover girl. And Chris Hemsworth was named “Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine on account of his long lashes, big guns, and huge hammer.

There’s even an MTV Movie Award for “Best Shirtless Performance,” which in 2014 went to Zac Efron for That Awkward Moment — but only after he stripped again, onstage at the ceremony, without being awkward about it at all.

Zac Efron suddenly feeling very hot.

Zac Efron suddenly feeling very hot.

True, Hollywood too often still feels the need to justify big-screen male sluttiness with CGI heroics, a kind of muscular Christianity in spandex — insisting, in effect, that this is virile activity, not gay/girly passivity. And as if to keep that sluttiness further in check, it often limits the nude or topless male scenes to one per 100-minute movie.

Perhaps because it caters more to women, TV is a relatively unbuttoned medium when it comes to the male body. Even TV superheroes such as Stephen Amell’s Arrow are often costume-optional. Maybe because their male characters are already damned, gothic shows like True Blood, Teen Wolf, and The Vampire Diaries are positively pulsing with appetizing boy flesh. It’s enough to make anyone grow fangs. And the young, buff men of reality TV — the Jersey Shorettes — are everywhere, wearing very little, and doing even less. Except demanding we look at them.

Dan Osborne gif

The “structure” of structured reality TV is usually unveiled male V-shapes. In the U.K., a voluptuously endowed, cheeky, straight(ish) guy in The Only Way Is Essex (the U.K. Jersey Shore equivalent) called Dan Osborne became a national hero in 2014 after wearing glittery Speedos on prime time on another reality show,Splash! — even upstaging his mentor, the perfectly formed Olympic diver Tom Daley.

The 23-year-old Osborne, like a lot of today’s self-objectifying straight men, loves The Gays. Really loves them. Last year he appeared in the U.K. gay magazine Attitude, very generously offering readers his shapely bubble butt across a double-page spread, with the strapline “Sex is fun. Be safe and enjoy it.” He told Attitude, “I’ve had a few bum pinches, and I don’t mind that at all. Maybe it’s because a guy knows how hard it is to train, so they appreciate it more.”

Underwear model and wounded Marine vet Minsky embraces the gaze

Underwear model and wounded Marine vet Minsky embraces the ga(y)ze

Here in the States, pumped underwear model Alex Minsky — the indelibly inked U.S. Marine Corps vet and amputee — is very happy to mercilessly titillate his many appreciative gay fans with naked naughtiness. And even a major film star like James Franco can’t seem to leave them alone, posting all those semi-naked selfies on his Instagram feed.

The way straight young men chase and hustle gay attention today represents a major, millennial shift in attitudes. Part of the reason that men offering themselves as sex objects were frowned upon in the past was that they could be objectified by anyone — including people with penises. They were queered by the penetrating queer gaze.

Now they beg and plead for it. They instinctively know that male objectification is about enjoying and celebrating male passivity, even — and especially — if you’re straight. So getting the gays proves not only your hotness, and coolness, but also your metaphysical versatility. It proves that you are a proper, fully fledged, all-singing, all-dancing sex object.

Blame the metrosexual, who was born two decades ago, outing male vanity and the masculine need to be noticed. In just a generation, the male desire to be desired, or “objectified,” to use that ugly word — which the metrosexual exemplified — has become mainstream: It’s regarded as a right by today’s selfie-admiring young men, regardless of sexual orientation. In a visual world, men want to be wanted too — otherwise, they might disappear. They also need to look a lot at other men in order to better understand how to stand out.

Second-generation metrosexuality is very obviously more body-centered and hardcore — or spornosexual. Young men today want to be wanted, not for their wardrobes, but for their bodies. Bodies they spend a great deal of time, effort, and money fashioning into hot commodities down at the gym, tanning salon, and designer tattoo parlor — and then uploading to the online marketplace of social media for “likes,” “shares,” and cutthroat comparisons with their pals.

It shouldn’t be so surprising. Today’s young men are growing up with a different idea of “normal,” in which European and Australian professional rugby players are happy to strip down and oil up. The highly homoerotic, highly provocative Dieux du Stade calendars of rugby players in the buff became only slightly less homoerotic when adapted by Dolce and Gabbana in their megabucks advertising campaigns starring the Italian World Cup soccer team. David Beckham and then Cristiano Ronaldo offered similar favors for Armani, followed by lithe Spanish tennis ace Rafael Nadal, who is currently filling out the Italian designer packet. And former Australian rugby league player Nick Youngquest is now the body and face — in that order — of Paco Rabanne.

Gays are no longer a despised or marginalized niche — they’re leverage. If you get the gays panting, you eventually get everyone else.

David-Gandy-Naked-Sexy-595x416

David Gandy, possibly the world’s only male supermodel who isn’t a professional athlete, has a darkly handsome, model-perfect face. But his sensual, athletic, beautiful body is his calling card. So it is entirely apt that he was “made” by Mr. & Mr. D&G, who cast him in their famous 2007 “Light Blue” campaign, in a boat off Capri, wearing scandalously abbreviated D&G swim trunks, glistening in the sun and lying back, hands behind his head, awaiting our attention. He was accompanied by a foxy lady (Marija Vujovic), but he was the unquestioned object of the camera’s gaze.

Seven years on, it’s still his trademark. In a clip for Gandy’s recent Autograph underwear campaign, the camera, in extreme close-up, licks down his naked torso towards his naked, shaved groin — then fades out just in time.

It’s clear to anyone who wants to notice that in the spornosexual 21st century, the male body has been radically redesigned. With the help of some “objectifying” blueprints from Tom of Finland, it is no longer simply an instrumental thing for extracting coal, building ships, making babies, fighting wars, and taking the trash out. Instead it has become a much more sensual, playful thing for giving and especially receiving pleasure.

Or as the young men of the Warwick University rowing team put it in a promotional quote for the 2015 version of their now famous nude charity calendar, dedicated to fighting homophobia in sports and rammed with arty ass shots: “Regardless of gender or sexuality, we are inviting you into that moment with us.”

Naked Rowers

GandyCoverx1000

From Metrosexual to Spornosexual – Two Decades of Male Deliciousness

‘Metrodaddy’ Mark Simpson on the evolution of male vanity

(Originally appeared in The Daily Telegraph June 10, 2015)

In a development which will probably have him running to the mirror yet again to search anxiously for lines, this year the metrosexual leaves his teens and turns twenty. How quickly your children grow up. Although it seems only yesterday, I first wrote about him in 1994 after attending an exhibition organised by GQ magazine called ‘It’s a Man’s World’. I’d seen the future of masculinity and it was moisturised.

‘Metrosexual man, the single young man with a high disposable income, living or working in the city (because that’s where all the best shops are) is perhaps the most promising consumer market of the decade,’ I predicted.

Two decades of increasingly out and proud – and highly lucrative – male vanity later, and the metrosexual remains the apple of consumerism’s rapacious eye. In a recent report HSBC drooled all over his ‘Yummy’-ness, breathlessly pointing out how mainstream metrosexuality has become.

This was of course old news to anyone with eyes to see the extremely image-conscious and product-consuming men around them – or in bed with them – frantically trying to attract our attention. Or the way that the glistening pecs and abs of Men’s Health magazine have been outselling the glamor breasts of ‘lad mags’ for several years.

Or indeed anyone who saw the news last year that UK men now spend more on shoes than women.

Hard to believe in such a fragranced, buffed, ripped, groomed, selfie-adoring and social ME-dia saturated world as ours now is, the metrosexual had to struggle to be heard in an un-tucked ‘no-homo’ early 1990s. Most people were in New Lad denial about what was happening to men and why they were taking so long in the bathroom.

Just as male homosexuality was still stigmatised and partly criminalised back then, the male desire to be desired – the self-regarding heart of metrosexuality – was still scorned by many. Narcissism was still seen as ‘essentially feminine’.

Or Wildean – and look what happened to him. The trials at the end of the 19th Century of Oscar Wilde, the last dandy who famously proclaimed that ‘to love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance’,  had stamped, like a steam-powered die, a Victorian division of sexual labour over much of the 20th Century. Male vanity was at best womanish – but more likely simply passive and perverted.

The arrival of a shiny new Millennium, the abolition of the last laws discriminating against homosexuality, and the arrival of the preening dominance of celebrity culture with its Darwinian struggle to be noticed in a visual, ‘branded’ world finally blew away the last remnants of Victorianism.

To illustrate this I only have to mention two words: David Beckham. The working class family man England footballer who became much more globally famous for his attention-seeking haircuts, unabashed prettiness and rampant desire to be desired than for his footballing skills. Once the sarong-wearing, gay loving, cheek-sucked male model midfielder was outed in 2002 (by me again, sorry) as flamingly metrosexual, everyone suddenly ‘got it’. All that Nineties denial turned into incessant Noughties chatter about metrosexuals and ‘male grooming’. Often to little purpose.

In fact, the momentous nature of the masculine revolution that metrosexuality represents has been largely obscured by much of the superficial coverage it got. Metrosexuality is, in a paradox that Wilde would have relished, not skin deep. It’s not about facials and manbags, guyliner and flip flops. It’s not about men becoming ‘girly’ or ‘gay’. It’s about men becoming everything. To themselves. Just as women have been encouraged to do for some time.

This uptake by men of products, practises and pleasures previously ring-fenced for women and gay men is so normal now – even if we still need to be reassured with the word ‘man’ or ‘guy’ strapped on the front, like a phallic pacifier – that it’s taken for granted by young men today who really have become everything. So much so that it can be really too much for the older generation of metrosexuals.

With their painstakingly pumped and chiselled bodies, muscle-enhancing tattoos, piercings, adorable beards and plunging necklines, it’s eye-catchingly clear that second generation metrosexuality is less about clothes than it was for the first. Eagerly self-objectifying, second generation metrosexuality is totally tarty. Their own bodies more than clobber and product have become the ultimate accessory, fashioning them at the gym into a hot commodity – one that they share and compare in the online marketplace.

This new wave of metrosexuality has hyped the ‘sexual’ part and become ‘spornosexual’ – the pumped-up offspring of those spornographic Ronaldo and Beckham lunch-box ads where sport got into bed with porn while Mr Armani took pictures. But unlike Beckham, whose attributes were possibly artificially enhanced, today’s baby Beckhams have photoshopped themselves in real life. Think Dan Osborne in a pair of glittery Speedos. (And then have a lie down.)

Glossy magazines cultivated early metrosexuality. Celebrity culture then sent it into orbit. But for today’s generation social media, selfies and porn is the major vector of the male desire to be desired. They want to be wanted for their bodies more than their wardrobe. And definitely not their minds.

I suspect Wilde, who famously enjoyed feasting with panthers, would have approved. I certainly do. Even if I’m a little bit frightened too.

Reset the Gaydar – Tom Daley’s ‘Not Gay’

Tom Daley showering

(Originally appeared on Guardian CiF, 11/09/13)

Tom Daley isn’t gay. But the bronze medallist Olympic diver and presenter of celebrity Speedo show Splash! – recently voted ‘World’s Sexiest Man’ by the readers of gay mag Attitude – doesn’t mind if you think he is. Last weekend he told The Mirror:

“I think it’s funny when people say I’m gay… I laugh it off,” says Tom… “I’m not. But even if I was, I wouldn’t be ashamed. It wouldn’t bother me in the slightest what people thought.’

Quite a few gay pals of mine know better. Not because of any special ‘inside information’ gleaned from the gay grapevine mind, but simply because they ‘can tell’. Because they’ve seen him on telly they seem to know his sexual orientation better than Daley does himself. Maybe it’s because he smiles a lot, takes care over his appearance, is well-mannered and loves his mum. Or maybe it’s because he doesn’t have a girlfriend at the moment.

But whatever the reason I suspect many of them might be rather less convinced – or interested in expressing an opinion at all – if Tom didn’t look hot in a pair of spectacularly abbreviated swimming trunks.

This kind of gay insistence about Daley’s sexuality (and other pretty boys in the public eye, such as the Olympic gymnast and Strictly star Louis Smith) isn’t malicious, in fact it’s meant very affectionately. But unlike Daley I’m not quite so inclined to laugh it off. In a sense it’s the ‘friendly fire’ version of the homophobic tweets Daley has experienced, and the bullying which made him change schools. Unintentionally it reinforces straight-and-narrow and increasingly obsolete ideas about what boys should and shouldn’t be – if they don’t conform to that then they ‘must’ be gay. Though in the snuggly sense of ‘one of us’ – rather than the phobic sense of ‘one of them’.

Perhaps, for the sake of argument, despite what he actually says Daley ‘really’ is gay, or bisexual. Perhaps he’s currently kidding himself, or us – or both. But so what if he is? He’s nineteen. People should be prepared let Tom be Tom and not project their own past onto his present.

Although gay people – myself included – often pride themselves on their ‘gaydar’, their ability to ‘spot’ another gay person, it’s a very imprecise instrument and getting more so all the time. Now that the streets are awash with pretty, moussed, moisturised, gym-toned young men in pastel colours that look like they’re auditioning to be in One Direction – and who, like boy band stars don’t mind showing physical affection for one another – the poor old gaydar is getting very jammed indeed. Perhaps it’s time to turn it off, or at least dial it down a bit. Particularly since Grindr is a much more accurate detection system.

In a world where being gay – or looking gay – is no longer such a big deal, a world that gay people worked hard to bring about, perhaps we shouldn’t make such a big deal out whether someone ‘really’ is or isn’t any more. Especially if they’re as generous with their fit body as Daley. (Who, by the way, was born the same year as the metrosexual.)

Like many lads today Daley clearly loves to be looked at – and he has way of showering after a dive in front of billions that is, shall we say, very sensual. It’s part of the reason he welcomes the gaze of gays. As he told The Mirror.

“I can understand why I have a massive gay following – I spend most of my life half naked in trunks on a diving board showing off my bare chest.

“I often joke I wear more to bed than I do to work.”

Being voted the sexiest guy in the world by a gay magazine (Daley’s aesthetic daddy David Beckham was runner-up) might result in your straight mates ‘gently taking the mick’ as Daley reports, but in this age of rampant male tartiness, in which almost every straight male athlete that doesn’t look like the back end of a bus has been on the cover of a gay mag in their knickers, they’re probably more than a tad jealous too.

 

Update – Tom Daley Comes Out – As Happy

The Perfect Mandate: Obama & Becks (& the Media)

David Beckham, global poster-boy for metrosexuality, sporting an Edwardian beard, had a hot date with Obama at the White House today.

Though he had to bring his team-mates along as LA Galaxy were being honoured with a reception after winning the Major League Soccer Cup, America’s equivalent of the Premiership.

After listing the soccer star’s achievements, introducing him joshingly as a “young up-and-comer,” and adding that, “half your teammates could be your kids”, Obama quipped (almost fluffing the line): “It’s a rare man that can be that tough on the field and have his own line of underwear.”

Or as rare as a GQ Commander in Chief?

Contrary to recent reports, Obama is not the first gay President. He’s the first metrosexual President. Or as I wrote in Metrosexy:

“A well-dressed mixed-race, poly­glot male who makes the Free World wait on his gym visit every morn­ing. A man whose looks are reg­u­larly praised – par­tic­u­larly by male jour­nal­ists. A man who won the Demo­c­ra­tic nom­i­na­tion in part because he was much pret­tier than his more expe­ri­enced female oppo­nent. His wife Michelle is very attrac­tive too, of course – but in some ways Obama is the first US Pres­i­dent to be his own First Lady.”

Which makes the Beckham and Obama’s hot date quite a historic occasion.

I can’t quite decide though whether Obama’s own rampant metrosexuality makes his bitchy remark to Beckham about his underwear funny or a bit… pants.

Metrosexual Smoothie

Burger King have come a long way from their ‘manthem’ anti-metro backlash days of the mid Noughties in which they literally sang the praises of fatty food.

Now their ads star the ultimate metrosexual smoothie, David Beckham, who is given the kind of soft-focus, mouth-watering treatment in this ad that used to be reserved for their ‘man-food’ Whoppers. Beckham is the ‘exciting thing’ happening at Burger King.

And he really does have a very appetising, seductive smile. Even his terrible acting is appealing. There is also something charmingly submissive about the way he pleads for his order. No wonder the female server is transfixed.

Like BK’s new menu, which includes freshly-made low-calorie fruit smoothies, chicken strips and ‘snack-wraps’ – or what might once have been called ‘girl-food’ – Beckham is part of a push to rebrand BK, whose sales have been plummeting. Even back in the Noughties, ‘manthem’ was an attempt to make a manly virtue out of BK’s accelerating obsolescence. Clearly even that approach isn’t working any more.

The ad rams home the rebranding of BK by playing up the omnisexual appeal of the metrosexual pin-up. The middle-aged male manager also finds himself captivated by Becks’ beauty midway through saying ‘I am sorry David we make them fresh every time with… fruit.’ It’s unclear whether the manager is actually a ‘fruit’ himself or just another straight man who finds himself strangely drawn by Beckham’s beguiling looks. Probably the latter as he seems genuinely surprised by his own response.

Beckham the equal opps narcissist isn’t phased of course and replies, with an indulgent smile: ‘No problem, John’.

The only part that mystifies me is why anyone, male or female, straight or gay, would fantasise that the be-jeaned and denim-shirted Becks before them was actually dressed as a 1960s undertaker.

Tip: Natty Soltesz

 

David Beckham’s Total Package – And his Fascinating Foot

On The Jonathan Ross Show last night David Beckham was the star guest. He looked great of course. But I kept finding myself staring at Mr Beckham’s foot.

Naturally, it was shod tastefully and expensively – in keeping with his John Hamm hairdo and 60s-style black whistle and flute. But that wasn’t what drew my eye. No, it was the way it was trembling.

The icon of the age had feet of jelly.

Or at least, a foot of jelly. David (I think we can use first names here; in fact, I’m sure he would insist on it) was sitting cross-legged on the sofa, facing Ross’ chins. His face was smiling radiantly, teeth and eyes flashing and laughing. His body language speaking of the casual grace and ease of beauty, celebrity, money. He was doing in other words all the things you’re supposed to do on a chat show sofa.

But his raised foot was shaking. Violently. And in doing so it succeeded in  saying much more than the other end. It made me think of the proverbial serenity of swans underscored by that furious paddling you know is going on beneath the water-line.

There are plenty of good reasons to be terrified on a chat show, even one not presented by Jonathan Ross and his unaccountable vanity. But Becks has more reasons than most. He has a lot to lose. If by chance, and much against his better judgement, not to mention media training, he were to actually say something or have, god forbid, an opinion it would cost him millions in corporate fees.

At one point he was talking about, I think (but can’t be sure because even when you try to listen to David it’s very hard to focus), the benefits of his football academies for getting kids away from their Playstations and outdoors. But then caught himself: ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with Playstation, of course,’ he added very hastily. And not that there’s anything wrong with another Sony endorsement deal, either.

Or maybe his foot was trembling because he knew that later Jonathan Ross would pull his pants down and shove his own Aussiebum   packaged groin into David’s famous face. (No, this actually happened and was even more disturbing than it sounds.)

In the ad break there was more David. David out of his expensive suit  and in his pants, spinning around, selling David, and selling his H&M ‘bodywear’.

In keeping with the trademark passivity of metrosexuality in general and uber-metro Becks in particular, the ad features much batting of long eyelashes, and arms held defenceless above the head, as the camera licks its lens up and down and around his legs and torso. Teasingly never quite reaching the package we’ve already seen a zillion times on the side of buses and in shop windows – but instead delivering us his cotton-clad bum, his logo and his million dwollar smile.

I’m here for you. Want me. Take me. Wear me. Stretch me. Soil me. But above all: buy me.

All, curiously, to the strains of The Animals: ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’. Is it meant to be ironic? What after all is to be misunderstood? Don’t the images tell us everything? Even what we don’t want to know. About the total commodification of masculinity.

Perhaps Beck’s foot could have told us, but alas it didn’t appear in the ad and was unavailable for comment.

 

Carelessly disposed shopping bags pose a real menace to defenceless celebrities.

 

Tip: DAKrolak & Mark Rangel

 

David Beckham’s ‘End Result’ – Can You Handle It?

Better order some industrial strength lip balm and practise suppressing the gag reflex.

Shameless sporno star and uber-metrosexual David Beckham is ramming his eye-popping lunchbox down our collective throats again. This time with a media ‘offensive’ for his own line of men’s undies – and strangely shapeless vests – from Swedish-owned high street fashion chain H&M.

“I always want to challenge myself and this was such a rewarding experience for me. I’m very happy with the end result and I hope H&M’s male customers will be as excited as I am.”.

It’s true, you do look very pleased to see us again, David dear. But I worry that my ‘end result’ might not look quite so excited/exciting in your pants.

But Beck’s own palpable, prominent excitement is entirely understandable. He saw the humongous wads of cash Mr Armani was covered in when he brazenly pimped Beck’s designer cotton-clad tackle to the world a few years back. Becks was paid very handsomely for his services himself of course, but seems to have decided he can make even more filthy lucre by designing his packet himself and flogging it to the global punter (H&M is the second largest retailer in the world).

Last year he explained:

“I have had the idea of doing a bodywear collection for some time now. The push to do something of my own really came as a result of my collaboration with Armani. They told me that their gross turnover in 2007 was around €16 million, and after the campaign in 2008 it went up to €31 million, in 2008. It proved to me that there is a real market for good-looking, well-made men’s bodywear.”


Whether or not his finished pants and vests are that kind of bodywear I’ll let you be the judge of. Bear in mind they are a lot more affordable than Mr Armani’s. I think proud-father-of-four Goldenballs is here going for ‘volume’. Metrosexy dadwear. Hence the emphasis he puts on comfort.

And as we’ve seen again and again in the last few years, there is definitely a real market for good-looking, well-made, famous, well-packaged men’s bodies. Advertisers, reality TV and Hollywood have practically had our eye out with them.

Regardless of his advancing years (he’s a frighteningly well-preserved, carb-free 37 this May) and consequently fading football career, Becks will always be fondly identified with that metrosexual revolution and will very likely get his money shot yet again.

He and his endowments, natural and Photo-shopped, always seems to wangle a way to attract the eye. Whatever you may think of his vests.

 

Sporno

Mark Simpson on how sport and porn got into bed – while D&G and Mr Armani took pictures….

(Out magazine, May 2006; expanded for The V&A’s ‘Fashion V Sport’ catalogue, June 2008. Also collected in ‘Metrosexy‘)

You might think that it was Italy’s greater ball skills, or stamina, or team spirit that won them the 2006 football World Cup. But you would be wrong.

dg2_web

Clearly, explicitly, thrillingly, what won it for the Italians was not so much their sporting spirit as their sporno spirit. In the run-up to the tournament, some especially fit players from the Italian football team took time off from their training and did something much more useful: they recruited Dolce & Gabbana (or was it the other way around?) to produce a spornographic fashion shoot of them all oiled-up and ready for us. In hindsight, we can see that the world was already grovelling at their feet from that moment on.

Sporno, the post-metrosexual aesthetic that sports and advertising are using to sell us the male body is, well, irresistible. Even for a fine French team – who were, let’s face it, a much plainer bunch. First Portugal devastate England because Ronaldo is better looking than Becks and far swoonier than Rooney, then Italy trounce France because the punters would much rather celebrate with the sweaty Italian stallions in the locker-room. The best men definitely won.

In a spornographic age it’s no longer enough for the male body to be presented to us by consumerism as merely attractive, or desiring to be desired, as it was in the early days of nakedly narcissistic male metrosexuality. This masculine coquettish-ness, pleasing as it is, no longer offers an intense enough image. Or provokes enough lust. It’s just not very shocking or arousing any more. In fact, it’s just too… normal. To get our attention these days the sporting male body has to promise us nothing less than an immaculately groomed, waxed and pumped gang-bang in the showers.

showers

But of course, because this is sporno and not actual pornography, it remains just that: a promise. Advertising and fashion are less interested in making a fetish of the potent male body than its underwear: commodity fetishism is usually the name of the sporno game.

However, the homoprovocative nature of sporno is much less easy to overlook than it was in early metrosexuality, which could pretend when it wanted to that it was ‘straight’ and something entirely for the ladies. Where metrosexual imagery stole slyly from soft gay porn, sporno blatantly references hard gay porn.

Sometimes you might be forgiven for thinking sport is the new gay porn. Sportsmen are now openly acknowledging and flirting with their gay fans, à la David Beckham and fellow footballer and Calvin Klein underwear model Freddie Ljungberg. Both of these officially heterosexual thoroughbreds have posed for spreads in gay magazines (Ljungberg appeared on the cover of Attitude in April 2006, Beckham in 2002), albeit sporting more clothes than they usually wear when appearing on the side of buses.

Beefy England Rugby ace and married father of two Ben Cohen has explicitly marketed a calendar of sexy (PG) pics of himself at gay men, and talks of ‘embracing his gay fans’. Some, like Becks and smoothly-muscled Welsh Rugby ace Gavin Henson have even argued over them (Becks recently admitted that Henson had stolen a lot of his gay fans and he wanted them back because ‘I miss them.’).

Being found desirable by gay men, once a source of ridicule by others and even violent anger from the desired, now seems to mean you are worthy not just of love but also of large amounts of cash. A whole new generation of young bucks, from twinky soccer players such as Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who has modelled for Pepe, and Chelsea’s Fabulous Frankie ‘Legs’ Lampard, to rougher prospects such as Joe Cole and A.C. Milan’s Kakà posing for Samsung and Armani jeans respectively, and the naked, pneumatic rugby ‘pros’ of the legendary Dieux du Stade calendars, seems to be actively pursuing Beckham’s and Ljungberg’s male sex-object, more than slightly tarty, status. The sportsman as erotic symbol.

Being equal opportunity flirts, today’s sporno stars want to turn everyone on. Partly because sportsmen, like porn stars, are by definition show-offs, but more particularly because it means more money, more power, more endorsements, more kudos. Sporno exploits the corporate showbiz direction that sport is moving in, as well as the undifferentiated nature of desire in a media-saturated, mirrored-ceiling world – and inflates their career portfolio to gargantuan proportions.

Why is Euro soccer star Beckham a household name in the United States, a country that generally has less interest in soccer than socialism? Why did his recent move to the US to play for a team most Americans had never hear of provoke so much breathless coverage in the US media? Again, it wasn’t down to his soccer skills, but rather his sporno skills. Pictures of him semi-naked in Vanity Fair, or in W magazine, sporting skin-tight trousers that nevertheless seem to be somehow pulling themselves off, or that naked campaign for Motorola, in which the mobile phone dangles tantalizingly between his pert nipples, seem to be more ubiquitous, not to mention more stirring, than images of him actually playing football.

And what could be more American? Sporno stars are pushy young hustlers who are happy to be ogled undressed on Times Square billboards or in Vanity Fair – advertising a willingness to put out, or at least get it out, to get ahead. In campaigns like Ljungberg’s Calvin Klein unforgettable underwear posters of 2006 or Beckham’s globally gawked Armani briefs ads of 2008, their bodies and their bulges, blown up to gigantic proportions, are rammed down our throats by advertising. Most of us don’t appear to be gagging, however.

The male body has been well and truly, not to mention tastily, commodified. After decades of being fetishized by gay men, jocks are now fetishizing themselves. It was probably inevitable. Men are traditionally the more visual of the sexes – and by far the greatest consumers of porn. So why not cut out the middle-women and pornolize yourself? Because of the fantastical masculine potency of sporno millions of boys and men around the world are excitedly buying clothes and underwear worn or endorsed by their hero. And how could a guy, any guy, not have their head turned by a sporno star? Sporno stars have everything a man could want today: youth, vigour, money, fame, looks, equally beautiful bosom buddies, glamorous partners – and the numbers for top photographers and stylists.

The people who essentially invented sport, the Ancient Greeks, certainly thought the male athlete the greatest head-turner. For them, sport was an opportunity to worship and admire the beauty of the youthful male form, which in turn represented the freedom of the human spirit. They thought it natural that men would find the youthful athletic male form inspiring and desirable, and an essential part of the pleasure of sport. Most sports competitions, including the original Olympics, were conducted naked: clothes spoiled the experience, for athlete and spectator. Much of their muscular art was a classical antecedent of today’s sporno.

Admittedly though, many Greeks would probably have been scandalized by the keenness of today’s golden young athletes to pose for images designed to inflame lust – and cash purchases. Plato for one would certainly have been aghast at the neo-classical shamelessness of Dieux du Stade (‘Gods of the Stadium’). The phenomenally successful, luxurious calendars feature the Paris-based Stade Français rugby team and various well-endowed sporting guest stars from around the world re-enacting, you may be forgiven for thinking, the plot of every sports-themed gay porn vid. (Fashion photographers rather than pornographers take the pictures: Dolce & Gabbana favourite Mariano Vivanco was responsible for the particularly striking 2007 images.) Shot in musty locker rooms, the naked, pumped and tweezed ‘gods’, often in full body make-up, clutch strategically placed rugby balls like fat leather erections and gaze longingly into the camera, or into each other’s eyes.

Such brazen behaviour has only enhanced the careers of these rugger buggers. Frédérik Michalak and his hypnotically tattooed and geodesmic butt’s starring role in an early DVD showing the making of the Dieux du Stade calendar, has helped land him modelling contracts for Christian Lacroix, a French condom line endorsement deal, as well as becoming the expensive face of Biotherm Homme and the sporting package for a skimpy underwear line.

No doubt the Greeks would have been shocked even more by the way that women are openly enjoying these homoprovocative images too. In fact, the Dieux du Stade calendars were originally part of a marketing plan to update and widen the appeal of French rugby, particularly for women, and have proved massively popular: the 2007 calendar reportedly sold 200,000 copies. But the sporno-graphic eye of Dieux du Stade is quite deliberately, quite flagrantly un-straight. Partly because some of today’s women are being turned on to the voyeuristic charms of male-on-male action (in an echo perhaps of their boyfriends’ interest in female-on-female action), partly because it gets attention – ‘whatarethoseguysdoing!’, and partly because, as we’ve seen, the adoration of gay men is the key to the successful marketing of the male body. But mostly because this all-male exhibitionism, whomever it’s directed toward, gay, straight or bi, female or male, is so charmingly, submissively keen to please. Especially from guys who live through action and the urge to dominate.

Check out the DDS ‘Making Of the 2004 Calendar’ DVD, or the ‘Making of’ DVD from any year really, and see them obediently adopting the gay porno poses requested of them by the photographer, head placed on buddy’s shoulders, or head at buddy’s waist, hands on his perfectly formed buttocks.

The uninhibitedness of the rugby players, in part a function of the physical intimacy of the game itself, ends up being deliciously suited to the visual uninhibitedness of our times. How things – or rather, thighs – have changed. In the United Kingdom rugby traditionally was the sport of hairy beer monsters with nowhere else to go on a Saturday. But with professionalization, players, particularly the more streamlined backs, have become younger, fitter, and self-consciously sexier and their dance-cards are as full as their biceps. Blond, buffed, green-eyed, square-jawed, England International player Josh Lewsey, has been deployed to interest rugby fans in bulging lycra. A giant, god-like blow-up ‘bronze’ statue of him in his shorts was erected outside Twickenham rugby stadium in 2006 by his sponsor Nike. Rugby fans queuing for their tickets had the distracting pleasure of gazing up between Josh’s towering, flared thighs and at his ‘divine’ abs and pecs bursting out of a skin-tight Nike top.

Meanwhile the England rugby strip itself has been given something of a Queer Eye makeover. Banished forever are their baggy, shapeless beer-towel rugby shirts, replaced by a form-hugging strip that might well have been designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. Understandably, England’s new sporno kit dazzled the opposition: in 2003, the year the team debuted it, England won the Rugby World Cup for the first time ever. The latest version of it, introduced for the 2007 World Cup, saw them achieve second place despite being written off beforehand by pundits.

No doubt this astonishing turnaround was down to their new strip being being even tighter than before and including a saucy red arrow/swoosh from armpit to the edge of the opposite thigh, reportedly designed to confuse opposing players. Too right – they won’t know whether to tackle them or kiss them. A confusion that seemed to be exploited, albeit unwittingly, by the ‘C’est so Paris’ humorous advertising campaign promoting the 2007 World Cup, which featured snogging scrumming rugby players and the jokey tagline ‘Paris: City of Love’ (the only far-fetched aspect of the campaign was the unattractiveness of the ad’s faux rugby players compared to the ‘real’ Dieux du Stade thing).

In the more moneyed world of football, which has been a much bigger business for much longer, the eye-catching potency of a sporno star seems to have disorientated even the tough no-nonsense guys who manage football clubs – until you look at the bottom line. Despite somewhat inconsistent performances on the pitch, David Beckham is the world’s biggest-earning soccer player and the best known – because of his off-pitch pouting (most recently confirmed by his 2007 £20 million Armani underwear deal). His purchase in 2003 by Spain’s Real Madrid made them the most profitable soccer club in the world – replacing Manchester United: Beckham’s previous club. Beckham is an object of global desire, and his merchandise moves even faster than his hips – his body is worth more on billboards than on the pitch. After making what was billed as the biggest sports deal in history at £128 million, American team LA Galaxy is his new sporno studio, and he their Number One box cover star.

There is, however, another way in which British soccer players are finding themselves and their athletic prowess paraded on the front pages. A slew of kiss-and-tell articles have appeared in the tabloids in recent years about the penchant our young sportsmen have for sharing a young female groupie with several other team mates. Simultaneously. Often videoing the proceedings. Sporting gods in naked, adult video action with other sporting gods. No wonder the tabs and the public got so excited. In recreating the more than slightly homoerotic straight ‘gang-bang’ porn that they, like many other young men today are downloading from the Net, footballers are, wittingly or not, realizing the fantasy underpinning sporno itself.

Things reached their logical, if slightly Footballers Wives conclusion – their spornographic money shot – in 2006 when lurid stories were ‘splashed’ across the tabloids about a ‘secretly shot film’ allegedly showing several globally famous (but unnamed) English soccer stars engaging in a ‘gay sex orgy’, in which expensive limited edition mobile phones were supposedly used as ‘sex toys’. Regardless of the fact or feverish fantasy of this story, no one seemed to be able to get enough of it. Except perhaps the footballers themselves – who were not only not making any money out of this particular sporno spin-off, but also faced the threat of losing earning potential as a result of the scandal (British libel laws however quickly came to the rescue providing at least one player with a large, undisclosed sum). The response of many fans on the terrace in the form of vicious anti-gay taunts and the continued absence of any openly gay professional footballers, suggest that casual homophobia is as rampant in the culture as sporno itself – which is more than slightly ironic.

A generation of men may be entranced by images of glamorous, sporting males who so clearly, achingly, desire to be desired by all and sundry, but it seems the explicitly homoerotic implications of that still give quite a few of them the willies, especially in the highly-strung world of football.  Though this is perhaps merely a time-lag issue: attitudes take longer to change than underwear.

Sporno stars themselves, moving in their celebrity circles, probably don’t care two hoots whether a fellow player likes bedroom partners with the same-shaped tackle, and may even be as pansexual as their advertising and fashion tastes portrays them, but they worry very much about what their fans will think. After all, this is show business, darling, and you can’t afford to alienate your audience – or, paradoxically, those homoerotic spornographic endorsement deals. While the statements of gay-friendly soccer stars such as Beckham and Ljungberg (and Cohen and Henson in rugby) have been sincere, thus far, actual homosex, or even bisex, rather than the faux variety proffered by advertising appears to still be beyond  the pale. Sporno stars may pose gay but until now all of them have had to be officially totally heterosexual – as do all pro footballers and, with one or two exceptions, all rugby players.

Perhaps this is also the reason today’s soccer stars, who appear, way ‘gayer’ than their predecessors – according to The Sun, Manchester United’s locker rooms have recently had to be modified to make room for players’ ‘manbags’, because ‘they use more cosmetics than their wives’ – no longer kiss one another passionately after a goal is scored as they did just a few years ago. They have to maintain the impression, like many gay porn stars, that they’re only gay for pay.

As for the paymasters themselves, the fashion brands, while they certainly wish to continue changing mainstream masculine attitudes towards clothes and the male body, it could be argued that a certain amount of homophobia works to their benefit here: making sporno advertising more arresting, more powerful – and also helping to displace any homoerotic feelings/anxiety they provoke into commodity fetishism: buying the product instead of trying the fantasy it’s wrapped in. ‘Of course I don’t want the athlete’s desirable looks/face/body/packet’, the hetero male viewer/voyeur of sporno perhaps says to themselves – ‘I want his pants’.

Nevertheless, these are interesting if somewhat conflicted times. We shouldn’t underestimate how far we’ve come and how dramatically traditional male past-times such as football and rugby have changed in the last decade as a result of their collision with the worlds of fashion, celebrity and consumerism. Sporting male heroes have enthusiastically taken up shockingly exhibitionistic sex-object poses in the global media that once were anathema for most men because they were seen as ‘girly’, ‘slutty’ or ‘homo’. Or, what was much the same emasculating taboo in the male mind: passive.

Sports starts have become sporno stars – playing enthusiastic power bottoms to the public’s imagination.  Stripping off, lying back, and thinking of England… lusting over them.

 

Unsurprisingly, this flagrant passivity represents a taboo too far for some. As one outraged middle-aged male (and, it probably needs to be said, somewhat plump and plain) BBC sports presenter thundered recently in a popular British tabloid about Beck’s Armani lunch-box ad: ‘You’ve got money, status, respect and fame – then someone says: “Armani want you to do a picture wearing tight white pants with your legs as wide open as the hole in England’s defence.” Why would you say yes?’

Actually, in a spornographic age, the question should rather be: Why on Earth would you say no?

© Mark Simpson 2010

This essay is included in Simpson’s latest collection: Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story

Visit the Facebook sporno gallery here.

 

David Beckham’s Package: Don’t Handle The Goods, Madam

After all those ads in which Becks thrusted his giant Armani wrapped package in our faces if not down our throats, an Italian satirical TV show decided to do a little consumer product testing.  You know that in Italy they like to handle the sausage and tomatoes – and haggle over the price – before they part with their Euros.

Both parties are clearly unimpressed.

For those who don’t speak the most beautiful, most musical language in the world: the rubber-gloved lady shouts at a hooded, glowering Beckham driving off in his (ridiculously large) car full of minders: ‘HOW COULD YOU TAKE US FOR A RIDE!!??’

The incident has caused some anger in the UK, and some see it as outright sexual assault.  But if you are paid very large wedges of cash to put your lunchbox on the side of buses to sell overpriced underwear to the masses then perhaps the only shocking thing is that more punters don’t cop a feel of the goods.

There’s Something About Henry

A friend has just drawn my attention to this teasing ‘Letter to David Beckham’ by Mr Rollins recorded a couple of years ago, warning Becks when he moves to LA to play for LA Galaxy he’s not going to be so special: the town is already full of ‘metrosexuals… with crunchy hair and distressed jeans and absolutely glowing skin’.  And warning him that he’s not going to sell soccer to American kids because they when they see a soccer game they think ‘soccer… gay!’

It’s funny, and perhaps given Beckham’s Stateside fortunes today also on the money, but the funniest part of it is perhaps not entirely intentional.  When Rollins talks about ‘us metrosexuals’ the gag, like the image of Henry primping his crew cut under a salon hairdryer, seems to be that no one could be less metro than thick-necked, bulldog-voiced, tattooed Henry.  But I’m not so sure.  There’s something intensely narcissistic about Henry, it’s part of his star quality – and his pumped, buzz-cut masculinity does look self-conscious and a little accessorised.  (And I should know about accessorizing such things.)

What’s more, like many metros Henry’s sexuality has been the subject of rumours and innuendo for years, something which he has often complained about – though he himself seems to be here making joshing innuendo about Beckham’s sexuality himself.  Maybe the rumours are so persistent because he’s outspokenly pro-gay rights (only a gay could care about the gays so much, the ‘reasoning’ perhaps goes), he’s middle-aged and unmarried, and quite a few gay – and straight – men fancy him.  Or maybe it’s because he does look a bit ‘gay’ in that slightly cartoonish, slightly over-drawn, over-inked butch way.

For what it’s worth, I’m more than happy to accept that Henry the person isn’t homo, but Henry the persona does have a certain queerness about him that just won’t quit, which is an important part of what makes him intriguing to the public.  This is what I was trying to get at, I think, in the brief interview below that Rollins gave me in his modest-sized hotel room during the London leg of his 1998 Spoken Word Tour.

Tip: Topak

Henry Rollins interviewed by Mark Simpson

(Attitude magazine, September 1998)

Henry Rollins is not gay. Okay? Can we get that straightened out right now?  The ex Black Flag front-man, stand-up comic, author, actor, weightlifter and leading exponent of penitentiary chic á la Robert De Niro in Cape Fear, may come across like the American Mishima, but he’s into chicks.  Though not that much.

‘There was this rumour going round,’ says Henry in his oddly articulate jock/jarhead/jeffstryker way. ‘Fucking MTV called me up and asked me if I’d like to come out on some show of theirs. ‘So I’m gay, huh? I think I’d remember some guy fucking me up the ass!’ The thing that bummed me out about it is that when you have the ‘he’s gay’ fiction spread around the media about you it’s only to slander you. Everyone is like, ‘That guy, he’s a fucking fag!’. But for me being gay is just such a non event. You are into what you’re into. End of story.’

Why do you suppose people think you’re homo?

I asked my gay friends why people thought I was gay, and they said, ‘You’re 37 and in shape. You are thoroughly focussed. You have a great ass.’

Maybe the rumours have something to do with the fact that you don’t have a girlfriend?

Well, yeah. That’s possible. I don’t want a girlfriend because I don’t want to have to call someone every day. The only thing I miss on tour is my bar. I got a precision engineered York powerlifting bar; I miss that fucker because it feels so good! I’ve had enough girls in my time, but I’ve slowed up lately. I’d rather jack off than get into something shallow. But I think the problem is that I don’t make a song and dance about the women I do fuck. I don’t go out on the town with them on my arm. I go to the bookstore.

That’s faggy.

Yeah, ‘He must be a fag—he’s literary!’

On the other hand, you are ‘gay’ in the sense that you’ve built yourself your own masculinity.

Is that a gay thing?

Not specifically. But characteristically.

Yeah, you do get some gay guys who are like hyper-masculine. Look at that guy in leather! Hell, that’s two guys in one man! He’s really getting his point across. When I was in high school I was very skinny. It was a Vietnam Vet that got me into weightlifting. It was the first time in my life when I achieved something: I put on 15 pounds of muscle mass. In life you’ve got to have a bit of the ‘Come on motherfuckers! I got something for your ass!’ mentality.

Tell me about it. Do you get offers from men?

Oh yeah. Sure. All the time. And I go, ‘Well, that’s cool, but I’m not from that bolt of cloth,’ and they go ‘Really? I thought you were.’ And I go, no, no I wouldn’t kid you about that. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Not even maybe just this once?’ ‘Nah, really I don’t want to go there.’ One guy hit me with a really great proposition. He said, ‘Well, close your eyes and you really can’t tell the difference. And I’d do it a lot better than any chick you’ve been with.’ ‘Well, since you’ve got a cock I bet you would.’ But you know, it’s just not my scene.

Your look, the tattoos—have you done time?

Nah. But other convicts… other convicts!—convicts come up to me. One man I’ll never forget. Nebraska, 1988. Old school prison tattoos. Guy walks by and goes, ‘Brother!’ ‘Scuse me?’ ‘Soledad, ’85 Right!’ ‘Er, no.’ ‘Chino?’ ‘No.’ ‘Hell, I’ve done time with you somewhere…’ [in a nerdy bookworm voice:] ‘Well, no sir, actually not’.

How do you think you’d fare in prison? Do you think you’d be some motherfucker’s bitch?

I don’t know man. You’re looking at me about eight pounds underweight, usually I’m 200, but I can’t get the lifts because I’m touring so much, I think that kind of keeps me out of little bitch mode, I’m not anybody’s idea of a piece of chicken, and as far as fighting goes, I know a little bit about that. But in prison, I’d probably be fucking terrified man.

But hasn’t your whole life been a kind of preparation for prison? No family life, no time off—all that lifting weights…

Well, other people tell me where to go because I want to go there, I let them structure it for me. But yeah, I see what you’re saying. I went to a military school for seven years and that had a big impact on me. My dad was also ex-military. My Dad would say stuff like, ‘Fall-out for McDonalds’. Fall-out for your fucking Happy Meal. Shit like that gets to you after a while.

A shrink would say that you have a very punishing super-ego.

(Rollins shrugs his large shoulders)

What I mean is, it sounds as if a part of you is always watching over yourself, policing you –always demanding better.

Oh, that’s true. A lot of my work is result orientated. I’m always trying to do a better show, a better CD, a better book. I have to grade myself nightly. I come off the stage and I often kick myself….

I’ve heard that you were recently ‘watched over’ by someone else.

Oh yeah well, {acting out the scene very loudly} this guy is standing next to me just staring at my dick, and I’m thinking, this is cool, I can deal with this, and my bladder’s fucking bursting but I can’t go, man! I said to myself, Watch me take a leak with this guy watching me and me not give a fuck. But this guy totally took me. He won. Maybe he was some kind of urine comptroller. Fucking crazy shit, man.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2009

Becks’ Public Service Announcement on Dangers of Botox

Tip: Donald Krolak

Twinsome Devils and the Narcissus Complex

Mark Simpson paints a portrait of a clonosexual world of Dorians

(Arena Hommes Plus, Winter 2008, collected in Metrosexy)

Most ads these days aren’t worth a first glance. But earlier this year D&G Time launched a heavily-rotated global campaign directed by Hype Williams that was definitely worth a second. If you looked hard enough, you could see right into the mirrored heart of the 21st Century – a ‘new’ century that is now nearly a decade old. Not since the Levis ‘male striptease’ ads of the 1980s has there been a commercial that summed up – and summoned up – an era.

First time, you see an attractive young man and woman in tasty D&G evening wear checking their D&G watches anxiously, hurrying across different sides of the sexy night-time Metropolis to hook up with one another, to the urgent, techno sounds of Stylophonics’ ‘R U Experienced? (‘Dance music for people who want to listen to tomorrow’s music today!’), finally they arrive breathless at their meeting place. But rather than rushing into each other’s arms, they ignore one another and instead clinch and kiss a same-sex partner that turns up at the last minute.

So those naughty people at D&G flirt with shocking, or at least surprising homosexuality again, coolly wrong-footing our heterosexist assumptions – or ramming gayness down our throats. Either way, this seems to be the ad that most people saw. In other words, most people watched it only once.

Watching it again, paying attention this time, you realise that the ‘same-sexuality’ of D&G Time goes much deeper – and is much more shocking. So much so you can understand why people wanted to see just reassuring homosexuality – even homophobes. Second time, you notice that the same-sex couples are in fact… the same. Twins. Clones. Mirror images. These latter-day Echo and Narcissus are, like many if not most of us these days, on a hot date with themselves. Or at least, a hot, idealised D&G version of themselves. No wonder they’re in such a hurry.

What’s more, D&G Time – and this is looking more and more like the D&G Century – has the effrontery not only to ram down your throat what consumer and celebrity culture today is all about, but of course for reasons of decency usually goes out of its way to deny and disguise, it also does it in such a way that feels and looks entirely natural, entirely appropriate. The lack of shame about rotating around yourself is perhaps the most eye-catching thing of all. Only the Italians could get away with it.

What, then, is D&G Time? What is the era, the epoch it heralds and meters and so accurately, so tastefully accessorizes? Well, a cloned, digital world in which the driving force, the coiled spring at the heart of the jewelled mechanism, is not heterosexual reproduction, or even homosexual coupling, but rather, narcissistic perfection. Narcissistic perfection achieved through fashion, consumption, cosmetics, technology, surgery and really good lighting. A utopian-dystopian, twinsome future in which men and women date themselves instead of each other that has already arrived. Dance music for people who want to listen to tomorrow’s music today.

It’s a measure of how far and how quickly we’ve come that only a few years ago this ad would have been regarded as ‘sick’ by almost everyone, not just a few homophobe holdouts.  But the brazen auto-strumpetry of D&G Time broadcasts that narcissism is no longer a pathological condition – it’s the contemporary condition. That’s to say, it’s no more pathological today than desire itself — since narcissism and desire are much the same thing, particularly since we’re now surrounded by such shiny, pretty accessories as D&G jewellery.

The triumph of metrosexuality has seen to that. Contrary to what you may have heard, metrosexuality is not about ‘feminized’ males – or even about straight men ‘acting gay’. To talk in such terms is merely to reveal yourself as a hopeless nostalgic. As the ‘father’ of metrosexuality, I can tell you that metrosexuality isn’t about men becoming women, or becoming gay – it’s about men becoming everything. To themselves. In much the same way that women have been for some time.

In the early Noughties I defined the metrosexual as someone who ‘might be officially gay, straight, or even bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial as he has taken himself as his own love-object and pleasure as his sexual preference.’ The metrosexual announced the beginning of the end of ‘sexuality’, the 19th Century pseudo-science that claimed that your personality and psychology and taste in home furnishings was dictated by whether or not your bed-partner’s genitalia were the same shape as yours.

As we approach the Teenies (what else should we call what comes after the Noughties?) this process, with a flush of hormones, has been speeded up. D&G Time is neither homo, hetero, bi – or even metro. It’s simply same-sexuality. Clonosexual. In D&G Time, all genitalia are the same shape: fashion-shaped. In place of the Oedipal military-industrial complex of the 20th Century we have… the all-consuming Narcissus Complex of the 21st.

We live, you can hardly failed to have noticed, in an age of Dorians, male and female, admiring themselves in webcams, phone cams, digicams, online profiles and the two-way mirrors of the global Big Brother House. There may or may not be a portrait in the attic, but if there is you can be sure that it’s been Photoshopped. Back in the 20th Century – which seems much, much longer than just a decade ago – I thought that the definition of a transsexual was someone who behaved as if they were being photographed 24 hours a day. Now, of course, this is how everyone under the age of 25 behaves. Because they are.

As the young Quentin Crisp, a reality TV winner long before there was such a thing as reality TV, or even TV, responded prophetically to his starchy father’s angry accusation: Do you intend to spend the rest of your life admiring yourself in the mirror??

‘If I possibly can.’

Whatever you or I may think of narcissism – and Gore Vidal famously described a narcissist as ‘someone better looking than you’ – it’s far, far too late for an opinion. After a century of very bad press indeed, narcissism now holds the (nicely turned) whip-handle over the culture. Even politics, always the last to know, has noticed: in the UK the ‘Nasty’ Tory Party is now led by a nice, dashing, moisturised young man who wants very much to be liked, while the American Democratic Party earlier this year chose a gym-going, preening youthful male over a tougher, older, more experienced female candidate in large part because he was much prettier than her and reflected back, in his charmingly, deliberately vague way, a more flattering image of themselves.

Now that we’re pretty much over the 20th Century we can see that at the end of the 19th Century Dorian’s Dad, Oscar Wilde, the ‘first celebrity’, wasn’t punished for his homosexuality so much as his narcissism. Wilde the aesthete may have been gaoled for sex with males, shortly after the word ‘homosexual’ was coined, becoming its most famous exemplar, but it was the ‘gross indecency’ of his vanity that had sentenced him in the minds of many Victorians, long before his trial.

‘Have you ever adored a young man madly?’ he was asked in the witness box. Wilde parried, quite truthfully: ‘I have never given adoration to anyone but myself.’ You could have heard a cologne-soaked silk handkerchief drop. A line that would have worked perfectly in a comedy of manners in a West End theatre fell ominously flat in the courtroom. No wonder he was given four years hard labour – a fitting punishment for idle self-contemplation in Victorian England. An England that persisted, of course, for much of the 20th Century.

For that other Nineteenth Century celebrity, Sigmund Freud, narcissism was a necessary and healthy part of childhood, but one that must be abandoned to reach full adulthood (remember that?). This explained, he wrote, the fascination that ‘children, humorists, criminals, and anyone who holds on to his/her self-contentment and inaccessibility’ represent for us (Wilde was of course all three). He could also have added ‘women’ to that list, since women were expected to hold onto their narcissism – and use it to attract men. Heterosexuality was based on this Victorian division of sexual labour – as this division broke down in the latter part of the 20th Century heterosexuality was, as we now know, eventually itself phased out. (The very innovations which have helped free women from domestic drudgery, such as the pill, washing machines, microwaves, Hoovers, and feminism – in that order – have also freed men from… women.)

For Freud the universal Oedipus Complex was the principle way in which boys became men. Today by contrast the universal Narcissus Complex is the way in which boys become… prettier boys. Vanity, thy name is Man. Both Narcissus – who was, it needs to be said, a chap – and Oedipus were warned by Tiresias the blind transsexual seer (and like Quentin, a reality TV contestant avant le lettre) that they would live a long life so long as they didn’t know themselves. As poor old Oedipus found out when he consulted him, Tiresias’ prophecies although always accurate weren’t exactly helpful. Narcissus doesn’t know at first that the handsome image he glimpses in the pool and falls in love with is himself (in other words Narcissus isn’t very narcissistic). It’s only when he twigs and ‘knows himself’ that he dies of despair, knowing that he can never possess himself.

The original Narcissus myth has been misrepresented for much of the last hundred years as a cautionary tale about the pathology of male beauty. In fact, it was a warning to beautiful youths to be more generous with their looks – to both sexes. Sodom & Gomorrah in reverse.

Narcissus is not doomed by his own beauty but by his thoughtless spurning of various suitors, male and female. His selfishness. One cruelly rejected youth prays to Nemesis that Narcissus should know what it is to love without hope. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, assents and arranges for Narcissus to be punished for being so hoity-toity by ensnaring him with his own looks.

It’s a lesson that seems to have been instinctively learned by today’s tarty youths. Success and fame is now something for the heroically narcissistic and exhibitionistic, those who makes themselves constantly available for our love, on TV, at the cinema, on billboards and in glossy magazines. Or emerging glistening and glamorous from the roof of a red double-decker bus at the Beijing Olympics to the strains of ‘Whole Lotta Love’, showing a wildly cheering world their latest cosmetic surgery.

Today, narcissism is not abandoned, of course, but cultivated. It’s an industry. The industry. No wonder Oscar Wilde has been so rehabilitated to the point where he and Freddie Mercury are to all intents and purposes the same person. Today, children, humorists, criminals and footballers are not merely envied, they are emulated. We are encouraged – nay, compelled – to mistake them/recognise them for our own idealised reflection. (This is no doubt the point at which I should quote smoke-and-mirror-phase Jacques Lacan, but as far as I can tell, Lacan’s only real achievement was to turn lucid Freudianism into self-regarding Gallic metaphysics.)

The calculated childishness and fickleness of consumerism makes narcissism not only possible but necessary – since it is the very basis of our global economy. This is why 21st Century narcissism is not a form of contentment but rather of endless desiring. The Narcissus Complex is the romance of the endless perfectibility of ourselves proffered by the smoked High Street changing-room mirrors of a mediated world – the irresistible lure of a hyperreal, twinsome version of ourselves. What the entire history of human culture turns out to have been working towards.

Before his own doom, Wilde wrote a prose poem called ‘The Disciple’ which played with the story in a typically Wildean inverted fashion. Some Oreads grieving for Narcissus come across the pool and ask it to tell them about Narcissus’ famed beauty. The pool replies that it has no idea how beautiful Narcissus was. The Oreads are baffled: ‘Who should know better than you?’

‘But I loved Narcissus because,’ replied the pool, ‘as he lay on my banks and looked own on me, in the mirror of his eyes I saw my own beauty mirrored.’

As Wilde wrote in the Preface to his masterpiece, the Narcissus novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which has proved as eerily timeless as Dorian’s looks: ‘It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.’

D&G, however, have mirrored both.

Beijing Beckham

I’m still in shock after watching the handover to the London Olympics in Beijing. Please tell me it was a bad dream and that on your goggle-box you saw something much less horrifying.

The Mayor of London Boris Johnson looked like he’d put on his worst suit – sorry, someone else’s worst suit – and slept in it all the way to China.  Adding to his impact, he generally behaved like someone from a Home for the Terminally Bewildered on a rare day out.

As for the show the Brits put on, featuring a morphing red London bus, hordes of annoying dancers – it looked like a Cliff Richard film directed by Brent Council, but less fun.

And then the climax: David Beckham popping out of the top of the bus like Samantha Fox out of a birthday cake, to the tunes of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ warbled by crummy TV talent show winner Leona Lewis in crinolene, stuck on the end of a pole like a dodgy Christmas decoration.

How the world went wild as he showed us his latest cosmetic surgery! (My tranny friend Michelle tells me he’s had his eyes done, the upper bags – and I never doubt her judgement about these things).  Before expertly kicking a ball into the wrong part of the stadium.

It was a complete and utter disaster and embarrassment.  A comedy of errors with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Welcome to London.

No, really, you’re welcome to it.

Metro Cowboy to Play Metro Athlete

namath_250.jpgHollywood has apparently taken note of the global publicity surrounding uber-metrosexual English footballer David Beckham’s arrival in Tinseltown and decided to dust off America’s own, discarded metrosexual sportsman prototype, 1960s flamboyant, fur-coat wearing NFL quarterback Joe Namath and give it the big-screen treatment.

Jake Gyllenhaal is to play Namath – popularly dubbed ‘Broadway Joe’ – in a Hollywood biopic of the Hall of Fame sportsman who was the first American footballer to become a multi-media phenemonon and Madison Avenue model.

In other words, the actor who played a metrosexual cowboy will be playing the first metrosexual athlete. It sounds perfect casting – in a postmodern way. Gyllenhaal’s inability to convince as a cowboy, or a Marine, or a blue-collar NFL quarterback is just more grist to the mill of the inauthenticity of modern masculinity.

Jake’s pretty, bottom-boy looks also underscore something else: how Namath really wouldn’t cut it today as an object of desire. He just isn’t attractive or seductive or tarty enough. He looks like what he was: a reasonably nice-looking 1960s quarterback in a fur coat – or pantyhose.

Joe Namath’s most famous ad was this eyebrow-raiser from 1974 for Beautymist pantyhose:

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Apparently Namath regretted the ad for nylons which brought out many of his male fans in rash, despite its rather heavy-handed ‘I’M NOT A FAG AND THIS IS A JOKE’ message. It may have been one of the reasons why America, with the possible exception of Dennis Rodham, failed to produce another ‘Broadway Joe’. That and the fact that America is sometimes a more conformist country than Switzerland.

If this ad were to be reprised by David Beckham today you would notice the following differences:

  • He would look much better in pantyhose
  • He wouldn’t say ‘I don’t wear pantyhose’. And if he did, no one would believe him.
  • He wouldn’t be wearing anything else
  • He wouldn’t laugh. Fashion, as his titanium-cheekboned wife has taught him, is a very serious business.
  • He wouldn’t be selling them to women.

America – meet David Beckham

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(The Guardian, 13 July, 2007)

America, meet David Beckham. America, meet The Metrosexual.

You’re going to be seeing even more of both.

As most of the world already knows, today Becks is proudly ‘unveiled’ by LA Galaxy on their home turf. Brand Becks, the ultimate metrosexual who transformed himself from a talented professional soccer-player with a cute smile into global me-dia, is the not-so-secret weapon in their campaign to seduce America into opening its arms, legs – and, most importantly, wallets – to that obscure version of football played without crash helmets, Frankenstein padding or artillery barrages by the rest of the world.

In case you can’t wait for the unveiling, you can find a selection of adorable photos of Ken Doll David ‘taken’ from every delicious angle in his new strip in The Times of London. Or coquettishly meeting your gaze on the cover of Sports posh_becks_pose.jpgIllustrated, on a red carpet. Or stripped to the waist on a car bonnet on the cover of ‘W’ magazine flexing his tits and tatts in trousers that appear to be pulling themselves off. Oh, and that ex-ex Spice Girl wife of his is somewhere in the picture too.

And, of course, you can always catch Brand Beckham endorsing major brands like Motorola and Nike. Or is it the other way around?

Spice Boy Becks is the total commodity who has totally commodified himself – and turned soccer into his personal billboard. ESPN, the channel televising Beck’s first game in his LA Galaxy strip on 21 July have arranged for an extra TV camera to feast solely on David for the duration of the entire game, lest we miss any precious moment of his spornographic body in motion – as well as making sure that they get their money’s worth. Who said that football was a game of two teams of eleven men? Or two halves? Becks is all that you could need and all that you could want. The Alpha and Omega of soccer.

ESPN are already airing an ad promoting the match in which Becks leaves a heartbroken Europe for an ecstatic US, with the Beatles’ ‘Hello Goodbye’ as the soundtrack – referencing a previous ‘Brit’ invasion. Some are already talking about ‘Beckmania’. The Beatles may have been bigger than Jesus, but Becks is bigger than soccer (which is why all those lengthy articles debating whether he will or won’t make soccer popular in the US somewhat miss the point).

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And after all, in the Sixties the Mop Tops successfully exported pop music back to the US, the country of its birth, having taken it further and transformed it into something even more saleable. Becks in the Noughties is exporting metrosexuality back to the US, and in fact to the very town, which, in the Fifties, came up with the prototype for it in the delectable, Cinemascoped form of Marlon Brando, Monty Clift, James Dean, and Elvis Presley.

It was also the US that produced possibly the first metro sports star in the form of Seventies NFL star Joe Namath, dubbed ‘Broadway Joe’, an aesthetically inclined quarterback who advertised shaving cream and… pantyhose. But once he retired, America pretended he had never happened – leaving the field open to dandy foreign players like David Beckham.

America and Hollywood, so long at the cutting edge of commodifying masculinity, have fallen far behind. America is today conflicted, fearful and hypocritical about one of its greatest inventions: the mediated, male sex object. Speedos, the perfect ‘package’ for the male body and Beckham’s favourite beachwear, are all but banned on US shores because they are seen as ‘gay’. Which, apparently, is still the worst thing you can accuse a man of in the US – and the reason why the US, unlike the UK, experienced a backlash against metrosexuality, albeit a men-dacious one.

American masculinity desperately needs some tarty tips on how to tart it out more. Enter Becks, the tartiest tart in Tart-Town who relishes being seen as ‘gay’ – and also relishes being seen by gays (‘because they have good taste’). What’s more, he’s a jock not an actor.

Which reminds me, perhaps Becks will offer some friendly advice to his new Scientologist neighbour Tom Cruise. Cruise, the All-American Dream Boy gone wrong, who once wooed the world by dancing in his underwear on a sofa in his 80s film ‘Risky Business’, but now jumps up and down on chat show sofas (while President Bush jumps up and down on Iraq), needs Becks more than Becks needs Cruise, who is now globally much less popular than Becks.

However much Becks may deny movie star aspirations, his Hollywood career has already begun.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2007

The Gay Bomb

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Mark Simpson drops the Gay Bomb

(Guardian & Out magazine June 13, 2007)

Look out! Take cover! Backs to the walls, boys! It’s the Gay Bomb!

No, not a bomb with fashionably styled fins or one that can’t whistle, but rather a proposed “non-lethal” chemical bomb containing “strong aphrodisiacs” that would cause “homosexual behavior” among soldiers.

Since the United States Air Force wanted $7.5 million of taxpayers’ money to develop it, it probably involved more than the traditional recipe of a few six-packs of beer.

According to the Sunshine Group, an organization opposed to chemical weapons that recently obtained the original proposal under the Freedom of Information Act, a U.S.A.F. lab seriously proposed in 1994 “that a bomb be developed containing a chemical that would cause [enemy] soldiers to become gay, and to have their units break down because all their soldiers became irresistibly attractive to one another.” The U.S.A.F. obviously didn’t know how picky even horny gays can be.

Despite never having been developed, the so-called Gay Bomb is a bouncing bomb – or perhaps a bent stick: it keeps coming back. The media have picked up the story of the Gay Bomb more than once since 2005 – after all it’s a story that’s too good to throw away, and, as this article proves, it’s a gift for dubious jokes.

Mind you, it now seems to be the case that the Pentagon didn’t throw it away either, at least not immediately. In the past the Pentagon has been keen to suggest it was just a cranky proposal they quickly rejected. The Sunshine Project now contradicts this, saying the Gay Bomb was given serious and sustained attention by the Pentagon and that in fact they “submitted the proposal to the highest scientific review body in the country for them to consider.” The Gay Bomb was no joke.

So perhaps we should seriously consider probing-however gingerly – what exactly was in the minds of the boys at the Pentagon back then.

The date is key. The Gay Bomb proposal was submitted in 1994-the year after the extraordinary moral panic that very nearly derailed Clinton’s first term when he tried to honor his campaign pledge to lift the ban on homosexuals serving in the U.S. military and that ultimately produced the current “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) compromise that allows them to serve so long as they remain closeted and are not reported.

The newly sworn-in Commander-in-Chief was successfully portrayed by the homo-baiting right wing – and by the Pentagon itself – as a dirty pinko Gay Bomb that was seriously weakening the cohesion of the unit and molesting the noble, heterosexual U.S. fighting man’s ability to perform his manly mission. “Why not drop Clinton on the enemy?” is probably what they were thinking.

The Pentagon’s love affair with the Gay Bomb also hints heavily that ticking away at the heart of its opposition to lifting the ban on gays serving, which involved much emphasis on the “close conditions” (cue endless TV footage of naked soldiers and sailors showering together) was an anxiety that if homosexuality wasn’t actively discouraged the U.S. Armed Forces would quickly turn into one huge, hot, military-themed gay orgy – that American fighting men would be too busy offering themselves to one another to defend their country. I sympathize. I too share the same fantasy – but at least I know it’s called gay porn.

Whatever its motivations or rationalizations, the DADT policy of gay quarantine has resulted in thousands of discharges of homosexuals and bisexuals from the U.S. Armed Forces, even at a time when the military is having great difficulty mobilizing enough bodies of any sexual persuasion and is currently being publicly questioned. But the Pentagon seems unlikely to budge its institutional back from the proverbial wall.

Its top commander, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, recently defended the policy in outspoken terms, saying: “I believe that homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts.” (The good General probably didn’t mean to suggest that homosexual acts involving only one person or more than two were not immoral.)

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a policy that even Joseph Heller would have had difficulty satirizing, may be confused and confusing, and it may or may not be repealed in the near future, but it clearly shows that the U.S. remains dramatically conflicted about itself and the enormous changes in attitudes and behavior that its own affluence and sophistication have helped bring about.

After all, the Gay Bomb is here already, and it’s been thoroughly tested – on civilians. It was developed not by the U.S.A.F. but by the laboratories of American consumer and pop culture, advertising, and Hollywood. If you want to awaken the enemy to the attractiveness of the male body, try dropping back issues of Men’s Health or GQ on them. Or Abercrombie & Fitch posters. Or Justin Timberlake videos. Or DVDs of 300.

Or even the U.S.’s newly acquired British-made weapons system for delivering global sexual confusion and hysteria known as ‘David Beckham’.

To paraphrase the Duke of Wellington: I don’t know whether they frighten the enemy, but by God they scare the Bejeesus out of me.

Beckham the Virus (Goes To Hollywood)

So David Beckham, the uber-metrosexual, the photogenic English athlete who transfigured himself from mere professional soccer player into global me-dia, is leaving Real Madrid Football Club, his home for the past three years, and is now heading for the City of Signs.

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Beckham became a Hollywood footballer years ago (around about the time of my essay ‘Beckham the Virus’, posted below).  Certainly his bosses at Real Madrid seem to have found Becks more style than substance.

But in a metrosexualised world style is almost everything now.  Even and especially in the world of men’s sports. This is why his lack-lustre performance on the pitch during his time in Spain didn’t prevent his agent landing him a $1M a week salary at Los Angeles Galaxy – the biggest world sports deal ever.

Galaxy, like Real, have paid a hefty premium for Beckham’s unrivalled merchandising power. Galaxy also believe, to the tune of a million bucks a week, that Beckham can seduce America, so long peevishly resistant to the sweaty, clean-limbed – and increasingly coquettish – charms of soccer, and ‘open up’ a spectacularly lucrative new young male market in the US.

Whether or not he succeeds, America had better get ready for a little more soccer and a lot more metrosexuality and Sporno. It was back in 2002 that the US was introduced to metrosexuality and its poster-boy, David Beckham (by, erm, me: ‘Meet the metrosexual’), and look what happened then. With Becks actually residing and playing in the US the results could be climactic.

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America and Hollywood, so long at the cutting edge of commodifying masculinity, have fallen behind much of the rest of the world in that regard since the 1990s. Incredible as it may sound, American masculinity needs some tarty tips on how to tart it out more. Enter Becks, the tartiest tart in Tart-Town.

This is why Beck’s friendship with Hollywood’s box-office king/queen Tom Cruise is more than just another footballer going celebrity chumming.  Cruise, the all-American Dream-boy gone wrong, needs Becks more than Becks needs Cruise who is now globally rather less popular than Becks. Because this is about media power rather than political or military power, that’s to say the New Power, it’s the inverse relationship of Bush and Blair.

Britain meanwhile will enviously and resentfully watch his every move reflected across the pond, and start to feel like it’s missing out. And then Becks, currently out of favour here, partly because of last year’s World Cup disaster but mostly because we don’t forgive him for moving to Spain three years ago, will be back in vogue.

We Brits are fickle like that.

 —-

becks-3.jpgBECKHAM, THE VIRUS

He’s one of the most famous humans who has ever lived — even though he’s not that cute, not that smart and not that great a soccer player.

By Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared on Salon, June 28, 2003)

It hasn’t been like this since the death of Diana. Britain has been suffering from a national nervous breakdown ever since David Beckham, handsome icon of the Manchester United soccer team, announced last week that he was leaving to play for Real Madrid.

The Sun, the best-selling UK tabloid, set up a Beckham “grief helpline” and claims it has been swamped with calls from distressed fans. One caller said he was considering suicide, while several confessed that they were so upset they couldn’t perform in bed. A man who has “Beckham” tattooed on his arm threatened to cut if off. “I cried myself to sleep after hearing the awful news,” said grandmother Mary Richards, age 85. A London cabby, ever the voice of reason, asked, “Has the world gone mad? He’s only a footballer!” But he was mistaken. A footballer is now the least of what David Beckham is.

In the era of soccer that will come to be known as B.B. – Before Beckham – the sport was a team game. What mattered was the club, the team and the player in that order. Then in the mid-1990s, David Beckham — or “Becks” as he is known in that familiar, affectionately foreshortened form with which the British like to address their working class heroes — came along, flicked his (then) Diana-style blond fringe and changed the face of soccer. It wasn’t his legendary right foot that altered the game, but his photogenic face — and the fact that he used it to become one of the most recognizable, richest and valuable athletes in the world, receiving a salary of $8 million per year, earning at least $17 million more in endorsements and commanding a record transfer fee for his move to Real Madrid of $41.6 million.

Beckham’s greatest value is his crossover appeal – he interests not only those who have no interest in the club for which he plays, but those who have no interest in soccer. He is the most recognized sportsman in Asia, where soccer is still relatively new. Possibly only Buddha himself is better known – though Beckham is catching up there too: In Thailand someone has already fashioned a golden “Becks” Buddha. He’s even managed to interest Americans, for God’s sakes. The 27-year-old, tongue-tied, surprisingly shy working-class boy from London’s East End has succeeded in turning the mass, global sport of soccer into a mass, global promotional vehicle for himself, reproducing his image in countless countries. He has turned himself into a soccer virus, one that has infected the media, replicating him everywhere, all over the world, endlessly, making him one of the most famous men that has ever lived.

David Beckham, in other words, is a superbrand.

In recognition of this, Becks was the first footballer ever to receive “image rights” — payment for the earning potential his image provided his club — and got them, to the tune of $33,300 a week. In fact, image rights were the main issue at stake in the record-busting six weeks of contract renegotiations he had with Manchester United last year; his worth as a player was agreed at $116,500 a week almost immediately. Then there’s that $17 million a year for endorsing such brands as Castrol, Brylcreem, Coca Cola, Vodafone, Marks & Spencer and Adidas. And Becks just keeps getting bigger. His trusty lawyers have already registered his name for products as various as perfumes, deodorants, jewelry, purses, dolls and, oh yes, soccer jerseys. Such is the power of the Beckham brand that it’s hoped it can rescue the fortunes of Marks & Spencer’s clothing (a high-end British chain that has become a byword for “dowdy”).

But alas, the brand couldn’t save murdered Suffolk girls Holly and Jessica, poignantly pictured last year in police posters in matching replicas of his No. 7 red shirt. When it was still hoped that they might be runaways, the man himself made a broadcast appeal for their return. There was the Becks, eerily right at the heart of the nation’s hopes and fears again.

a_becks_festeja_htop.jpgBeckham has even managed to brand a numeral – 7 – the number on his soccer jersey. A clause in his Manchester United contract guaranteed him No. 7, he has 7 tattooed in Roman numerals on his right forearm, his black Ferrari’s registration plate is “D7 DVB,” and his Marks and Spencer’s clothing line is branded “DB07.” He even queues at No. 7 checkout when he goes shopping. This is often interpreted as a sign of his superstitiousness, but is more an indication of his very rational grasp of the magic of branding. (He may, however, have to settle for the number 77 when he moves to Real Madrid, as the coveted 7 is already taken by Spanish superstar Raul.)

But somehow, Beckham has not yet become a victim of his own success and has managed to remain officially “cool.” Europe’s largest survey into “cool” recently found that Beckham was the “coolest” male, according to both young women and men. Beckham’s status can be attributed to his diva-esque versatility and his superbrand power: “Like Madonna he is very versatile and able to radically change his image but not alienate his audience,” says professor Carl Rohde, head of the Dutch “cool hunting” firm Signs of the Time. “He remains authentic.” Each time he goes to the hairdresser’s and has a restyle – which is alarmingly often – he ends up on the cover of every tabloid in Britain. In other words, whatever Becks does, however he wears his hair or his clothes – or, crucially, whatever product he endorses – he is saying, as Rohde puts it, “this is just another aspect of me, David Beckham. Please love me.” And, it goes without saying, buy me. And millions do.

Becks’ greatest sales success, however, was actually on the football field – though less with the ball than with the camera. He’s the most famous footballer in the world, and considered by millions to be one of the greatest footballers of all time, but arguably he’s not even a world-class player. A very fine one, to be sure, but not nearly the footballer we are supposed to think he is — not nearly the footballer we want to think he is. Sport, you might imagine, is the one area of contemporary life where hype can’t win, where results, at the end of the day, are everything. But Beckham has disproved that, has vanquished that, and represents the triumph of P.R. over … well, everything. His contribution to Manchester United was debatable. On footballing skills alone, he is arguably not worthy of playing for the English national team, let alone being its captain. However, in the last decade soccer has become part of show business and advertising.

beckham.jpgBeckham is a hybrid of pop music and football, the Spice Girl of soccer – hence his marriage to one. He is – indisputably – the captain of a new generation of photogenic, pop-tastic young footballing laddies that added boy-band value to the merchandising and media profile of soccer clubs in the 1990s.

Beckham’s footballing forte is free kicks. This is entirely appropriate, since these are, after all, among the most individualistic – and aesthetic – moments in soccer. Unlike a goal, with a free kick there’s no one passing to you, no one to share the glory with. Instead there’s practically a spotlight and a drum roll. And how he kicks! “Goldenballs” (as his wife, Victoria, aka Posh Spice, reportedly likes to call him) has impressive accuracy and his range is breathtaking – along with his famous “bending” trajectory, his kicks also have style and grace. Long arms outstretched à la Fred Astaire, wrists bent delicately upward, forward leg angled, and then – contact – and a powerful, precise, elegant thwump! and follow-through.

An Englishman shouldn’t kick a ball like this. This is the way that Latins kick the ball. Beckham doesn’t just represent the aestheticization of soccer that has occurred in a media-tised world – he is the aestheticization of it. Like his silly hairdos, like his “arty” tattoos, like the extraordinarily elaborate post-goal celebrations he practices with the crowd, almost everything he does on the field is designed to remind you that No. 7 is anything but a number.

Off the soccer field Becks is able to use clothes and accessories to draw attention to himself. And does he. The Versace suits, the sarong, and the sequined track suit that opened the Commonwealth Games dazzled TV audiences and confused some foreign viewers who still thought the queen of England was a middle-aged woman. Essentially, Beckham’s visual style is “glam” – more Suede than Oasis (with a bit of contemporary R&B pop promo thrown in). And like glam rock, which was a British working-class style running riot in the decade of his birth, the 1970s, Beckham, the son of Leytonstone proletarians, has a clear image of himself as working-class royalty, the new People’s Princess (though his “superbrand” power has as yet been unable to sell us his wife, who, post-Spice Girls, remains unpopular and unsuccessful). Hence his wedding took place in a castle; at the reception afterward Posh and Becks were ensconced in matching His ‘n’ Hers thrones, and their Hertfordshire home was dubbed “Beckingham Palace” by the tabloids.

Soccer, like pop music, is one of the few ways the British are permitted any success — it is, after all, something both manual and aristocratic at the same time. Becks the football pop star represents and advertises a materialistic aspirationalism that doesn’t appear bourgeois.

Beckham’s tattoos – a literal form of branding – seem to epitomize this. What were once badges of male working-class identity are now ways of advertising the unique Becks brand. “Although it hurts to have them done, they’re there forever and so are the feelings behind them,” Becks has explained. But these are not the kind of “Mum & Dad Always” tattoos his plumber dad and his mates might have had. The huge, shaven-headed, open-armed, “guardian angel” with an alarmingly well-packed loincloth on his back looks more than a little like himself with a Jesus complex. Beneath, in gothic lettering, is his son’s name: Brooklyn. Once his uniform comes off at the end of a match – as it usually does, and before anyone else’s – the tattoos help him to stand out instantly, and mean that he is never naked: He’s always wearing something designer.

becks-the-virus.jpgBecks clearly enjoys getting his tits out for the lads and lasses — and oiling them up for the cover of Esquire and other laddie mags. While he may look strangely undernourished and fragile in a soccer uniform, as if his ghoulishly skinny wife has been taking away his fries, and all those injuries suggest he’s somewhat brittle, stripped down he looks as lithe and strong as a panther. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t do drugs. His body is a temple — to his own self-image — which he never ceases worshipping.

There is however a submissive photophilia to Becks. A certain passivity or even masochism about his displays for the camera, which seem to say “I’m here for you.” Hence perhaps the fondness for those Christ-like/James Dean-like poses with arms outstretched (the cover of Esquire had him “crucified” on the Cross of St. George). Even those free kicks seem to have the loping iconography of “Giant” or Calvary about them.  Truth be told, Becks is there for him, but it’s a nice thought nonetheless.

To some he is already a god – literally. In addition to the Thai Becks Buddha, a pair of Indian artists have painted him as Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. In the Far East, androgyny is seen as a feature of godhead – and so it has here in the West as well since the Rolling Stones. As Becks tells us himself: “I’m not scared of my feminine side and I think quite a lot of the things I do come from that side of my character. People have pointed that out as if it’s a criticism, but it doesn’t bother me.” It’s as if when he was a teenager he looked at those grainy black-and-white ’80s girlish bedroom shrine posters of smooth-skinned doe-ish male models holding babies and thought: I’d like to be like that when I grow up. Becks is the poster boy of what I have termed elsewhere metrosexuality.

His hero/role-model status combined with his out-of-the-closet narcissism and love of shopping and fashion and apparent indifference to being thought of as “faggoty” means that for corporations he is a pricelessly potent vector for persuading millions, if not billions, of young men around the world to express themselves “fearlessly,” to be “individuals” – by wearing exactly what he wears. Beckham is the über-metrosexual, not just because he rams metrosexuality down the throats of those men churlish enough to remain retrosexual and refuse to pluck their eyebrows, but also because he is a sportsman, a man of substance – a “real” man – who wishes to disappear into surface-ness in order to become ubiquitous – to become me-dia. Becks is The One, and slightly better looking than Keanu – but, be warned, he’s working for the Matrix.

Ultimately, though, it is his desire that makes him the superbrand that he is. Beckham has succeeded where previous British soccer heroes you’ve never heard of, such as George Best, Alan Shearer and Eric Cantona – a Frenchman who played for Manchester United and is John the Baptist to Beck’s Christ – have failed, and has become a truly global star. Partly because the world has changed but mostly because they didn’t want it as much as he did. Becks is transparently so much more needy – more needy than almost any of us is. The public, quite rightly, only lets itself love completely those who clearly depend on that love, because they don’t want to be rejected. Beckham’s neediness is literally bottomless. Like his image, it grows with what it feeds on. He’ll never reject our gaze.

It’s there in his hungry face. He isn’t actually that attractive. Blasphemy! No really, his face doesn’t have a proper symmetry. His mouth is froglike and bashfully off-center. But what is attractive, or at least hypnotizing in a democratic kinda way, which is to say mediagenic, is his neurotic-but-ordinary desire to be beautiful, and to use all the technology and voodoo of consumer culture and fame to achieve this. His apparent lack of an inner life, his submissive, high-pitched 14-year-old-boy voice that no one listens to, his beguiling blankness, only emphasize his success, his powerfulness in a world of superficiality. That oddly flat-but-friendly gaze that peers out from billboards and behind Police sunglasses looks to beckham-g.jpgmillions like the nearest thing to godliness in a godless world. People fall in love not with him – who knows what Beckham is really like, or cares – but with his multimedia neediness, his transmitted “viral” desire, which seems to spread and replicate itself everywhere, endorsing multiple products. Becks’ desire, via the giant shared toilet handle of advertising, infects us, inhabits us and becomes our own.

The British for their part, even those calling tabloid papers in tears to declare their lives ruined now that Beckham is moving to Real Madrid, will survive sharing him with the Spanish for a few years. After all, they’re already proudly sharing him with most of the rest of the world – and basking in his reflected glory. No one buys our pop music any more; our “Britpop” prime minister, Tony Blair, post-Iraq, is widely regarded abroad as a scoundrel; our royals, post Diana, are a dreary bunch of sods (even her sainted son William is beginning to lose some of his Spencer spark and glow to the tired, horsey blood of his “German” dad and grandmama); and our national soccer squad has difficulty beating countries with a population smaller than Southampton.

But “our Becks” on the other, perfectly manicured hand, is something British the world seems to actually want. Badly.

 

This essay is collected in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story.

 

Sporno: where sport and porn meet and produce a spectacular money shot

Just in time for the World Cup the July issue of the re-launched OUT features an essay by yours truly on the post-metrosexual pornolization of sport – or what I dub ‘sporno’.  Here’s a (breathless) taster:

‘Sportsmen on this side of the Atlantic are increasingly openly acknowledging and flirting with their gay fans, a la David Beckham and Freddie Ljunberg (the man who actually looks the way Beckham thinks he looks). Both these thoroughbreds have posed for spreads in gay magazines and both have welcomed the attention of gay fans because they “have great taste”.

More than this, they and a whole new generation of young bucks, from twinky soccer players like Manchester United’s Alan Smith and Cristiano Ronaldo, to rougher prospects like Chelsea’s Joe Cole and AC Milan’s Kaka, keen to emulate their success, are actively pursuing sex-object status in a post-metrosexual, increasingly pornolized world.

In other words: they’re not just sports stars, but sporno stars’

You can read the full essay here.

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