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

Category: metrosexual (page 1 of 32)

Jeans-Genie – The Lecherous Legacy of Those 80s Levi’s Ads

Mark Simpson on how we’re all living in Nick Kamen’s Launderette now

Another fondly-remembered part of the 1980s finished its last cycle last week. Nick Kamen, real name Ivor Neville Kamen, the Essex-born much-gasped-over star of the famous 1985 Levi’s 501 male striptease ‘Launderette’ TV ad, checked out.

He was just 59. Sadly, this was more than a decade before his Biblically-allotted threescore years and ten was up. But, self-centred as ever, I couldn’t quite stop myself from thinking: ’59!! How did that doe-eyed young buck in his boxers get to be SO OLD??’ In other words, even older than me.

Ads nowadays are almost invisible rather than cultural moments, and young men taking their clothes off on TV is completely commonplace today, so it’s difficult to grasp now the sensation that this ad and the others in ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s (BBH) legendary 1980s Levi’s campaign caused at the time. Ironically, that’s because we are all living in Nick’s Launderette now – though it’s under new management and changed its name to ‘Instagram’. We’re utterly blasé about male tartiness. We’ve seen it all, dear.

I (over-)analysed the impact of these ads and Kamen’s exhibitionism in my 1994 book Male Impersonators, emphasising how they presented the young male body as a voyeuristic pleasure (for the audience) and a passive pleasure (for the male model) that had hitherto been mostly associated with male homosexuality – along with the way the product (the jeans) is carefully fetishised by association with the phallus. Softcore gay porn became a prime-time hard-sell. Commodified cock for the unwashed masses.

All to the plaintiff, pleading strains of a classic soul song about a man sexually competing with ‘another guy you loved before’ (‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’).

Just look at the way the button-fly of the 501, once the very symbol of it’s trad dadness, is turned into an unwrapping, fingering oh-so-modern tease. The male desire to be desired unleashed.

And let’s not forget, he’s doing his own washing. Where is the mum or the ‘little woman’ in his life that until then in ad land should be doing it for him?

Likewise, the young man working out in the 1986 follow-up Levi’s ad ‘Bath’, as the camera lovingly caresses his muscular body to the strains of an innocent 1950s love song about longing (‘Wonderful World’), stretching the seat of his jeans with squats, as the camera zooms in for an extreme close-up on his arse, is apparently living by himself – and flagrantly taking himself as his own love-object.

The photo of the young woman he looks at before slipping into the bath in his ‘shrink to fit jeans’ (with the camera zoomed in on his crotch) doesn’t straighten things out – it merely emphasises his horny availability to the predatory eye of the viewing public.

Not only are these mute, humpy young men and their packaged packets available for our queer viewing pleasure, they could also themselves be queer. Either way, BBH made it clear that they were definitely ‘TBH’.

Tom Hintnaus, working Times Square

BBH’s pimping of the male body was undoubtedly inspired by the great success of Calvin Klein’s first men’s underwear campaign in 1982-3, which saw handsome, smoothly-sculpted and oiled-up American pole vaulter Tom Hintnaus, snapped by manophile photographer Bruce Weber in Mr Klein’s pricey pants, towering over (the then gloriously seedy) Times Square – like a high-class, Olympian hustler. But BBH’s Levi’s ad campaign went one better – and brought Times Square into the living rooms of mid-1980s, prime-time Britain.

BBH didn’t invent male objectification, but they pretty much patented it in the UK. ‘Launderette’ is metrosexual Ground Zero – and clearly left an indelible impression on the 10-year-old David Beckham. Come to think of it, isn’t that him playing one of the kids closely observing Mr Kamen?

A young David Beckham takes notes

Levi’s, previously an ailing ‘dad brand’, was resurrected and remade uber cool by BBH’s male striptease. By 1987, Levi’s 501 sales figures had gone beyond firmed, or even tumescent, and grown to a whopping 8x what they had been before Kamen & Co. started wearing them – or rather, pulling them off. Sales of boxers also went through the roof.

Full, unsolicited disclosure: as a measure of my young impressionability, I myself wore boxers for years after being exposed to those ads – despite the fact they were not very sexy, or practical, especially in tight jeans: they had a way of strangling your baubles. Funnily enough, it transpires BBH only put Kamen & Co. in boxers because they weren’t allowed, by the guardians of televisual mores, to show them in their Y-fronts. In doing so, the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre sentenced millions of young men to CBT.

‘Launderette’ might have been a UK ad phenomenon, but its influence ‘went ballistic’. Top Gun, the definitive 80s movie that everyone likes to now regard as the ‘gayest movie eva’, was released the following year, directed by the British adman (and brother of Ridley) Tony Scott. The earth-bound sequences of the fantastically phallic movie had the same kind of overtly sexualised treatment of man-boyish Tom Cruise as man-boyish Nick Kamen in ‘Launderette’ – with the same warmly reassuring 1950s, Ray-Ban-ed, sepia-tinted, faux nostalgia aesthetic. But this time in an all-male launderette. With added steam.

Tom and the boys at the Top Gun Launderette, waiting for their underwear to dry.

So perhaps you’ll understand why I wrote an only slightly tongue-in-cheek essay back in 2008 called ‘How Eighties Advertising Made Everyone Gay:

It also succeeded in making even straight women “gay”… it encouraged women to look at the male body with the same critical, impossibly demanding, carnivorous eye that gay men had used for years. In fact, so much have all our expectations been inflated that Nick Kamen’s ‘fabulously hunky’ body as it was described back then by the tabs, today probably wouldn’t get past the audition stage – he’d be told to go back to the gym and inject some horse steroids.

Pre-1980s there wasn’t much gay lust in ads or, for that matter, Britain. I remember as a kid spending most of the 1970s watching an Old Spice ‘Mark of a Man’ commercial, which featured a surfer riding a vast, spuming wave in very long-shot, to the climactic strains of ‘O Fortuna’ from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The number of times I waited for that ad to come on as a kid, hoping, praying that this time the camera would move in closer.

In the 1980s, my prayers were answered, and the lens moved in, big time. Since then, it’s never moved back. It has zoomed ever closer, until now we’re looking at the mitochondria on the walls of men’s small intestines.

Maybe I’m an incurable romantic/masochist, but I sometimes find myself missing the aching, blurry, long-shot tease of 1970s’ Old Spice masculinity. Because it never quite delivers, it never disappoints.

(OK, I lied about missing 1970s Old Spice masculinity.)

By the way, on the subject of Kamen’s ‘hunky body’ not being buff enough by today’s standards – it turns out it nearly wasn’t at the time: Kamen was only given the role on the condition that he lose weight.

Madonna had no reservations however, and was famously so enamoured with what she saw she gave Kamen a breathy pop song, “Each Time You Break My Heart”, which went Top Ten in the UK. Further success in his home country eluded him, however. His teen girl fanbase were terribly fickle and cruel. According to the journalist and TV presenter Kate Thornton, a schoolgirl at the time:

“There wasn’t life for Nick Kamen after Levi’s because he broke the rule…he talked!… We just liked looking at him. It was as simple as that. He was a model and he just had these smouldering beautiful looks… but fundamentally he was to be looked at and lusted over, and never to be taken seriously…”

It’s lucky that 21st Century feminism has conclusively proved that only women can be objectified, because otherwise Nick would have been horribly objectified, way back in the 20th Century. (It’s also noteworthy that almost none of the media pieces on his death I saw included a photo of middle-aged Kamen.)

James Mardle, ‘Bath’ 1986

I have to say though that Nick, lovely and historic as he was, and definitely not someone I would have kicked out of my bedsit, was not my fave. If I was Madge, I would have sent my spare song to the lad in the second ad, ‘Bath’. Not only is he, with his home workouts, more proto sporno than proto metro (and has an arse), he’s also got the most incredibly romantico face; lit here like a proper homme fatale. But after his prime-time tease he seems to have faded back into obscurity without even a one hit wonder to his largely unremembered name (James Mardle).

Actually, I’m such a slut that even in Nick’s own ad I always found myself thinking about the young lonely Marine in uniform loitering outside the ‘Laundromat’ promising a ‘power wash’. And clearly, I’m meant to: he’s the curtain-raiser, the first person we see in the ad, as the camera pans tantalisingly past (Nick walks quickly behind him face turned away from the camera).

To the Unknown Marine

What or who is he waiting for? A ride? A sweetheart? A john?

By the time we see the street from inside the launderette he’s already gone. Perhaps the driver of cruising Buick in the opening shot has finally picked him up. Perhaps Bob Mizer was behind the wheel, whisking the jarhead to his Physique Pictorial photoshoot.

Or Maybe it was just Madonna again.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s Insta-Lovefest

The world’s most famous man this week became the first person to pass 250 million followers on Instagram. A milestone in human e-volution.

Already the most popular personality on social media, 35-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo is now just rubbing our noses in it. The Juventus star has 100 million more followers than all 20 Premier League clubs combined. His arch-rival Lionel Messi trails way behind him, in seventh place, with ‘only’ 174 million followers.

Obviously they’re not posting enough totally shredded topless pics.

The five-time Ballon d’Or winner is bigger and hencher than football. So, for a while, was his UK metrosexual prototype, David Beckham in his pretty early Noughties prime. But Ronaldo’s humongous fame has dwarfed Beckhams’.

Partly because Ronaldo really is the astonishing once-in-a-lifetime footballer that Beckham was imagined to be by those who didn’t really follow football. But also because the Portuguese chap somehow manages to be even more tarty than his hardly retiring Brit predecessor. (And was regularly queer bashed for it by the UK media when he played for Manchester United.)

Born into a modest, working class Madeiran family, his pride in showing off the shiny symbols his extraordinary success – the pools, the houses, the yachts, and the shiny bod again – is also part of his willingness to share. He also of course includes lots of photos of himself with his girlfriend Georgina Rodriguez, his four children, his mother, relations and friends. But fame is necessarily a lonely business, especially at these stratospheric levels, so it is the photos of him alone in his Olympian palaces, nearly naked and tensing his abs and quads ready to receive our lonely gaze that are the most Insta.

He also is even more intimately and profitably connected to his fans than Beckham ever was: Ronaldo reputedly makes a cool $1m per Instagram post. Helping to pay for all those palaces.

Perhaps that’s because he knows exactly what he’s doing, is completely unashamed of his full-body vanity, and isn’t afraid to play with his desire for our desire of him. In one Insta post he poses in swimwear on his yacht next to a gorgeous sunset, with the caption:

‘There are only two options: the view or ME. I let you choose your favourite one?!’

There is of course no question. Ronaldo’s beauty eclipses the sunset.

Ronaldo is sporno to Beckham’s metro, digital to Beckham’s analogue, social media to Beckham’s glossy magazine.

And 2.0 to Beckham’s 1.0 when it comes to the insatiable, uncorked, totally ripped genie that is the male desire to be desired.

Further reading:

Metrosexmania: How America Lost Its Mind Over Metrosexuality

By Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared in Out magazine, October 2017)

The US had a national nervous breakdown over male beauty in the early noughties.

It seems ridiculous now – and actually it was fairly ridiculous at the time – but it’s simply an objective fact that the US went completely fucking berserk over the metrosexual: my insufferably pretty offspring with the really great, hydrated skin. Not since the Beatles had a British import caused so much screaming – and so much moral panicking.

In 2003 – only a year or so after I’d introduced the him to the US in an essay for Salon.com that went virulently viral – ‘metrosexual’ was proclaimed ‘Word of the Year’ by The American Dialect Society. Handsomely beating SARS.

The same year, the networked animated cable TV series South Park devoted a whole episode to him satirising his stunning popularity, called ‘South Park Is Gay!’. In it all the straight men and boys in South Park turn, we are told, ‘metrosexual’ – which here seems to mean ‘effeminate’.

The ‘Fab Five’ swishy gay male grooming and lifestyle experts from Queer Eye For the Straight Guy – that year’s new, smash-hit makeover show – are blamed for the epidemic of preening. They turn out to be alien monsters and are executed by the men’s angry wives, who explain: ‘men need to be masculine!’.

Strangely, this disturbingly silly cartoon spoof  pretty much predicted/incited how America ended up reacting in non-animated real life to the scary sexual ambiguity of metrosexuality.

The uptake of ‘gay’ beauty concerns by men along with the ‘feminine’ desire to be desirable, was something well underway by the noughties – without an intervention from the Fab Five (I’d originally written about metrosexuality for a British newspaper back in 1994, predicting the future of masculinity was moisturised).

In hindsight, I wonder how many of the straight men in NYC the Fab Five rescued from flaky skin, cheap chinos and TV dinners were just slumming it for the sake of a free facial, some product and plenty of attention.

For my money, Queer Eye For the Straight Guy, which was often described as the ‘metrosexual reality TV show’, had a typo in the title. It should have been ‘Queer Eye OF the Straight Guy’. But then it wouldn’t have been commissioned.

Queer Eye was entertaining, mostly safe fun precisely because it restated the already blurring boundaries in a reassuring way: straight men were hopeless at appreciating male beauty and gay men were fabulous. The queer eye belonged to the queers. Despite this, Queer Eye still managed to outrage some at the time – including apparently the makers of South Park.

My own definition of the metrosexual from my Salon essay had though been carefully inflammatory about the sexual ambiguity of the metrosexual:

‘He might be officially gay, straight or bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference.’

Though of course the US marketers who tried to appropriate – and spay – the metrosexual after my essay went viral, vehemently insisted that the metrosexual was always straight. And never vain. Just ‘well-groomed’. No one really bought this. His ambiguity and out-and-proud vanity was the only reason anyone was interested in him.

And it’s also why America, which really wasn’t ready to face up to this stuff back then, ended up having a full-blown backlash against metrosexuality by 2006, when the full, horrifying implications of metrosexuality began to sink in. Anti-metrosexuality became the 21st Century ‘Disco Sucks!’ campaign, but with even more pronounced gay panic.

The US media now aroused itself talking up hilariously butch reaction-formations such as ‘machosexuals’, ‘retrosexuals’ and a ‘menaissance’. Lots of books with annoying, anal lists of ‘manly’ do’s and don’ts were published. Most of all, the MAN word was hysterically over-deployed, often as a reassuring manly phallic pacifier strapped on the front of something that so wasn’t: MANdates, MANscara etc.

Metrosexuality of course, along with hyper-consumerism and visual culture, continued conquering the world. But in the US it wasn’t polite to mention it: metrosexuality was now on the downlow. As the South Park wives had put it in 2003: Men need to be masculine!

Or at least we needed to pretend they need to be.

All of which was of course way camper than the metrosexual ever was.

Queer Eye itself was axed in 2007 – the same year that the legendary cable TV drama series Mad Men first aired. But the star of the show, and the apple of the camera’s eye, the very dapper Don Draper (John Hamm) was essentially a late noughties metrosexual daydream of what a 1960s retrosexual looked like.

Either way, he certainly didn’t need the Fab Five to pick out his shirts.

In Defence of Male Tartiness (Again)

Mark Simpson on how metrosexuality is now part of masculinity’s ‘gayish DNA’

The lights have gone off at Instagram and YouTube. Men’s Health has folded. The male grooming market valued at $50B globally until just last week has imploded. Those reports about how men are now spending more time and money clothes shopping than women can be binned. Tumbleweed is blowing around the 272 new gyms that opened in the UK last year. Tinder is totally toast.

Most apocalyptically of all, young men are putting their shirts back on and Love Island has been cancelled.

Or so you might be forgiven for thinking if you read Martin Daubney’s piece last week in Telegraph Men about the findings of a study into masculinity he helped organise. ‘We can say confidently’, he said, confidently, ‘that British men in 2017 are increasingly abandoning narcissism, the perfect body and promiscuity’.

Apparently, instead of being selfie-admiring, ‘vain’, ‘shallow’, ‘dopey metrosexuals’, today’s men are now looking for ‘greater depth and meaning’ and emphasising ‘traditional’ and ‘moral values’, including marriage.

In other words, men have – finally! – stopped being so bloody gay.

Male vanity’s death sentence was supposedly delivered in Harry’s Masculinity Report, sponsored by and named after an American male grooming company that is, well, muscling in on the lucrative UK male vanity market. But Harry’s you see is a straight-acting all-American grooming company. On their website they boast that they make ‘a high-quality shave that’s made by real guys for real guys’. Sweet!

Of course, as a big ol’ homo and the ‘daddy’ of the metrosexual and his ‘shredded’, under-dressed younger ‘bro’, the spornosexual, I’m a tad over-invested in male prettiness – even if I don’t always invest enough in my own. But I really don’t see much evidence for the demise of male self-reflexivity and image-consciousness. Except perhaps in the popularity of man-buns. (No one could wear one of those and own a mirror.)

I suspect what we have here is more a case of wishful/murderous thinking. The report seems to me to have found the ‘traditional’ values and morality it was looking for.

Were the guys surveyed ‘real guys’, like the guys at Harry? Well it seems they were simply the first 2000 men aged between 18-85 living in the British Isles who completed a lengthy online questionnaire. It was promoted in male-related online forums and ‘to ensure broad UK reach across all demographics, the survey was also promoted by Martin Daubney.’

Martin, a high-profile, right-of-centre, white, male, heterosexual, married journalist, indefatigable campaigner around men’s issues and ‘porn addiction’ – and infuriatingly likeable chap – has 17K followers on Twitter. It would be unfair to call this Daubney’s Masculinity Report, but we should at least wonder how much Martin is inadvertently admiring his own reflection in it.

It’s difficult to tell though – the ‘men’ in this study are rather opaque. Monolithic, even. There’s an age and marital status breakdown, which seems fairly representative, but no information about their ethnicity, their sexuality, political affiliation or their class/occupation. Though the fact that nearly half of them were from London and the South East (there is a regional breakdown) might be a bit of a clue as to the latter.

There are 35 ‘core values’ options listed in the questionnaire. The first four are: ‘Dependable, ‘Reliable’, ‘Loyal’, ‘Committed’, and the seventh is ‘Honest’.

The top five rated by respondents were, in order: ‘Honest’, ‘Reliable’, ‘Dependable’, ‘Loyal’, ‘Committed’.

‘Helpful’ isn’t in the list, but I suppose that’s implicit in the answers.

‘Fit’ and ‘athletic’, the only two options in the list of ‘core values’ that aren’t moral values appear at 21 and 22 and were rated by respondents at 31 and 35. Though perhaps the ratings for them should have been added together, as I’m not sure what the difference is between ‘fit’ and ‘athletic’. Both arouse me.

It’s great that men want to be, as they say in their online dating profiles, ‘100% gen’. Or seen as that. But I’m not sure how that shows they’ve abandoned the gym and their own reflection.

As for the evidence of men ‘abandoning promiscuity’ – the questionnaire doesn’t have anything to say, or ask, about ‘promiscuity’, or for that matter, monogamy. Unless of course you think that valuing honesty, reliability, dependability, loyalty and commitment is necessarily incompatible with having sex with more than one person. Or rather, sex with more people than you – probably the most accurate definition of ‘promiscuous’.

The trad-dad moralising thrust of all this becomes evident in the ‘main lessons from this survey’ section we are told the factors found to be associated with men’s ‘mental positivity’ are ‘good job satisfaction’, ‘stable relationship’, ‘living up to their roles as men’, ‘more connected to a sense of spirituality’ and ‘engage in sports’ – that’s manly team sports, I’m guessing, not posing around the gym like a tart.

I’m sure this is all well-intentioned. But it does sound a shade School Speech Day, c.1956. Especially the ‘living up to their roles as men’ bit.

I can understand why report’s authors want to ‘detoxify’ the ‘brand’ of masculinity (this ‘core values’ shtick is mostly used in a corporate context) and offer some ‘good news’ about men that goes against the bad news grain. And think it’s great that the oft-neglected issue of men’s mental health is being addressed and men’s intimate preoccupations are being probed.

But re-stigmatising the hard won right of men of whatever sexuality to be pretty and ‘gay’ isn’t going to help. I mean, really? No gym. No porn. No Tinder. No preening. This is supposed to reduce male suicide?

Male narcissism has added enormously to the gaiety of the nation. It should be celebrated as a Great British tradition, from Byron to Bowie to Beckham to Bromans. Puritanical Yankee grooming go home. What’s more the acceptance of it has made homophobia less acceptable. Non-gay men today, particularly younger men for whom metrosexuality is just ‘normal’, are much less hard on The Gays than their fathers were because they are less hard on themselves.

Being soft on yourself is surely the key to being soft on others.

Most men are not going to dedicate themselves to becoming a Men’s Health cover model, thank the baby Jesu. Apart from anything else, if they did I’d never be able to get on the squat rack at 5pm. But metrosexuality, love it or loathe it, is part of masculinity’s gayish DNA now. It’s far too late to straighten it out.

And even if you could, you’d just cause a global economic catastrophe, like the terrifying End of Days one envisioned at the beginning of this article.