The Annual Hunk Hunt Produces Another White Guy

WASHINGTON - Last night, the "Sexiest Man Alive" wasn't chosen best actor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but he nevertheless received a double dose of hype for the price of one.

While everybody knows the Oscars are more about who's well-liked in Hollywood than who did brilliant work, few have questioned People magazine's annual conceit, in which the magazine's editors huddle and decide which well-known male, out of the hundreds strutting the globe, women most want to, er-hug. This year's choice: Nick Nolte.

Seven studs preceded him: Mel Gibson. Tom Cruise. Patrick Swayze. Sean Connery. John F. Kennedy Jr. Harry Hamlin. James Garner - oops, People christened him "The Last Real Man." Mark Harmon.

Mark Harmon? But I digress. What do these men have in common? They're all actors (except for JFK Jr., who nevertheless seems predestined to play Ted Danson's baby brother in a "Cheers" spinoff). All but Nolte have - or in 007's case, had - dark hair. Most live in Southern California. Have I forgotten something?

Oh yes. They're all white. A coincidence? No!

The first time People's editors did this, I was open. I figured, hey, they want to establish a ridiculous but perversely appealing new feature by choosing a "mainstream" cutie - Mel Gibson. But by the time it was suggested that vapid Ken doll Harmon made most women's livers quiver, I was hot. Under the collar, I mean.

Now I support the right of People's editors to insist that even Hannibal the Cannibal is a major babe. I just want them to be honest. That would require renaming the feature, "The Sexiest White Guy From a Recent Hit Film or Tragic American Dynasty."

Otherwise, it's face-slappingly arrogant to suggest that for eight years running, the hottest thing in jockey shorts anywhere - their words are "sexiest man alive" - was a white guy.

People, of course, denies that any insult was intended. Blacks and other ethnic types have been runners-up for top-hunk honors several times, says spokeswoman Beth Kseniak, who says she personally touted Michael Jordan last year. "But in the end (minorities) never won."

For the record, I have no problem admitting that white guys can be sexy. In addition to appreciating several of People's choices, I once interviewed equal-opportunity flirt Kevin Costner and lived to swoon about it.

I also realize that some white men feel rather put-upon these days - face it, multiculturalism is a bear. But if People's editors feel a need to prop them up, they should limit their yearly search for the sexiest guy to more limited arenas, places where it would be reasonable for white men to win every time: The pro bowling circuit. The Senate. The Klan.

But if we're talking world-class hunkdom, the field is wide open:

You have Mambo King Antonio Banderas, Raul Julia, and Andy Garcia in the Latin quarter. "The Last Emperor" John Lone. Or that beautiful Rodney Grant, who played Wind in His Hair in "Dances With Wolves."

And I haven't even gotten to the brothers.

Think of Larry Fishburne's slow-burn intensity.

Think of Art Monk's hips. Wesley Snipes's lips. Fresh Prince's quips.

Think of the NBA, which has always been riddled with high-flying fineness: Dr. J, Phoenix's Kevin Johnson, Clyde "The Glide" Drexler of Portland.

And if Connery's eligible, how about Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte?

But back to Nolte. I'll confess that last December, two-thirds of the way through the film "Prince of Tides," I whispered to my companion, "People magazine is going to name this guy its sexiest man next year." Cross my heart. See, I understand the culture.

It works like this: A scruffy-but-handsome macho moose takes a bath and rises from the suds as an endearing, funny and vulnerable teddy bear in the year's most moving film. He smolders. He sobs. His hair falls into his face. Women love it (I know I did).

Mr. Slovenly becomes Mr. Sexpot. An obvious choice.

But I can't help wishing that a magazine that purports to speak to and about us all could accept that sometimes, other obvious choices deserve top honors.

Like Wheaties-box babe Jordan. Or Hispanic heart-breaker Jimmy Smits, whose "L.A. Law" co-workers told the People staffers they were nuts, choosing Hamlin over him. Or Denzel "I'm So Fine, Your Corneas Ache" Washington, of whom Kseniak says, "I'm surprised he hasn't won yet."

I can't help wishing that the magazine would go on the record and acknowledge what everyone already knows: that women of every shade find all kinds of men sexy.

Or get real and call itself "White People."

Donna Britt is a columnist for The Washington Post.