|Photographs by Jake Chessum|
It all started as so much innocent post-vacation banter. A member of the staff had gone to Buenos Aires and come back impressed by, among other things, the striking handsomeness of the people he saw on the streets there. It was a distinct physical beauty that could in no way be confused with that found in other cities, he said; these people were Buenos Aires gorgeous, not Rome gorgeous or L.A. gorgeous. And from there a discussion ensued, naturally, about our own city, whose rich cultural and commercial treasures are often eclipsed by the incredibly satisfying passive entertainment called people- watching. A debate began; a story emerged. Could we really define New York beauty in 2005?
Our task, we soon realized, was like the one presented to the man in ancient Greece who was asked to paint Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world. He soon discovered that the project was impossible, because when he looked around for a model he could find no single woman beautiful enough. Eventually, he gave up looking and constructed his Helen out of pieces—this one’s toe, that one’s hand, the lips, brows, eyes of others. She was so perfect, you couldn’t see the joins.
You might use words other than impossible to describe our quest for the most beautiful man and woman in New York. Like ridiculous. Elitist. Disgusting. Cheesy. You might ask: Who would be so vain as to agree to be photographed? Why is my boyfriend/mother/wife/child not in there? All perfectly legitimate; we don’t expect you to cut these people out and put them on your wall or in your family album—we’re happy if you argue with the choices on display here, if you use them to think about how they exemplify New York’s particular brand of beauty. This is not a real list or a ranking of any kind. In fact, we amended the selection process a couple of times in midstream as the sheer absurdity of our task became clear. (See “How We Found Them” for an explanation and humble defense of our “methodology.”)
Our improvised system did, however, yield a thought or two. Ask any New Yorker what he thinks makes a New York beauty, and one of the first things he’ll say is “diversity.” Can you find real diversity in a single person? Only rarely. But look at the people in these pictures: a platinum-blonde heiress, an African-American waiter, a corkscrew-curled redhead, a white-bearded artist, a Cuban-American couple, actresses in their thirties and nineties. These (among other, less genetically blessed mortals) are just some of the types you might see crossing the street. Imagine them not as a series of competing individuals—“New York’s Next Top Model”—but as a composite. It’s not a perfect image; you can see the joins, and that’s the point. New York embraces a wide spectrum of the beautiful—from the corn-fed blonde who’s just escaped from Kansas to the Caribbean beauty now living in Queens. We are a city of émigrés, living in what David Dinkins called a “gorgeous mosaic.” That includes not just ethnic differences, but also idiosyncrasies—in New York, we admire the odd, the off-kilter, the interesting design of a face.
So if the Greek painter was disappointed to find that beauty existed only in scattered details, an artist hoping to portray the most beautiful person in New York would now celebrate that fact.
New York is not just full of beautiful people, it’s full of beauty professionals. If a number of the people selected here look like models, it’s because that’s part of who ordinary people in New York are. Carolyn Benitez, who owns Coffee Shop in Union Square, hires models as wait staff because she was once a model herself and knows what it’s like to have to make money to put your book together. She happens to have a pretty spectacular eye. Models make sense for her restaurant because, she says, the city is “the beauty capital. I mean, it’s about the models, right? Good-looking, smart kids from other places.” Butterfly Boualaphanh, who works at the DNA model agency, says that when scouting for models, “if I’m somewhere else, I say, ‘Have you thought about modeling?’ In New York, it’s ‘What agency are you with?’ ”
Nevertheless, there is a far wider variety of New York beauty than you’ll find in fashion magazines and advertising campaigns. Kim Hastreiter, editor of Paper magazine, believes that to be beautiful here you have to be a maverick. “Models aren’t beautiful to me,” she says. “Models are just for putting clothes on. It’s about character, and I think America promotes models that have very little character or diversity.” This is not because ideas of beauty are set in stone—recalling a particularly memorable fashion campaign from a few years back, Hastreiter refers to what she calls “the village-idiot look. There’s definitely an inbred look of beauty.” But the runways, she says, “looked a lot different when Bethann was in charge.”
Bethann is Bethann Hardison, who changed the face of the fashion industry as a black model in the sixties and seventies, and as a model agent later on. She made the careers of Veronica Webb, Talisa Soto, and Ralph Lauren poster boy Tyson Beckford, and was “like a coach” to Naomi Campbell. Although Hardison thinks that now, in New York, you’re exotic if you’re Caucasian, she still agrees that “the idea of beauty has remained the same, no matter how much influx, no matter who is buying, who is living next to you, or how many people walk past you on the street.” After she closed her agency in 1996, people told her the modeling business was slipping without her. “I didn’t want that responsibility,” she says. “The New York Times interviewed me and they wanted to know what was going to happen to all the people I’d helped. And that, at the time, was people of color. And I was like, they’re fine, they’re gonna be fine. And honey, little by little, it has died.”
Who wields the power in this scenario? Some will cite American Vogue, or the photographer Steven Meisel, or whatever’s going on at Prada. On the other hand, it seems to be more unpredictable than that. Boualaphanh offers an explanation that sounds like a recipe for anxiety: “Every season there’s a new group of girls that’s coming out. It’s not like the late eighties, when you only had six major girls who would do every show, every campaign, every catalogue. So everybody’s looking for something new. What’s the hot new thing? No one knows.” She thinks for a moment. “I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? That’s what they say.”
That is what they say. All the time. But they don’t mean it. That’s just a myth people cling to, because even in the beauty industry, they’re embarrassed to be talking about the surface of things all the time. Scientific research suggests that there is an automatic, universal standard of beauty. It has to do with the qualities of “order and symmetry” identified centuries ago by Aristotle. In one study, two American anthropologists presented a multicultural set of female faces to five groups of people in Brazil, the United States, Russia, and two isolated tribes of Indians in South America. There was a surprising amount of agreement on which faces were beautiful: those who had similar geometric proportions—large eyes in relation to a small jaw. The supermodel Paulina Porizkova got it right when she said that people finding her beautiful was really “a matter of mathematics: the number of millimeters between the eyes and chin.”
A lot of cities make a spectator sport of their street life. What distinguishes New York’s are the extremes of self-awareness that go along with it.
But are perfect proportions really what make you turn your head when you see a beautiful person on the street in New York? Sometimes, yes. Just as often, though, we respond to variety, to looks we haven’t seen before. As the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi puts it, “People in New York are like works of art. They make and exhibit themselves every day.” In addition to the models on Mulberry Street, we are entranced by skateboarders at Union Square, socialites teetering on a fuchsia carpet for the opening of a meatpacking-district boutique, and disheveled hipsters stumbling out of their Williamsburg apartments late on a Sunday morning. Each one is a masquerade. However nonchalant they may look, these people are playing to the spectator sport that is New York City street life.