Is New York like everyplace else, only more so, as one definition has it, or is it a universe entirely of its own devising? Of course we all secretly, or openly, think the latter. And—of course—we’re right. Because we place a premium on things that other places don’t, things that might be called, to appropriate a word generally brandished for very different purposes, New York values: talent, style, sophistication, wit, charm, accomplishment, and its close cousin, the willingness to fail spectacularly.
Which brings us to sex appeal, New York–style. New Yorkers, like all other Americans, are bombarded constantly by a pop-cultural shock-and-awe campaign of sexual imagery. It is designed to make us buy, and buy. It succeeds at that. But it also reminds us by its very ubiquity that physical perfection on its own is not quite enough. In another city—L.A., to take the most obvious example—the body may be sufficient as personal statement. But in New York, sexual fabulousness is quirkier, and physical beauty must compete with other imperatives.
Blond hair and blue eyes? Not sexy, at least not necessarily. Just sold a series to HBO? Written a literary sensation? Or showed the courage and social adroitness to reinvent yourself after a scandal? Now we’re getting somewhere. New York is a place where the main sexual organ is the brain.
There’s uptown sexy, downtown sexy, society sexy, working-class sexy, straight sexy, gay sexy, television-anchor sexy, alt-rocker sexy, body-as-temple sexy, defiant-smoker sexy (yes: Smoking is, or used to be, very sexy in this town). True, there can be sex appeal in a $450 coiffure; but there’s bald sexy, too, and people who are sexy because they have six-room rent-controlled apartments that are great for parties.
What’s the common thread? It’s too simple to say ambition or success. Successful people are a dime a dozen here; there are probably more unsexy successful people here than in any other city.
No. It’s that the people splashed across the following pages all express something about New York that we treasure: its neon seductiveness (Bebe Neuwirth), its literary intensity (Paul Auster), its streetwiseness (Rosario Dawson). They all radiate some particular piece of the city’s energy.
That is, its sexual energy, which is, true to New York form, intense, egalitarian, and not exactly what—or who—you would expect it to be. As Edmund White writes in his book States of Desire, “What is unique to New York is the cruising.” We’re out on the streets all the time, or in the subway, and we’re all checking one another out. Those Sigerson Morrisons. That Kangol hat. That woman in the half-buttoned white Oxford shirt. And wait a minute—is that really Borges she’s reading? But enough. Cruise this.