In its first incarnation, the search was ambitious and democratic. How about open calls? Big tents, lots of interns running around with Polaroids and clipboards, snapping photos of the thousands who would doubtless show up to declare themselves, or their sisters, co-workers, boyfriends, or crush objects, the most beautiful people in New York. Then we’d go through the photos, and … Well, there was the flaw. Here at New York Magazine, we have no problem pointing you to a great restaurant or telling you which movie to see—but frankly, we were uncomfortable saying, “Beautiful. Not beautiful,” to a pile of Polaroids.
So we turned to experts. Which is to say, we cajoled and browbeat some of the city’s most astute aestheticians (photographers, fashion designers, artists, club owners) into suggesting people they saw every day who struck them as New York’s most beautiful. Some nominated with a motive, noble (my mother!) or not (my boss!). We allowed nepotism when it seemed justified, as it did in the case of Carolyn Benitez of Coffee Shop, who picked her own employees. A lot of our would-be nominees said no; the exercise smacked of the worst kind of superficiality. Getting people into the studio to be photographed required another round of cajoling, not always successful.
But others saw the idea behind the impulse even more clearly than we did. Thelma Golden, the curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, got it right away; she found four people whose looks and spirits moved her, and who could only come together in the most international city in the world. Surprises came in daily; we got actors and models, naturally, but also a special-ed teacher, a fireman, a doorman, a Central Park saxophone player.
We took our initial democratic impulse and put it where it made sense: on the Web, where we solicited suggestions from readers. And while we got the usual narcissists and weirdos, there were also a lot of well-intentioned folks out there who wanted us to consider their personal favorite beauties.
For the last part of the journey, we went out and searched—led, of course, by people who look at people for a living. We cased the restaurants with art producer Yvonne Force Villareal. We trolled Williamsburg and Coney Island, accompanied by the discerning eyes of Butterfly Boualaphanh and Christiana Tran, model agents from DNA Model Management. We cut a swath through a charity benefit and a pack of noisy, happy-hour Wall Streeters with Broadway casting agent extraordinaire Bernie Telsey, who charmed even the most reluctant cocktail drinker into putting down her gin and giving us a profile shot. We came back with dozens of photos—all New Yorkers, all beautiful. Which brought us back to the beginning of this project. What is New York beauty in 2005? Impossible to say. But a lot of fun to look for.