People Sexiest Man Alive Through the Years: Every Winner from Mel Gibson to Idris Elba

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People have been consistently savvy about crowning their Sexiest Man, having successfully identified male icons who act as a bellwether to the sexual zeitgeist. Getty Images

People magazine’s annual Sexiest Man Alive award may have started as a way to shift copies, but over the past 34 years it has become a national tradition. Aside from a few dodgy picks in the late 80s, People has been consistently savvy about crowning its Sexiest Man, having successfully identified male icons who act as a bellwether to the sexual zeitgeist.

The first Sexiest Man title was awarded in 1985, when it was given to a 29-year-old Mel Gibson. Some men are simply so sexy that they’ve won twice: Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Johnny Depp and Richard Gere all claim this honor.

While some winners are young, such as a 28-year-old Tom Cruise in 1990, most of their picks are well-established men in their 30s and 40s. There hasn't been a winner in his 20s since Cruise’s win.

And while no winner has ever been over 60, this list proves that, in People ’s opinion, men get better with age. A 59-year-old Sean Connery, 56-year-old Harrison Ford and 50-year-old Richard Gere prove that middle-aged men don’t need to worry about competition from their younger counterparts.

Aside from the winners getting slightly older, there’s not been much change in type over time—although mullets no longer feature quite as heavily as they once did. Winners tend to be tall, white, conventionally handsome actors. This years’ winner, Idris Elba, is one of the few non-white men to have won the prize.

People has a brilliant online archive, which shows how the tone and coverage of their Sexiest Men has changed over time. In the hyper PR-friendly world of today, Mel Gibson’s 1985 interview is almost alarmingly candid.

“Slumped and sullen, the reluctant sex symbol is sitting on the set of Mad Max III, smoking incessantly and working on a six-pack smuggled in by a friend,” it reads, before going on to quote the Sexiest Man himself. “‘I don’t want to be doing this interview,’ he pouts, affecting the air of an injured adolescent. ‘I don’t even want to be making this film. It’s just a piece of shit. Don’t print that.’”

Early Sexiest Men coverage was also far more luridly gushing thirty years ago. It’s hard to imagine People speculating whether Idris Elba could crush coconuts between his thighs, as they did with John F. Kennedy, Jr. in 1988, or describing his body in such minute, florid detail as they did to the “smooth-skinned he-man” Nick Nolte in 1992. Instead, Sexiest Men are painted in a relatable light, talking about their teenage awkward phases and their shock at winning the award.

We’ve looked back over 34 years of People’s Sexiest Men, from Mel Gibson to Idris Elba, adding how they were described at the time by the magazine.

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1985 — Mel Gibson
Age at the time: 29.
Patrick Riviere/Getty Images
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1985 — Mel Gibson
“Women have been known to go half-mad at the sight of him, and he is clearly uncomfortable with the notion of being a sex object. Last year a New York studio publicist brought Mel, unannounced, to an informal gathering in a friend’s Greenwich Village apartment. Within 20 minutes Mel was surrounded by a thicket of otherwise dignified urbanites who had deserted their male companions to gaze into his azure eyes. Looking like a rabbit cornered by a pack of hounds, Gibson promptly fled”—People, February 4, 1985.
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1986 — Mark Harmon
Age at the time: 34.
Diane Freed
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1986 — Mark Harmon
“Okay, we know what you’re thinking: Where’d they get this guy? They said the same thing about Travolta in 1975, Tom Selleck in 1980 and Mel Gibson in 1985. You may have heard of them, right? Well, in ’86 the new definition of sexy is being provided on the tube by Mark Harmon; he of the gleaming grin, chiseled pecs and piercing blue eyes (aren’t they always?). But Harmon, 34, is determined to spice up his image to make sure he doesn’t drown in a sea of pretty boys”—People, January 27, 1986.
Brenda Chase / Stringer
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1987 — Harry Hamlin
Age at the time: 35.
Brenda Chase / Stringer
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1987 — Harry Hamlin
“When other women discuss Hamlin, there’s always talk of his sweetness and smarts. Susan Dey, who gets into bed with Hamlin regularly on L.A. Law in her role as Grace Van Owen, says, “Harry has the charm, vulnerability and diplomacy of Cary Grant and the explorer, survivalist instinct of Robinson Crusoe. Harry is vulnerable, but with an edge.” Morgan Fairchild pronounces Harry “extraordinarily sexy,” but claims his “intelligence and sensitivity make you look past the flesh””—People, March 30, 1987
Brenda Chase / Stringer
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1988 — John F. Kennedy, Jr.
Age at the time: 27.
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1988 — John F. Kennedy, Jr.
“Okay, ladies, this one’s for you—but first some ground rules. GET YOUR EYES OFF THAT MAN’S CHEST! He’s a serious fellow. Third-year law student. Active with charities. Scion of the most charismatic family in American politics and heir to its most famous name. Get your eyes off that man’s extraordinarily defined thighs! What do you think, he strips down to his shorts for a game of touch football in Central Park so strangers can gape at them? They are fantastic, though. Measure three, four feet around. Legend has it that if he lived in Tahiti, instead of Manhattan, he could crack coconuts with them”—People, September 12, 1988
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1989 — Sean Connery
Age at the time: 59.
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1989 — Sean Connery
Age before beauty? Then how would Connery ever get through a door? Toy boys may come and go with the seasons; Connery endures. Thirty years and 48 films into his career, even with all those miles on his odometer, he’s as steamy a presence today as in the days of Goldfinger, still overshadowing the fresh-faced upstarts with that breathtakingly craggy, granite-jawed profile”—People, December 18, 1989
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1990 — Tom Cruise
Age at the time: 28.
Patrick Riviere/Getty Images