IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why is People magazine's 'Sexiest Man Alive' almost always white?

David Beckham got the nod this year, making him the latest in a long line of white men so honored since the magazine started awarding the title 30 years ago.
David Beckham attends a photocall as he celebrates 10 years as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador at Google HQ on Feb. 9, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty)
David Beckham attends a photocall as he celebrates 10 years as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador at Google HQ on Feb. 9, 2015 in London, England.

People magazine's pick for their annual “Sexiest Man Alive” cover story is … another white guy.

David Beckham, the 40-year-old retired soccer star, received the nod on Tuesday, making him the latest in a long line of white men so honored since the magazine started awarding the title 30 years ago. Denzel Washington is the only person of color to ever grace a “Sexiest Man Alive” cover, and that was 19 years ago. Meanwhile, four white actors (Richard Gere, George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp) have earned the distinction twice.

The magazine arrives on newsstands amid an ongoing debate about diversity in Hollywood. Studies have shown that while minorities make up a disproportionately high percentage of the movie-going and television-viewing public, their numbers are not reflected either in front of or behind the camera. This year alone, actress Viola Davis, director Spike Lee, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, and even Jessica Chastain, a white actress, have used awards show stages to highlight the problem. “Selma” director Ava DuVernay has also been outspoken about the uphill battle filmmakers of color face. And the Hollywood establishment’s stubborn refusal to embrace a wider spectrum when it comes to beauty standards has become a routine talking point.

The emergence of Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as a reliable cover girl has been hailed for this very reason and yet, when it comes to People magazine’s annual homage to hunky celebs, the move toward a more diverse Hollywood landscape appears not to have translated. The chorus of critics has been there for years, and has picked up steam recently, when seemingly viable alternatives like Idris Elba and Michael B. Jordan were passed over for the likes of Channing Tatum, Adam Levine and Chris Hemsworth.

RELATED: Videos expose Hollywood's diversity problem in under a minute

“I'm not personally slighted by it, majorly because I don't really expect publications like PEOPLE to acknowledge men who look like me based on precedence. I will say, though, whether done subconsciously or not, it's a reminder that whiteness is centered and anything outside of that remains in the pile of ‘less than,’” Ebony magazine columnist Michael Arceneaux told MSNBC via email.

Some might argue that a magazine cover doesn't matter, but editor Clay Cane counters that in a world where Elba is deemed "too street" to play James Bond and director Ridley Scott can mount a production about ancient Egypt with no stars of color, that dismissal is short sighted. 

"There is a struggle for black actors in entertainment to establish that they are marketable," Cane told MSNBC. "I don't think we should dismiss it completely because there a lot of black actors actors out there who are working really hard and this sort of perpetuates this longstanding standard of beauty." Still, he doesn't think people of color do or should look to People to define what's sexy to them. MSNBC reached out to People to inquire about their selection process and their reaction to the backlash, but has not heard back at this time.

People’s readership is overwhelmingly female (72%) and skews middle-aged (56% of the readership is between 25 and 54), so the fact that their cover boy choices tend to be performers who may be a little past their prime is not surprising, but an apparent inability to break with tradition is. In an interview with Slate for a 2014 retrospective on the series, former People managing editor Landon Jones, who oversaw the 1996 Denzel Washington cover, said, “I’m proud we published the first [“Sexiest Man Alive” with a person of color]. I’m not proud we published the last.” 

"I want to look at People's Sexiest Man Alive list each year and see various representations of what sexy looks like, across different cultures. I want to know that being the Sexiest Man Alive doesn't usually mean you have to be blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and, most importantly, white," added Kadeen Griffiths for Bustle

To be fair, the magazine has featured minority women on the cover of their "Most Beautiful People" issue four times since that special edition started hitting newsstands in 1990. And People is not the only lifestyle publication to catch flak for a history of whitewashed covers. This summer, Vogue UK ended a 12-year drought of solo black models. And Vanity Fair’s annual Hollywood issue, until recently, has been pilloried for presenting a lily-white image of the industry’s emerging elite. Meanwhile, slowly but surely, the myth that magazines with black people on the cover don’t sell is finally starting to crumble.

Still, fans seeking a "Sexiest Man Alive" of color will have to wait until next year to see if the trend is reversed.