Looking furry again

Smooth skin begone: Male models are putting a little hair on their chests

February 09, 2003|By Greg Morago | By Greg Morago,Special to the Sun

One of the oft-told tales from the Tinseltown press machine is that underwear sales dropped 75 percent when Clark Gable took off his shirt in It Happened One Night to reveal his T-shirtless torso.

Urban legend? Perhaps. Still, the film moment was a sensation.

Thirty years ago, another Hollywood hunk doffed his underwear and caused an even bigger sensation. But Burt Reynolds' nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan was a delicious scandal for an entirely different reason. Not because he was nearly naked but because he was wholly hairy. Think back on that centerfold, and you'll remember one thing: The guy was thick-pile carpeted from head to foot.

In the intervening years, though, the image of the hairy-chested man suffered. Instead of celebrating his God-given pelt, modern man has been busy trying to eradicate it. Blame the fitness culture, muscle-conscious advertising, youth-driven consumerism or women's preoccupation with Chippendales-like torsos, but a good number of men think the ideal chest looks less like a Marine drill sergeant's and more like a newborn Peep's.

That may be changing, however. Several recent advertisements have shocked eyes used to seeing shaved and waxed hunks in fashion magazines. Yves Saint Laurent's fall / winter campaign for its M7 cologne features a hairy-pecs lad languishing in an ultra-exposed state (more conservative publications have the option of using a version of the ad that does not show the whole model). The more recent ads for Lacoste men's cologne also show a furry fella enjoying a cup of coffee without a stitch. Another recent ad for Chrysler Town & Country shows the torso of a hairy father (who, presumably, is as concerned about comfort and luxury as he is unconcerned about sporting an unplucked chest).

Hairy backlash

Will these ads turn the tide back to the days when a "natural" chest was "normal"? Probably not: according to statistics, about 30 percent of U.S. men between ages 18 and 34 shave all or part of their chests.

The ads, however, might indicate a subtle cultural reaction to the many years of depicting men as smooth, downy-chested boys lacking any discernible levels of testosterone (think the youth-oriented Calvin Klein and Abercrombie & Fitch ads of hairless slackers and frat boys).

"If you follow that genre of ads, it's been nothing but shaved guys for years," said David Banta, creative director for Mintz & Hoke Inc., an advertising and public relations firm in Avon, Conn. "I think Abercrom-bie has kind of gone over the top a little bit. There's a bit of a backlash now."

That backlash appears to be manifesting itself in recent hairy-and-proud-of-it moments. The cover of Tim McGraw's new album, Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors, shows the country star's hairy chest. James Gandolfini has emerged as an atypical sex symbol for playing a hairy-chested mobster on The Sopranos. Josh Lucas proved to be a hairy heartthrob in last year's hit Sweet Home Alabama (now out on video).

In a recent People issue dedicated to "sexiest men," celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito (named sexiest chef) was photographed with his chef's whites unbuttoned to reveal a hairy chest. In the same issue, Scott Foley, star of the new NBC comedy A.U.S.A. was photographed to expose tufts peeking from his he-man chest.

In April, the revival of the Tony-winning musical Nine opens on Broadway with Antonio Banderas, who probably will reveal his hairy torso. Bear-like Stanley Tucci recently completed a stint on Broadway in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, in which he wasn't just naked but gloriously furry. In the next Broadway season, hairy-chested Hugh Jackman is set to play hairy-chested dance man Peter Allen in The Boy from Oz.

The natural male

Why the sudden interest in the shag-carpeted man? Designer Tom Ford said he deliberately chose the hairy model in the M7 ads because he wanted a man who hadn't tweezed and shaved every hair on his chest.

"Our male standard of beauty right now is very contrived," Ford said. "I wanted to show a man who represents a very natural, relaxed, easy image of male beauty."

Mintz & Hoke's Banta said that the M7 and Lacoste ads will probably pave the way for more happy, hairy gents in advertising.

"The second ad was probably a reaction to the first ad. It's a tight industry -- everyone watches their competitors," he said. "I would venture to guess it's not the last one you're going to see."

But is the hairy guy any more "valuable" in advertising than the falsely-hairless dude? It doesn't work that way, Banta said.

"It's shock value. The shaved guy is not real. The hairy guy is the other extreme, the complete opposite of the shaved guy. And in advertising, you do go there. There's no value in the middle," he said.

"If you're still doing the old-fashioned format, it appears as if you missed something. As soon as someone does something opposite, everyone else follows. It's like dominoes."

Whether the average Joe retires his Epilady, however, remains to be seen.

Greg Morago is a reporter for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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