"There's the sexy beauty queen!" the man who works at my local newsstand says every morning. Where? I think. Where is she? I turn, expecting to see Miss America: all smiles, waving the morning edition of The New York Times. But no one is there. I look down: sweatpants and Converse, my usual newspaper-fetching garb. I smile politely and give him my 50 cents — a small price to pay for such a compliment.
Either he's never seen Baywatch, or he already knows something that Hollywood is catching on to. According to several famed casting directors — the gatekeepers of the entertainment biz who usher up-and-comers onto movie sets and decide who will continue in table-waiting purgatory — the idea of "sexy" in Hollywood is changing.
"The success of shows with intelligence and diversity has shifted everything," says Linda Lowy, the casting director for Grey's Anatomy who put Patrick Dempsey back on the radar as "McDreamy" and made Ellen Pompeo a household name. "The characters can't all be model-beautiful — the audience doesn't buy it." Hence actresses like Sandra Oh and Sara Ramirez stealing scenes as unconventional beauties with brains. "They each have an independence and a toughness," says Lowy. "That's what is sexy today."
This changing view of what's hot on-screen has its roots in the real world, according to Ellen Marakowitz, Ph.D., a lecturer in anthropology at Columbia University. "In the past 25 years, as women have moved into more of the public world, there's a sexiness in their powerful personas," she says. "It's not just their looks."
Nan Dutton, responsible for casting 9 1/2 Weeks — 1986's infamous, steamy-seduction showcase for Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke — and more recently CSI: Miami, agrees. "It's someone's aura — they don't have to be particularly gorgeous to be sexy." But, says Dutton, some physical attributes will always be Hollywood staples. "I think it's an updated version of the icons we already have: Marilyn Monroe was sexy in the '50s, and Scarlett Johansson is sexy now."
While dramas like Grey's Anatomy are contributing to the shift in what's considered a turn-on, reality TV is also speeding up the process. Women compete for the attention of the Bachelor (without a makeup artist in sight), families give in to Wife Swap, and MTV continues to show us the Real World intrigue that can exist between strangers each season. American Idol itself has brought us the likes of portly Ruben Studdard and gray-haired Taylor Hicks, both attractive in their own right, but probably not by Hollywood's former standards.
Victoria Asness, a New York casting director who finds faces for reality shows on MTV, HBO, and NBC, looks for an unassuming quality in her interviews. "We love to see someone who's beautiful and doesn't know it — authenticity is hard to find," she says. "Many people come in and try to be what they think the casting directors want, which can work against them."
The lesson? Instead of trying to conform to someone else's idea of hot, Sari Locker, Ph.D., author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Being Sexy, suggests "truly tapping into your own personal style of sexiness." Sweatpants, anyone?