Can Washington, D.C., Ever Be Truly Sexy? The Hill’s ‘Most Beautiful’ Speak Out
Behind the annual list that aims to disprove the maxim that politics is show business for ugly people lies a city happy to see its image sexed up in popular culture.
When The Hill released its 12th annual 50 Most Beautiful list on Wednesday, it was all but certain to become fodder for the snarkiest jabs.
Christopher Ingraham at The Washington Post called The Hill’s Most Beautiful “the most meaningless popularity contest in a city that takes great pride in its meaningless popularity contests.”
In response to the 50 Most Beautiful list, IJ Review ran its own ranking of the cutest dogs on Capitol Hill.
The list seems largely good-natured, not an implication that The Hill’s 50 Most Beautiful honorees resemble canines.
To be fair, how could a list that includes both First Lady Michelle Obama and anonymous staffers be taken seriously?
In the past decade, the 50 Most Beautiful list has become known more as a joke—a joke that’s more about D.C. than the actual 50 people on it.
The list is pointed to as proof of the oft-quoted maxim “Washington is Hollywood for ugly people” (a geographically specific mutation of “politics is show business for ugly people”).
As a result, finding oneself on the 50 Most Beautiful has a reputation for being a dubious honor in D.C.
“I know people who have turned down nominations or told people not to nominate them, because it is kind of a joke—or has a reputation of not always being that beautiful,” a contact who works in the Beltway told me.
However, for those of us outside the Beltway, we’re more confused than critical.
Clicking through, we see an array of good-looking people. But the majority wouldn’t stop us in our tracks as we walked through Dupont Circle.
New York Times reporter Liam Stack summed it up best in his tweet:
“‘The 50 Most Beautiful People in DC’ list always looks like ‘50 people You’d See on the A Train in the Morning.’”
We weren’t salivating. We were shrugging.
Where were the super sexy crisis managers, like Scandal’s Olivia Pope, and hot young reporters, like House of Cards’ Zoe Barnes? Where were the idealistic White House officials in perfectly-tailored suits à la Sam Seaborn on The West Wing?
Don’t even get us started on how no one looked remotely like Selina Meyer on Veep.
In short, where was the D.C. glamour, power, and intrigue we’ve been devouring in television and movies that hinge on the nation’s capital having a seamy, sexy soul at its core?
Yes, many on the 50 Most Beautiful list are very attractive, and are certainly more attractive than many people.
However, the 50 Most Beautiful list doesn’t have the glitz of running into Ryan Gosling at Madmen Espresso in the East Village of Manhattan or spotting Sofia Vergara at The Grove in Los Angeles.
Nor should we realistically expect it to.
Unlike New York, Los Angeles, or Miami, D.C. isn’t known for a bustling entertainment industry of actors, models, and musicians who earn a wage (at least in part) based on their looks.
But D.C. is having a moment, perhaps the moment, in popular culture.
Scandal, Veep, and House of Cards center, sexily and smartly, on life in the capital. The Obamas are arguably the youngest and hippest family we’ve had in the White House since the Kennedys. Right now, Washington, D.C., appears as sexy, sophisticated, and celebrified as it has ever been.
Those outside of the Beltway have come to romanticize D.C. as a Hollywood version of a national capital.
There is truth to that image, at least to a certain extent, according to Carl Ray, one of this year’s 50 Most Beautiful honorees.
“The TV shows have glamorized the city more, [but] to be honest the city is getting better every year,” Ray, a 49-year-old makeup artist, told The Daily Beast.
“I’ve been here 15 years. There are better places to go shopping for clothes. There are nicer restaurants. There’s a newer breed of people. They’re younger, hipper, more in style, and fresher. It’s not as stagnant as it used to be.”
He credits the change to his most politically-connected client, the First Lady, and her family.
“The Obamas ushered in a new feeling. They are a young couple with style.”
But the mere existence of the 50 Most Beautiful list is also proof that a part of D.C. is trying to make itself seem sexy and funny. And if you have to self-declare it, well… therein lies the problem.
The 50 Most Beautiful list is a halting, refreshing reminder that D.C. is a city of a lot of highly ambitious, young people from all over the country who are paid relative pennies to sort mail for congressmen or tweet for think-tank executives.
It’s unclear how The Hill compiles its 50 Most Beautiful list. The publication did not grant me an interview. Instead, Jennifer Yingling, its deputy managing editor, directed me to a quote regarding the racial makeup of the list (which I never stated I wanted to discuss).
Ingraham’s article in The Washington Post had pointed out a study that the 50 Most Beautiful list was composed of a majority of white people.
In the last five years, 65 percent of honorees were white, but he also noted that 80 percent of Congress was white. Thus, the 50 Most Beautiful is actually more racially diverse.
The people I spoke to on the list said they were nominated, photographed and interviewed around April or May, and then didn’t know they had been selected until the actual list was released.
Chaffon Davis, a 24-year-old press aide to Senator Tim Scott (R–South Carolina), said she had no idea until the list was publicized.
“It was a pleasant surprise. It’s just weird to get so much attention. It felt like it was my birthday.”
As fun as it was to play model, she “absolutely” cleared it with Senator Scott’s office before she agreed to go through with the photo shoot and interview.
“I have a long way to go in my career. I’m worried about maintaining a positive appearance,” she said.
“My mother is the most excited mom in the world. She texted everybody and sent out an email blast,” Juan McCullum, the 32-year-old general counsel for Delegate Stacey Plaskett (D–Virgin Islands).
He only had positive things to say about being named to the Most Beautiful list, and he was dismissive of stereotypes of D.C. as less attractive than its urban counterparts.
“I’ve lived in LA. I’ve spent a lot of time in New York. Wherever you are, you can find lots of beautiful people.”
Teresa Davis, who recently completed a stint as Miss District of Columbia, didn’t take her inclusion on the list too seriously.
To her, it’s just “something different, something fun,” she told The Daily Beast. “We focus so much on policy and the turning of the wheels in D.C. This is a way to take a peek on people on the Hill.”
However, Davis, a 24-year-old legislative correspondent to Representative Tom Cole (R–Oklahoma), does feel quite strongly about combatting the city’s stereotype as boring, blah, or unattractive.
“When I competed for Miss D.C., I was actually asked a question, ‘Does D.C. live up to its reputation as Hollywood for ugly people?’ Absolutely not,” she said.
“It’s not true at all. I come from a background of pageantry. I like being recognized for good looks, but also substance,” said Davis. “And I think D.C. has a lot of that.”