The Return of the Power Paunch
Sean Macaulay on the most exquisite of all male accessories—the power paunch.
As he does every year, Prince Albert of Monaco attended this month’s Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters tennis tournament. The 55-year-old head of the House of Grimaldi did all the appropriate regal things: he brought his wife, he applauded enthusiastically, he presented the winning medals. He also swapped his crested blazer for some tennis whites to play a few sets in an exhibition game, revealing a new dimension to the royal playbook. Namely, his majestic paunch.
“Should have keep your jacket on!” jeered the tabloid headlines. “Tennis whites don’t lie.” But such derision only reveals a lack of understanding of the finer nuances of the male silhouette.
There’s fat, and there’s fat. In the male hierarchy of overweightness that runs upward from baby fat to morbid obesity, the paunch is the glorious exception. Why? Because it’s deliberate. It doesn’t come from neglect or shame or dietary ignorance. It comes from self-adoring devil-may-care confidence.
Look once more at the Prince Albert tennis court photo. Note the droit de seigneurial swagger that comes with his elephant seal contours, admire the rakish poise of his cocked pinkie forehand drive.
This is not a man trying to hide anything, least of all any nerves about his place in the world. As a bonus touch of Eurotrash élan, one can only salute his past-caring insistence on wearing total douche-bag sunglasses.
Historical novelist Lucinda Brant pinpoints the 18th century as the golden age of the power paunch. “If a gentleman had one he showed it off,” she writes of her online collection of 100 portraits of European admirals, aristocrats, and prime ministers in generously filled waistcoats. “Having yourself immortalized with a paunch indicated you were wealthy/held high office/were involved in derring-do.”
It’s telling that Albert only embraced the paunch after he ascended to the throne. While still an heir, he was your standard House of Grimaldi playboy, roaring around on jet skis, fathering love children, and donning unforgiving bobsled suits to compete in the Olympics. The true paunch is reserved for men of power at the height of their power. All the greats have one from George Washington to Tony Soprano. Once they leave office, the paunch is usually shed quietly á la Bill Clinton.
I can take credit for the term “power paunch.” Back in the early ’90s, I was a would-be dashing journalist in Fleet Street with a rapidly expanding waistline thanks to a Mad Men–level of expense account lunches. I coined the phrase as a (cough) stylish justification for running to seed, and still remember my Flashmanesque delight when I was described as “power-paunched” in Private Eye magazine.
I got back in shape when I moved to Los Angeles, and with that went most of my Roger Sterling sparkle. Seeing Albert in action, I think I’m ready for my own principality and the stomach to go with it.