Picking the Prom Kings
Interview with Joel Stein
Time Magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People’ edition includes a ‘Coolest Person of the Year’ section, written by seasoned journalist, author, and pop culture critic Joel Stein. A graduate of Stanford University, Stein began his career as a researcher for Martha Stewart and a sports editor at Time Out New York. In 1997, he became a Staff writer at Time, where he made his mark by penning over a dozen cover stories and eventually landing his own column, through which he expresses his unique—and hilarious—musings on current affairs. His satiric writing style has impressed The Los Angeles Times—where he’s a regular columnist—as well as GQ and The New Yorker. Stein has also taught a class at Princeton and appeared on shows like Comedy Central’s Reel Comedy and HBO’s Phoning It In.
In between writing Time’s ‘Awesome Column’ and promoting his new book (Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity) Stein found a few minutes to talk to Salient’s Fairooz Samy about being an arbitrator of Cool and picking Time’s ‘Coolest Person’ of 2011.
F: When you began the ‘Coolest Person of the Year’ franchise, you justified your position by saying that the uncool masses were exactly the right people to decide what constituted cool. Does this mean that everyone has a common description of cool?
J: To some extent, I think we do. A lot of cool is about staying in control and not caring. Not getting emotional, not worrying about being judged, not afraid of being yourself. Then again, if that self is nerdy and spazzy, then maybe not. I guess cool mostly means being good-looking, now that I’m thinking about it.
F: You disagreed with the ‘NME approach’ to picking cool, arguing that anyone can appear to be ahead of the curve by hailing an obscure, niche artist/actor/interpretive beat boxer. You wanted someone “whose cool was tested and pervasive”. What made you go down the path of popular opinion? Is having a certain level of public visibility an integral part of being cool?
J: It’s certainly an integral part of being in Time magazine. I feel like NME is trying to prove they’re cool by picking someone obscure–or making the reader feel cool for knowing about that cool person. If you read Time, there’s no hope of that for you. We just want to know who the cool kid is that we should vote for prom king but will never talk to in the halls. NME is looking for the cool kid doing drugs in the woods who leaves after homeroom.
F: Let’s talk a little bit about your selection factors: publicity, authenticity, and apparently, handsome movie stars whose slurry voices never change pitch (I’m looking at you, James Franco). What other aspects are important? And how do you find a balance between them?
J: Those are all the important factors (and women are equally considered). Unapproachability is a bit important. Melissa McCarthy is too non-intimidating. You get the feeling it would be a little weird to hang out with Ryan Gosling or James Franco. Something odd might happen.
F: How thin is the line between being weird and being cool? Why is Gosling’s penchant for ukuleles better than Helena Bonham Carter’s false teeth collection?
J: You can’t be too straight. You need a little weird. But not too much. Helena Bonham Carter is too weird, but Billy Bob Thornton is just barely not. You get the feeling that Billy Bob is more self-aware. Being cool sounds exhausting the more I think about it. At least that’s my excuse for not being cool.
F: What has the feedback over your choices been like? And do you still stand by them? I’m sure it at least eased the pain for many Gosling fans who feel as though he was robbed of the ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ title.
J: I stand by my choices completely. Franco had a bad moment hosting the Oscars but has been cool ever since.
F: Finally, are there any frontrunners for ‘Coolest Person of the Year 2012’?
J: I’ll take any suggestions. If the year ended right now, I might have to go with Clint Eastwood.
F: I’m picking Blue Ivy Carter. You can’t beat that synergy. ▲