The most valuable contribution a magazine employee can make is to invent a franchise: TIME's Person of the Year, Fortune's Fortune 500, People's Sexiest Man Alive, Franchise Times' Top 200 Franchises. With magazines dying and the recession not abating, I had to come up with a new franchise to save my job. Which is how, after several minutes of thinking, I came up with Joel Stein Presents: The Coolest Person of the Year™.
The slight problem was that neither TIME nor I am an obvious arbiter of cool. But, I argued to myself, it's precisely the mass of uncool who can best determine who the cool is. The editors at People, for example not all that sexy.
With the help of reality-TV producer Michael Hirschorn, I put together a list and ran it by Shane Smith, who co-founded the hipster magazine Vice, hosts MTV's The Vice Guide to Everything and, most important, works in Brooklyn.
I started with Jon Hamm, the self-effacing star of Mad Men. "Who?" Smith asked. "You mean the star guy with the lantern jaw? Oh, hell no. I mean, my mom likes him." Keith Richards, whose autobiography made him seem more insouciant than ever, was also rejected. "Keith Richards is the personification of the disintegration of cool," Smith said. "Geriatrics who fall out of trees is not rock 'n' roll. That's a sad testament to the consumer power of the baby boomer." Justin Timberlake was "completely manufactured," Betty White simply "ironic." Then Smith decided his choice for Joel Stein Presents: The Coolest Person of the Year™ was Colton Harris-Moore, the 19-year-old Barefoot Bandit, who lived in the woods, taught himself to fly and stole several planes to evade international police before being caught in the Bahamas. "It's cool to be feral," Smith explained. I decided that Joel Stein Presents: The Coolest Person of the Year™ should be very cool but not feral cool.
Perhaps my most important criterion for Joel Stein Presents: The Coolest Person of the Year™ was that the choice get lots of publicity. So I asked the editor of People, Larry Hackett, whom he'd suggest. Hackett thought Keith Richards was the clear choice, which made me suspect that People might be a sad testament to the consumer power of the baby boomer. When I asked Steve Rubenstein, a public-relations consultant who works with Time, he said a controversial choice like Sarah Palin or Julian Assange might get me the most attention. But then he paused. "You should go with what's authentic," he said. "Over time, authenticity is what makes people successful and leads to good, sustained p.r. You can't sell your soul every time for a little bounce." This is not a cool thing for a publicist to say.
But I listened to him. So the 2010 Joel Stein Presents: The Coolest Person of the Year™ is the man who risked looking like an idiot over and over and yet never did. The man who was a movie star, a novelist, a soap-opera actor, a director, a visual artist, a Yale Ph.D. student in English, a Funny or Die video poster, a drag model on the cover of a magazine for transsexuals and a choice to co-host the next Oscars: James Franco.
When I told Franco about his honor, he was indeed very cool on the phone, using phrases like "the whole piece was inspired by" and mentioning artists and authors I'd never heard of. Franco has a cool attitude toward his cool year: "It's satisfying, but I guess I've trained myself to cut down on my expectations about how things will be received because that will only lead to dissatisfaction. So I invest my emotions into how well I think the things have been rendered." This is precisely how I feel about Joel Stein Presents: The Coolest Person of the Year™.
Franco promised to mention his selection as the 2010 Joel Stein Presents: The Coolest Person of the Year™ in his bio. And in return, I would select a television show to unveil it. Unfortunately, the editor of Time, Rick Stengel, thought I should stay off TV until after the Person of the Year publicity was completed. "I feel it should be part of the issue rather than a separate thing," he said. I could tell Rick was afraid that the Joel Stein Presents: The Coolest Person of the Year™ was completely eclipsing the Person of the Year. I know this because I said to him, "It sounds like you're afraid it's eclipsing the Person of the Year," and he said, "Yes. That's my worry."
So I hope that Joel Stein Presents: The Coolest Person of the Year™ doesn't backfire and cost me my job. What I'm saying is, Rick, I don't want to have to pick the 2011 Uncoolest Person of the Year. Especially on a blog.