We're likely about two weeks away from learning the identity of the Sexiest Man Alive, as chosen by People magazine. Given that there are fairly strict (if unwritten) criteria for being awarded this honor -- SMAs of recent years have typically been film actors between 30 and 45 -- it's usually easy to guess at who the next winner may be. Here are 10 contenders, a few of whom are outside the usual template for Sexiest Men Alive. For starters, the leading contender is a mere lad of 23.
Robert Pattinson: He has to be considered the heavy favorite, to the point where I would be surprised if it is anyone else. For starters, the Twilight sequel New Moon will be premiering right around the time that the SMA issue comes out, providing a natural tie-in. And judging from how often Pattinson and his co-stars appear in the gossip media even without a film to promote, giving him the honor would be a license to print money. The only thing working against Pattinson is his age. The Sexiest Man Alive is typically not someone who could be described as "boyish." The honor has never been bestowed on someone who arguably needs to shave just once a month. Odds: Even money.
Brad Pitt: This isn't like being Miss America -- even after you've won Sexiest Man Alive, you're allowed to win it again, and Pitt is one of the few who has accomplished this feat. He has to be on any list of possible winners because, let's face it, he's Brad Freakin' Pitt. But there are two big arguments against him. One, there has never been a three-time winner. Two, there's that goatee he's been sporting of late, which has him looking more like an Allman Brother than someone gearing up to make an acceptance speech at the People offices. Odds: 8 to 1.
Neil Patrick Harris: He has had the kind of career year (even if he didn't get that Emmy) that could nicely be capped off by winning Sexiest Man Alive. Of course, the elephant in the room is Harris's sexual orientation. There's never been a gay winner of the SMA, at least not one who was out, and this is certainly no coincidence. Just like the annual People list of sexiest bachelors, which usually has only a token gay man or two in it even though the percentage of unmarried men who are gay is certainly quite high, there's an undeniable fantasy element to the naming of the Sexiest Man Alive. There may come a day when People will give the honor to someone that its female readers can't imagine sleeping with, but I doubt that day will be in 2009. Odds: 20 to 1.
Robert Downey Jr.: He has some of the same factors going for him that Harris does: he's never won before; he's the right age, broadly speaking (44); he has a big project to promote over the coming weeks (Sherlock Holmes); and he's never been hotter than he is right now. However, most of the Sexiest Men Alive have a background in romantic comedies or action films, neither of which are Downey's forte (despite the Iron Man franchise). Quirkier actors have won before, but they have been men like Jude Law and Johnny Depp who are more conventionally gorgeous than Downey. He's an intriguing longshot. Odds: 10 to 1.
Colin Firth: He's considered a thinking woman's sex symbol by many, probably because he has the British accent and had his breakthrough role in Pride and Prejudice. This is shaping up as a big few months for Firth, given his supporting role in the will-probably-be-a-hit A Christmas Carol and his starring turn in A Single Man, which should land him on Oscar short lists. The big questions about Firth are his age (49) and whether he's really famous enough for People to even put him on its cover at all, let alone as the SMA. Odds: 30 to 1.
Mark Harmon: Naming Harmon would be a good way for People to tie into what is currently the top-rated show on television, NCIS. It would also be a shoutout to People's own history, since Harmon was Sexiest Man Alive way back in 1986, when he was dark-haired and starring on St. Elsewhere. But while being 58 probably doesn't completely disqualify him -- there has been one winner, Sean Connery, who was even older -- it's not really a point in his favor either. Odds: 50 to 1.
Jake Gyllenhaal: He's been kind of quiet lately, but he does have a role in next year's Prince of Persia in which he will be showing off quite a physique. Plus, his current status as boyfriend to Reese Witherspoon, who is the sort of nice person People readers admire even if they would rather read about the disaster areas, makes him something of a role model. Gyllenhaal fits the general profile of a future Sexiest Man Alive, but like Matthew McConaughey or Matt Damon ten years ago, he probably needs more seasoning. Odds: 25 to 1.
Leonardo DiCaprio: How is it possible that this dude has never won SMA, given his idol status and his unending string of prestige projects? Bottom line is that he was probably too young and apple-cheeked to win at the time of Titanic (just as Pattinson may be today); and since then, DiCaprio, like Downey, has mostly pursued roles that don't play up sex appeal. He's also not a particular friend of celebrity journalism, which would make doing a cover story on him somewhat difficult. But a list of Sexiest Men Alive that doesn't include DiCaprio is an incomplete cultural history of the last 15 years. It would be as if Lindsay Lohan had never won Trainwreck of the Year. Odds: 5 to 1.
John Mayer: I'm mentioning him because 1) he's considered to be an attractive man; and 2) the scope of his little black book attests to the fact that an awful lot of famous women have personally found him quite sexy. He's also promoting a new album. However, there's never been a Sexiest Man Alive who was a musician (we'll ignore Pierce Brosnan singing in Mamma Mia!), so I doubt the first will be Mayer. Besides, who really wants to hear Kanye West shouting "I'm really happy for you John, but Usher was one of the sexiest men of all time!" Odds: 1000 to 1.
Barack Obama: Wait, hear me out. We know that People is not averse to putting this President on its cover. Naming him the SMA would get them more publicity than almost anything else you could think of. The downsides are that the magazine would surely get a flurry of subscription cancellations from those who believe Obama has already received too much attention from People, and from those who supported Glenn Beck's candidacy. Bottom line is that the Nobel Peace Prize/Sexiest Man Alive combo is a difficult one to pull off; the only person to ever win both in the same year is Bishop Desmond Tutu*. Odds: 40 to 1.
* : Portions of this sentence were not completely fact-checked.