For those of us who didn’t live through it, it’s hard to intuitively grok the squalor of the 1970s. On any given Monday, your average young American would get in the bucket seat of her orange, two-door AMC Gremlin. With vinyl seats sticking to her legs, and tape spilling out of her 8-track cassettes, she would turn on the radio. Probably something by KC and the Sunshine Band would be playing, possibly “Boogie Shoes.” She would drive around aimlessly — past the dilapidated industrial sites of the country’s blighted urban landscape — with an inarticulate sense that something was amiss, or missing. Like a disco-dazed Diogenes, she had an ineffable feeling that if she just kept going — gas rationing permitting — profound truths were at hand. And they were.
When that plucky composite American reached the checkout counter of her supermarket on March 4, 1974, the first issue of People was waiting for her. Soon, like a seeker come to the oracle, she would have answers to questions that she didn’t even know she’d been asking. By 1985, and every year thereafter, she’d understand who the most sexually attractive living male was. In 1990 she’d know, at last, which 50 individuals on the planet were the most ravishing. Could a calendar year of human history be distilled into a listicle of the 25 most fascinating among us? Yes — People would show her — it could. And that would make all the difference.
Now, nearly 40 years since that first edition, it’s difficult to imagine a world in which the Sexiest, the Most Beautiful, the Most Intriguing aren’t a part of our collective intelligence. Here in this unimaginably glamorous future that People helped to create, that average young American (not so young anymore, one failed hetero-normative marriage and one successful same-sex marriage later) sits in her solar-powered, self-driving Tesla, silently gliding past the skyline of mega-tall Cheesecake Factories made from crystallized starlight. On the retina of one eye, she reads the latest issue of People through her Google Glass. But with the other eye, she looks back on that more innocent, impoverished time in America, when we were so ignorant of the lives of other people — hot, famous people. After all these years, she still looks back … with wonder.