Introducing: Esquire's February Issue

Editor-in-chief Alex Bilmes introduces our 'Icons of Style' issue

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The photograph, across a double-page spread in New York magazine, shows the actor Hugh Jackman lying on a bench in a gym, face contorted, sinews straining, holding two 75lb dumbbells in the air. A younger man with the modest physique of a steroidal buffalo is positioned at Jackman’s head, looking on in wonder, or concern, or terror, or longing, or perhaps all of those. He is identified as Breylis Peña, age 28, a trainer. In the background are four further men, in navy shorts and T-shirts, either handling heavy equipment or exchanging meaningful glances.

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Jackman, a great slab of 46-year-old, Sydney-born beefcake, is the twinkle-toed, showtune-belting star of Broadway musical theatre as well as of the X-Men movies, in which he plays Wolverine. The headline above him reads, “Tribes: The DogPound”. The intro: “Hugh Jackman and his gym pals...” Hard to believe, but it gets even more manly.

We’re told that every morning apart from Sundays, Jackman and a “group of 14 guys” from among the dads at his kids’ school meet at 5:45am – so butch! – at “an elite West Village gym” to exercise together.

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They number financiers, tech execs, and a fellow called Nigel who used to be one of the judges on America’s Next Top Model. They call themselves The DogPound – the legend is emblazoned across their tit-hugging T-shirts – in “homage to Dali, Jackman’s French bulldog, who presides over all workouts”.

Whoa! Hold on a minute there. Allow me to repeat: Hugh Jackman, Wolverine himself, owns an airdog named after the moustache-twirling master of Surrealist painting. And he takes it to the gym every day except Sundays, so the pooch can watch him and his buff buddies doing bicep curls.

(And by the way: what are the indolent Pounders doing on Sunday mornings, apart from WhatsApp-ing each other photos of their abs? Are they nursing their hangovers with a restorative glass of sweet sherry and Radio 3’s Private Passions? Or are they re-watching, for the umpteenth time, Jackman’s seminal robot boxing movie, Real Steel?)

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But it goes on. And I’m afraid I’m going to quote extensively from New York writer Rebecca Milzoff’s short article. “‘It’s a bromance for sure,’ says Kirk Myers, who, together with trainers nicknamed Menace, Monster and Chief Smashing Officer, works out alongside Jackman and friends.” Furthermore, “the whole crew have been known to spend an entire day together and exchange more than a dozen emails daily.”

Now, look. I’m not knocking exercise. I’m not sniggering at friendship. I’m not even mocking the ritualised flinging of “giant hammers” before breakfast, or the fact that “at some point every morning, the Rocky theme song is played”.

OK, sorry, at the risk of enraging Chief Smashing Officer, that part I am sniggering at.

This isn’t about sexuality, either. Because those lines blurred years ago. We’re past the point, now, when you can guess a man’s sexual orientation based solely on his weekend hobbies and pop cultural fixations. I bow to no man in my love of handbag house and old churches, the novels of Ronald Firbank and the films of Pedro Almodóvar, and yet I still can’t get it together to want to have penetrative sex with other men. (Not that anyone’s asking these days, more’s the pity.)

It’s a fact that in 2015, we straight men can use Instagram and drive compact SUVs and bake coconut bread and set our Sky+ boxes to record A Place in the Sun, and no one bats a guylinered eyelid. But one does occasionally wonder if one’s fellow heteros are even vaguely aware of how shriekingly camp we’ve become? It’s not just that our most supposedly uncomplicated masculine signifiers are actually the height of camp – that whole pretend-macho thing: the beards, the boots, the Bear Grylls box sets – it’s the relentless focus on the way we look. The obsessing over diet and body shape, the toxic pressures that generations of women, at great cost – physically, emotionally, financially – have had to endure and that we, mercifully, for so long have escaped.

So to this issue of Esquire. And when you’ve quite finished staring at hunky James Dean and gorgeous Paul Newman and pouting Jean-Paul Belmondo, or worrying along with Jeremy Langmead about how big your scarf should be, I urge you to turn to Max Olesker’s article, which begins on page 112 and is, for my money, as important a piece about the current state of masculinity as any I’ve read in a long while.

One of the media neologisms of last year was the not especially catchy “spornosexual”, a term invented by Mark Simpson, who previously coined “metrosexual”. The spornosexual is a man who constructs his identity – chiefly his visual identity – by mimicking images of sportsmen and porn stars. Unlike metrosexuality, which was at least tangentially concerned with clothes and culture and (catch-all term) lifestyle, spornosexuality is almost pathologically focused on physique. Cristiano Ronaldo, the footballer, is a spornosexual hero. Ditto Hugh Jackman. But the real sporno stars live on social media, where their updates on their ever-hardening bodies are “liked” by legions of “fans”.

For “Do You Even Lift, Bro?”, Max attempted to live as a spornosexual. For three months, he forsook all pleasures (well, most of them) in a bid to achieve peak sporno condition. The physical results are remarkable. But more interesting is what Max discovered about the lives and opinions of those men who have become so helplessly narcissistic they see nothing remarkable, still less regrettable, in spending most of their time, money and energy attempting to ape a physical ideal that – forgive me for saying so – perhaps only they find attractive and desirable.

In December, to celebrate the end of his period of undercover spornosexuality, I took Max for a large and long lunch. Then we went to the pub. There’s a hoary old line that women occasionally have to hear: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” It’s dangerous and it’s wrong. Being fit and healthy and caring about the way you look, all that is important, crucial even. But plenty of things taste better than sporno looks, and plenty of things taste better than sporno feels. Max backs me on this, and he knows.

Buy the February issue in shops today or take out a subscription to the print edition. You can also download our new enhanced digital edition designed especially for iPad.