Like those who’ve gone before him, this year’s Sexiest Man Alive was humbled by the news he’d scored the honors. “I was like, ‘Come on, no way. Really?'” Elba tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story. “Looked in the mirror, I checked myself out. I was like, ‘Yeah, you are kind of sexy today.’ But to be honest, it was just a nice feeling. It was a nice surprise — an ego boost for sure.”
What went through the country star’s mind when he first heard the news? “That y’all must be running out of people,” he joked to PEOPLE. “Like, Wow, we’re down to somebody who is somewhat symmetrical.” All kidding aside, Shelton credits his girlfriend of three years, Gwen Stefani, for convincing him to embrace the crown. “She goes, ‘Listen to me, you’re going to regret this for the rest of your life if you don’t take this gift and just live in the moment,” Shelton said of his duet partner.
As a teen growing up in Hawaii, “I was doing a lot of things that I shouldn’t have,” Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson told PEOPLE. “I was getting arrested multiple times, but at the same time, always very respectful to my teachers and elders. I was unsure of who I was and who I wanted to be.” Now, as Sexiest Man Alive (and the star of Disney’s animated hit, Moana), “I thought, ‘Wow, we’ve pretty much reached the pinnacle.’ I’m not quite too sure where we go from here. I’ve done it all, this is it.”
“I never feel that I’m an attractive, sexy person,” David Beckham demurred in his cover interview. As if! The retired soccer star and father of four (oldest Brooklyn joked that it should’ve been him as SMA, not Dad) said his equally famous wife Victoria seemingly did agree with the title, though. “I would hope that she feels this way about me all the time anyway!” he said with a shy smile. “But she said, ‘Congratulations!’ “
Let’s be honest: You didn’t even have to read Chris Hemsworth’s cover story to know he was the perfect pick for Sexiest Man Alive. Not that the interview wasn’t great, especially when he joked that the “bragging rights” would mean he wouldn’t have to do the dishes or “change nappies” for a few weeks (we bet wife Elsa Pataky disagrees). Also, we made him read a vacuum manual – and thanks to that Aussie accent, it was amazing.
Before he got married, and starred in his first feature film, Adam Levine was named PEOPLE’s Sexiest Man Alive – an honor he took with a grain of salt. “You feel like you owe it to be kind of self-deprecating about it because it is an iconic thing, but also silly,” he said. “It’s going to hit me when I’m constantly the butt of every joke every friend and family member makes for the next 20 years of my life, but I’m ready to handle it.”
It was a big year for Channing Tatum: He made ladies swoon in Magic Mike, The Vow and 21 Jump Street, and was preparing for fatherhood, too. So when he got the call from PEOPLE, “My first thought was, ‘Y’all are messing with me,'” he said. His wife thought the same; after he told her, as they were bathing their dogs, “She was like, ‘What?'” he recalled.
From his piercing baby blues to his command of the French language, Bradley Cooper caused quite a stir when he nabbed PEOPLE’s hunkiest honor. “I think it’s really cool that a guy who doesn’t look like a model can have this [title],” the Hangover star told PEOPLE. “I think I’m a decent-looking guy. Sometimes I can look great, and other times I look horrifying.”
Sexy and self-deprecating, Ryan Reynolds became the first Canadian to be named Sexiest Man Alive. “The most difficult part is going to be organically working this title into a conversation with random strangers,” the actor joked, adding, “This gives my family entrée into teasing me for the rest of my life.”
Twenty-five years after making his film debut, Johnny Depp still never ceases to amaze fans and A-list costars alike. “I hope I don’t faint,” Anne Hathaway gushed about the challenges of costarring with the two-time Sexiest Man Alive in 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. “It might be my hardest role to date – to keep my cool.”
The accent! The charm! And oh, that chest! Hugh Jackman was named PEOPLE’s Sexiest Man Alive for the first time in 2008 – and his wife Deborra-Lee Furness agrees, calling his physique “the Body of Doom – but I like what’s inside.”
After years of honorable mentions, Matt Damon – fresh off his hit, The Bourne Ultimatum – won the honor. “You’ve given an aging suburban dad the ego-boost of a lifetime,” the Sexiest (and Humblest!) Man Alive said.
George Clooney became the second celebrity to nab the honor of being PEOPLE’s Sexiest Man Alive twice. Still, he admitted to PEOPLE, “I don’t go on that many dates.”
The Texan‘s reaction to being named Sexiest Man Alive? “Wait until you see the roles I could take after this,” he joked to PEOPLE. “You’re going to see my gut hanging over, plus 22 [lbs.] It’ll be a whole new kind of sexy!”
From a rakish sea dog in Pirates of the Caribbean to Sexiest Man Alive to family man. It was all in a day’s work for 2003’s honoree, Johnny Depp, who said, “Life’s pretty good, and why wouldn’t it be? I’m a pirate, after all!”
Bennifer mania – Ben Affleck‘s romance with Jennifer Lopez – was in full swing when the actor landed on the cover of PEOPLE’s Sexiest Man Alive issue. Why all the hoopla? As friend director Kevin Smith told PEOPLE, “Chicks gravitate to him. The word on the street is that he’s the ideal man, chatty, gorgeous, generous and intelligent.”
Bond, James Bond, was the Sexiest Man Alive in 2001, with Pierce Brosnan on the cover. But offscreen, the sexy Dubliner had just one thing on his mind – his family. Said costar Julianna Margulies: “When you see a gorgeous man holding hands with his wife and holding his baby, there’s nothing more sexy in the world.”
Richard Gere was 50 when he was honored with the Sexiest Man Alive mantle in 1999 – and his ex-girlfriends were more than happy to come out of the woodwork to crow about why he’s so hot. Said designer Diane Von Furstenberg, “He walked like a biker, and that attracted me. I knew I was going to get my hands on him. I seduced him.”
He’s played a sexy space hero (in the Star Wars franchise) and sexy action heroes (Indiana Jones, anyone?), but Harrison Ford didn’t think he was all that when he was named the Sexiest Man Alive in 1998. “Why this sudden outpouring for geezers?” Ford, then 56, asked PEOPLE. “I never feel sexy. I have a distant relationship with the mirror.”
In his first Sexiest Man Alive cover, George Clooney‘s pals gushed about not only his looks, but also about his loyalty. “The rap on George is that he’s this rake, this guy’s guy,” his ER costar Laura Innes told PEOPLE. “That’s true, but he is also a dear, loyal friend who would do anything for you. It’s almost like being a family member.”
“I don’t take myself too seriously,” PEOPLE’s 1996 Sexiest Man Alive, Denzel Washington, admitted. “I don’t stop in the mirror and go, ‘Hey, Sexy Man.'” Maybe because he’s not just another pretty face: As Courage Under Fire costar Regina Taylor said, “He has wit, style and intelligence.”
Following the one-two punch of Legends of the Fall and Interview with the Vampire, Brad Pitt graced the cover of the 1995 issue. What was his appeal? As Nilo Otero, the assistant director on Legends, put it, the actor handled both women and wild horses in the film, making Pitt “a man’s man who seems to be a woman’s man too.”
PEOPLE didn’t name a Sexiest Man Alive in 1994 – or in 1993. Instead, Cindy Crawford and Richard Gere landed on the cover as the Sexiest Couple Alive. In spite of their careers as supermodel and superstar, the twosome (who split a year later) were a laid-back duo. “Richard loves me without my makeup and in my ponytail,” Crawford had said. ”So, hey, if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.”
The rugged star of Lorenzo’s Oil and The Prince of Tides landed on the cover of 1992’s Sexiest Man Alive because of his bad-boy appeal, then described as a “big-lug Adonis with the heart of gold.”
Thanks to Ghost, Patrick Swayze went from bad boy dancer (in Dirty Dancing) to Hollywood leading man. As his costar, Demi Moore, said, “He has a very sweet, gentle, kind heart, and those southern manners. But he’s also got a very rugged, animalistic physique.”
Thanks to a string of hits like Top Gun, Risky Business, Rain Man, Cocktail and All the Right Moves, Tom Cruise was box-office gold – and the Sexiest Man Alive. But it wasn’t his smile, or his well-toned chest, that Rain Man costar Valeria Golino said was his biggest asset. It was “his eyes. Not their color. His regard – the way he looks with them. They’re very alive.”
Who said younger is better? In 1989, when he was almost 60, Sean Connery was named the Sexiest Man Alive. His reaction? “For once, I’m speechless. It’ll all be downhill from here!”
One of New York’s most eligible bachelors, John F. Kennedy Jr. had a reputation for being a bit of a party boy when the law student, then 27, was honored as the Sexiest Man Alive. But according to model Audra Avizienis, who had dated the President’s son, “He has this quiet sadness. There’s something pensive and sad about him.” Tragedy struck again almost 11 years later when Kennedy, his wife Carolyn and his sister-in-law Lauren died in a plane crash near Martha’s Vineyard.
Before he was a Dancing with the Stars hoofer, Harry Hamlin was a hot-shot attorney on the ’80s drama L.A. Law – and a very modest Sexiest Man Alive. “Certainly when I look in the mirror, I don’t get turned on,” he told PEOPLE. ”It’s not something I spend a lot of time considering.”
Thanks to two megahit shows – St. Elsewhere and Moonlighting – Mark Harmon was a true ’80s It boy. Still, the second-ever Sexiest Man Alive didn’t get the appeal. “All I see is a bunch of fake teeth and football scars,” he said.
Before the scandals, there was the sexy: In 1985, Mel Gibson was the inaugural Sexiest Man Alive, thanks to his rough good looks in the post-apocalyptic Mad Max flicks. But Gibson was uneasy with his growing celebrity, saying at the time, “It’s all happening too fast.”