South African TV has interesting timing. Just days before Jeremy Meeks' police mugshot seduced the Internet, DStv's Comedy Central in Cape Town aired an episode of Anger Management in which Jordan (Laura Bell Bundy) breaks the cardinal rule for therapists by making out with a patient, a prison inmate with dreamy blue eyes and irresistible facial hair who looks amazing in orange.
Honestly, I get it. Scott Elrod (the actor who plays the smooth criminal) is that attractive. So is Meeks, a 30-year-old possible prison-inmate-to-be (again, sigh) from Stockton, California, whose mugshot following his June 18 arrest for felony weapons possession has sent millions of hearts -- female and male -- fluttering. The most popular of the many Facebook pages dedicated to him has nearly 200,000 likes!
I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a thing for bad boys myself. The first time I admitted it out loud was the day Christina Aguilera beat me to it. I was interviewing her for a 2000 Teen People cover story when she revealed her strongest weakness: a beautiful bad boy. Thug love, once mostly limited to gangsta circles, had officially gone mainstream. In a couple of years, the formerly squeaky-clean Mousketeer would be stripping for her Stripped album and collaborating with Redman in the "Dirrty" video.
I suspect that the mainstreaming of bad boys is part of why so many guys -- gay and straight -- are now running around sporting scruffy beards and body art. Sometimes it looks bad, but more importantly it makes them look badder, especially tattoos, which have become nearly as de rigueur as bulging biceps in many big-city gyms. Tattoos are to the 2010s what piercings were to the '90s, but a tattoo requires a bigger commitment and thus offers more street cred. It screams, "Bad boy for life!" And nobody questions the sexuality of a guy with a tattoo (unless it's a dolphin), which can't be said about a guy with a pierced ear. Tattoos are almost like the ultimate emblems of masculinity, proof that you're man enough to stand the pain.
Could you possibly be more "straight-acting," that unfortunate, misguided aspiration (to have and to be) so prevalent among gay men ages thirtysomething and below, now that you've been branded permanently? You can look like a guy's guy and land one too, because who doesn't fantasize about a bad boy -- or a boy who's good at playing the part -- with tattoos?
Would Adam Levine be the sexiest man alive (according to People, at least) without his? He'd be hot either way, but nothing offsets singing like a girl quite like a six pack and an upper torso covered with ink.
Perhaps Meeks was watching The Voice and taking notes. He's an undeniably attractive man, but I see many equally handsome biracial men every day on the streets of Cape Town. Meeks' appeal has two sides that are working in tandem. On one, his good looks might make him seem less threatening to some ("He's too pretty to be a criminal!"). All the "Free Jeremy!" campaigning doesn't focus on his actual case, only on how he looks. Meanwhile, had the same photo been circulated online without any back story, it would have inspired swooning, but certainly not the near-hysteria that has ensued.
Had Meeks been launched into public consciousness as a model, would anyone have noticed him more than we notice other mannequins with flawless skin and impossible cheekbones? Clean up his face and photoshop it onto the neck of a Calvin Klein model wearing a suit (as the creator of one photo on the aforementioned Facebook page did), and his face, though still beautiful, doesn't have quite the same smoldering effect. It never would have gone viral. The tattoos gave him a boost. The mugshot setting sold him. Crime didn't pay, but it made him a star.
But what good is a star when he's locked up behind bars with bail set at $900,000? (Meeks is already a prison veteran, having previously served nine years for grand theft.) He could have been a contender, true model material, say some who are bemoaning the wasted potential of another young man. I'm not so sure about that. Since his arrest, a stream of Meeks photos have surfaced, some of them unflattering, some displaying genetic blessings and some showing a not-unattractive guy who lucked out and took one really fantastic photo.
A model scout might have passed right by him on the street without turning back. Notoriety made Meeks sexier. The lighting at the Stockton police station sealed his viral appeal; so did his sordid circumstances -- because you don't become a meme just by being hot. Not only does it suggest he's bad to bones that some of his fans want to jump, if only in their fantasies (because I don't believe that most people actually would want to hook up with a felon). It's also an extension of another angle of bad-boy obsession that's more grounded in reality: the challenge. A bad boy is a fixer-upper, the guy we might be able to change or save. One commentator talked about wanting to wipe that tear tattoo from his cheek and help him turn his life around. I'm sure she's not alone.
I hope Meeks saves himself. Maybe he'll beat these latest charges and use his newfound platform to change his world. Hopefully he'll set a better example, at least for his young son, and not inadvertently do the opposite. The last thing we need are other good-looking young men getting teardrop tattoos and guns, breaking the law just to be noticed.