The 100 Coolest People on Earth

Posted by in May's Magazine

Cool came out of the emerging black culture of early 20th-century America, a country where many people relied on self or re invention to make it big – it’s an integral part of the American Dream. Musicians like jazz greats Thelonious Monk; Charlie Parker; and Lester Young (the lead saxophonist in Count Basie’s orchestra and pal of another icon of cool, Billie Holiday) were all cool. One of the terms that best captures the definition of cool is the jazz-world phrase ‘relaxed intensity’. Miles Davis’s classic album The Birth of Cool defines this well. And not for nothing is Jimi Hendrix (photographed by the not-so-cool Linda McCartney) the exhibition’s poster boy.

Cool has so many meanings – cerebral, detached, dangerous, serene, defiant, assured, perceptive, relaxed, smart, sophisticated, indifferent, rebellious – perhaps it’s safer to say cool is indefinable. But you always know it when you see it.



The exhibition’s curators created a list of 100 celebrities whittled down from a fascinating 500 names. “The most difficult section to curate was the legacy of cool from the 1980s onward,” one of the curators, Frank Goodyear, says. “There are some who thought that cool died in the 1980s. It was Reagan’s America and a time of increasing materialism.” But cool will never die.

Hollywood was the place where uncool people could – with the help of a change of name and the skill of photographers and stylists – become something else. Where would Terence McQueen be had he not changed his name to Steve or, for that matter, if Andre Young didn’t rebrand himself as Dr Dre?

One of the first white dudes to gain the cool appellation was Humphrey Bogart. ‘Cynical nonchalance and reluctant heroism’ made Bogart cool according to Joel Dinerstein. Writing in the book accompanying the American Cool exhibition*, he also asks: ‘does cool stem from self-expression or is it a constructed pose’?

Even 100 years on from the coming of ‘cool’ the word retains that deep sense of approval. No one says ‘swell’ or ‘groovy’ without irony these days but cool is still cool. You cool with that?

In a 1997 New Yorker magazine essay Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the ‘coolhunters’, the people who trawl the world’s hotspots looking for cool, giving it a wash and brush-up and selling it back to the uncool. ‘The key to coolhunting is to look for cool people first and cool things later, and not the other way around. Since cool things are always changing, you can’t look for them, because the very fact they are cool means you have no idea what to look for’, wrote Gladwell.

De Niro dancing
The truly cool have a special something; a certain je ne sais quoi that never feels forced, phoney or acted out. Dying young doesn’t hurt. Bonnie Parker, Jimmy Dean, Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur all shuffled off early and all make the final selection in American Cool.

Cool tends to be a masculine thing – women might be beautiful or kooky but men, mostly, are cool. Detachments, self-possession, mystery with a hint of aggression, all form a combustible mix. You don’t want to mess with Mr Cool – think of Clint Eastwood, Muhammad Ali, Hendrix or even the cooler than cool Steve McQueen (the 60s actor not the contemporary film director – though he’s pretty cool too).

Women can be cool, of course. The mix of style and spirit = cool can be seen famously in Faye Dunaway who channelled her cool chops when she so memorably played the gangster in Bonnie and Clyde. Madonna once had it but she played too many roles and wore too many masks. We need to know (or think we know) the real person. But plenty of women have had cool credentials – from Bessie Smith to Patti Smith, Greta Garbo to Missy Elliott.

The cool kids need mystery but paradoxically we need to feel we know them. Photography plays a huge role in establishing cool credentials. Think of the famous Dennis Stock photo essay following James Dean to his hometown in Indiana and the iconic shot of the tortured young actor hunched in an oversized overcoat walking the rain-slicked streets of Manhattan.

You have to have something to begin with – an attitude, a talent, a look. The American Cool list includes such modern names as Johnny Depp, Jay-Z and Benicio Del Toro. The alternative list (names that kept coming up in the selection process but didn’t make the final cut) is just as revealing: Samuel L Jackson, Tina Fey, Serena Williams and Biggie Smalls are among some of the names.

In the end we’re left with the ineffable quality of cool. And let’s not forget the inescapable dividing of the cool from the fool. Paul Newman’s cool but Robert Redford is not, Angelina Jolie has it but Brad doesn’t and Al Pacino is Daddy Cool whereas Robert De Niro is Dad Dancing.

Stay cool (or, at least, try to).

Info: *American Cool, Joel Dinerstein and Frank H. Goodyear, published by Prestel £35 ( The exhibition runs until 7 September 2014 (

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