Dateline: May 4, 1998
Hank Makes The NY Times!

The Online Choice for People's Most Beautiful: Angry Hank

By AMY HARMON
Excerpt

Even to those with only the slightest grip on the pulse of popular culture, it will come as little surprise that People magazine has chosen the teen-age idol Leonardo DiCaprio to grace the cover of its annual "50 Most Beautiful People" issue, which hit newsstands this last weekend.

Less immediately explicable is the ascendancy of Hank, the Angry Drunken Dwarf, in the magazine's online reader poll on the same subject, conducted via its World Wide Web site at www.pathfinder.com. By Sunday afternoon Hank -- a figure whose scabrous, unfailingly belligerent persona has made him a popular guest on Howard Stern's radio show -- had garnered nearly 208,000 votes.

That was about 17 times those received by the second-place DiCaprio, star of the movie "Titanic." The contest runs through Thursday.

Some critics of the Hank write-in campaign dismissed it as a reflection of the cult following commanded by Stern, because it appears to have originated on an unofficial Howard Stern Web site (koam.com) before spreading across the Internet by e-mail. Others opined that the Net audience does not exactly represent the mainstream.

"Frankly, I think it's stupid," said Susan Toepfer, People's executive editor.

But many of the electronic campaigners themselves insist their message is more sophisticated -- an attempt to use the new media to challenge the cultural hegemony of the old media. It is an expression of cultural pluralism, these grass-roots guerrillas contend, that People's parent, the media giant Time Warner Inc., may not be particularly eager to embrace.

"The 'media' tells us what food to eat, what movies to see, what music to listen to, who to vote for politically and what kind of people are attractive enough to have relationships with!" one Internet iconoclast wrote in a discussion forum on People's site. "Voting for 'Hank the Dwarf' is a reflection of how the people really feel about media!"

Hank voters say they are trying to make a larger symbolic point by touting a candidate who has become the antithesis of celebrity culture by being featured on Stern's show in a drunken stupor, vomiting on himself and falling down stairs.

Representatives from People appeared on the Howard Stern show and on the television show "Good Morning America" last week to emphasize that Hank would never, ever appear on the cover of the magazine. But Dan Okrent, editor of new media for Time Inc., said the Web site would follow through on its promise to honor the winner with his or her own home page.

"Somebody asked me 'What are we going to do about this?"' Okrent said. "And I said, 'We are going to stand here and be bemused.' This is a big open forum. It's not intermediated by those of us who 'control the media."'

This year's online polling is the third annual Web version of People's "Most Beautiful" feature, but the first to be overtaken by write-ins.

One of the many postmodern aspects of the Hank phenomenon is that although the Internet is owned by nobody, the site on which all the supposed subversion is taking place is most definitely the property of Time Warner. When the get-out-the-Hank-vote effort overloaded the company's server computers last week, the Web site's staff alienated Net denizens by accusing them of writing computer programs to automatically log thousands of votes.

But they quickly shifted tactics, adding a button so that ballot casters need only click twice to vote for Hank rather than wrestle with writing in all that pesky spelling and punctuation. Traffic at the People site, which averages 175,000 visits a day -- more than any of its sister publications, including Time, Fortune and Entertainment Weekly -- has been even heavier in recent days, company officials said.

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