Six years ago, a strange and seemingly petty website popped up online, ranking world leaders based on their subjective hotness. Aptly titled “Hottest Heads of State,” the site’s flippant articles and comprehensive hot-or-not lists drew smirks and scorn from all corners of the digital and physical world.
Today, HHoS still reappears in national media reports from time to time, showing a great deal of resilient appeal, and enraging those in power. Here the site’s co-founders, husband-and-wife duo J.D. and Kate Dobson, explain how the site came to be— and what it says about speech, culture, and the peculiar obsessions of the modern, Internet-fueled, and always bizarre world.
J.D.: We used to have a videogame review site with my brother. And at one point he said: "You know what would be funny? If you had a site where you ranked world leaders by attractiveness." So we did it. It’s hard to go back and think why this seemed like a good idea at the time.
At least part of it is that I studied international relations. That made looking into all of these world leaders appealing to me. It gave us a runway to write a lot of weird, esoteric stuff, looking at politicians from all over the world. It’s fun going through the Wikipedia entry for some world leader and seeing interesting things in their bio and deciding to either make fun of them or embellish them or otherwise run with it. I guess we’re superficial too, so that helps.
There was no formal system [to the rankings]. But we put a lot of effort into trying to range them at least according to our personal taste in people. It took a lot of time and it was hard.
As people started going to the site, we got a lot of pushback. People would write to us and say: This is totally unreasonable! Attractiveness is such a subjective thing! How can you claim to put them in order? Of course it’s subjective. We facetiously claim otherwise on the site. But this is just our opinion. We get a lot of emails from people irate that one person is ranked over another, or that one person is ranked too high, or they think that a person is ranked too low.
Kate: If someone calls [a leader] to my attention [who’s] been underrated, and I see what [they’re] saying, I move him or her up. The hardest part is that there are flattering photos of most people and really unflattering photos.
J.D.: We get little pushback for ranking dictators highly, though. I hate to say this but I think the only pushback we’ve gotten from putting [the Democratic Republic of Congo’s dictatorial president] Joseph Kabila in the top ten is from bigots who don’t want an African leader [there].
Kate: [The site] does skew towards dictators being last though. Somebody graphed the freedom level of each country against where they were ranked. Said that it showed that democracies had more attractive leaders. I didn’t know it had worked out that way until then.
We actually are concerned with not being too mean. We were conscious of who we put last. I didn’t want to hurt the feelings of some Dane or something.
J.D.: I think one of the shocking things about [the site] was imagining people talking about: Oh, wow, our leader was ranked 22 – thinking that is something of any significance, when all that reflects is that this couple in St. Louis, Missouri, in their spare time, wrote that on a WordPress site. Yet people see things on the Internet and maybe attribute to them more importance and legitimacy than they might merit. People love rankings.
The comments that we get, even if not representative, are interesting windows into places – in good ways and bad. It is heartwarming the remarkable, consistent outpouring of warmth that the subjects of the King [of Bhutan, the top-ranked leader] give us. On the flip side, the vitriol and the comments from various former Yugoslav countries directed at their former countrymen was just horrible. We had to delete half of them. That has been an interesting experience.