This article was originally published on VICE UK.
The UK as a nation have given birth to some great things. The internet, for instance. Wetherspoons. Mr Blobby. We're also responsible for some bad things as well: Scampi Fries. Scouting for Girls. The ability to be offended by everything. So many things to be offended by! So little time!
Weird, then, that in between all the strongly-worded letters we're writing to M&S, and the Change.org petitions we're doing about Katie Hopkins, one potential flashpoint that's managed to hover under the radar of any offence botherers is the Rear of the Year competition – Britain's annual celebration of arse.
The Rear of the Year competition, for the uninformed, is a for-the-people-by-the-people celebration of Britain's best bums, founded in 1972 and spearheaded by PR legend Tony Edwards. Britain's best bums, coincidentally, tend to be attached to the upper legs of various Loose Women panel member-level celebrities: your Kym Marshes, your Carol Smillies, your Anneka Rices. Carol Vorderman has won it twice.
Bum enthusiasts can vote for the British celebrity of their choice over on rearoftheyear.com, with the arse in receipt of the most votes over a one year period being presented an engraved crystal trophy at a fancy champagne reception in London. Sounds nice, doesn't it? Very pleasant. Very... safe. You cannot imagine a Rear of the Year-winning rear ever doing something as vulgar as a shit, or some chemsex.
While the majority of things exclusively celebrating sexy body parts or people are ritually called out for objectification, somehow, the Rear of the Year exists in a strange parallel universe where it's OK to congratulate someone very publicly for having a nice arse. A cursory Google of "Rear of the Year" and "objectification" vomits up outrage – not at the official competition, but at a Cambridge university newspaper, which staged its own cut-price version of the award in 2012 with the naked arses of posh clever people, clenching for dear life. And that's it.
Somehow, the Rear of the Year has survived unscathed, year after year and rear after rear. Let's be honest with ourselves: it's just wonderfully PG. The bottoms are fully clothed, the winners wholesome. And then there's The Pose: bum towards the camera, bit of a push out but nothing lewd, cheery over-the-shoulder smile to camera, tight pattable jeans. The bottoms of the Rear of the Year are essentially sexless. They are great, long, smooth expanses of Middle England, squeezed into the cheapest pair of selvedge Gap had in stock that day.
I spoke to Tony Edwards, the brains behind the awards, to find out why we're all OK with the Rear of the Year. To date, he told me, only one person has called out the awards for being a bit sexist. "A female journalist once asked Lulu if she felt she'd been the subject of objectification when she won the award," Tony explained. "Lulu set the right tone when she said: 'I think you're taking this all much too seriously.'"
Tony takes the awards seriously, and that's OK, because they're big business. The award itself generates €5 million worth of media coverage (a sum based on an estimate of the coverage's worth if it was paid-for advertising), and Tony's launched 54 prize rears since the competition began. Where do you think the bottoms of Barbara Windsor, Claire Sweeney and John Barrowman would be without Tony? Exactly: attached anonymously to their D-list thigh tops. And it's lucrative, too: from 2010 to 2012, the competition was sponsored by a jeans brand called Wizard Jeans, which I'd never heard of – but Google tells me they are expensive and they look like the kind of jeans glamorous Pam from down the road from your nan who has a house in the Costa Del Sol and a collection of mildly erotic ornaments would own.
Pre-Rear, Tony hadn't always been a bum man. "I wouldn't say I was particularly a fan of bottoms, any more than any other of the key erogenous zones," he said. "But bottoms had never achieved particularly positive press until the Rear of the Year award. The word 'bum' has negative connotations, as does 'ass', 'backside' or 'bottom' itself – the opposite end of the success scale to top."
Is it this positivity that helps us accept the competition for what it is? Is it simply giving bums the recognition they deserve?
British people are obsessed with bottoms. For years, Asda based an entire marketing campaign around enthusiastic bum-slapping, and when they withdrew it, their profits fell. Wisely, they recently reverted back to the ass-tap. Bums sell, and fewer things are as likely to make you choose where you do your big shop than a playful slap to a backside as a physical manifestation of a 5p saving on a bag of easy peelers. But it's not sexy. The only time someone in an Asda uniform has come anywhere near sexy was when Nicole Scherzinger hung out in the ready meal aisle for three minutes on the X Factor with employee-turned-contestant Jahmene Douglas.
Maybe it's because the winners of the trophy are by and large British institutions: people you'd happily introduce to your gran without fear of them doing a swear or getting their genitals out as an icebreaker. Unthreatening jolly faces from pre-watershed telly who just happen to have popular bottoms. Jane Danson from Corrie. Sarah Lancashire. Sian Lloyd. Shobna Gulati.
Tony doesn't ever use the word "sexy" to describe the prize rears, and it's this polite approach that makes it almost impossible to think of the competition as a sexualised entity. The words he uses to describe potential winners' bums are "stylish" and "well-toned" – something Tony believes previous two-time winner Carol Vorderman is the perfect example of.
Yes, the Rear of the Year's most famous daughter, Carol Vorderman. A woman so intertwined in the bum-touching fabric of the competition that the world has almost forgotten that Vorders is actually a maths genius. She's the only bum to have done the double. But how?
"Weight of opinion – pure and simple," Tony explained. "She received most votes and, even this year, was in the top three. Carol's rear has its own fan club and, as I recall, its own website. She's photographed from the rear by the national media on a weekly basis; whether it's because she's changed the colour of her hair, earned her pilot's licence or merely been seen on her way to some studio or another, it's her rear that gets the attention. It's a very ambitious bottom indeed."
RotY truthers speculate Vorderman's "naked treadmill incident" was a transparent attempt to get her bum some headlines in an effort to do the hat-trick and regain her arse crown in 2016.
Bottoms transcend not only popular culture and Carol Vorderman, but politics too – a place devoid of sexiness, apart from that window during the General Election when people decided Ed Miliband was hot. "I'd wager that most people could name three of four former Rears of the Year, while very few could name three or four members of the Cabinet," Tony said. So while that's bad news for Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and every other sitting MP that you can't actually name, it's brilliant news for past winners like Elaine Paige and Jennifer Ellison.
Another reason for the acceptance of Rear of the Year could be its championing of equal arse rights. Men's bums have been treated with the same reverence as women's in the competition since the 90s. In 1994, one of the bald ones from Right Said Fred picked up the inaugural boys award.
"During the late 1990s, women who'd previously been more interested in his beautiful eyes, manly chest, broad shoulders and winning smile started to focus attention on his butt – and talk about cheeky male rears," explained Tony (notice: cheeky, not sexy). And so began a long line of lauded male arses of varying levels of fame, such as musical theatre's Lee Mead's, Hollyoaks' walking biology diagram Ricky Whittle's and 2015's winner, Daniel Radcliffe's.
This year, Dan Rad romped home with his prize arse, admitting, "I've been campaigning for this for years. I promise to get it out more in future." A visual treat for us all, there, but nothing that's going to get people particularly turned on. Which is exactly the spirit in which the Rear of the Year is intended – more cheeky, less sexy. So we won't be seeing the back end of the culturally enriching competition just yet. For as long as Vorders is still honing that bottom of hers in the nude on a treadmill, we need to reward that kind of steely dedication to the cause.
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