It all began so innocently. Travel + Leisure, the storied New York vacation magazine, had just released its latest internet list. "America's Most and Least Attractive People," based on a readers' poll, would bring a definitive end to the nation's most pressing debate.
At issue: which cities have really good looking people, and which towns are loaded with mutts.
But instead of providing answers, the story ignited a firestorm of outrage.
Few deny Travel + Leisure's hallowed place in the internet list industry. The New York Times once described its "10 Great Golf Getaways of the Central Plains" as a "taut expose on the sand traps of Topeka." Its 2103 investigative report, "20 Softest Pillows of the Mid-Major Hotel Chains," is considered the seminal piece on bedding accessories.
So when rumors circulated that Travel + Leisure was about to tackle the vexing question of municipal attractiveness, list enthusiasts waited anxiously.
Yet instead of the usual applause, the magazine found itself in a blast furnace of internet scandal.
Travel + Leisure declared Miami home to America's best looking people, followed by San Diego, Charleston, South Carolina, Los Angeles, and Providence.
Twin Citians received fainter praise. "They're tall with long, graceful limbs, which work well for climbing over mountains of snow," one reader was quoted as saying, adding that we're also "blond with big blue eyes that sparkle with delight -- even over cheese curds."
But despite our comely visage, Minneapolis-St. Paul finished a distant sixth.
Less fortunate were Detroit, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, where all the hideous people live.
Famed List Maker Gets Hammered Yet Travel + Leisure had committed a major faux pas. Editors failed to have the story peer-reviewed, bypassing the exacting standards commonly associated with internet lists.
Lawrence Renburg, dean of arcane studies at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, was shocked.
"South Carolina?" he asked incredulously. "Is that even in America? And friggin' Providence? No one's ever been to Providence. How would they know?"
Biff Lehane was equally alarmed. He's a senior content curator at Buzzfeed, a site widely celebrated for its adorable household pet lists. His Daytime Emmy for a 2007 appearance on Ellen has made him an authoritative figure in the list industry.
"I've always respected Travel + Leisure, particularly the way they use that plus sign instead of an ampersand," said Lehane. "But their methodology here is nothing short of mathematical malpractice."
He says that when calculating the rankings of Miami, San Diego, and Los Angeles, the magazine failed to include critical factors like vanity and self-absorption, atmospheric conditions known to make people repulsive. Travel + Leisure also neglected to quantify breast augmentation, which releases chemical vapors that hurt your face.
Questions Lehane: "How can people be good looking when their boobs are burning the enamel off your molars?"
A Defense of the Indefensible At first, the magazine defended its rankings. It produced a map showing that South Carolina was indeed part of the United States, though people had forgotten about it. It also posted sworn affidavits from readers Marge and Johnny Stapleton, who'd been to Providence for their niece's wedding.
Travel + Leisure further trotted out leading scholars from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, who assured critics that artificial breast vapors pose no health hazards beyond 15 feet. "Our rule of thumb is that you can admire from a distance, just don't get close enough to shake their hand," says Tina Romulus, the group's spokeswoman.
Still, the clamor only grew. The magazine's declining stature became clear when a subsequent list, "The 10 Best Airport Hotels in Tampa," saw but a fraction of the traffic rival Budget Travel earned for its list on the same subject.
Travel + Leisure finally acquiesced, offering to recalculate its rankings, this time using accepted practices that have made internet lists the most accurate information on the web.
When the new rankings were announced, Minneapolis-St. Paul found itself the best looking area in the country.
Editors say the turning point came with the discovery of 77-year-old Bernice Sardowsky, who lives in Frogtown. A team of scientists measured her smile, finding it so beatific it could kill terrorists at 300 yards -- even when she was talking about her grandson's thrash-metal band, which practices in her garage.
"The Sardowsky thing was a game changer," admitted a sheepish Louise Garner, spokeswoman for Travel + Leisure. "Once we crunched the numbers, it was clear that she's better looking than all of Southern California combined -- even when we counted Mark Harmon, who only lives there part-time."