The Sassiest Boy in America is, at the moment, not sounding at all sassy. He is unfailingly polite, kind and patient. It's a bad sign.
Ian Svenonius, a 20-year-old Washington musician, has just been named the first winner of a nationwide search for the "most perfect boyfriend material a girl could ask for" by Sassy magazine, one of the country's hottest teenage guides to life, love and the pursuit of guys like Ian.
The editors are pretty hyper about their choice: a "total babe" vegetarian punk philosopher with greased-back hair and a sweet, crooked smile -- a genial rebel without the caustic. Imagine Tom Hanks doing James Dean.
"The reason I entered the contest is to indoctrinate youth gone astray -- youth who have embraced the guise and stance of earlier generations," he says. "There seems to be a real propensity for baby-boom generation people to present their youthfuldom as an epoch or an apex and present kids now as nothing." He shakes his head. "There are so many kids dressing like Grateful Dead people. It's kind of tedious."
He makes you feel like the well-intentioned aunt who always gives dumb presents: a perfectly nice person but too old, too square, too removed to really understand his generation. He is probably right.
"As soon as we opened Ian Svenonius's entry to our Sassiest Boy in America Contest, we just knew, the way you know it's time to change your tampon," Sassy told its readers.
"That is a classic Sassy line," says Editor in Chief Jane Pratt, 27. "It's exactly the kind of thing a teenage girl would say to another teenage girl -- but not to anyone else. We take those things and print them in the magazine."
"Seventeen magazine is edited by a 50-some-year-old ex-nun and has a real moral tone," the sassiest boy says of the leading rival teen magazine on the stands. "Sassy is written by twentysomething girls who are just much more in touch with whatever is going on."
The two-year-old magazine, modeled after the most popular teen magazine in Australia, is dedicated to talking to teenagers in their own language -- a style that some parents find objectionable. Sassy has already been the target of Women Aglow, a conservative women's organization, which objected to the sexually frank tone in the publication and threatened to boycott products advertised in the magazine.
Its articles address subjects in ways that its rivals don't: abortion, birth control, homosexuality, AIDS -- as well as clothes and boys. It may unnerve some adults, but it seems to work for its readers: Although Sassy ranks fourth among teen publications (a circulation of half a million compared with 1.7 million for Seventeen magazine, which has been around for 45 years), it is one of the fastest-growing and most talked about magazines for 14- to 19-year-old girls.
Since girls will be girls, the editors announced the first-ever Sassiest Boy in America contest earlier this year: First and foremost, he had to be a total babe. Funny, smart, well informed, creative, conscious and "sensitive to his sister's/friend's/girlfriend's (i.e., your) wants and needs every hour of the day, and be willing and able to fulfill them."
Or something like that.
"I kind of disregarded those qualifications," says Ian. "To me, different qualities define sassiness: disrespect to authority, to be youthful and zestful, and be sharply dressed."
To wit: a black "Turbo Club" T-shirt, a black cardigan sweater, a black cotton jacket with the name "Tom" over a skull-and-bones on one side and a pirate on the other (the same jacket he sports in the Sassy photo layout), gray jeans and unlaced oxblood work shoes that he picked up at a secondhand store.
A Sassy reader himself (a friend introduced him to it), Ian submitted the required two pictures and a 15-minute audio tape on which he included "man-on-the-street" testimonials about himself from his family; his friends; his band, Nation of Ulysses; his manager at Second Story Books, where he works part time; and "scenesters."
A member of the band said that "he looks good, he talks good and he smells good."
His friend Tanya said, "I like the grease in his hair."
Sassy loved it. He won the contest, beating out 150 other entries for the title.
"Everyone else was a little more blow-dried, where Ian is greased back," says editor Pratt. "He's cool. That's a hard thing to describe. He's totally what he is -- comfortable with himself. Confident but not too confident."
Sassy's October issue is full of the SBIA:
Page 10: The editor in chief plants a big, sloppy wet kiss (one of the prizes) on the Sassiest Boy.
Page 14: Staff writer Christina Kelly chaperones the Sassiest Boy to a concert at the Ritz in New York.
Page 18: A plug for Murray's Superior Hair Dressing Pomade, the goop the Sassiest Boy uses to slick back his hair.
Page 58: "Ian Is Too Sassy." Everything you wanted to know about the Sassiest Boy but were afraid to ask. (No, he doesn't have a girlfriend right now.)
Ian's prizes also included a trip to New York, where the clubs were "not that happening." But he really liked the Sassy staff, especially their "dress sense." Short socks. Flats. Hair up.
"They dress like girls. There was a young aesthetic going on," he says. "I'm into youthfulness for different reasons than most of America is into youthfulness. What I mean by youthfulness is kicks forever."
NOT 'Mr. Sassy'
The Sassiest Boy is squirming in his chair. He has agreed to be interviewed about the contest because he thinks the magazine is very, very cool. But he's just not sure that what is self-evident to Sassy readers will translate to the workaday world.
"I'm just afraid of what this is going to look like in print," he says. "I shouldn't be so picky. Squaredom is like -- I don't know. In context of Sassy magazine, it just makes a whole lot more sense than in the Style section."
Case in point: An ad promoting last Wednesday's appearance by his band at d.c. space referred to him as "Mr. Sassy."
"My band is so mad at me for that," he says. "Mister Sassy belies the youthful aspect of the Sassiest Boy in America. Mr. Sassy is not the title at all. 'Mister' means adult, responsible. Sassiest Boy is completely different. The woman who books there -- bless her heart, she's really cool -- I guess she thought it would be funny."
It may seem like a small detail, but it's the kind of thing that makes Ian so cool. Other 20-year-olds don't need it spelled out. They know.
Everybody else is trying to figure out what makes a kid from Hyattsville Sassy.
The SBIA has three brothers: one older, one younger and a fraternal twin who loves chess and computers. Both his parents hold doctorates in philosophy: His father, who is Swedish, teaches symbolic logic and medieval philosophy at the University of Maryland; his mother works for the Department of Labor.
"They've always let me figure things out for myself," says Ian. "They never really clouded my mind with too many slants on the world."
He graduated from Northwestern High School in Prince George's County, where he was an "okay" student. For the last two years, he was a student of fine arts at the Corcoran School of Art, where he drew comic books. "Not superheroes -- mostly narratives about revolution."
He calls illegal drugs "part of a murderous commerce, chaired by the government." His antidrug stance is not moral but focused on the economics of them. He is also opposed to the alcohol and tobacco industries.
Ian lives in a group house in Mount Pleasant. The living room boasts a collection of Jolly Rogers, ships and copies of "Treasure Island" on the mantel. "The house theme is pirates," he explains.
But there's no sign of his GI Joes, the ones he used to play with all the time when he was a kid, the ones he talked about so nostalgically in Sassy. He's not sure what happened to them; they just slipped out of his life. "I didn't maul my GI Joes like some people," he says. "I knew kids that shaved their GI Joes' heads and burned them and stuff. I never did any of those things."
He is president of the Cupid Car Club. "Car clubs are really going to be big in the '90s." He does not own a car but aspires to car ownership. "We want good wheels but we'll take what we can get."
Music is his true passion, especially soul and punk rock. He loves to dance. He sings and plays trumpet in his five-member punk band, which just released a seven-inch record, "The Sound of Young America." They play at d.c. space and the 9:30 club a couple times a month. "Our songs mostly deal with cars and clothes."
He once paid nine girls a dollar each to faint at one of their gigs. He read that Frank Sinatra used to do that to whip up a little excitement.
About the only things that get him bent out of shape are traditional rock-and-roll and groups like New Kids on the Block. "We see it as a corrupt medium which has lost sight of what was originally exciting about it," he says. "It's pretty much just pap and product." He thinks anything can be music: the slamming of a car door, the grating of cheese, whatever. It's sound, not just notes. "Music, most of all, creates a space. That's what our music does -- we try to create a space of liberation where anything's possible."
When he's not playing, Ian will fulfill the duties of the Sassiest Boy title. He gets, for example, to answer reader mail. And then? What does he think he'll be doing in 20 years?
"A pioneer," he says. " 'Westward ho, the wagons!' That's my personal motto."
His dad says it's hard to say.
"I guess he will settle into something," Lars Svenonius laughs. "It seems he should be a cartoonist."
Sassy's editor says he'll be famous -- probably as a performer, a voice of his generation.
"He's going to be a big deal. I'm sure he will be," says Pratt. "And we're going to be so proud that we were the first ones to discover him."