LONDON -- The British politician Ed Miliband has been called many things by the British press -- weirdo, nerd, geek -- but until now, heartthrob hasn’t been at the top of the list.
But there he was on Thursday morning being asked about just that. “I have to talk to you about your new status as a sex symbol,” the ITV presenter Lorraine Kelly asked her rather bemused-looking guest.
“One Direction have nothing to fear from me,” quipped Miliband, the 45-year-old leader of the left-center Labor party who is hoping to become the British prime minister after the general election next month. He added: “I told my wife the other night, this is what’s happening: Milifandom. And she looked at me as if to say, you know, have you lost your head.”
Miliband has become an unlikely Internet sensation this week, trending on Twitter with a fanbase of teenage girls and young women who might normally obsess over more traditional teen idols, like the English-Irish boy band One Direction. But self-described #Milifans are now focusing their gaze on the Labor leader, with some dishing on his mojo, and others engaging with policy points in his manifesto.
On a BBC radio program on Wednesday, Miliband was read a Tweet by a woman named Chloe saying he was “cool” and that she’d die happy if the could meet him. Miliband replied: “I’m definitely blushing now. I certainly wouldn’t claim to be cool by the way, I don’t think I’ve ever been called that.”
Even if Miliband was doing that very British thing of being self-deprecating, it’s fair to say that he is not regularly portrayed in the British media as cool, never mind anything approaching heartthrob status. As my colleague Adam Taylor pointed out, many people simply wonder: Is he just too "weird" to be prime minister?
Britons head to the polls on May 7th, and there are only two serious possibilities of who will be the next prime minister: Miliband, or his rival David Cameron, the leader of the center-right Conservative party.
The Labor and Conservative parties may be neck-and-neck in the polls, but when it comes to personal ratings, Cameron is far more popular than Miliband.
When the pollster YouGov asked Britons earlier this month who they thought would make the best prime minister, 40 percent said Cameron and 24 percent said Miliband.
That may sound like bad news for Miliband, but those are his best numbers in over a year. And under Britain’s system of parliamentary democracy, Britons don’t vote directly for their prime minister, meaning an unpopular party leader could still get the top job.
But over the last few weeks, Miliband’s popularity has been rising, albeit from a very low base, and the images of Miliband in the press have changed too.
“Interesting, isn’t it, as his star has risen, so the photographs have changed markedly,” said Andrew Marr, a prominent BBC presenter said on his show a few weeks ago as he held up a British newspaper with a sophisticated-looking Miliband peering out from its front page.
So is this the moment when Miliband transforms from awkward politician to coolest guy in Britain?
That might be a stretch. This is the man who, after all, memorably struggled with eating a bacon sandwich.
But the considerable effort by Miliband’s rivals to make him look like a weirdo may have backfired, as the Internet love-in proves he has supporters who either don’t recognize the awkward man his rivals like to portray, or don’t care.
The woman who Miliband has to thank for all the attention is a 17-year-old named Abby, who kicked off the #Milifandom craze on Twitter, which she describes as “a movement against the distorted media portrayal of Ed.”
Miliband sent her a Tweet saying: “Hi Abby - Delighted that you’ve joined Labour, welcome”
Unfortunately for Miliband, she’s not yet of voting age.
Read related stories: