[inline:branch] The media always goes completely apeman for the fully nekked cover photo, which is probably why they've lost all of the ability to shock. Remember when the whole world went crazy, pass-aggro 90s-style, over Demi Moore's classy preggo spread? Now, almost two decades later, Bar Rafaeli, perhaps the most beautiful woman in history, can pose nekked on the cover of Esquire with a new Stephen King story written all over her somehow-both-tan-and-attractively-pale skin, and the big news is that Stephen King's got a new story. The full-nekked cover is now just a minor rite of passage for actresses, pop singers, and models alike, an easy path to simultaneous popular controversy and high-concept artistry. A nekked Vanity Fair cover is, for actresses, the equivalent of starring in a Holocaust movie; a nekked Rolling Stone cover is, for singers, the equivalent of writing a comeback album post-rehab; a nekked GQ cover is, for models and presumably Sacha Baron Cohen, the equivalent of marrying a rock star; except that this way, you don't need to play a Nazi, get addicted to Xanax, or marry Seal. True connoisseurs know that, in order to create a truly memorable, sexy, boundary-pushing, adolescent-sexuality awakening, marriage-breaking, lesbo-creating cover photo, you need to keep just a little bit covered. In legal terms, you need to keep your knickers on. You wouldn't think that near nekked would be more provocative than full-nekked, but it is; there's some element of playfulness, of nervousness, and of barely-repressed sexuality. No less a playboy than John Keats realized this; his poem, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," rhapsodizes transcendentally about the eternal moment before the first kiss of two lovers: Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, Though winning near the goal --- yet, do not grieve; She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair! Nothing better explains the appeal of the panties-only cover photo. Most of the women on this list had their photo taken right before some momentous watershed moment -- a marriage, a hit movie, a number one album. Few of them would ever be as successful, and none of them would ever be as young. The panties-only photo, then, is a monument to that perfect eternal moment before, and as a result, will live on long after we've all gotten the image of Tom Ford perv-smelling Keira and Scarlett out of our heads. 10. Michelle Branch, Maxim The only thing more dispiriting to chick rockers everywhere would have been if Lilith Fair relaunched as an MTV Spring Break wet T-shirt contest. Dig that Bangkok-tourist tramp stamp.
[inline:janet] 9. Janet Jackson, FHM Forty years old when this picture was taken, the third-craziest Jackson sibling decided that the best way to come back from a partial-nud*ty scandal was a less-partial-nud*ty photo shoot. [inline:pressley] 8. Jaime Pressly, Maxim This photo was taken at the height of the success of "My Name is Earl," and so we find Jaime Pressly at the absolute pinnacle of being both genuinely hot and satirically hot. [inline:biel] 7. Jessica Biel, Gear When a youthful goody-two-shoes ingenue seeks to reveal her sexual awakening to the consumer public, posing boobfully on the cover of a magazine is actually not so bad, compared to a weekend Vegas wedding and starring in "Embrace of the Vampire." [inline:tarzan] 6. Jessica Michibata, Tarzan In Japan, magazines are called Tarzan, underwear is made of tinfoil, and a cover girl like Michibata has a Wikipedia page which describes her profession as "Lingerie Model" and "Film Critic." In Japan, things are better than they are here. [inline:nicole] 5. Nicole Scherzinger, Blender Nicole Scherzinger is one of the most tragic figures in music history, and the ongoing narratives of incredible success and abject failure which run throughout her career might be the ur-narrative for the post-millennium music business. Participated in a knockoff of "Making the Band." Won a spot in a pop quintet called "Eden's Crush" that toured with \`NSync and Jessica Simpson in the last days of teenybop Swedish pop. Front-lined another group, The Pussycat Dolls -- front-lined them so much that she's essentially the only one who sings on the albums. PCD becomes a worldwide success. Nicole's solo album bombs. PCD starts their own reality show. PCD rerecords an Oscar-winning song about the slums of Mumbai. Jesus couldn't make this shit up. [inline:fhm] 4. Lee-Ann Liebenberg & Liza Botha, FHM South Africa In South Africa, magazine covers look like American Apparel ads with even less moral decency. [inline:borat] 3. Borat, "Vanity Fair" Annie Liebowitz couldn't class this up. [inline:britney] 2. Britney Spears, Rolling Stone This picture represents all the hopes and dreams we all had at the dawn of the new decade. Spears had just broken up with Justin Timberlake, made out with Madonna, and reinvented herself as a techno-club hip-pop queen with "Toxic." She was the very personification of post-9/11 Americana -- fundamentalist, sex crazy, jingoistic, Pepsi. Exactly one year later, she'd be divorced, remarried, pregnant, and releasing a Greatest Hits album. Thus ends innocence. [inline:alba] 1. Jessica Alba, GQ Jessica Alba is not a good actress. She has never starred in a single good movie -- has, in fact, only starred in terrible, awful entries in the worst-movie ever pageant. (To all "Sin City" fans out there: Fuck "Sin City.") Yet Jessica Alba has a career in Hollywood for as long as she chooses to bless humanity with herself, and all because of this cover photo.