America Is Thirsty for Anthony Fauci

What is it about a crisis that can turn even a 79-year-old immunologist into a heartthrob?

Alicia Tatone / The Atlantic

Updated at 10:32 a.m. ET on April 7, 2020.

“Dr. Fauci is the total package,” claims the Twitter account @FauciFan, listing off each of his qualities with a checkmark emoji. “Intelligent. Kind. Handsome. Literally so good looking oh my god.”

All day, Americans go online to fess up about crushing on Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. They dig up his college yearbook photos and evidence that he once played basketball in short-shorts. They edit his Wikipedia page, swapping the main photo with one taken 13 years ago, then one from 17 years ago. In my upstate-New York hometown, you can buy donuts with his face on them. More than 10,000 people have signed a petition to make Fauci People magazine’s next “Sexiest Man Alive.”

Fauci has had the same job since 1984, and he’s earned national recognition before for his handling of the HIV/AIDS crisis. But during this epochal natural disaster, as a leading member of the federal government’s coronavirus task force, he’s more akin to an actual celebrity, famous for the contrast between his calmly stated expertise and Donald Trump’s contradictory messaging during White House press briefings. Doodling hearts all over his face may seem irrational, but times of crisis often breed infatuation with authorities who can provide guidance and soothe anxiety.

At this moment, smooching anyone is verboten, even reckless, but in isolation and in daydreams, lots of Americans are thinking about planting one on a 79-year-old immunologist.

The @FauciFan Twitter account—which last week featured a photo of a young Fauci explaining how HIV interacts with the immune system, captioned “#tbt #thirsttrap”—was created three weeks ago by Sara Alexander, Tiffany Zarrella, and Leann To, three friends and microbiologists who work together in Bethesda, Maryland. They are not joking about their crush, and their fan account now has more than 15,000 followers.

The trio had been talking about their thirst for Fauci over text, and decided to take it public in hopes that it would be entertaining to other bored and freaked-out people. To, 22, told me that she thinks people are drawn to Fauci’s “cute Brooklyn accent.” She wouldn’t have been able to guess his age, she added, pointing out that he’s an avid runner, and has serious light-up-the-room energy. “He’s very knowledgeable and expert, but he speaks in a really approachable way,” Zarella, 33, told me. “Everyone wants to know what’s going on, and he delivers.”

Alexander, 25, agrees, saying, “I do personally think that he actually is attractive, and it’s not unheard of for people to be attracted to older men. Look at Jeff Goldblum.” I proposed to her that Goldblum is an actual Hollywood star, and that there might be something strange about presenting Fauci as one. “We’re not trying to prop him up and make him a celebrity,” she told me. “It’s just an appreciation of him. He’s working 16-plus-hour days.”

Americans have had plenty of political crushes before. There have been more durable ones on presidents such as John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and, more recently, Barack Obama. By the time Obama became a public figure, the internet was ready to amplify conversations about thirsting over handsome and competent men: In 2007, one of YouTube’s first mainstream viral hits was a comedy music video called “Crush on Obama,” starring the actress Amber Lee Ettinger as a young woman in booty shorts who wants to make out with the then-senator from Illinois.

“I did develop a crush on Obama,” Ettinger told me. (Today, she’s an Instagram influencer who posts mom-related lifestyle content.) “He was this young, suave, handsome fellow. People felt a personal connection with him when he spoke.” For Fauci, she speculated, the incentives for crushing are a little bit different. “No. 1, his little New York accent. He feels like a voice of reason, someone you can trust. He has a calming presence about him. Supersmart. I think he’s adorable.”

The more obvious precedent for Fauci’s newfound celebrity is another flavor-of-the-week public figure, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who became a superhero and stoic boyfriend to the left during his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. That in itself was not entirely novel: For a brief period after 9/11, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was treated as a sex symbol—as Salon put it, a “hot Republican war dad.”

Mueller, like Fauci, became crushable because of the perception that he was unflappable, soberly sifting through facts and ignoring irrelevant clangor during a tense situation. One woman told the Associated Press last year, “I admire [Mueller’s] mystique. I admire that I haven’t heard his voice.” But although lots of Americans are making these men into heartthrobs—whether as a joke or sincerely—it doesn't mean we actually want them to act like celebrities. We just want to be taken care of, and we don’t want anything to shatter the illusion that they can save us.

There are other crushes of the coronavirus crisis, most notably New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose daily press conferences in state-branded attire have become appointment television for people living in the epicenter of the country’s outbreak. Vogue has praised his competence and “imaginary boyfriend” potential, while the New York Post spoke with moms on Long Island who gushed about eating ice cream in bed, watching him speak calmly and convincingly of New York’s ability to overcome the pandemic.

While descriptions of Fauci dwell on how “adorable” he is, Americans’ fascination with Cuomo is openly grimier. Last week, for instance, Twitter was abuzz with speculation as to whether a strange-looking wrinkle under the governor’s polo was, in fact, a nipple ring. A fake dating profile written for the governor by City & State didn’t mention sweetness or charm, but interests such as “fishing” and “yelling,” as well as the personality type “laid-back, loose dude, who is always in a cool mood.”

In a recent blog post titled “Help, I Think I’m in Love With Andrew Cuomo??” the Jezebel writer Rebecca Fishbein ran down the list of things she despises about him politically, then confessed, “When I stream his presser on the governor’s website—every day around 11:30 a.m., complete with a PowerPoint presentation—I feel comforted. I feel alive. I feel protected. I feel ... butterflies.” She’s heard from plenty of New York women who agree. “A lot of women who are older than me have been emailing me being like, No I really love him; he has all of his hair,” she told me.

Fishbein lived in New York City during 9/11, and she remembers people feeling similarly about then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. And after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, she said, she knew people who thought that then-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was heroic enough to feel gooey over. “It [does] not last long, but I think there’s this feeling that somebody is telling you, in what seems like a straightforward manner, what’s going on,” she said. This can mutate into a crush with ease. “It’s just your mind playing tricks on you.”

This is literally true, says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist who studies dating and relationships at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute. “In times of crisis, people have a fight-or-flight response. That drives up the testosterone in the brain,” she told me. “Testosterone triggers various brain systems that can trigger sexual arousal. Testosterone also has a positive correlation with dopamine, and dopamine is linked with feelings of romantic love.”

You don’t need me to explain that the past month has been saturated with feelings, or that your nerves can only tap-dance for so long before your brain starts to do strange and shocking things. Similar hormones are involved in both crushing and panicking, and rushes of adrenaline can lead to attraction, which is presumably why The Bachelor involves so much bungee jumping and helicopter travel.

Crushing on a public official is not particularly fruitful, but it’s hard to think of a reason not to indulge in it a little bit. Even in normal circumstances, a crush is a diversion from everything we’re worried about. Pointless crushes may be, if anything, even more necessary during a pandemic, when the only other stimuli are horrifying. Crushes spike up and surprise us—uncomfortable but fun, sweet but nauseating.

Thirsting over Fauci won't stop the pandemic, but at least it can keep us busy. I recently stumbled across a video of a woman named Jill playing guitar and singing, in a school-teacher voice, a love song for him. “Please stay safe doctor,” the song ends, “you’re our only hope.”