Personally, my favourite shot in the Beckham family arsenal of stylized images is the one of David, in his Emporio Armani underwear, embracing a long, thick, coiled rope. That rope was really well hung.
To be sure, there are a lot of images from which to choose. Throughout the 14 years of their marriage, the now-retired soccer player and his wife, Victoria, the former Spice Girl turned fashion designer, have shrewdly figured out how to deploy the lexicon of the visual age: style. And while each displays a strong fashion sense of his or her own – always in a somewhat annoying, highly self-conscious way – their greatest power, in my view, is their depiction of Hot Marriage, a clever two-for-one visual punch. The latest example, on the cover of December's French Vogue, features Victoria tilting her sharply angled face, eyes closed, up to her handsome husband, who leans over her, hair flopping boyishly. We can only imagine the impending kiss.
The Beckhams have, of course, prompted such imaginings before, forcing their observers into their bedroom, tantalizing them with the suggestion of their fiery sex life. During New York Fashion Week in 2012, for instance, Victoria posted a picture of herself standing on a street in front of a poster of David in his underwear, her hand held out cupping his crotch. "So proud of my wife taking #NYFW by the balls," he tweeted in response. It's non-porn porn, the celebrity sex tape of our minds.
Let's not forget – if I can return to the subject of celebrity skivvies for a moment – that Victoria also stripped down to her Emporio Armanis one year to pose alongside – and on top of – her husband. The whole thing was very steamy: the ripped bodies, those vacant, steely glances that made you wonder what thoughts were going through their minds, the ropes coiled beneath them like a bed. It almost wasn't fit for family viewing.
But that's the thing. They do that well, too. The genius of Brand Beckham is not just Hot Him and Hot Her and Hot Marriage, but, also, Hot Family. There are others who, in recent years, have taken what some dismiss as a domestic burden, sex-life-killer and career-deadener and turned it into a power statement of ultimate womanhood, wealth and coupledom. (Jay-Z and Beyoncé come to mind.) But few do it quite as well (or have been doing it quite as long) as the Beckhams, who have four children, aged 14 to 2.
Among their peers, Brangelina have their United Nations clan of six kids and are often rumoured to be contemplating more, but the size of their family seems like an odd celebrity quirk, as if they're overcompensating for their fame and wealth by indulging in domesticity. (Either that or they're so vain as to think that they have better genes and parenting skills than the rest of us.) Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, meanwhile, also have mini-mes, but their children, 15-year-old actor Jaden and 13-year-old poppet-star Willow, have been characterized as unhealthily focused on their own fame, which threatens to eclipse that of their parents. Not only that, the Smith marriage is often described a shaky, especially when pictures of Will cavorting with sexy co-stars appear in the tabloids. And then there's the Obamas, who do Stylish Family extremely well, but that could be because it's part of the presidential job description.
The Beckhams, by contrast, have managed to make their union and family life appear both hot and wholesome. "David and I have been through so much together. We've had our ups and downs, but we're so proud of each other," Victoria, 39, explained to Vogue, which invited her to be guest editor of the issue. David, 38, reportedly makes her cups of tea as she works on her fashion designs. "We've always been – and I include the children in this – amazingly happy about the success David has achieved," she offers.
That statement, a neat flick at wifely self-effacement, seems ironic when you consider the influence her perfection-obsessed hand has had in their ascendancy as a power couple. David Beckham is a gifted athlete, no question. When he retired this year from his latest club, Paris Saint-Germain (after stints with Manchester United, Real Madrid, LA Galaxy and AC Milan), he was earning $6.5-million a year for kicking a ball, earning him first place on Forbes's list of the world's best-paid soccer players. But the greatest bulk of his annual income – $44-million – came from endorsement deals with Adidas, Breitling, Coty, H&M and Sainsburys, many of which continue to this day. (The tighty-whitey endorsement, incidentally, was worth $37-million in 2007.)
It is unlikely, of course, that the fashion gigs would have come without the growth of his self-awareness as a style icon, an evolution orchestrated by his wife, who herself is a marvel of reinvention through hair, silhouette and clothes. In the book Posh & Becks, by celebrity biographer Andrew Morton, she is described as having a lust for fame and a knack for making the most of her average assets.
To look at early pictures of the couple, who married 10 months after meeting at a charity football match, is to realize how much the couple has grown. Neither, it is clear, had the sophistication then that they possess now. In the mid–1990s, when Victoria was a member of the popular girl band the Spice Girls, she was a PVC queen. He, on the other hand, always had his looks, but not necessarily an edge. Their lavish wedding, complete with king-and-queen thrones at Luttrellstown Castle in Ireland, bordered on tacky. But then David morphed into the ultimate metrosexual, adopting sarongs, slick hairstyles, tuxedos, slouchy knit tuques, hoodies, chunky boots and pedicures. And she found her true voice – not singing, but a certain look, characterized by a way of holding her unsmiling face to the camera and a tiny size-0 body in impeccable clothes she designs under her eponymous label. That fashion defines them is underscored by their 10-year-old son Romeo's appearance in Burberry's spring/summer 2013 ad campaign. And then there's the tote named after Harper, their 2-year-old daughter.
Last month, it was announced that the Beckhams had bought a new house in London's exclusive Kensington neighbourhood. Cost: about $50-million, not including another $7-million or so for renovations to the eight-bedroom, seven-bathroom home. Among other additions, there will be a manicure and hairdressing salon and, in the dressing area, a wooden catwalk. The family who styles together stays together, I suppose.
Follow Sarah Hampson on Twitter: @hampsonwrites