Jeremy Meeks can't be the only good-looking guy behind bars in California. But he is the only one who went from Stockton gang-banger to international heartthrob overnight.
His mom is trying to parlay that into a get-out-of-jail jackpot. She's raised almost $4,000 online toward his million-dollar bail since Meeks' mug shot went viral last week after he was arrested on felony charges involving gangs and guns.
I am trying to understand how blue eyes, pouty lips and a tear-drop tattoo could spark such ardor among so many women in countries around the world.
A Facebook page, launched on his behalf since he was locked up, has already registered more than 175,000 likes and drawn so many raunchy comments from strangers that his wife is getting upset.
Meeks looks hot; I'll give him that. The soulful eyes, the sexy mouth, the hint of a five o'clock shadow on chiseled cheeks. But then the guy's had plenty of practice posing for mug shots. His criminal record goes back more than 10 years and includes at least one long prison stint.
In the 24 hours after his photo went up on the Stockton Police Department's website, more than 15,000 people had "liked" it and 3,700 had commented, most with some version of: It ought to be illegal for a man to look that good.
It's not clear how or why the photo went viral so fast. It was trending on my daughter's Facebook news feed by Thursday; I'd like to think that none of her young friends are trolling law enforcement websites.
And it's not a generational thing. As I was writing this column, a group of middle-aged women strolled by my office on a newsroom tour. I told them I was writing about the Internet obsession known as "the handsome felon."
"Oh, I saw him on TV," one woman called out. "He is really cute."
Women, delighted to let their freak flag fly, are swooning over Meeks' bedroom eyes and bad boy appeal. That's led news anchors to finger-wag: What's wrong with these women? And it's left men perplexed: The facts are his face is creepy and not sexy, wrote a man whose Facebook profile shot is a shirtless selfie.
Actually, the facts are his face is exactly what turns women on.
Meeks fits the image we're hard-wired by evolution to perceive as handsome, Amherst psychology professor Catherine Sanderson said.
"He has very prototypical masculine features. The full lips, the strong jaw ... that is consistently seen as attractive," she said.
And it's not only women who find Meeks' photo attractive.
"Even to me, he is really good-looking," said Gordon Patzer, a professor at Chicago's
"That's got to be discomforting for mainstream America," he said. "He's a criminal. He's got a lot of tattoos. Yet his looks outshine all that. He really strikes a chord."
But Patzer thinks we ought not to be too hard on women who fawn over Meeks' appearance. "We know that men historically put more focus on the physical attractiveness of their partner," he said. Now women are doing it too.
"They're acknowledging that good-looking men appeal to them more than non-good-looking men do. They're more comfortable as a population verbalizing that, as society evolves.
"I might be fearful of him in person, I suspect," Patzer said. "But in the photo he looks very good and kind and nice and attractive and sexually appealing."
Decades of research has shown that attractive people reap the benefits of their good looks in many ways.
Studies show that cute children are treated better than less-attractive students by elementary school teachers. As they grow up, they are more popular socially and tend to test higher on IQ tests. As adults, they have an easier time getting hired and make more money on the job.
Those benefits extend to the criminal justice system, where Meeks stands to fare better than his not-so-handsome buddies who are facing the same charges.
"Good-looking people, when they are arrested, are less likely to be presumed guilty," Patzer said. And if they are convicted, they tend to draw shorter prison sentences than less-attractive felons.
That's because we subconsciously presume that good-looking people are also good in other ways.
"They're considered smarter, kinder, more trustworthy than people who are not so good-looking," Patzer said. "They're given the benefit of the doubt; we want to assume the best."
That explains why strangers have rallied online, encouraging Meeks and donating money to help his mother bail him out. Research shows we'll go out of our way to help people we find attractive — and justify that by telling ourselves they probably deserve it.
Meeks' Facebook page has become a showcase for family photos that validate our desire to view Meeks warmly: He's snuggling his son, enjoying dinner with his wife, displaying his catch from a fishing trip, hugging his mom.
There's something in that dichotomy — bad boy, or good father and son — that's made the online debate over Meeks' popularity annoying, amusing, disgusting, confounding and entertaining to watch.
I'm not sending in a donation, but I do hope he takes this chance to turn his life around.
In the meantime, my favorite meme is the dreamy picture of Meeks with this back-to-reality reminder: He will steal your heart. And your DVD.