HE DOESN'T look like the guy on the front of the Calvin Klein underwear box for a start. That's the ideal American man, a different animal altogether, who to most people over here, looks a lot like Eighties man. Modern British man is more likely to be spotted waiting for the bus, or rummaging along the racks in an Oxfam shop - and he wouldn't be hanging out there waiting to be discovered, either.

Globally-speaking, this might be the dawning of the age of the male supermodel, but in Britain we want something other than the typical hunky-dunky model-type. Arbiteurs of taste, ad men and people who coin phrases have coined one for it: 'Real Appeal'.

We want it on the catwalk. We want it on the billboard and in cinema commercials. We want it from sportsmen, musicians and politicians. We want men we can relate to and swoon over because they look like a version of the ordinary. A nation of realists, we've never totally subscribed to the idea that the boy next door will look like a young Richard Gere.

The image industry is responding accordingly. 'The models that are being booked by clients now are those that people can identify with, they're more human,' says Greg Buckle, a booker at the model agency, Storm. 'They're a new genre of boys - more off-the-wall, lots of limp poses - but post-grunge, still masculine.'

Buckle is talking in particular about Gabriel Hill, a current favourite of Arena's fashion editor David Bradshaw and, more surprisingly, the model chosen by Mulberry Company for their latest magazine-cum-brochure.

Hill is not your archetypal hunting, shooting, fishing man. He doesn't look like he knows one end of a snaffle from the other, nor does he glow with rude country health. In fact he doesn't look very well at all. His lank hair hangs to his shoulders, his skin isn't perfect and he isn't smiling much. But he is beautiful. 'Girls go weak at the knees when they see Gabriel,' insists Buckle.

But it is not women who are being targeted. 'This type of non-model model is used to sell to men,' says Mark Evans of Models One, the agency that handles another of Bradshaw's current favourites, the almost femininely beautiful Adam Kavanagh (see the preceding pages). 'He's real-looking, not body-orientated, and men don't feel threatened by him. His face is striking rather than obviously handsome. This kind of look has completely opened up the spectrum for male models, and it's made my job much more interesting.'

More interesting financially, too, presumably, since the required look is regarded by international big spenders as an English one: the sort of post-grunge boy epitomised in the extreme by the waifish Keith Martin, dyed-blond boy-babe in many a Face fashion spread. The Italian designers Dolce & Gabbana came to London to photograph him for their latest campaign, as did German menswear giant Hugo Boss. 'When the weird model look started, we assumed it would confine itself to I-D and Hyper Hyper,' says Evans, 'but Keith has surprised us all by still being in demand two years down the line. Whereas once a classic model would be used for a big campaign, they're now looking for more unusual faces.'

This notion is behind the introduction of a new agency for male models. 'Since the menswear market has grown so much, we can now offer a wide range of male looks,' says Kevin Kollenda of T2 Management. 'We see it is as a parallel of what's going on for women. 'Ever since the Sixties, everyone has looked to

England for inspiration, and today, international designers are coming to us for the more off-beat looks.'

From the acid-punky Jerome (as in female modelling, first names are often all that is given), lank-haired Tom, to the waifish Stevee and hippyish rockstar Stephen Bliss - they are definitely faces that set new standards.

Russell Marsh, a fashion show producer for, among others, designer of the year, John Rocha, agrees. 'Male models these days have to be like women - versatile and flexible. It's about attitude - they have to capture the essence of the time. I think grunge has given model and advertising agents alike a new perspective on and perception of beauty. Look at Chris Jarvis. He's quite chiselled but not anorexic-looking, has shaggy hair but is not overly Seventies - a sort of eco-friendly image, very natural and right for now. What's important is that he is inspiring for the Joe on the street who can relate to him.'

This is a theory that Paul Smith has subscribed to for years. By now, fashion editors and buyers are well used to Smith's catwalk shows, which, like Comme des Garcons', have become famous for their use of what Smith fondly describes as 'found' people. They could be unknowns club circuit comedians, or stars like Harry Dean Stanton and John Malkovitch. 'It's not about good looks,' insists Smith, 'it's about interesting characters. Even the models I use in my shows have non-model looks and as far as I'm concerned that will never change.'

Paul Smith's seasonal brochure, shot by David Bailey in black and white, consists entirely of 'found' people. Some shots are just head and shoulders: 'The clothes are secondary to the men,' points out Smith, 'but even from the back, with only an ear showing, you can tell these aren't bank clerks' - an observation that maybe provides a clue as to why we are moving away from the traditional benchmarks of male attractiveness.

We are rejecting the materialism of the Eighties, when male models embodied the strident ambition of the city broker. Men now want to be recognised as having other qualities. Today's man is not the obvious candidate for the top job, but leads a more alternative, probably creative, lifestyle - one where imperfections are allowed. And as we come out of recession, more companies with money to spend on advertising campaigns are receptive to the new ideas and are experimenting with less orthodox images.

In the case of Levi's, the square-jawed, macho man once so much part of glossy blue jeans advertising is no longer suitable material. 'Our brief is to re-affirm the original credentials of Levi's jeans,' says Gwyn Jones, account director at the advertising agency Bartle Bogle & Hegarty. 'We need men who look more natural.'

Levi's latest male character is a 1940s oil-field worker, who suffers an industrial accident and, covered in sweat and grime, defies the nurse who treats him to slice into his precious jeans. He's played by stormy browed, full mouthed man David Cash, who is not exactly the boy next door, but nor is he a Levi's super-hunk from the past, and he, too, represents a move towards the less-than-perfect British male.

British jeans company, Pepe, is a keen exponent of Real Appeal. 'The models in our recent campaign have a confidence about them, but they're not the Eighties 'hey-look-at-me type', says mar-keting manager Michelle Poole. One of their models is not a model at all, but a young London prep-chef, who is willowy, mellow, slightly droopy ('but not too druggy'), with natural rather than obvious good looks. Likewise, Katharine Hamnett's choice of Pavros, a Portobello stall-holder: his long hair is greying and although he looks interesting, he is far from model material.

It is only in the world of mainstream fashion and mens' toiletries that the super-hunk still holds sway - think of the Davidoff and Anteus ads, which still make use of the big-body boys. (And the world of mail order catalogues will always find room for Adonis.) One exception to this rule is the poster campaign by Brylcreem. 'The brand has been around for a long time' explains Brylcreem's marketing and development director Euan Venters, 'and we constantly want to contemporise it.' Saul Pearce, account director at the Grey agency, agrees. 'The ads are about man in control and about making the most of what he's got. The model has to be believable and, apart from a decent head of hair, not be overtly modelly.' (Just for the record, Eve Salvail one of the women used in the campaign, is almost bald) Real Appeal is a major selling point in the British music scene at the moment, particularly when it comes to teen bands. E17 for instance, say they're 'just ordinary guys from Walthamstow' who wear clothes to be comfortable rather than to make a fashion statement - which of course is an image in itself. Radio producer and journalist Sally Stratton, who has worked closely with the band, says that 'they dress up in order to dress down. On stage they show plenty of flesh and are as provocative as they can be, but when they peel the baggy layers off there's a thin frame underneath. They look so frail you want to take them home and give them a good meal. To 15-year-olds, though, they're real - like they might be boy-friends - and the act is amusing and naughty.'

The ability to change images regularly is always regarded as a good thing for a pop group, especially if it's Take That, who have a broad following from pubescent girls to gay men. 'They've gone from teeny bop to a more street club style, which seems to be a marketing ploy,' according to David Harrigan, stylist and fashion editor of Attitudes magazine. A recent sponsorship deal from Adidas - products rather than cash - has helped to give Take That a hip, Seventies image, but they are just as likely to slip back into leather jock straps to keep everybody happy.

More in line with current fashion trends are the Brand New Heavies - 'they've tapped into the post-grunge thing musically and visually,' says Harrigan, 'a sort of tempered Seventies acid-jazz revival, very right for now.'

So too, Nancy Boy, fronted by Donovan Leitch (son of Sixties folk-singer, Donovan), is pushing a retro-Seventies look: 'Our music is about returning to real performance spectacles, like Bowie and Queen. We want to bring theatrics to our stage shows,' Leitch says. We're creating fashion out of alter-ego characters. It's all about cybermod - well-tailored suits, interactive CD-Rom, rubber and silver, past and future.' Leitch has added streaks to his long fringe and short back and sides, to effect 'the worst dye job you can possibly get'. Opposed, in theory, to clothes from top designers, he is happy to turn up at fashion shows and have his Calvin Klein suit 'completely deconstructed' by a friend.

While fashion and music tend to go hand-in-hand, the sports industry revolves around a different set of trends. Image takes second place to performance and attitude when Nike choose the stars it wishes to sponsor. For Nike, footballer Ian Wright is not only the best in his sport, but is a real person who occasionally courts controversy, as is Eric Cantona (who, though of course not British, is now very much part of the British mind set).

With the view that personality is important, the company takes a suck-it-and-see approach to picking the athletes it sponsors. The runner Guy Bullock and tennis player Tim Henman are two new names to watch out for.

But in all this trend-spotting, one British man in particular must spring to mind. If you had to pick the face of the British man right now, surely it would have to be Hugh Grant. Or would it? Michelle Guish, casting director on Four Weddings and a Funeral is emphatic that Grant's looks are not his main selling point. 'Unlike that of a model, Hugh's attraction is not skin deep. With Hugh it's an instinctive thing - he's a clever actor and he has immense screen appeal and charm. But it's not just looks. It's a chemical thing and it's hard to analyse,' she says.

'The strange thing is,' says Grant's agent Lindy King, when asked about his appeal internationally, 'is that gent look hasn't been in favour much recently. The really popular actors at the moment have a more approachable handsomeness, like Ewan McGregor (Lipstick on your Collar and soon to be seen in the British film Shallow Grave). He's contemporary, completely without guile, charming, warm and spontaneous - you just want to knock him down and snog him.'

She also cites Jude Law (Shopping, and Les Parents Terribles at the National), Linus Roach (How High The Moon on television this autumn, and another TV film, The Priest, to be shown early next year), and John Hannah (the gay lover in Four Weddings) as among the hot British thespians.

In politics, as far as image is concerned, Tony Blair has arrived at just the right time. Blair could have a great future ahead of him if image consultant Mary Spillane has judged him correctly. 'For a start, I give him a lot of credit for his clothes not being an issue. He didn't embrace the Labour make-over - Euro-suits and loud ties - but he looks current. He carries his clothes with flair.

'Of course, the raw material is good - he's fit, not lumpish.' Notwithstanding the fact that he's sure to be undergoing some sort of transformation right now, she has a few words of advice: 'He should make sure his casual wear makes him look like a real person, but with aspirations. If he's interviewed at the weekend, he should not be wearing a suit with a short -sleeved Poly/cotton shirt underneath, like Major. He should go to Paul Smith for a polo shirt and chinos or something. It will win him a lot of kudos. And I think he should brush his hair sideways and over his ears to take off the years - he doesn't need to make himself look older and more statesman-like. Finally, he should have his teeth straightened and capped for all those television close-ups. A good smile is very important. Above all, I would hope that he could help to change the international perception of British men - they're seen as looking 'poor' .' Get ready, then, for Real Appeal, Labour-style - but with aspirations.

(Photographs omitted)