This is Jarvis Cocker: etiolated, goggle-eyed, gangly, appallingly dressed, but still, incontrovertibly, a sex symbol. Jessica Berens thrills at the rise of the unlikely lads

Nerdery is upon us. Look around. Observe that no self-respecting male is complete without eyewear last seen on Brains from Thunderbirds; no fashion pages are complete without a quota of checked shirts, kipper ties, zip-up drip-dry jackets, plaid pants, striped tank tops and leather monk sandals. And then consider Jarvis Cocker.

Jarvis, 31, no relation to Joe, is the lead singer of Pulp. Tall - 6ft 4 - thin, unco-ordinated, Cocker (thanks to a hit with "Common People") is known as rock's Mr Sex. Looking like a cross between a stand-up comedian and a gannet, he is a welcome and long-awaited foil to the absurdities of machismo, standing testament to the truth that animal magnetism is unrelated to the number of hours spent on a rowing machine.

Cocker's erotic appeal is founded on genuine love of women teamed with an unbounded desire to be funny, dress up and show off. Pulp have released many albums over the years but it is Jarvis's clothes that collect the column inches. At a concert in aid of Shelter he caused "widespread outrage" by sporting pink slacks, plastic sandals and a satchel. At Glastonbury an orange and yellow striped shirt was found to be in volatile relationship with a brown pin-striped jacket. One journalist who met him could not help noticing that his outfit comprised the following: "a knee-length fake fur coat, a tartan scarf, a tweedish jacket with leather detail, an oil-slick-slinky purple shirt, burgundy needle-cords, pointed, stack- heeled banana-hued cowboy boots and plastic-rimmed glasses the size, shape and weight of shop windows".

The combination is compelling. Women know they would have fun with Jarvis; he is unpredictable without being dangerous, clever without being pretentious. Most important of all, he would never be a bore. These are his attractions and they set him apart from the biohazards that populate his milieu. The successful geek knows that his peculiarities are his advantages but that it takes courage to sell them. The successful geek can be ill-proportioned, pale or mad, he can be almost anything, but he cannot be a victim. As a child he might have been called Speccy and the contents of his lunchbox would have been thrown around the playground; as an etiolated teenager he probably read Rimbaud and had sand kicked up his nose. Now he is a sex symbol.

"It's like this," Cocker explained to the Face. "There's something freakish about you, so you either consign yourself to the margin of society or think of it as unique. I was amazed when I first saw a picture of Jean-Paul Sartre. The first thing I thought was boss-eyed get! You know? Very ugly man. One eye's looking over here and one eye's way over there. I thought if he can get over that, which is generally a bit of a no-no as far as going out with girls is concerned, then there's a chance for me."

There is indeed a chance for Jarvis. And not only for Jarvis but for Jarvis's ilk. There has always been room for decrepitude in that frightening netherworld known as popular culture. David Byrne, thin-necked, wild-eyed, weird as hell, delivered "Psycho Killer" as if he was one; Elvis Costello pursued the Buddy Holly line in four-eyed puniness. And then there was Morrissey, Manc poet and archetypal anti-hero. They paved the way. Who knows how it started but the winds of modernity are pushing the underdog forward. He could be a product of feminist terrorism or slacker demographics or something as simple as the street fashion for skatewear. It is difficult to be certain of his origins, but the nerd has become an icon.

Witness the recent success of Weezer, a group of self-confessed American dorks who wore anoraks and sold a million albums. The adulation of Blur makes an unlikely guitar hero of Graham Coxon who, despite wearing T-shirts emblazoned cheryl, is known as the God of Mod. This summer will also see the rise of Dennis Pennis. Pennis, the creation of actor Paul Kaye, has orange hair, an outrageous American accent, terrible neon shirts, and an interview technique that got him ejected from a party to celebrate the Elite model agency's Face of the Year - Pennis thought the winner's nose was on the large side and told her she looked as if she had been stabbed in the face with French bread. Since then he has been employed on his own TV series, Pennis Pops Out.

The last word must go to Bill Gates, Mr Super Nerd himself. "I am not sure what the word `nerd' means," he said recently. "I'm fascinated by science and computers so you can hand me a book on biotechnology and I'll go into a room for five hours and read it and I'll come out laughing. I haven't seen a lot of other people do that so I suppose that's unusual and there must be a label for it..."

The personal fortune of the chairman of Microsoft is said to total $9 billion. Look out the window. The weeds are taking over the garden

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