Men Who Made A Difference In 2020

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Men Who Made A Difference In 2020

Words by The MR PORTER Team

7 December 2020

How do you quantify achievement in a year like the one we’ve just experienced? If has been a time of tragedy and hardship for millions, and one marked by protest and activism, as well as countless acts of compassion, bravery and kindness. It has been a time when we have been forced apart and instructed to act against our instincts as social animals, and yet many of those on our list are men who have brought, or tried to bring, people together. 

Of course, any such list can only ever be subjective. Opinions quickly become polarised by politics, religion and even one’s taste in movies, music or sport. But this has been a year in which millions of people around the world have revealed themselves to be heroes, quietly going about their business in intensive care units, in shops, food banks, the quotidian workings of communities and beyond. We salute all of them. 

It’s our opinion – and that’s all it is – that the 25 men on our list are among those heroes. They have stood up, stood out and gone over and beyond, whether that be in acting for the greater good, leading by example or using their platforms to inspire, inform or, just as importantly, make us laugh when we really, really needed to. Over the course of December on The Journal and on social media, we’ll be meeting a number of these men, and sharing their remarkable stories. Here’s to a better, a much better, 2021.

01. 

Mr Hamish Macdonald

The reporter who ventured closest to the flames of Australia’s deadly bushfires

The new year began with Australia experiencing its worst bushfire season on record. With the country seeking trusted, factual reporting of the ever-changing situation, broadcast journalist and TV news presenter Mr Hamish Macdonald found himself reporting from the frontline. The fires had struck near to his childhood hometown in Jindabyne, New South Wales. He had been staying at Tathra for the holidays, and with endless acres of land being decimated, millions of animals endangered and thousands of people losing everything, Mr Macdonald says his mission was clear: “To get closer to the truth, and to report it, no matter what it is or how uncomfortable it might be.”

02.

Professor Zhang Yongzhen

The scientist who alerted the world to the dangers of Covid-19

On 3 January, Professor Yongzhen Zhang of the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center, took delivery of a refrigerated metal box containing a test tube. In that test tube were swabs taken from a patient who had recently developed an unusual respiratory illness in the city of Wuhan. Over the next 48 hours, Professor Zhang and his team worked around the clock on the samples using sequencing technology until, in the early hours of Sunday 5 January, they successfully mapped the first complete genome for SARS-CoV-2, which has now taken the lives of more than a million people worldwide. The professor’s rapid response, and willingness to share the genome publicly, helped to establish just how seriously the Covid-19 outbreak needed to be taken, prompting discussions about rapid testing protocols, track and trace systems and vaccine development – and saving countless lives in the process.

03.

Mr Pete Reed

The Olympic champion who refuses to be beaten

A three-time Olympic gold medallist and a lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy, Mr Pete Reed suffered a spinal stroke in the autumn of 2019 while taking part in trials for the Royal Marines. The 39-year-old is now confined to a wheelchair, but his reaction to his misfortune, documented on his Instagram account (@petereed), has become a beacon of positivity and perseverance in the face of adversity. He began the year with a pledge to give his followers “an insight into an unfamiliar world”, and he has done just that, sharing the reality of his rehabilitation and recovery, as well as inspiring and offering reasons for thanks in a period when the merits of social media have been further questioned and mental health has become a pivotal topic in public consciousness.

04.

Mr Ed Yong

A truth teller amid the clamour of the pandemic

On 28 January, Mr Ed Yong penned his first piece for The Atlantic on a new disease that had emerged the previous month in Wuhan, China. Like the rest of the world, Mr Yong’s year would be utterly dominated by the coronavirus. His reporting – well over 20 measured, in-depth stories – has offered a beacon of clarity amid the clamour, the jargon and the endless tides of information and misinformation that have washed over us all. Some will already know the Washington-based Englishman as the author of The New York Times best-seller I Contain Multitudes, but his place on this list is as an award-winning science writer who has explained the intricate mechanics of the pandemic through his adherence to the facts.

05.

Mr Bong Joon-ho

The Parasite director who swept the board and blazed a trail

Of all the unlikely things to happen in 2020, it seems rather shameful that a foreign language film winning Best Picture at the Oscars should be right up there. Not that it should have been too much of a surprise, for director Mr Bong Joon-ho had already picked up the Palme d’Or at Cannes and a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film for Parasite, his brilliantly inventive skewering of wealth and the class system in South Korea. The darkly comic film resonated with audiences worldwide, with its win marking watershed moment for cinema. Typically, Mr Bong, who also won Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best International Feature Film, saw things rather differently: “Writing a script is always such a lonely process,” he said on the night. “We never write to represent our countries.” 

06.

Mr José Andrés

The chef who continues to provide lessons in leading in a crisis

The beloved chef and advocate for immigrants’ rights has a long and impressive track record of rapid response. From hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the Bahamas to the earthquake in Haiti; the recent port explosion in Beirut to the global pandemic, Mr José Andrés has filled in where institutions, school feeding programmes and governments have failed. In March, his pop-up food bank, World Central Kitchen, swung into action again, feeding the passengers of the Grand Princess cruise ship, the first Americans quarantined for exposure to Covid-19. Having provided meals for the 3,500 passengers stranded on board, WCK has gone on to provide millions more meals to those impacted by the crisis, including transforming the Washington Nationals’ baseball stadium into a community kitchen to serve local residents.

07.

Mr Marcus Rashford

The Manchester United forward whose passion for his community shamed his government

Mr Marcus Rashford burst onto the scene as a teenage goal-scoring phenomenon at Manchester United, but the likeable, locally-born forward really set himself apart by entering politics via a brand of activism that’s rooted in his own experiences as a black child growing up in one of Manchester’s poorest boroughs. The England international teamed up with FareShare, a poverty and food waste charity, to deliver meals to Manchester’s most needy children, and the impact of his local activism allowed the campaign to go national. This led to Mr Rashford writing an open letter imploring the British government to reverse its policy of removing free school meal vouchers for 1.3 million children over the summer holidays. His message is no child should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. Aged just 23, there is no saying what he could go on to achieve.

08.

Mr Dwyane Wade

The NBA legend who used his platform to promote love and acceptance

Supporting your child might seem like a default position for a parent, but 13-time NBA All-Star Mr Dwyane Wade and his wife, actor Ms Gabrielle Union, took a stand this year with their public, profound and unquestioning support for their daughter Ms Zaya Wade, who came out as transgender, transitioned and changed her name. Their support rankled with some, especially in a year when transgender children and teens have become such a hot button topic of conversation. Fledgling social movements feed off public support, and progress relies on stars like Mr Wade using their platforms to promote love and acceptance – and refusing to bow to the trolls.

09.

Mr Jordan Firstman

The comedian described as “the funniest man on the internet” in 2020

It is perhaps ironic that the writer and comedian who has shot to prominence this year for his impressions on Instagram doesn’t do impressions as such. Instead, in a year when cracks appeared in the façade of celebrity, Mr Jordan Firstman’s genius announced itself in a series of fresh takes on what we we’ve all lived through – “impression of the fly on Mike Pence’s head’s publicist”, “impression of a gay guy who wants all his gay friends to know that his body actually got better in quarantine”, “impression of the coder who is responsible for the simulation we are living through in 2020” and many more. He has injected the monotony with much-needed hilarity, randomness and relatability, and attracted more than 800,000 followers on Instagram, including a host of A-list fans. We can’t wait to see what he does next.

10.

Captain Sir Tom Moore

The veteran who inspired a nation, one lap at a time

While many of us spent lockdown baking banana bread, a charismatic former British Army officer made slightly better use of his time. At the beginning of April, at the age of 99, the plucky Yorkshireman embarked on a mission to complete 100 laps of his garden – 10 laps a day. Assisted only by a walking frame, his aim was to raise £1,000 for NHS Charities Together before celebrating his 100th birthday on 30 April. He ended up doing a little bit better than that, with donations surpassing £30m. Since then, Captain Sir Tom Moore has been knighted for his efforts and scored a number one single. In October, the centenarian became the UK’s oldest podcaster when he launched The Originals to help tackle the issue of old-age loneliness.

 11.

Stormzy

The British rapper who put his money where his mouth is

“I am not the UK’s shining example of what supposedly happens when a black person works hard,” stated Stormzy on announcing that he would be donating £10m over 10 years to organisations helping to fight racial inequality in the UK. “There are millions of us,” he added. “We are not far and few.” The man who became the first solo black British artist to headline Glastonbury has form when it comes to putting his money where his mouth is. In 2018, he launched the Stormzy Scholarship to fund the studies of black students at the University of Cambridge. And this year, which saw his album Heavy Is The Head nominated for the Mercury Prize, the south London rapper, who is outspoken on race and British politics, chose not to rest on his laurels. Frankly, we expected nothing less.

12.

Mr Chase Strangio

The lawyer prepared to “die on the hill” of transgender rights

After gay marriage was legalised in the US in June 2015, many people congratulated themselves on a job well done. Not Mr Chase Strangio, a trans man and attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who has devoted his career to providing tangible hope to the LGBTQIA+ community. In 2020, Mr Strangio helped to secure a landmark win in the Supreme Court that makes it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. But with calls to overturn the gay marriage decision, the fight “to build and care and imagine a world beyond… what seems possible”, as Mr Strangio puts it, continues.

13.

Mr Ibram X Kendi

The intellectual who maintains there’s no middle ground on racism

The horrific events that sparked protests around the globe also highlighted the need for many of us to re-educate ourselves on the subjects of race, privilege and injustice. American author, professor and social activist Mr Ibram X Kendi has made a huge impact with his bestselling books How To Be An Antiracist, with its simple but powerful idea that true opponents of racism must identify as “anti-racists” rather than as “not racists”, and Antiracist Baby, which was published this year. He also addressed the US House of Representatives on the impact of Covid-19 on the Black American community. In these tumultuous times, Mr Kendi continues to offer ways for us to learn and improve.

14.

Mr Devin Allen

The photographer whose pictures have become emblematic of the Black Lives Matter protests

In 2015, Mr Devin Allen took to the streets of Baltimore, his hometown, armed with a camera given to him by his grandmother. His goal was to document the protests over the death of a young black man he knew named Mr Freddie Gray. Remarkably, a picture he took made the front cover of Time magazine, and success deservedly followed. In a depressing case of history repeating itself, earlier this year, Mr Allen, who has lost many friends to gun crime, made the front cover of the same magazine with a photograph in the same city, this one of protests that followed the killing of Mr George Floyd. A poignant feat for the photographer whose work has taken viewers to the centre of the activism around Black Lives Matter, and a sobering reminder of how far we have yet to travel.

15.

Dr Nick Estes

The historian of Indigenous American resistance

It was something of a banner year for Indigenous rights in the American courts, with indigenous nations securing off a series of wins, including a big one in the Supreme Court, which ruled that three million acres in Oklahoma are actually rightfully part of an American Indian reservation. The work of Dr Nick Estes, a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and an assistant professor in American studies, joining the dots on the legal struggles of Native American tribes, connecting the issues of recent history (particularly those surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline) to those of the past, has been a contributing factor in those victories. Though American Indigenous people have made gains this year, Dr Estes is the first to point out that, given their history, celebrations would be somewhat premature.

16.

Mr Paul Mescal

The awkward young lover who the world fell in love with

“Have you seen Normal People yet?” Back in April, this was a common refrain on group chats and family Zoom calls. A TV series based on the bestselling novel by Ms Sally Rooney, brought to life by the BBC and Hulu, it was the show that shook us out of our pandemic stupors and made us believe in love again. Addictive and deeply relatable, its success is largely due to its stars, Ms Daisy Edgar-Jones and Mr Paul Mescal. Mr Mescal’s understated yet highly nuanced portrayal of Connell Waldron included moments of unbridled sensuality and young awkwardness, all awash in an emotional intensity almost obscene in its realism (the chain necklace he wore in the show spawned its own, very horny, fan club on Instagram). For 12 weeks between the spring, and early summer we were diverted from our own shoddy reality – and reminded that perhaps nothing is better than being a teenager in love.

17.

Mr Joe Wicks

The trainer who kept us moving through lockdown

Prior to lockdown, who knew what an alternating power squat was, let alone could spot Cornforth White from Ammonite? But in our darkest hour, thank goodness we had a chipper fitness instructor to turn to, prancing about in his off-white living room as parents exhorted their reluctant children to stop playing video games and try being active instead. At its peak, close to one million households worldwide live-streamed Mr Joe Wick’s PE class – a record for a workout. In all, he made it through 18 weeks of mountain climbers, bicycle crunches and burpees, a campaign longer than the Battle of the Bulge. We took him to heart, and in turn, he raised our heart rates. 

18.

Mr Chadwick Boseman

The superhero who departed with the same dignity as he lived

It might seem odd to include an actor whose death made the news this year, but the manner of Mr Chadwick Boseman’s passing said so much about the man himself. Not only did he make history with his role in Black Panther – the first black man to headline a Marvel blockbuster – he was one of the warmest and most intelligent men in Hollywood, as well as being a hero to millions of children who could finally see themselves reflected in a superhero. And at MR PORTER, we certainly appreciated Mr Boseman’s bold sense of style; unafraid to rock a golden Versace cape to the Met Ball or a floor-length embellished jacket to the Oscars. In August, Mr Boseman finally succumbed to the cancer he had kept a secret and worked through for years – a class act to the end. Remind yourself of his legacy by watching his parting gift, a starring role in the acclaimed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, available at cinemas now and to stream on Netflix on 18 December.

19.

Mr Dan Levy

The co-creator and star of the perfect comedy for this year

In September, Schitt’s Creek cleaned up at the Emmys, winning the prize for Best Comedy Series, and the show’s creators, father and son Messrs Eugene and Dan Levy, being named Best Comedy Actor and Best Supporting Comedy Actor respectively. It was, says the younger Mr Levy, the crowning glory after six seasons and 80 episodes of a show that first Canada, then the US and, eventually, the rest of the world took to its heart. The story of the Roses, a wealthy New York family who lost everything (apart from their fabulous clothes), were transplanted to somewhere they really didn’t want to be and, through a combination of time, acceptance, tolerance and love, discovered there was nowhere else they’d rather be. As a parable for the year we’ve had, it was perfect.

20.

Sir David Attenborough

The naturalist whose planet we’d really like to live on

Now that existential threats to the planet are reaching levels of such self-parody they have stopped making disaster movies, we could forgive Sir David Attenborough, who has been quietly reminding us of our duty to Mother Earth for many decades, if his response to 2020 was to shrug, light a cigar and walk into the sea. Nor would we be surprised if he made a disaster movie that was, you know, real. Netflix’s A Life On Our Planet was achingly poignant, looked back at his remarkable career while explaining in depressing clarity just how much damage we have done. Trust the redoubtable 94-year-old to save the day, though, leaving us with a blueprint to make things better. If world leaders were to listen to anyone, we hope it would be to Sir David.

21.

Mr LeBron James

The basketball legend whose brilliance on court is just one part of the story

Mr LeBron James led the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA finals – his ninth appearance in the championship with his third team in 10 years, culminating in his fourth title win ­­– but his brilliance on the court has been only part of the story. In June, Mr James spearheaded the creation of More Than A Vote, a voting rights group aimed at engaging voters and protecting voting rights. The same month he announced a $100m investment in a new media enterprise, SpringHill, “to give people of colour the creative control that’s long eluded them”. And, after the police shooting of Mr Jacob Blake in September prompted a strike by NBA players, it was Mr James who got on a call with former president Mr Barack Obama. The advice: use your platforms to ask for specifics. Watch this space.

22.

Mr Steve Kornacki

The “chartthrob” who became the marathon man of the US election

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. And cometh hour 26, cometh his calculator. While many pulled an all-nighter during the recent US presidential election, only MSNBC pundit Mr Steve “Map Man” (or “Map Daddy”) Kornacki thought to bring his own office equipment. A constant onscreen presence, the “chartthrob” kept his head for 72 hours while all others around him were losing theirs. One clothing retailer recorded a 90 per cent spike in sales of khaki chinos, attributed to his heroics. Colleagues raised concerns that they’d never seen Mr Kornacki eat or drink. But that didn’t stop him bringing the thirst.

23.

Mr Joe Biden

The president-elect whose message to the US is it’s “time to heal”

The next US president is not included on this list for his political beliefs or his political career to date, but for his victory speech. “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide but to unify,” he told cheering supporters in Delaware as his victory as the polls became clear. Mr Joe Biden’s call for a return to decency came as a relief to the 80 million Americans who voted for him and to many more around the world who had looked on and wondered what the divisions in the US meant for them. Of course, Mr Biden's message of unity, hope and respect for all will count for little if he cannot heal those divisions, but recognising the task and being ready to tackle it is an important step in the right direction. “Let’s give each other a chance,” he said. “To make progress we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies.” Well said that man.

24.

Mr Saeed Al-Rubeyi

The fashion brand that’s showed the value of “small and honest”

In a year when independent businesses around the world faced hardships like never before, Story Mfg., the sustainable fashion brand based in Brighton, England, not only survived, it thrived. And in doing so Story Mfg. might just offer a blueprint for the future. Mr Saeed Al-Rubeyi and his wife Ms Katy Al-Rubeyi have succeeded in translating their philosophy into highly desirable clothes through innovative designs created by artisans working across the world. How effectively this prepared them for the new world order was demonstrated in a year in which working from home became the new normal, and the value of effective communication with their suppliers soared. A personal tragedy in April only added to an already heavy load, but the two have triumphed, proving that small, personal, sustainable and honest might just be the future of business – and humanity – after all.

25.

Dr Uğur Şahin

The scientists who have given us hope heading into 2021

And finally, some good news. The recent announcement by BioNTech and Pfizer that their Covid-19 vaccine, the world’s first, is more than 90 per cent effective had the effect of placing BioNTech founders, Dr Uğur Şahin and his wife Dr Özlem Türeci, into instant contention for global sainthood. The two scientists (and now billionaires) at the helm of the German biotech company reportedly live in a modest home in Berlin with their daughter, while Dr Türeci still cycles to work. BioNTech was founded in 2008 and developed cancer treatments before pivoting into looking for a Covid-19 vaccine in January after Dr Şahin read about the new virus in The Lancet. Dr Şahin called the positive trail results a “victory for innovation, science and of a global collaborative effort”. We all pray he’s right.

Illustrations by Ms Oriana Fenwick

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