How KFC Made Colonel Sanders Sexy
Over the past few years, Colonel Sanders has been transformed from a gentle old fast food mascot into a sexualized beefcake.
Kentucky Fried Chicken founder and mascot Colonel Sanders is an American icon, but until recently, he wasn’t exactly known for his sex appeal. That changed in 2017. The sexualization of the Colonel has intensified in the past few years with an advertising campaign titled “The Return of the Colonel” that hits erotic highs not seen from corporate fast food since the boom times of Hooters, or the “slutburger” era of Carls Jr. From romance novels to this month’s Lifetime mini-movie, both marketers and KFC fans have been hard at work making a gentle old man possess the charm of early-2000s Brad Pitt, a transformation that’s taken blood, sweat, and chicken grease to pull it off.
In the mid-2000s, striptease artist Roky Roulette toured France for years with a burlesque troupe, oftentimes performing as both sexy Colonel Sanders and sexy friend chicken (Roulette says he performed the routine “at least 69 times”). This is the first publicly recognized instance of sexy Sanders. Roulette would bring KFC to give to the audience or personally consume as part of the act, one breast in a bucket and a drumstick hidden in his “special warming pouch”— a.k.a. his g-string. The g-string would get stained with chicken grease show after show, so Roulette switched to hiding drumsticks in panty liners before pulling them out at the end of each performance to offer to spectators. More often than not, he says, they took a bite.
“Many years ago, I started to think about the two things people enjoy very much in this world,” Roulette says, referring to sex and food. Sexy Colonel Sanders made sense as a way to combine those two, and he got great crowd reactions. As for the corporatization of sexy Sanders, Roulette is game. “I think it is brilliant, what they're doing.”
KFC began crafting a sexy Sanders in the spring of 2017, when young romance ghostwriter Catherine E. Kovach received a strange request from a representative of the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy. Could she write a Colonel Sanders romance in two weeks, so that KFC could release something for Mother’s Day? Kovach got to work writing after her day job, crafting a short ebook where the Colonel seduces a young heiress in Victorian England (no fried chicken is consumed). Kovach made him a naval colonel because she didn’t want to replicate his real life: It’s strange to romanticize a real, now dead, person (the real Sanders’s colonelship was as a Kentucky Colonel, an honorary title, not a military rank).
“I wonder if it's an uncanny valley situation where, for some reason [people say] ‘Oh, we can't do Hamburglar. We've seen him as a cartoon more than Colonel Sanders, who's a flesh and blood man,'" Kovach says. "But I feel like it should be reversed. It should be easier to want to date a fantasy food mascot if you have to." She still doesn’t know at what point it’s right to turn someone into a sexual icon. “I feel like if there's nobody left alive to remember them being alive, then maybe you can do a dating sim about them.” (KFC and Wieden+Kennedy declined to comment for this story.)
Wieden+Kennedy didn’t seem to have such a rule. After the shock and awe of Kovach’s romance novel Tender Wings of Desire, their “Return of the Colonel” campaign kept releasing sexy Sanders with the unfailing reliability of mortar fire. To name a few, KFC unleashed an unreasonably sexy virtual influencer Colonel, released a dating simulator game where players try to date and seduce the Colonel (“I Love You Colonel Sanders”), created a personalized Mother’s Day troupe of “Chickendales” dancers, all done in the last year alone.
This year, we were treated to A Recipe for Seduction, a mini-movie starring Mario Lopez as the Colonel that parodied the romance and tension of Lifetime films. Originally conceived as a Mother’s Day promotion, it was pushed to Christmas due to COVID. All of these sexy experiments have made a splash, but the virtual influencer and dating simulator versions have been especially well-received by fans. Inspired by these Colonels, who emphasize a hip, young, mysterious sexy Sanders, fans have been churning out hot works of art and literature. There’s Sandercest fanfiction (stories in which the Colonel romances Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders), sexy Halloween costumes and cosplay, and dozens of images depicting a beefcake Colonel, sometimes performing acts Food & Wine would prefer not to discuss. Mars, the author of a popular Colonel fanfic, hadn’t heard of the Lifetime mini-movie until it was brought up in conversation, but admits that he’ll probably start writing sexy Sanders stories about the film.
Eric Eckelman, one of the three writer-director-producers behind A Recipe for Seduction, recommends that fans making their own sexy Sanders media take a lesson from KFC and take seriously whatever genre they’re imitating, getting as into it as you can. Be as confident as Roulette offering a crotch-drumstick or Kovach penning a romance novella. Another of the mini-movie’s writer-director-producers, Armand Prisco, went as far as altering the font on the mini-movie’s poster from serif to sans-serif: It just had to take itself a bit more seriously for the romance to work.
Whether from fans or corporate, don’t expect the sexualization of the Colonel to stop anytime soon. Both Tender Wings of Desire and A Recipe for Seduction were quickly developed experiments into the field, a sort of run-and-gun approach to seeing where Sanders could pop up next. Both were developed for Mother’s Day, KFC’s best day for sales, although Christmas does hold a special place in KFC culture. Now that these genres have proven successes, and the mini-movie ended in a cliffhanger, Mother’s Day 2021 is the next obvious slot to see this bizarre character in a new space. JEAN, the mini-movie production company, did confirm that no conversations have started around a sequel, although they would jump at the opportunity. Kovach suggested a hot young Sanders in Gossip Girl. Roulette wanted to jump into an ad. Based on past expressions of sexy Sanders, options are terrifyingly endless and often possible (porn? pop-up books?). “Those iterations let us know that the brand had the courage to let us do whatever we wanted to do,” Eckelman says. “We knew they weren't going to chicken out on a bold concept, so to speak.”