Greg Bruce embeds with Big Beauty to report from the front line of the male makeup boom.
On Monday I came home wearing concealer and tinted moisturiser and my wife didn't notice. On Tuesday I came home wearing full-face foundation, eyebrow pencil and lip conditioner and she didn't notice. On Wednesday I came home wearing mascara and on Thursday I came home wearing lipstick. On neither day did she notice. On Friday, I came home wearing eyeshadow, mascara, eyeliner and something called tightliner, some of which I'd applied myself.
"Oh my God!" she said, as soon as I walked in the door, "You're wearing makeup!"
She looked away in disgust. She looked back in disgust. She said, "It's awful! Please go and take it off." She said, "I can't look at you."
"What's wrong with it?" I asked.
"You're wearing makeup!" she said, which wasn't even an attempt to answer to the question. "Take it off!" she repeated.
I said: "The woman at Bobbi Brown said it looked nice."
She said: "Please go. Wash that off."
THE woman at Bobbi Brown had been exceptionally helpful and nice. I liked her a great deal, as I had liked all the women at all the makeup counters I had visited across the city centre each day that week. It had been a nervy thing for me to go into these places and ask for cosmetic help but they had all said soothing and supportive things and had not pointed out my hideous facial defects, instead allowing me to discover them for myself.
I hadn't spent a week in makeup because I'd wanted to necessarily; I had done it because we are in the midst of the latest in a reasonably long line of semi-regular, semi-hysterical media waves collectively headlined something like, "CAN MEN REALLY WEAR MAKEUP?!" which compel male "lifestyle journalists" everywhere to add yet more words to the already-considerable historical stockpile of thinkpieces, stunt journalism and half-arsed reportage that already litters this field.
The agglomeration of words and gratuitous accompanying hammy photos on this topic has, since its emergence in the early 2000s, run in lockstep with the creation - but not the quiet disappearances that frequently follow - of male-specific lines and products by giant multinational cosmetic labels tempted by the large amount of dollars men aren't yet spending on makeup. Anyone who writes about this field, therefore, is doing the dirty work of Big Beauty and there's no point pretending this article is any exception.
School's 'look good' lessons for girls belongs in the past
We are in men's makeup's third or fourth wave, depending in part on whether we consider the 2008 rebrand of Jean-Paul Gaultier's now-defunct men's range from "Tout Beau, Tout Propre" to "Monsieur" to be its own moment.
The current wave has formed around a rough series of events beginning in about 2017 and including - but not limited to - the following: L'Oreal's prediction that men's makeup counters could appear in department stores as soon as 2022; online fashion giant Asos launching a men's makeup section; multiple male makeup artists scoring big-time contracts with multinational makeup brands, and Chanel's launch of a three-item men's range this past February.
The literature on men's makeup literature is now well enough established that there are clear conventions writers must follow: We must talk about the blurring of gender boundaries. We must use the word "metrosexual" and its closest synonym, "David Beckham". We must mention the first series of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and, more recently, the second series of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. We must cite the sales growth of men's grooming products and the dubious "sociological" drivers of men's interest in their appearance. ("Men are in and out of relationships and it forces them to work harder at their appearance because they have to be on the lookout for a partner" - The Telegraph, 2005.)
We must use bad language ("Manscara", "Guyliner") and discuss the genderisation of language more generally. (Will King, founder of King of Shaves, which launched a short-lived men's makeup line in 2003, said "If women 'beautify', what should men do?")
We must discuss the differences between men's and women's skin (is men's really 20 per cent thicker and 20 per cent oilier?)
We must publish the boasts, exaggerations and occasional lies of the beauty industry: ("In upmarket department stores, male concealer, eyeliner and foundation are already flying off the shelves." - The Independent, 2006, discussing a bunch of products that no longer exist.)
We must cover the history of men's makeup which - no way! - goes back thousands of years (Egyptian men! Alexander the Great! Louis XIII!). We must mention the 70s, Bowie, Prince and rock music culture in general. We must mention K-Pop and the fact Korean men use more makeup than the men of any other country. We must ask, "Is it now okay for men to wear makeup?" by which we appear to mean, "Will it get you beaten up on an average Thursday at the Cock and Bull?" This feels like a flawed basis for judging masculinity in the first place.
We must use "funny" headlines. ("Dennis your lipliner's on crooked" - The Independent, 2003.) We must find a random sample of "regular" guys to try it on and tell us funny stories about it. Failing that, we must try it on ourselves.
ON Monday afternoon, I had walked right to the front doors of giant city centre makeup emporium Mecca before discovering my terrified body carrying itself straight past and on down Queen St. It went past Mecca Maxima, two doors down, past Lush, past the Body Shop, past the busker playing Call Me Maybe on violin and past every other damn shop on the street. It took itself clean to the bottom of Queen St before I was able to get it under control, gird its loins and guide it back up Queen St and back to the doors of Mecca. Having arrived, I once again walked straight past.
Over the next 30-60 minutes, I must have walked past Mecca at least a dozen times. Eventually I must have worn myself down because there I was, inside. I felt the clear-skinned sales assistant approach and I readied myself to say the line that had been in my head for the last hour.
"I'm looking for makeup for men."
She smiled and said, "Cool!"
I went on: "I'm wanting to experiment to see if there's anything you can do for men. Is that something that you do? Do you have like special products for men?"
She said: "We don't have special products for men but men can try anything. What are you specifically after, do you know? Like concealer?"
I didn't think much about that suggestion at the time, but looking back, I do. Was my face so gross that we were just going to skip foundation and eyebrow things and lip-whatever and instead go straight to obscuration? I had been in the store for no more than two minutes and already this ostensibly very nice salesperson was tugging downward on my sense of self-esteem, as I suppose is demanded of her by the rigours of the consumer capitalist system.
I said: "I've been online and seen there's kind of a light - I don't know the terminology sorry - but like light foundation or something that you can use."
"Yeah," she said. She took me to a wall of products named, "Laura Mercier" and gathered some small, skin-coloured bottles.
She seemed genuinely pleased and excited to have me there ("It's actually really cool that you're trying it out! I think it's so cool," she said), which suggested to me that she thought whatever was about to happen was going to make a big improvement to my life.
I'm not going to lie, I was excited. Lyaz' 2009 number one hit Replay ("Shawty's like a melody / in my head") was playing at moderate to high volume and although I hadn't heard it before, I liked it. The smell of the store was so different to Rebel Sports. Everything was new and exciting. The prospect of change was in the air! Who isn't excited by the opportunity for self-improvement?
But for there to be improvement there first has to be inadequacy. The flawless salesperson guided me to a stool next to a high table, on which stood a small, round mirror. I had looked into mirrors before - as recently as that very morning - but when I looked into this one, it revealed to me, in a way those others hadn't, so many hideousnesses.
The area around my eyes was gathered and flabby, like curdled custard. Along the right side of my nose were multiple veiny striations. My lips were stupid, my eyebrows pointless. It looked like my eyelashes had boogers in them. I had always considered myself to be young-looking for my age but now it dawned on me: I wasn't.
"Fix me," I thought.
She wiped a tiny smear of tinted moisturiser on a red patch on the left side of my face and rubbed it in. What I saw in that several-second act on that one-square-inch reflection of the left side of my face made such a radical improvement to my appearance that I laughed.
She said: "It got rid of the redness."
"Wow!" I said. "That's amazing."
"Amazing", she said.
I said: "I feel like I'm on a TV ad. Wow. I can't believe the difference. Wow."
She said: "That was cool."
Makeup had never been marketed to me, so I had never before had any curiosity for it, nor any appreciation for its transformative powers. Now, though, I understood: they were great.
I pictured returning home from work that Monday night, my wife kissing me, telling me how great I looked, then taking a step back and asking, "Are you wearing makeup?" I would look at her profoundly and say, "Yes, I am." She would stroke my face and look into my eyes, more attracted to me than she had ever been.
If I allowed my mind to wander I could believe that hours and hours - and hours - later, after the kids were finally asleep and the house was tidy and we were cuddled up on the couch, she would touch my cheek so gently and whisper, "The foundation's a bit patchy right here" and help me to touch it up. That taken care of, I would kiss her passionately, then take a few seconds to reapply my low-gloss cherry lip conditioner.
What actually happened was, I got home and kissed her hello and looked into her eyes while standing too close to her and she said, "Why are you looking at me like that?" and then she said, "Can you start getting the kids' dinner ready?"
She said, "Let's just see what the family thinks about it."
I said, "What matters is what you think about it."
She said: "Well I think it looks absurd."
I said: "I have feelings."
She said: "You've chosen to do something crazy and out-there, so you've got to accept …"
I said: "I've chosen to do something to enhance my aesthetic appeal."
"Hmmmm. I'm sorry but - and this is going to sound really sexist because it is but it's how I feel - the way to enhance a man's appeal is to make them look more manly."
"That's awful," I said. "That is everything you hate right there."
"I'm sorry," she said, "But I can't help it."
"No, well, hang on."
"No," she said. "I am attracted to sexy man mans [sic]."
"You see," I said, "at bottom it's just a prejudice."
"Yeah, well, I've got a prejudice. Men in makeup: I don't think they're sexy. We're allowed to find different things sexy. That's something we're allowed to do."
"Oh boy," I said.
"We don't have to be attracted to everybody," she said.
"I wonder though if it's something that you just need time to get used to."
"Noooooooooo," she said.
"You need to spend time with it."
"Noooooooo," she repeated. "I need you to spend a lot less time with it."
OBJECTIVELY, I looked better with makeup on. It was right there in the mirror and in the multitude of selfies I had taken outside five different makeup stores, from multiple angles, across Central Auckland. Tinted moisturiser evened my skin tone, concealer got rid of dark circles under my eyes, neutralising eye pencil destroyed under-eye redness, brow pencils gave me visible eyebrows for the first time in my life.
To my wife, though, it made me appear objectively worse. I looked at myself in makeup and saw radical improvement; she looked at me in makeup and just saw makeup.
Girls grow up watching their mothers put on makeup, seeing beauty products on women everywhere across broadcast and social media, seeing women portrayed as attractive when and only when they're wearing makeup. Boys see that too. If people perceive women in makeup to be attractive that's because it's the image of attractiveness that is continually reinforced to us. Studies have consistently found that we find people attractive when we know others find them attractive, creating a powerful reinforcement cycle.
It's easy to think the way things are is the way they've always been but before the 20th century the use of - and attitude towards - makeup was all over the shop. For long periods of history both men and women used makeup. Even when women became the predominant users, most still didn't use it and buying it in shops was frowned upon until well into the 20th century. For a long time makeup was seen as the domain and mark of prostitutes. If women did wear it, the look they were going for was predominantly colour-free.
The big change came in the early-mid 20th century with the emergence of the movies. Max Factor, one of the first big international makeup brands and the one that popularised the word "makeup", began telling women that buying its products could make them look like their favourite movie stars. Around the same time Maybelline got in on the act, sales boomed and it was more or less a straight line from there to the launch, last month, of Rihanna's new "Killawatt" highlighter, "Afternoon Snack/Mo' Hunny".
My wife and I both know that we are just flotsam on this wave of history but we also know that flotsam doesn't get to choose its wave.
ON MONDAY, the salesperson at Mecca had given me two sample pots to take home: one of Laura Mercier tinted moisturiser and another of colour-correcting primer. On Tuesday morning I was using my ring finger to stipple the primer across my crepe-like undereye when my son, who has just turned 2, walked in.
He looked up at me for a few seconds, in what appeared to be wonderment, said nothing, then walked straight back out. I wondered if he felt embarrassed. Of course he didn't - he's only 2, and he likes to wear his sisters' skirts - but still I thought it.
After I'd finished putting on my face, I hid the sample pots deep in the bathroom drawer so my wife wouldn't find them. The next morning, my son came into the bathroom as I was getting out of the shower, went through the drawer, found the pots, gave them to me and said, "Put on, Dadda!" I was moved, astonished and proud. I did as he asked.
Not even a minute later, I looked down and noticed him holding a small yellow tube of body butter, the contents of which he had mostly slathered on his face. One afternoon a few days later, I found him in the bathroom using an applicator wand to apply intense berry lip gloss in and around his mouth and nose. This is how quickly inter-generational historical change can happen.
HERE'S where things are at now, male cosmetics-wise: Chanel, Clinique and Tom Ford all sell products specifically aimed at men: foundation, concealer, bronzer, lip and brow-related products. Internationally, there are several dedicated men's brands: MMUK Man, (available through Asos), War Paint ("Makeup For Men, Designed By Men, For Men"), Formen, Differio, Myego, Menaji. A few brands now market themselves as gender neutral: Milk Makeup, Jecca Makeup and Fluide. M.A.C carries the motto "all ages, all races, all genders".
Add to this the growth in male makeup influencers, L'Oreal's prediction about male makeup counters and the growing number of magazine articles like this one and this looks like a solid trend. But it must be noted this sort of big talk has come and gone before. Jean-Paul Gaultier's range is no longer available, neither is King of Shaves' XCD range, about which the Houston Chronicle reported in 2004, "They're streaming into CVS stores to purchase the XCD products." In 2013, Marc Jacobs launched a line intended to be used by men and women, using the tagline, "Boy Tested, Girl Approved" and although the products are still available, all "unisex" talk and accompanying promotional material has now disappeared.
The website of MMUK Man - arguably the loudest and most visible proponent of men's makeup today - reads: "One thing which certainly has been apparent during the uprise of mens makeup is the encouragement ladies give to gents to experiment with a little bronzer for men, men's tinted moisturiser and even guyliner, among others."
I'm not saying they're wrong but they certainly didn't footnote any research.
"So have you found me at all attractive any day this week?" I asked her.
"Were you wearing makeup on other days?" she said.
I didn't mean to gloat about it but I couldn't help myself:
"And now your whole world explodes," I said.
"I don't like this version of you," she said. "It's not attractive. What were you wearing?"
"What was I not wearing?"
"No, tell me."
"Monday, I had full face foundation."
"Did you?" she said, in a voice that was very high-pitched, very surprised, before it even learned I'd also been wearing concealer.
"And then Tuesday I had foundation, eyebrows and just a lip gloss."
"No you didn't," she said. (Very certain.)
"Wednesday I had mascara."
"No, you didn't." (Less certain.)
"Wednesday I had mascara and an eyebrow pencil and yesterday I had lipstick and you did not even suspect a thing any of those days and, in fact, you found me sexy."
"Can you stop doing this?" she said. "I feel like I might need to get divorced."
"Why?" I asked. "Every other day you liked it."
"I didn't. I didn't notice it. Let me say that."
"Okay but do you want me to let you know how many times you found me attractive during that time?"
"You don't have any idea."
"You called me handsome this morning or yesterday or something."
"That was in the morning. You didn't have any makeup on in the morning."
"I did," I said. "I've been putting it on every morning."
"Have you?" she said
"Yeah," I said.
She said: "I don't like this whole thing."
IT WAS Tuesday when I had walked into Chanel and said to Coco, the salesperson: "Can you make me look more attractive than I am?" She could, and probably should, have paused, but didn't, before replying: "Of course."
She took me straight to the Boy de Chanel display and, for the next half hour, she put in a lot of work of a very high standard, applying foundation, concealer, eyebrow pencil and lip conditioning balm. When I look back at the 8-10 selfies I took afterwards, I look spectacular, clearly my best self of any day that week and maybe of any week ever.
From another point of view, not my own, I looked exactly the same.
When she had finished making me look either very beautiful or not even a little bit different, Coco asked: "Anything else?"
"Do men ever do anything to their eyelashes," I asked.
"No," she said. "Not if you want to look natural."