Beauty Boys: The Chinese Men Changing the Face of Makeup
wechat_bg

2018-04-09 13:31:27

BEIJING — Wang Yuepeng is still angry about the first time he tried to buy a Dior lipstick.

“Are you going to use it?” Wang recalls the female salesperson asking dubiously, after staring at him for a few seconds. Wang was already addicted to makeup — he’d begun experimenting with it in high school when he spent 15 yuan ($2) on a concealer at the grocery store in a bid to cover his acne.

“What’s wrong with me using it?” Wang retorted angrily. Nearly a decade later, his face still scrunches into a frown as he recalls their interaction.

Much has changed since Wang’s teenage years in central China’s Henan province. The 25-year-old with dyed olive-green hair is now a professional makeup artist and one of the few well-known male makeup vloggers in China. He boasts nearly 2 million followers online, where he posts video tutorials on everything from applying double eyelid stickers and eyeshadow to making cosmetics last longer. While most of his followers are women, he believes that one day, wearing makeup will be as common among men in China as it is in South Korea and Japan. “I already feel like everyone wants makeup,” Wang tells Sixth Tone from his seat at an internet-famous yogurt shop in Beijing, having just attended a cosmetics event.

Popular male beauty vloggers and makeup wearers share their experiences of using cosmetics in China. By Tang Xiaolan and Lu Yunwen/Sixth Tone

There’s little data on male cosmetics use in China, but reports suggest men are investing more in their appearance. Sales of men’s grooming products — which include men’s toiletries and fragrances but not cosmetics like foundation and mascara — grew at an average annual rate of 7.9 percent between 2012 and 2016, much higher than the global average of 5.1 percent during the same period, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. By 2021, Euromonitor expects the market to be worth $2.2 billion — 20 percent higher than in 2016.

No one ever said only women can wear makeup.

Experts put the growing popularity of men’s beauty products in China down to a number of factors, including a global trend toward men caring more about their appearance and the influence of the delicate, feminine K-pop aesthetic on young Chinese celebrities. Such stars have earned the moniker xiaoxianrou, or “little fresh meat,” for their flawless skin and boyish mannerisms — and they are even changing what constitutes a desirable man, says Song Geng, a University of Hong Kong professor whose research focuses on Chinese masculinity. E-commerce giant Alibaba predicts that the nation’s obsession with little fresh meat will boost cosmetics consumption among men — although it noted that most male makeup customers only purchase BB cream, a form of light foundation that covers blemishes in a natural-looking way.

The changing attitude toward men wearing makeup is also driven by beauty vloggers, with many makeup companies hoping to cash in on their fame and the beauty boy trend. Wang, for instance, recently flew to Singapore to attend an event held by American cosmetics brand Urban Decay, and his schedule is packed with similar events organized by other international and local makeup companies. The most popular male beauty vloggers can make as much as 10 million yuan a year through a variety of avenues, including selling their own products and being paid to advertise products by cosmetics companies, according to industry insiders.

A screenshot from a video posted by Bilibili uploader Wang Yuepeng on March 23, 2018.

A screenshot from a video posted by Bilibili uploader Wang Yuepeng on March 23, 2018.

These male beauty vloggers act as trendsetters, showing viewers how to achieve certain looks, says Babette Radclyffe-Thomas, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of the Arts London who specializes in Chinese fashion, beauty trends, and gender studies. “As there is increased online representation of men who wear makeup, this will definitely lead to changing cultural ideals of who can and how to wear makeup,” she says. “[It will also change] ideals surrounding masculinity and what products or behaviors are seen as masculine or feminine.”

For now, most male vloggers still target female viewers with their makeup tutorials, but 22-year-old broadcasting student Zeng Xuening wants to break the mold. His first makeup video, filmed in his four-person dorm room at Zhejiang University of Media and Communications in 2015, was aimed at men. At the time, videos showing men’s makeup routines were unusual: Guys posting makeup tutorials — most using only text and photos — typically donned long-haired wigs and made themselves up to look like women. Nevertheless, Zeng’s approach brought him 200,000 followers in one night.

Zeng Xuening prepares to record a video at a hotel in Shanghai, March 27, 2018. Tang Xiaolan/Sixth Tone

Zeng Xuening prepares to record a video at a hotel in Shanghai, March 27, 2018. Tang Xiaolan/Sixth Tone

Zeng, who now has 1.7 million followers on microblogging site Weibo, believes he might be China’s first male beauty wanghong — a Chinese term for “internet celebrity.” In a recent video series, he teaches viewers how to look like a “cute puppy” — internet slang referring to an innocent, young, and loyal boyfriend. He dons a brown men’s wig and applies ivory foundation, earthy eyeshadow, and a rose-tinted gloss. Zeng sometimes receives negative feedback — he has often been called a “sissy” — but also gets positive comments from male fans asking how to get started with makeup or how to improve their appearance. He believes men now make up 40 percent of his followers.

One man who has tuned in to Zeng’s videos is Che Huixuan, a student at Beijing Forestry University. At first glance, the 21-year-old’s cramped and messy dorm room looks no different from any other boy’s bedroom. But among the stacks of books, scattered stationery, and tangled cords on his desk is an extensive collection of beauty products.

I want to link boys who wear makeup with a manlier image.

“No one ever said only women can wear makeup,” says the landscape architecture major, who’s decked out in an oversized hoodie and skinny jeans and flaunts a shock of flamingo-pink hair. The slender Che first wore makeup as part of a student street dance organization in his freshman year — now, he wears primer, foundation, concealer, eyebrow pencil, and lipstick every day.

Although Che loves how he looks in makeup, it has occasionally caused difficulties. At a family dinner back in his home province of Liaoning in northeastern China — where the patriarchal culture dictates that men should act tough and authoritative — a middle-aged relative teased Che for “painting [his] little face too white.” The awkwardness hung conspicuously in the air, Che recalls. He thought of explaining himself, but it was too much of a hassle. “Most people still hold prejudices against men in makeup. The current situation in China makes people assume that to be a man, you have to be scruffy,” he says.

And it can be excruciating shopping alone, says Che, who likens the experience to entering a classroom full of girls. “There are empty seats, but I still feel awkward joining them by myself,” he adds. “It would be much better if I had company.”

Che Huixuan puts on makeup in Beijing, March 23, 2018. Tang Xiaolan/Sixth Tone

Che Huixuan puts on makeup in Beijing, March 23, 2018. Tang Xiaolan/Sixth Tone

There’s a bigger problem Che has encountered while shopping for cosmetics: There aren’t enough products specifically designed for men on the market in China. He points to the lack of neutral-colored lipsticks that would suit men and says cosmetics brands often assume their male customers all have oily skin, rather than considering different skin types.

Although Chinese companies are seeing the benefit of utilizing male beauty vloggers’ influence, they’ve been slow to roll out products specifically aimed at men. Internationally, Maybelline recruited its first male brand ambassador last year, and other companies have introduced men’s cosmetics complete with masculine names like “manscara” and “guyliner.” But in China, there are few male-specific makeup products available. L’Oréal, for example, has a men’s skincare range rolled out globally that includes a BB cream, but it’s not marketed as makeup. “Since L’Oréal China doesn’t have cosmetic products and brands specifically targeted at men, we can’t respond to questions on this topic,” L’Oréal China wrote in an email to Sixth Tone. The company added that, even when a male Chinese celebrity is selected to endorse a product, brands usually expect him to draw female fans rather than male followers to cosmetics counters.

A screenshot from a video posted by Bilibili uploader Zeng Xuening on Jan. 29, 2018.

A screenshot from a video posted by Bilibili uploader Zeng Xuening on Jan. 29, 2018.

Zeng is less focused on addressing the lack of men’s makeup options. Instead, he’s on a mission to show that makeup and masculinity can coexist. Zeng pays close attention to his presentation in his videos: He lowers his voice while speaking on camera and cuts scenes in which his pinky finger sticks out. “I want to link boys who wear makeup with a manlier image,” he says. “I don’t want to increase the public prejudice.”

Zeng dreams of a future where men can wear makeup without having their masculinity called into question. “Some women on social media say, ‘Even if I smoke, drink, and have tattoos, I’m still a good girl,’” says Zeng. “So I say: I make myself up, I tattoo my eyebrows, I use foundation, and I’m still a real man.”

The Men Who Wear Makeup

Jace Ma (aka Jiesi Tela), 25

Most men still don’t want others to know that they wear makeup, says Jace Ma, who goes by the beauty vlogger name Jiesi Tela and who didn’t want to use his given name for fear of inconveniencing his family. Ma has no such qualms. “I still remember one day asking my mother whether my makeup was too heavy, and my mother asking why I cared so much about other people’s opinions,” says the 25-year-old, who often uses blush, pink lipstick, mascara, and eyeshadow. “If even my parents don’t care that I wear makeup, I don’t have to consider other people’s reactions.”

Jace Ma puts on makeup at his home in Beijing, March 25, 2018. Tang Xiaolan/Sixth Tone

Jace Ma puts on makeup at his home in Beijing, March 25, 2018. Tang Xiaolan/Sixth Tone

Yet Ma has been exposed to his fair share of negative feedback. In college, he majored in traffic engineering — a male-dominated field — and feels that most people thought he was a “weirdo.” After graduating, he worked at a game company, where again most of his colleagues were men. His addiction to makeup prompted his boss to question his professional abilities, says Ma. Eventually, he quit his job and became a full-time beauty vlogger in September 2016. “Makeup is such a fundamental thing that everyone should try — it made me better [inside and out],” Ma says. “I think there is still a vast ocean of potential in the [male beauty vlogger] market.”

Wu Shengjie, 22

Currently a student at Shanghai Second Polytechnic University, Wu Shengjie first got into makeup in high school when he started grooming his eyebrows. Three years later, makeup has become as much a part of his daily routine as showering and shaving. He spends 20 minutes every morning doing his makeup in front of the mirror, using foundation, concealer, and contouring products. “I feel naked walking on the street without makeup nowadays,” Wu says.

Wu Shengjie poses for a photo in Shanghai, March 28, 2018. Courtesy of Wu Shengjie

Wu Shengjie poses for a photo in Shanghai, March 28, 2018. Courtesy of Wu Shengjie

Dong Zichu (aka Benny Bitch), 22

Beauty vlogger Dong Zichu produces exuberant, sassy videos under the moniker Benny Bitch. “Welcome to my channel! I’m Benny Bitch,” he says at the start of his videos, which he churns out at an incredible rate. Although he’s received plenty of cruel comments since he first started posting videos in August 2016, Dong makes a point of reclaiming the abusive words so they lose their strength against him. “Since they call me ‘bitch,’ I’m glad to take on that name,” the 22-year-old vlogger tells Sixth Tone.

Dong now has nearly a million followers on video-sharing platform Bilibili. His success came as no surprise: When Dong was younger, he recalls, he had a knack for suggesting products to friends based on their specific needs. Nowadays, when he recommends a product to his mainly female and gay male followers, sales spike: He claims that 2 million items of a product he once recommended sold within two days.

A screenshot from a video posted by Bilibili uploader Dong Zichu on March 24, 2018.

A screenshot from a video posted by Bilibili uploader Dong Zichu on March 24, 2018.

Though men marketing makeup is not a new phenomenon in many Western countries, Dong believes that China needs its own men’s makeup tutorials. Chinese people often have different eyes from Westerners, Dong says, which requires a different technique for applying eyeliner or eyeshadow. He has built his own cosmetics brand and dreams of becoming China’s Jeffree Star, an American makeup mogul with 6.6 million followers on YouTube.

“Why can’t a man be a beauty vlogger?” Dong says in the same dramatic tone he uses in his videos. “That opinion is no different from gender discrimination in the workplace.”

Editor: Julia Hollingsworth.

(Header image: A vlogger puts on lipstick while livestreaming in Shanghai, Jan. 3, 2018. Niu Jing/VCG)