I’m looking at the man in the mirror. And he looks great, to be honest. It’s how I feel I should look, when I am at my most optimistic. There’s a smooth sheen across my cheeks. My eyes are bright, my brows orderly.
And the reason I look so good? Because a makeup artist has spent 40 minutes on my face. First, she dowsed it with Hollywood Flawless Filter by Charlotte Tilbury. Later, I look it up: it says it’s “a customisable complexion booster” with “the versatility of a primer” and “the mega-watt glow of a highlighter”. I would say it’s more like a glossy Polyfilla, miraculously levelling my chipboard skin. Next, she added blobs of what looks like green toothpaste across my cheeks. I am briefly horrified; does she want me to look like Grotbags? But it gets rid of all my blotchy redness. Who knew?
Women know, obviously. For the last century, makeup has been mostly the preserve of just half the population. Even as society has become more feminist, and less ruled by gender binaries, women’s cosmetics use has become even more prolific, while men have continued to go au naturel, occasionally boshing on a bit of moisturiser and hoping for the best.
But that may be changing, as brands from Chanel to Tom Ford launch male cosmetics lines, which is why I’ve asked for a makeover. My “before” photos leave no doubt as to where the disaster zones are. I’m youngish, but the skin under my beard is parched, there are red blotches across my face equator, my squinty eyes are sunken and there’s lots of white flakiness in the deep valleys between the shaft of my nose and the foothills of my nostrils.
My new “natural” look involves about 11 different products. The first round of five or so I recognise: toners, moisturisers, a calming face mist. Nothing girly about that, I think. This is just skincare; my bathroom cabinet is full of this nonsense. Then comes the foundation, filter, powder, two different kinds of colour correction, concealer, eyebrow brush and lip gloss.
Sam Cooper, who has prepped stars from Tony Hadley to Jon Hamm for photoshoots and big nights out, seems trustworthy, but surely all of this is going to make me look like Gemma Collins. I am wrong. When Cooper is finished, I look properly in the mirror, and like what I see. I feel like a child who has just discovered how the magician does his tricks.
For an increasing number of men, makeup is becoming the norm. If you watch Love Island or Geordie Shore (even Richard Madden in the BBC’s Bodyguard wore a full face). Tom Ford launched a men’s concealer and brow gel comb last year; Chanel now has a tinted foundation, a matte lip balm and four shades of eyebrow pencil under its new Boy De Chanel brand. Male cosmetics still make up less than 1% of the $465bn global beauty market, although 15% of UK men under 45 bought makeup in 2016 (the figures don’t say whether this was for personal use).
As with the boom in female beauty, the charge is being led by ordinary teenagers making videos in their bedrooms. James Charles from upstate New York was 16 when he launched his first makeup tutorial on YouTube. In it, he demonstrates how to do a complex contoured look with a deep blue eye-shadow glow, completely transforming his face. By the age of 18, Charles had amassed 8.5 million subscribers and become the first man to model for makeup brand CoverGirl.
In the UK, the most famous male beauty vlogger is Gary Thompson, who has had campaigns with L’Oréal and Superdrug. His Instagram handle is @theplasticboy, and there is a certain Ken doll sheen to his contoured cheeks. He started wearing makeup because of bad skin, but now loves the way it makes him feel. He says things have changed a lot in the time he’s been wearing makeup. “I remember walking down the street in a full beat [full makeup look] and getting dirty looks, but now no one blinks an eye.”
Both Thompson and Charles are model-like, and their makeup looks are full-on and feminine: lots of contouring, bronzer and colour. Both are gay; queer culture has always appropriated elements of femininity, particularly makeup. As Thompson says, “Makeup connects with queer culture – it’s such a powerful form of expression.”
The question, though, is whether the Towie boys and the high-profile vloggers doing deals with mainstream beauty brands could signal a tipping point where male makeup becomes more commercially viable. I have my reservations, not least because we’ve been here before. In the kohl-and-cocaine mid-00s, front pages were dominated by the fabulous lashes of Pete Doherty, Noel Fielding and Russell Brand. Piggybacking on that trend, Superdrug tried to launch a “guyliner” and “manscara” in 2008. Both products flopped.
Bunny Kinney, editor of Dazed Beauty magazine, tells me he’s starting to hear major brands talk about male makeup, but that there’s a long way to go before blokes in towns across Britain start powdering their noses before a night out. “In spite of all the amazing, radical progress that’s being made with regards to gender nonconformity, beauty still very much exists on that mainstream binary. For things like male foundation, getting rid of that stigma is going to be hard.”
Back in the makeup chair, I ask Cooper to give me a slightly more full-on look: eye shadow, contouring, glow on my cheekbones (pictured above). How do I look? Yes, my eyes are “popping”, but it’s extremely noticeable and I feel uncomfortable. I keep the makeup on, and later bump into some friends. “You’re wearing makeup,” they say by way of a hello. I don’t know the unspoken rule that you don’t touch your face when wearing makeup; by the time I meet my girlfriend an hour later, everything has smeared. What do you think, I ask? She looks at me with undisguised amusement – a vain melting goth in the middle of St Pancras station. “I’m surprised by how unashamed you are,” she says.
One brand believes it can beat the kneejerk unease men have about makeup. It’s called MMUK. On sale exclusively through Asos, it has grown to become the biggest male-focused makeup brand in Europe, with a turnover last year of £1m.
MMUK is based in Brighton, where I meet its founder, Alex Dalley. After watching plenty of beauty vlogs, I have certain preconceptions, so I am surprised to be greeted by a man in a plain white T-shirt and black exercise shorts that expose his tree-trunk, rugby-player legs. He calls me “fella”.
Dalley says his interest in makeup started when he was a teenager: he is blind in one eye and had terrible acne, and would regularly miss school because he didn’t want anyone to see his visible disability. “I’m surprised I ever left my bedroom,” he says.
On the night of the lower-sixth prom, his mother convinced him to try foundation. The result was life-changing. “I remember looking in the mirror and feeling like myself again,” Dalley says. It kickstarted a fascination with bronzers and concealers, although he remained too frightened to buy anything himself, sending his mum off to Boots to shop for him.
While studying business at Sussex University, he did some market research and was surprised to find there weren’t any male beauty brands. He began developing a business plan, and when he left university, tried to make it a reality, setting up a website and using his overdraft to buy up cheap, discontinued Calvin Klein women’s makeup, which he then marketed at men.
Straight away, Dalley was making more than £1,000 a month by convincing men they were buying male makeup when they weren’t. He included tutorials and guides, showing men the basics of foundation, powder and concealer (his site was also the first that came up if you Googled “makeup for men”). Eventually, he ran out of the Calvin Klein stock, so he started investing in his own products. Dalley initially assumed the primary interest would be from gay men, and took out adverts in Attitude and Gay Times. But he quickly found that gay consumers made up only a quarter of his customer base.
“We thought gay men would find less of a stigma around it, because they are more open,” he says. “But a lot of the men who were getting in contact were straight. There were in their 40s struggling with wrinkles, worried about younger people coming through at work, wanting to show their bosses they still had energy. There were also men in their 30s, worried about dark circles. Then men in their 20s, who subscribe to that gym-health–Towie lifestyle, where using products is the norm. And then a huge number of teenagers trying to deal with acne, maybe 40% of our customers.”
MMUK changed the tone of the language on the website, and took out references to nights out and “wingmen” to make it appealing to all age groups, and watched the business grow. In 2017, it got a distribution deal with Asos; Dalley now plans to expand into 12 new territories next year.
He says the success of the products is down to their formulations, which are different from women’s brands. They need to last longer, because there’s no way men will keep makeup in their bag or touch up in the bathroom (many of MMUK’s customers request the makeup to be delivered in plain packaging or addressed to a female name). Most importantly, each product is essentially designed to be invisible. The foundations are matte and come in a wide range of skin tones and types. The lip glosses are clear; the bronzers aim to make you look tanned, rather than to glow.
I wonder how Dalley feels about the market expanding, with bigger brands muscling in on his turf. “I think Chanel, Tom Ford – they’re tokens. It’s all just marketing. They’ve just added the word ‘boy’ or ‘for men’. They haven’t had the balls to say, ‘Let’s really step away and create a whole range.’”
Thompson, who vlogs mostly about using women’s makeup to achieve his looks, agrees, adding that, just as female ranges have for decades given women of colour few options, these nascent ranges for men don’t cater for darker skin types. “With Chanel, it’s amazing that they are doing a men’s makeup range, but those shades? Why even bother if you don’t cater to all the men around the world?”
I’m interested by Dalley’s offering. Until now, my skincare routine has involved picking up free samples at airports. So, heading off to a night out at a Frieze art fair afterparty, I pick up a bag of MMUK’s makeup. Already I see a problem: I need somewhere to apply it. I try a few bars, but the men’s toilets are busy and I don’t feel comfortable standing by the sink applying foundation while men in suits urinate behind me. Eventually, I settle for a toilet cubicle in a train station pub and try my best with the mirror in the compact.
Having watched Cooper, I feel as if I know what I’m doing, but I quickly phone my girlfriend to make sure I’ve got the order right (I haven’t). I start with the foundation, which looks good until I get some on my beard, creating a horrible tartare-sauce look that is difficult to get off. After that, it’s concealer and powder and I try to fix my eyebrows, too.
At the party, I meet up with some of my oldest friends. I expect them to bring it up immediately, but no one does; when I mention that I’m wearing makeup, they say my skin looks glowing. Still, it doesn’t really make me feel more confident; I worry that I’m coming across too Towie at a party that’s much more Broad City.
In the longer term, I worry that, for now, makeup is still viewed as too effeminate, too fundamentally unnatural for most men to be proud daily users. An Ipsos poll last year found that 84% of women said their beauty routine could be “empowering”. Makeup for men feels the opposite, like admitting defeat because your natural look isn’t good enough. I wonder how it will fare if its main selling point is that it can be applied in total secrecy.
One man who wants bring makeup out of the shadows is Jay Jay Revlon. After completing a nail technician course earlier this year, he set up the only male nail salon in the UK, as a popup in the corner of a pub. The technicians were men, and people could order a pint while they had their nails looked at.
Like MMUK, Revlon found that he was getting a range of customers. “Nail biters were my key clientele,” he says. He’d give gel extensions for a natural look, as well as offering black or glitter nails; the salon also gave manicures to those who just “want their hands sorting out”.
Revlon says the long-term aim is a permanent space, “where men come and get their nails done, but can also do other stuff. It can be a social space, a safe space for LGBT people.” His dream is to have a salon where men can go to get their makeup sorted.
There is a brand of socially conditioned masculinity that might stop me having a cupboard full of products, or powdering my nose in the loos of a commuter-friendly Wetherspoons. But would I pop to a male makeup bar and get my face done before a big night out? I already go to the barbers, where my eyebrows are plucked, my hands massaged and my beard trimmed to the millimetre. If they chucked in a little foundation and some colour corrector for the weekend – well, I wouldn’t say no.