Face it - men need make upUsually, I do not mind going shopping with my girlfriend, Sun-jung. Mostly, I assist her physically: holding bags, nodding my head nonstop to her questions and non sequiturs. The other day she again asked me to go shopping. “Of course,” I said, but I regretted my decision immediately after she told me we were looking for cosmetics.
Clothes are one thing, cosmetics are another. I am not a metrosexual, that new category of softer men who use expensive face lotions and body scrubs. I cannot share Sun-jung’s enthusiasm for foundation, eyeliner, lipstick, blush. I do not know much about these things, only what I overhear. I do know that my $7 aftershave, which I have not changed in a decade, smells good.
But I acquiesced; anything to please her.
Seeing the vast first floor of cosmetics at Hyundai Department Store in Mok-dong, I inhale deeply, girding for a long day’s journey into night cream. Under Sun-jung’s momentum we head for the MAC booth. What a crowd! While she searches for her needs I scan between the bodies for a place I can be comfortable for the next half an hour. Practically diving for a lone chair, I begin to disentangle the scene. I notice one other male inside the booth. His short crew cut and fishnet shirt, open nearly to the navel, suggest a lot of things that we do not have to go into. I watch him furtively as he grabs a woman’s throat. He yanks her chin, and then starts to work on her face -- slap, slap -- with a brush. After a few minutes she smiles -- and he nods in satisfaction -- at her face captured in a hand-held mirror. She coos approvingly and heads for the cash register with a clutch of cosmetics.
No doubt feeling the thrill of an artist out to conquer new faces, the man suddenly turns his gaze on me. For a moment we exchange glances, then he jabs the air, pointing in my direction: “Your skin looks good but it could be better. As a free service, let me show you just a little bit of how you can improve things.You have no idea what your skin is exposed to.”
I look to my right and then my left. There is no one but me. I point at me. He nods, asking if I use moisturizer on my face. “Er. No,” is my tentative reply. Isn’t that what aftershave does? Panic kicks in. My eyes dart around the booth, looking for Sun-jung to rescue me. I find her and telegraph a desperate help-me sign, but seeing I have been tapped for a makeover she claps her hands in joy. My fate -- as well as my face -- is sealed.
“Shall we?” he says. Not knowing what to expect I find myself stuttering, “Uh. uh. I don’t know. Well, I guess so . . .” He introduces himself, Ye Sang-hyo, and then goes to work. Mr. Ye, 31, uses a small knife (yikes!) to clean-cut my eyebrows. As he trims away, I find myself asking him questions. I have seen male make- up artists in the United States, but a Korean man in this profession is a rarity. Actually, I had never seen one.
Mr. Ye took up his current vacation in October 2000, migrating to cosmetics from a very different world. He played baseball for Baemyung High School; he was good enough to win the outstanding pitcher’s award at the 1991 Bonghwanggi, one of Korea’s most prestigious high school baseball tournaments. He then attended Seoul’s Konkuk University and after graduating in 1995 played two years for Posco, an amateur team. In the winter of 1997, he started playing professionally for the LG Twins, but was traded to the Hanhwa Eagles in 1999. In November 2000, what had seemed a promising career was ended by a torn muscle in his left shoulder.
“Well, it was devastating. Since elementary school I had been playing the game and suddenly my lights went out,” he says.
He became interested in cosmetics through a friend in the industry. Deciding to work for MAC, an American company, he enrolled in the company’s training program in 2000.
It was not easy for him; the problems started with his own family. “The moment I told my mother she said, ‘You are a guy. Why are you doing this?’” Even after landing a job at the MAC booth at Shinsegae Department Store in Banpo-dong he still was not sure he wanted to pursue the make-up business.
“To be honest, at first I felt embarrassed. But I had to do something. Anything. In Korea, in this industry, you don’t see that many men. But after a year I found myself immersed in the work. Whenever I consulted with my customers, I found they were really listening to me, and that’s where I get my motivation.”
According to an official at the Korea Make-up Association there are no official data on male make-up artists, but most estimates put the number at about a dozen.
In March of this year, Mr. Ye became the first male cosmetics shop manager in Korea. He says his store has monthly sales of 80 million won ($66,666).
Lee Yoon-na, second in command at the store, says that having a male manager is an advantage for the five female make-up specialists as well as the customers. “Since he is a man he does his work from a man’s point of view. It gives you a different perspective on beauty, and I think that’s a fresh concept for our customers and for the women who work here. I mean, you put on make-up to be attractive to a guy, right?”
Mr. Ye brings to the industry an attitude that he says he hopes will be widely accepted one day. “Everyday I put on sun cream to protect my skin. I think on special occasions guys should put on some make-up to look better.” He says he wears make-up to parties. He adds, “Women have beautiful skin. Guys should take a hint. It’s a matter of ignorance. You have no idea what your skin is exposed to.”
Using a brush he applies to my face a liquid type of cosmetic cream called the make-up base. “Do you know what it does?”
The closest I had ever come to putting on make-up was smearing camouflage on my face in the army. “Uh, no,” I mutter.
Mr. Ye explains that the base usually contains vitamins and protects against ultraviolet rays while evening out the overall skin tone.
Next, he puts on another cream that is designed to brighten certain areas of the skin that need more help. “So usually what areas are they?” I ask.
“Pores and sebum around the nose. Dark circles around the eyes.”
Finally, he applies a thin cream he calls the foundation to wrap up his work. All in all, it took about half an hour.
I really started to notice the second layer of stuff Mr. Ye had applied the moment Sun-jung and I stepped outside and the warm summer sunshine started its work. Watching another guy passing by I held my head high knowing that I was fully protected from the sun and had just put on a better face as well. “You have no idea what your skin is exposed to,” I caught myself mumbling.
Honestly, I really do not know if I look better with the make-up. But I do know that my face felt better, and I guess that is what is most important.
I found the experience very illuminating. And like Mr. Ye who, as a man, is a pioneer in his industry, I am sure that someday more guys will be wearing -- should I say it -- make-up.
by Brian Lee
More in Features
Sculptor Joo Hoo-sik finds inspiration in the Year of the Cow
Nothing's fair in love and Covid
Top culture stories of the year
[ZOOM KOREA] The pipe organ master with plans for a uniquely Korean instrument
ENFJ-LMNOPQ what does the MBTI say about you?