More Men Are Wearing Makeup. And Now I See Why

As companies from Chanel to CVS get into the men’s makeup market, Joel Stein takes some concealers, CC creams, and blotting powders for a spin

I was facing a crisis of masculinity. I could go back to the makeup room, have the CNN makeup artist remove the gunk from my face, and be even later for my meeting than I already was. But caring about taking off makeup seemed as vain as wearing it. So I left. The first thing the guy I was meeting said was that I looked young. I don’t remember the second thing he said, but it wasn’t, “Are you wearing makeup?” I never again took TV makeup off after a show.

I didn’t know what the different kinds of makeup were called, how to put them on, or what they were trying to accomplish. I remember one makeup artist saying something about shine, but I wasn’t sure if shine was good or bad. Another mentioned my nasolabial folds, and I mistakenly thought she was coming on to me. All I knew was that it no longer made sense that I wasn’t wearing makeup every day.

If you had told me when I was a teenager in the 1980s, watching Aerosmith, Prince, and Twisted Sister videos, that in the next century straight men would either be wearing makeup or shaving their pubes, I would never have missed an investment opportunity in Gillette. In this era of tightly fitted shirts and gelled Mohawks, I can’t understand why men don’t care what our faces look like. If makeup could be used to make our penises look bigger, we’d all have urinary tract infections.

Of course, men’s makeup isn’t new. Mick Jagger dabbed some on because he was rebellious, David Bowie slathered on a lot more to signify gender-bending, metal bands wore it to scare their fans’ parents, and Pete Wentz, Jared Leto, and Adam Lambert wore eyeliner because they had lovely eyes. “Up until the French Revolution, things like wigs, rouge, powder, and face patches were unisex,” says Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, a fashion historian who wrote Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. “They were signs of wealth and good taste rather than gender. Ancient Egyptian men were not afraid of a smoky eye.” If Alexander the Great wore makeup, why couldn’t we?

If makeup could be used to make our penises look bigger, we’d all have urinary tract infections.

It turns out that more and more men are indeed wearing makeup. After testing the product in ten stores last year, CVS announced in June that it will carry concealer by Stryx, a line for men, in a quarter of its stores. A poll late last year by Morning Consult showed that about a third of American men under 45 would consider trying makeup. Chanel sells an eyebrow pencil and foundation under its dude line, Boy de Chanel. For $109, Rihanna’s makeup brand, Fenty, sells a kit for men that includes foundation, a skin stick, blotting paper, and blotting powder.

The new boom in men’s-makeup sales is an outgrowth of a culture that increasingly puts a premium on male vanity. A few decades ago, it was considered shallow or effete to focus on clothes or haircuts. Now men are almost as objectified as women, and how attractive we look has a big impact on our professional and personal success. I, for instance, only got this assignment because I am unspeakably handsome.

Male makeup is already acceptable in South Korea, Japan, and Republican political circles. John Boehner surely buys his bronzer at Costco, while Donald Trump apparently prefers more upmarket brands. In an interview last year, his housekeepers revealed the president is partial to Bronx Colors Boosting Hydrating Concealer in orange, imported in bulk from a company in the UK. But notwithstanding Trump’s enthusiastic endorsement, men’s makeup still accounts for less than 1 percent of America’s cosmetics market.

To ease the transition, Stryx turned to Prime Studios, the marketing company that created Axe’s “shower tool” loofah. According to Stryx’s 25-year-old cofounder, Devir Kahan, Stryx’s makeup is rugged. “Men’s skin is different from women’s skin,” Kahan says. “It’s thicker, more oily. Much tougher. So our stuff is tougher, too. It can stand up to sweat.” This is makeup you can talk shit to in the locker room and not worry about getting canceled.

The male-makeup market has expanded because even the most macho among us are constantly having our photos posted online. While Stryx’s sales plummeted the first two weeks of the lockdown, since then sales have been 50 percent higher than before. “We see a lot of guys come in because they’re staring at their faces all day on Zoom,” says Kahan. But sales have also grown due to Gen Z’s gender fluidity.

Still, men’s makeup companies try really hard to butch it up. Formen, a makeup brand that really wants you to know it’s for men, has a deer antler in its logo. It’s a 13-point buck—the kind you take a photo with that you keep forever. The kind where you want your skin to look flawless. British men’s makeup company War Paint released an ad so stereotypically masculine—tattoos on top of tattoos, skull ring—that they took it down after being accused of toxic masculinity. Stryx designed its concealer to look like a pen, and refers to it as a “tool.” Mënaji, which has been making men’s makeup since the dawn of the metrosexual, calls their concealer “camo.”

But over time, Mënaji has seen less need for a tough-guy act. “If I show a concealer stick to a dude in his fifties, he’ll first ask me, ‘What is it?’” says Mënaji president Pamela Viglielmo. “Then he’ll say ‘No, thanks.’ But if I show a concealer stick to a guy in his twenties, not only will he know what it is, but he’ll grab it to see if it’s his shade.” Formen used to be careful to ship in discreet, manly packages that bear no mention of the words “makeup” or “cosmetics.”

“In the beginning, men were squeamish,” founder Andrew Grella says about customers who emailed him concerned about the packaging. “Nowadays nobody gives a shit.”

mens makeup

Laszlo Stein

With so many options available, I ordered a bunch of makeup to up my game, even though my game is never leaving my house. The first thing I felt upon “unboxing” my stash (which is the influencer term for opening packages) was disappointment. I longed for different kinds of makeup for different occasions: day, night, casual, cocktail, professional, sexy, sassy. Instead all I got were ways to cover up the blemishes on my face. Male makeup, it turns out, is mainly for hiding. It’s functional, not fun.

As basic as it was, I didn’t know how to use it. So I watched some videos. First, I dabbed on some Formen’s moisturizer. Then I put on some CC cream, which stands for “color correcting”—not a fun phrase, but instead a term you use as an excuse to not show your bad film to the press. When I was done, my face looked exactly as it did before.

Then things got real. I twisted a dropper off a skull-shaped bottle of foundation and dabbed a splotch on my forehead, nose, and chin. I massaged it in, like the box advised, taking pains to spread it evenly down my neck. To my surprise, I started looking a bit better. My Homer Simpson frown lines looked less obvious. Then I picked up the under-eye concealer. It was divided into three colors, none of them remotely human. So I watched another video that said that if the bags under my eyes were red, I should use green. If my bags were blue or purple, then yellow was for me. To erase yellow, I’d dab on some purple. It’s complicated.

At some point during this intricate process it occurred to me that for 49 years, I’d never really studied my face. But now that I was really looking at myself and my flaws, they were all I could think about. Suddenly, my face looked like a planet with craters, valleys, volcanoes, coronas, and veins of ore. Maybe I could spackle over it? I smeared yellow under my eyes to cover up the thick blue vein I’d never seen, and green around my nose to hide the Clintonian red hollows. I took out a concealer stick and dabbed a scratch on my neck I don’t remember getting, and some red thing that wasn’t a pimple but also wasn’t not a pimple. I was older than I thought. Now I couldn’t get all these thoughts about my face out of my head. One application of concealer and I instantly understood feminism.

Before I was confident enough to show my new face in public, I got a Zoom makeup tutorial from Tom Sandoval, an actor on Vanderpump Rules and an investor in Stryx. Sandoval, who is straight, gets hit up by guy friends for makeup all the time. “I have a friend with dark circles. But when he asks me about product, it’s like he’s trying to buy some crazy drugs off me,” he says.

Sandoval had me put on tinted moisturizer, which is a lot like foundation. Then I rubbed concealer under my eyes, over my eyes and right on my eyelids. He had me use a lighter color than my skin. “You want to brighten your eyes. You want to draw attention to them,” he said.

The next day I put on makeup as Sandoval had instructed. I thought the whole process would take 30 minutes, but it took less than five. I could do this! I was scared to come out of the bathroom, but luckily my wife wasn’t around, so I could sneak into my office unseen. I took a deep breath, logged onto a Zoom meeting about a TV show I was developing, and pressed the “show video” button. But nobody said a word about how I looked. So I asked if they noticed anything new about me. One woman asked if I had something on my lips, which I did not. Another asked if I clicked the “touch up my appearance” function on Zoom, which I hadn’t known about. When I told them I was wearing makeup, they were unimpressed. I couldn’t help but feel a bit hurt.

Emboldened after the meeting, I sought out my wife and 11-year-old son and asked what they thought. They both said I looked great. And then they got excited about trying the different colors on my face. Soon there were streaks of light cognac, medium mahogany, and dark eclipse. It was fun. I felt celebrated.

I’m going to keep using the concealer. And when I’m on camera, the powder. It was a relief to realize that no one really cares what I have on my face. The awful part is that now I do.

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