On a trip to South Korea several years ago I came across an ad on television that gave me pause. It featured then soccer phenomenon Ahn Jung Hwan, more famed for his flowing locks than his soccer prowess, walking down a white hallway, his face bathed in a heavenly glow. Another man, Korean actor Hyun Bin, walks towards him and their eyes meet in the most inexplicably homoerotic scene since Tom Cruise played beach volleyball in Top Gun. As they pass the one man remarks that Hwan has beautiful skin. Hwan replies that he is simply using a different lotion. They gaze lovingly at each other as the commercial fades to a close.
More remarkable than two heartthrobs enjoying each other’s complexions–imagine Brad Pitt and George Clooney in a similar exchange–is the product itself – Color Lotion, a foundation for men. In another commercial for something called Beauty Credit Coenzyme Q10, Bin and Hwan are repeatedly poked in the face by a group of surprised, and white, scientists. At the end they poke each other in the face and smile at the camera (I’m sure the ability to read Korean would not make the commercial any less confusing). The key to Q10′s astonishing, face poking power? It is a “whitening formula.”
While flipping through the girlfriend’s latest copy of Vogue Girl (the Korean version of Teen Vogue) I came across an ad that reminded me of that discovery.
Whitening foundations are nothing new in Asia, where dark skin is equated with field work and therefore lower status. However, I had never seen the products marketed so directly at men before I visited South Korea. It seems South Korean men are no stranger to beauty aids; Barbara Demick, writing in the Los Angeles Times, points to a CEO in Korea’s cosmetics industry’s memoir, “The CEO Who Wears Make-Up.” It’s safe to say the rest of the world, and especially North America, has yet to catch on. While men are no longer ashamed to buy 3-step cleansing products, and companies such as Baxter of California and Jack Black are doing a brisk business in grooming, few men outside of emo bands and Ryan Seacrest are venturing into make-up.
A few companies seem to be banking on that changing. I still remember the Hard Candy boom in the early nineties when Nuno Bettencourt appeared in the Extreme video for More than Words wearing black nail polish, and Gavin Rossdale, then of Bush and not yet Mr. Gwen Stefani, started painting his pinkie nails yellow. This time around more traditional lines like Clinique seem to be noticing that men are becoming, well, a little obsessed with the way they look.
Clinique offers the M Stick, a “natural looking cover [which] hides dark circles, blemishes, [and] shaving nicks.” While not meant to be applied as liberally as a foundation, the instructions do recommend dabbing it on your face and smoothing it into your skin.
Writing in Salon Kibum Kim notes that major drugstores around the world are starting to carry men’s lines, perhaps in response to stars such as Zac Efron’s suspiciously matte complexions. He also cites a GQ survey from 2005 where 92% of respondents indicated they would never wear make-up even if it guaranteed an improvement in their sex lives. However, designer John Varvatos’ experience describes a different story:
John Varvatos, whose skin-care line aimed at men includes a concealer, commented to American Way magazine, “During the market research, the concealer was the most talked about and most requested product. You’d be surprised how aware men are of their skin flaws.
Those looking for tips on application can even find the process described in video.