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The men who wear makeup – for beauty, for pleasure, and just because. (Image Design: Archi Banal)
The men who wear makeup – for beauty, for pleasure, and just because. (Image Design: Archi Banal)

SocietyMay 21, 2022

Masque for masc: The rise of men who wear makeup

The men who wear makeup – for beauty, for pleasure, and just because. (Image Design: Archi Banal)
The men who wear makeup – for beauty, for pleasure, and just because. (Image Design: Archi Banal)

Makeup: it’s just not for ladies anymore. Sam Brooks talks to some men who wear makeup – for work, for pleasure, and just because.

Let’s face it: If you’ve walked into Mecca, Sephora or even Chemist Warehouse to pick up some makeup recently, you’re probably not a man. With a few ridiculous exceptions (remember guyliner?), makeup and beauty products have historically been almost exclusively marketed to women.

But it’s not just women who are wearing makeup these days. Not even close. Full disclosure from a cis man, but more often than not when I venture out into the world I like to put a little bit of highlighter on, and I’ve dabbled in some sparkly gold eyeshadow for fancy events. I’m not alone. Top brands like Chanel, Tom Ford and Shiseido all have highly successful and popular brands targeted at men. On TikTok, videos with the hashtags #boysinmakeup and #meninmakeup have been viewed hundreds of millions of times

Glow Up winner Richard Symons applying their own makeup, while judge Gee Pikinga looks on. (Photo: TVNZ)

Richard Symons, the winner of 2020’s makeup artistry contest Glow Up NZ, has worked in the beauty industry for over a decade. They say they’re seeing far more men and masculine-presenting people wear makeup that’s traditionally associated with women than ever before. “Historically, through the 90s and 00s, we had specifically male celebrity types or people in the industry wearing makeup, but it was always in a very grungy or goth way,” they say, alluding to the heavy-black-eyeliner look of The Cure’s Robert Smith or Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz. “Whereas now, we’re seeing the other side of things, where men are wanting to blur the lines between gender, and look more typically – big air quotes – feminine.

“There have always been men or male presenting people that have always done this, but that visibility breeds acceptance,” Symons continues, pointing to guys who identify as 100% straight on TikTok who wear a full face of makeup. “That’s cool to see. It’s breaking down barriers.”

That filters down – more men these days are having their eyebrows done, getting facials, or even just being more enthusiastic about skincare in general. But for most, makeup is still a bridge too far. Symons says in some cases, that reluctance may be based on fear, not a lack of desire.

“For a cis guy who’s never worn makeup in their life, it’s probably going to look really bad. No offence, we all start somewhere,” they say. “There’s unfortunately a lot of judgment around cis men wearing makeup, so they might be more reluctant to try things and get past that teething stage of wearing makeup.”

It’s all very normal for Symons, though. “Putting makeup on a man is like… that’s a Wednesday for me. You do it on every shoot, you do it on every runway show, even if it’s a ‘no makeup’ look, there’s still something happening there.”

Jack ‘James’ Tame and Winston Peters on Q+A, both wearing makeup.

For TV presenters Jack Tame and Matty McLean, wearing makeup is just as everyday as it is for Symons. If you’re on television, you have to wear makeup – and not for vanity reasons either. Studio lights are bright, and not especially flattering. A naked face under those lights looks odd, and whether you’re delivering a feel-good breakfast-TV story or a hard-hitting interview with the leader of the opposition, you don’t want your weird-looking face to be distracting your audience.

“For people who haven’t worn makeup before, it’s basically like having someone paint your face, which can be a bit of an unusual experience,” says Tame. “I don’t have any problem with wearing makeup for work, but my problem has usually been that I forget I’m wearing it. So I’ve had several occasions in the past where I’ve gone and done a few hours of live TV, walked out of the studio, taken off my suit, forgotten to remove my makeup, gone to the gym and sweated out for half an hour, then lifted a towel up to my face.

“It’s disgusting.”

McLean doesn’t just tolerate makeup, he’s found he actually likes it . “One of the makeup ladies once put mascara on my eyes, and holy shit did they pop after she put it on,” he says. “So now I put mascara on in the mornings. It really accentuates my blue eyes.”

It takes both of them only about 10-15 minutes to get ready before they shoot their respective shows. For comparison, I spoke to a female TV presenter who estimated that women in her position spend no less than 30 minutes in the makeup chair, and usually close to an hour. If it’s a particularly glamorous look, the whole process can easily take 90 minutes.

While it’s a regular experience for both hosts now, McLean’s first experience wearing makeup as a student at broadcasting school wasn’t so pretty. When an experienced journalist came to talk to their class – McLean and Tame were in the same one – about hair and makeup on TV, she told the guys that, unlike their female colleagues, they’d probably just need a light powder when on camera.

”‘Except for you,’” McLean remembers her telling him. “‘Your pale complexion means you’ll probably need a bit of bronzer on top of the powder.’”

From left to right: Jenny May-Clarkson, Matty McLean, John Campbell, Indira Stewart. All in makeup. (Photo: Screenshot)

McLean took the advice seriously. He bought a pack of bronzer wipes from the supermarket, went back to class, and started wiping his face. “After a while, I thought, ‘I’m not seeing anything, but oh well, screw it. I’ll just go in and start shooting.’”

“In the space of five minutes, he transformed from being this super pasty 19 year old into a little Donald Trump,” remembers Tame. To make matters worse, because the liquid on the bronzing wipe was clear, it was hard to tell if McLean had evenly spread it. “He forgot to bronze his eyelids. So every time he blinked, you’d get this real shock of two super pale eyelids flashing in the middle of a bright orange face.”

If you’ve ever used bronzer, or watched that one episode of Friends, you know it got worse from there. McLean spent hours trying to get it off, and was even darker the next day. Now he sees it as a valuable learning experience. “I’d like to think that it’s gotten better over time,” McLean says. “Both my experience and the ease with which I use makeup.”

Tame hasn’t worn makeup outside of work, largely because it hasn’t crossed his mind as a possibility. “I think that I’ll go to quite a lot of effort to find clothes that I like, to dress up nicely, to shave, trim back my eyebrows and put product in my hair. Wearing makeup is only an extension of that.

“I think about the rugby players who are wearing makeup and that sort of thing now, and it doesn’t really make most of us bat a heavily mascaraed eyelid, but I’m just not sure that it’s something I would spend time doing.”

McLean’s relationship with makeup, on the other hand, has changed over the years. He even wore nail polish for the first time just the other day. “I’ve become more comfortable with the fact that it’s fine,” he says. “It’s fine if you want to wear makeup, if you want to accentuate your eyes with a little bit of mascara, just go for gold. Do whatever makes you happy.”


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A post shared by Ivanna Drink (@ivannadrink) 

Ivanna Drink, one of the regular drag performers at K’ Road’s legendary Caluzzi Bar, started using makeup to even out her oily complexion long before she started doing drag. “It was only when I got into drag about seven years ago that I stopped using that foundation because I got more comfortable in my own skin.”

Since then, she’s picked up all the things that go into drag makeup – how to change an eye shape or conceal eyebrows, for example – and generally feminise a masculine face. “It was a mixture of YouTube and just talking with other people, other drag queens and makeup artists and seeing how other people did their own stuff.”

If you’ve watched a drag show you probably know that performing in drag doesn’t come cheap. To meet the high standards set by the hit show RuPaul’s Drag Race can cost a performer thousands of dollars in clothing, wigs and other paraphernalia.

Surprisingly, makeup isn’t a huge cost factor. Ivanna estimates it only took a few hundred dollars to set up her kit. “Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it,” she says, “You really don’t go through as much as you’d think. Foundation sticks generally last half a year. It just depends on how much you do drag, really.

“I’ve got a contour stick that I’ve had since I started drag seven years ago,” she admits.

For Ivanna, makeup is self-expression as much as it is a transformative tool. “It’s definitely very empowering and a big boost to my confidence and self-esteem,” she says. “I look completely different before makeup and after makeup, so it’s like transforming into a new person.

“It’s fun! It brings out essentially an alter ego in myself.”

Expect to see this a lot while you’re playing Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. (Photo: Ubisoft)

What about the men who… just want to wear makeup? Those who aren’t in the beauty industry, who don’t have to appear on TV, or perform as an alter-ego onstage?

Brian MacDonald, a media and communications advisor from Wellington, was inspired to wear makeup by the video game Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, which is set during the Viking expansion into the British Isles. He says his first foray into makeup was simply because he thought it’d be cool to wear similar war paint.

“That only lasted a couple of days – it was a tad excessive for everyday use once it became clear that Covid-19 wasn’t an actual apocalypse,” he says. “But I liked the way that eyeliner looked so kept going with that.”

Nowadays MacDoanld usually applies only a light touch of charcoal grey eyeliner, maybe a bit of eyeshadow if the mood takes him. “Sometimes, if I’ve got a spot or something, I’ll stick on some concealer just to tone it down.

“It’s not that complicated, unless my hand slips and I poke myself in the eye or end up looking like The Crow.”

People comment on his look quite rarely – usually only if he’s gone a bit heavier than normal – and nobody’s ever mentioned the concealer. The makeup makes MacDonald feel good – he had some persistent spots as a kid, so hiding blemishes when they pop up is something he wishes he’d been able to do then, and he enjoys making the edges of his eyes a bit darker.

“It’s the same reason you wear a cool jacket or a ring or whatever; it’s just another cosmetic.”

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