China’s male beauty vloggers go viral as gender attitudes shift

An experiment with eyebrow pencil and a bit of Givenchy foundation two years ago hooked Song Yewen on the world of makeup. 

Now, the 21-year-old beauty vlogger is defying traditional Chinese gender norms on a mission to make his audience to feel as empowered as he does: “I feel good about myself when I wear makeup – I feel confident.”

Mr Song livestreams and posts makeup tips and tricks to his 1.5 million online followers across China several times a week, one of a spate of male beauty vloggers in China who represent a growing shift in gender attitudes. 

Their popularity is leading a boom in China’s male cosmetics market, estimated to grow to 20 per cent over the next four years to a whopping $2.4 billion in 2022, according to Euromonitor, a market research firm.

It’s also paving the way for more young Chinese men to experiment with gender-bending makeup and clothes, in a culture with a long history of swaggering, masculine stereotypes, and where the trope of the ancient male emperor with multiple wives is still going strong.

Even in 2018, parents can enroll young sons in training camps to teach them to be tough and manly. Single men looking to marry face pressure to fit certain norms – be the breadwinner and own property; multiple houses are a plus.

The change in gender ideals, vloggers told the Telegraph, has been influenced by South Korean pop culture, where male celebrities and boy bands have popularised a softer, effeminate look.

Mr Song’s online makeup tutorials always start with a bare-faced Mr Song, walking viewers through the pros and cons of different products – everything from contouring powders to lemon-flavoured toothpaste – often with upbeat music blasting in the background.

With Chinese celebrities and regular boy-next-door types adopting a more delicate appearance, the fad has its own slang – xiaoxianrou, or “little fresh meat.”

“Sometimes my sister asks me to teacher her little tricks,” laughed Zhang Wu’er, 24, another beauty vlogger. “My make-up skills are better than hers.”

As a music performance student, Mr Zhang was first exposed to cosmetics in a course on stage makeup. Now, he wears some light product whenever he goes out, and thinks men shouldn’t be ridiculed for wanting to take care of their appearance.

Wang Zilu, 22, has used makeup for three years – hooked after realising how just a little could “change the shape of your eyebrows, the style of your lips”.

He learned via other vloggers before starting a social media account to post his own before-and-after videos.

“The first time I put on makeup, it took me an entire afternoon,” he recalled. “The most difficult part was eye shadow – how to mix and match different colours without making it ugly.”

Makeup, for some, has gone from a fun hobby to a lucrative lifeline – China’s most popular beauty vloggers reportedly can pull in as much as 10 million yuan a year (£1.2 million).

One of the most well-known, Fang Junping, reviews products regularly for his seven million followers and pulls in extra bucks by touting his eponymous skincare line, Junping. Mr Fang couldn’t be reached for comment.

For Mr Song, sharing his video tutorials and working as a brand ambassador is a part-time gig that brings in about 20,000 yuan (£2,300) a month, which he uses to support his university studies in traditional Chinese medicine.

But even with more young Chinese men trying out a bit of blush, not everyone’s used to it just yet.

“Sometimes people judge me, a guy, for putting on makeup; I would go, ‘So what?’” said Mr Song. “I don’t pay much attention to what others say!”