Few people know more about the rise of the well-groomed man than Mark Simpson. Described as ‘the world’s most perceptive writer about masculinity’ and the person credited with coining the term ‘metrosexuality’ (something that’s gained him praise and opprobrium in almost equal amounts), like me he’s lived through what amounts to a revolution in how men relate to their appearance. His lastest book Metrosexy: A 21st Century Love Story has just been released, providing me with the perfect opportunity to speak to him about how men’s interest in grooming (or beauty* as ardent Simpsonistas would have it) has burgeoned over the last twenty years as well as to take a more intimate peek into his own personal regime…
GG: You and I are pretty much contemporaries and we both saw the beginnings of the grooming boom in this country. Having written my first article on male grooming back in 1985 I feel a bit like I was there at the birth and the graduation! Can you isolate one pivotal moment when taking care of their appearance suddenly became a totally acceptable pursuit for men?
MS: Well of course the youth cults of 70s Glam Rock and early 80s New Romanticism – which I believe you were pretty part of, Mr Kynaston: I’ve seen the kabuki photographic evidence – played a big role in telling men it was OK to be Prince Charming. That ridicule, in the immortal words of Adam Ant was ‘nothing to be scared of.’
But much more globally important was… Top Gun. The Tom Cruise cold-war fly-boy movie directed by Tony Scott in the style of a pop promo which came out in 1985, the year you started writing about male grooming.
After all, it’s a block-buster movie about male hair gel. Pretty much all the men in that film look fabulous, darling – even when they take their helmets off after a long, hot, sweaty dogfight. The famous volleyball sequence and long, lingering locker-room scenes also introduced a generation of young men to the delights of working out.
Despite being quite possibly The Gayest Movie Ever, Top Gun, an all-boys’ action movie, gave a generation of young straight men permission to take care over their appearance. It presented male narcissism as traditional, Republican, and patriotic. The young Tom Cruise as an All-American glamour boy.
GG: Is the rise of male grooming/beauty simply a reflection of men’s desire to be desired? Or is the availability and acceptance of grooming/beauty products driving narcissism?
MS: There’s a feedback loop between the two. On the one hand consumerism wants men to buy product – it effectively doubles the potential market for cosmetics. On the other hand… it turns out that men don’t need much persuading. Or much permission. Their desire to be desired, especially in an increasingly visual, Facebooked, webcam culture like ours, turns out to be pretty insatiable when given half a chance. So we’ve seen a kind of exponential growth in men’s interest in products that get them noticed. I mean, just a few years ago the working class orange male poseurs of ‘Geordie Shore’ would have been unthinkable, except perhaps as gay stereotypes….
GG: What’s your favourite men’s fragrance and why?
MS: To be honest, I don’t like men’s fragrances. At least on me. I like them all for about five minutes but then I get sick of them. On other men I like old stalwarts like Acqua di Gio. Even Aramis. And Jean-Paul Gaultier. Stuff like Brut or Old Spice was crap when I was a kid and is still crap, despite big recent marketing pushes. Irony doesn’t smell so good.
MS: My Phillips SensoTouch electric razor. I’m terrified of growing, even accidentally, one of those fashionable Soho beards. Wet shaving brings me out in a rash. The SensoTouch, in addition to looking like something you’d find in Darth Vader’s bathroom cabinet, is the next closest thing to a wet-shave – but with zero irritation.
GG: Ball-shaving, hair transplants, guyliner. All were once considered rather exotic but aren’t any more. Are there any taboos left in terms of male grooming/beauty?
MS: I remember that when women started having Botox injections it was said that men would never have them. And then when men started having them it was said they’ll never have them on the forehead. And now men are having them on their forehead.
It’s pretty clear that pretty much everything – with the possible exception of vajazzling – that women have used to enhance their attractiveness will eventually be taken up by men. (There is such a thing as a Pejazzle, of course, with Vajazzle.me.uk claiming 40% of customers are men. GG)
In the meantime however you see cosmetics manufacturers going to frankly camp extremes in trying to reassure the few (mostly middle aged) men who are holding out against metrosexuality that using moisturiser or deodorant is a really, really masculine, utterly butch thing to do. And not at all gay. Which is very good news for Gerard Butler and Eric Cantona’s agents.
GG: Describe your own morning grooming/beauty routine.
MS: It’s less a grooming routine these days – more damage limitation exercise. I rise and stumble into the shower. Where I remain for as long as I possibly can. I use Nizoral shampoo because I’m balding and studies suggest it can help slow that process. I use a buff-puff even though it makes me feel vaguely ridiculous because I’ve found it best for getting rid of dead skin, which I have a lot of, and unclogging pores, which I also have a lot of. Then I shave with my electric razor. I don’t use moisturiser, because I have rosacea, which gives you a big red face unless you use a prescription gel which I apply after my shave.
MS: Probably a 9-10. I’m very Graeco-Roman in regard to body hair. Shave it off, I say. Show off the musculature – and add an inch where it counts. But also, in the words of the ‘YMCA’ song, get yourself clean. Which I don’t think you can do too easily if you’re hairy. In fact, I think they should bring back strigils, the curved metal scrapers Romans had their slaves use on them in their bath-houses.
GG: Make up for men has pretty much been a flop in commercial terms with many companies who launched products having since discontinued them. Why do you think this is when things like manscaping and even eyebrow shaping have taken off?
MS: Oh, I suspect male make-up will make a comeback in the near future. I hear it’s already been a success in the Asian market. After all, make-up is just another, more ‘in-yer-face’ form of cosmetics – and even good old Gillette shaving gel is choc full of cosmetics these days.
The problem though for men’s make-up and the reason why most men in the West are still holding out against it is that it isn’t something you can deny. Most other male cosmetics come with the alibi that no, you haven’t fake-baked you’ve just been working in the garden a lot….
The problem for men is that while they are increasingly expected to and indeed want to look good, unlike women they often feel they have to go about it semi-secretly. They need to be beautiful but they should also feel slightly ashamed about it. There’s a double standard about male beauty now. Men are expected to look fabulous, but pretend that they haven’t tried ‘too hard’. Make-up is currently defined as ‘trying too hard’.
On the other hand, Russell Brand gets away with it all the time.
GG: Many commentators complain that men are ‘becoming more like women’ with their grooming/beauty regimes. What would you say to this?
MS: I think it’s more a case of men no longer tying one hand behind their backs when it comes to the increasingly important business – both in private and public life – of looking good. Happily married Lord Sugar, for example, sometimes seems to display a weakness for an attractive, nicely turned-out male candidate. And of course, more and more bosses are female.
Instead of men becoming ‘more like women’ what we’re seeing is men being less inhibited in their behaviour by worries about what’s ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, ‘gay’ and ‘straight’. In much the same way that women have been since the feminist revolution of the 1970s. Likewise, ‘male beauty’ is no longer a completely verboten conjugation that has to always be euphemised with ‘male grooming’.
Basically it’s the end of the Victorian division of bedroom and bathroom labour that persisted for most of the 20th Century. Men want to be beautiful and sensual too now. And no one, even bitchy commentators, is going to stop them.
GG: Finally, who are your top three best-groomed men?
MS: David Beckham (now that he has dropped that Das Boot beard). Andrej Pejic. And my dad.
metrosexy is out now on Kindle. For more info click here.
For more information on Mark go to www.marksimpson.com. You can follow Mark on Twitter @marksimpsonist
* Note: I don’t have a problem with the term ‘male beauty’ at all but do believe that had ‘male grooming’ been called ‘male beauty’ all these years the uptake would have been much, much slower. I’ve spent a decade at the coal face of the industry, encouraging men – in a very practical way – to take an interest in their appearance and whilst I know male ‘grooming’ is an artificial construct to give beauty a butch face I also know it has allowed metrosexuality to flourish in a way male ‘beauty’ never would have. It may be beauty by the back door but that’s fine by me. As long as men’s interest in their appearance continues I don’t care! GG