SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - Cho Won-hyuk stands in front ofhis bedroom mirror and spreads dollops of yellow-brown makeup over hisforehead, nose, chin and cheeks until his skin is flawless. Then he goesto work with a black pencil, highlighting his eyebrows until they'rethicker, bolder.
"Having a clean, neat face makes you looksophisticated and creates an image that you can handle yourself well,"the 24-year-old college student said. "Your appearance matters, so when Iwear makeup on special occasions, it makes me more confident."
Cho'smeticulous efforts to paint the perfect face are not unusual in SouthKorea. This socially conservative, male-dominated country, with amandatory two-year military conscription for men, has become the malemakeup capital of the world.
South Korean men spent $495.5 millionon skincare last year, accounting for nearly 21 percent of globalsales, according to global market research firm EuromonitorInternational. That makes it the largest market for men's skincare inthe world, even though there are only about 19 million men in SouthKorea. Amorepacific, South Korea's biggest cosmetics company, estimatesthe total sales of men's cosmetics in South Korea this year will be morethan $885 million.
The metamorphosis of South Korean men frommacho to makeup over the last decade or so can be partly explained byfierce competition for jobs, advancement and romance in a society where,as a popular catchphrase puts it, "appearance is power." Women alsohave a growing expectation that men will take the time and effort topamper their skin.
Evidence of this new direction in South Koreanmasculinity is easy to find. In a crowded Seoul cafe, a young womantakes some lipstick out of her purse and casually applies it to her malecompanion's lips as they talk. At an upscale apartment building, a malesecurity guard watches the lobby from behind a layer of makeup. KoreanAir holds once-a-year makeup classes for male flight attendants.
"Ican understand why girls don't like to go outside without makeup - itmakes a big difference," said Cho Gil-nam, a tall, stocky 27-year-oldinsurance fraud investigator in Seoul who starts important days bydabbing on makeup after finishing his multistep morning cleansing andmoisturizing routine. He carries a multicolored cosmetics pouch so hecan touch up in public bathrooms throughout the day.
While U.S.cosmetics companies report growing sales in male cosmetics, American menare often wary of makeup. "Men Wearing Makeup a Disturbing Trend" washow American columnist Jim Shea titled a recent post.
In SouthKorea, however, effeminate male beauty is "a marker of social success,"according to Roald Maliangkay, head of Korean studies at AustralianNational University.
Amorepacific Corp. offers 17 men's brands,with dozens of products to choose from, and operates two Manstudiostores in Seoul that are devoted to men's skincare and makeup.
SouthKorean men are barraged daily with messages in popular media suggestingthat flawless skin is a crucial part of any plan to get ahead at workand romance.
"In this society, people's first impressions are veryimportant. A man's skin is a big part of that impression, so I takecare of my skin," said Kim Deuk-ryong, a 20-year-old student.
It wasn't always this way. The ideal South Korean man used to be rough and tough.
Thingsbegan to change in the late 1990s, when the South Korean governmentrelaxed a ban on Japanese cultural goods, exposing South Koreans todifferent ideas on male beauty, including popular comics featuringpretty, effeminate men.
James Turnbull, a writer and lecturer onKorean feminism, sexuality and popular culture, said the economic crisisthat hit South Korea in 1997 and 1998 also played a role in shiftingthinking. Struggling companies often fired their female employees first,angering women who had already seen their push for equal rights take abackseat to protest movements against Japanese colonizers and theautocratic governments that followed.
"The times were ripe for asea-change in the popular images of men in the media," Turnbull said.Women, as a result, began questioning the kinds of men society told themthey should find attractive.
In 2002, large numbers wereattracted to a hero of South Korea's World Cup soccer team, AhnJung-hwan, who became a leading member of the so-called "flower men" - agroup of exceptionally good-looking, smooth-skinned, fashionable sportsstars and celebrities who found great success selling male cosmetics.Men everywhere began striving to look like them, with the encouragementof the women around them, and a trend was born.
A decade later, ads featuring handsome, heavily made-up male celebrities are an unavoidable part of the urban scenery.
KimJong-hoon, a 27-year-old tech industry worker in Paju, said the endlessmedia exposure to famous men with perfect skin helped steer hisprogression from soap and water to an elaborate regime that includes asmany as eight steps, from cleanser to eye cream and lotion to a smallamount of makeup powder.
"My skin wasn't bad, but themedia constantly sends the message that skin is one of the mostimportant things, so I wanted to take care of it," Kim said.
Once an oddity, men using makeup is now commonplace.
It's also a good source of conversation, said Kim Ae-kyung, 35, a female office worker.
"I feel like I have more to talk about with guys who use makeup - we have more in common," Kim said.