In March of 2019, 17-year-old Elliot Ceretti walked into his local convenience store with a couple of friends. He had been re-watching the 10th season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and one of the show’s drag queens, Aquaria, had inspired an unfamiliar but exciting longing in Ceretti.
He loaded his basket with the cheapest makeup products he could find, and a glue stick to glue down his brows. When he got home that night, he waited until his mother and sister were asleep and locked himself in the bathroom, applying makeup like he had seen on the show. That night, he brought Ella Souflee, his drag persona, to life for the first time.
He went on like this for four months, sneaking into the bathroom after lights out to become Ella Souflee, until one day his mother walked into his room while he was in drag. She was surprised, but supportive, and in June Ceretti started a public Instagram account to showcase his looks.
“Instagram was and still is the only way for me to talk and share this with others like me,” Ceretti tells me. “We all support each other and lift each other up because it’s rare to get such a response from anyone outside of our community, so we have to take on that role and celebrate what we do for ourselves.”
Even in an era of increasingly progressive views of gender and sexuality, boys who wear makeup fear public ridicule and rejection. Like Ceretti, they cannot be sure their families will be supportive. There’s little evidence that the mainstream beauty community will be supportive, either.
Of the combined 19 beauty editorials and advertisements in the summer 2020 issues of Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar, for instance, not a single one features a male or (out) non-binary model. Harper’s Bazaar featured one male expert in its beauty section — in a small sidebar on hair care.
Or take the Sephora at Jersey City’s Newport mall, home to legacy brands such as Dior and Charlotte Tilbury. Before the lockdown, a couple of laps around the store wouldn’t yield a single advertisement featuring a male model, not even in the Milk Makeup section, despite the fact that the brand released a pointedly gender-neutral advertisement in 2017.
The cosmetics industry should look much different than it does today. In 2016, James Charles, at 17, became CoverGirl’s first male model. The move seemed to signify a dramatic change in the mainstream perception of cosmetics. The next year, Maybelline partnered with the male makeup artist Manny MUA. In 2018, Bretman Rock, 19 at the time, designed collections with ColourPop and Morphe, which bolstered its 2017 launch by collaborating with male beauty vloggers including Manny MUA, James Charles, and Jeffree Star. Star has his own brand, Jeffree Star Cosmetics, which routinely features male models.
Since then, legacy brands have taken small but perceptible steps towards inclusivity. A chart mapping the shade range of Tarte’s Shape Tape foundation features one male model in a lineup of women’s faces. In 2019, the actor Ezra Miller appeared in Urban Decay’s “Pretty Different” campaign alongside the musician Lizzo.
The industry eventually lost its momentum, though, and the result is a strange dissonance between what we see on privately run social media accounts – a booming community with millions of followers between Instagram and YouTube – and the advertisements run by many legacy cosmetics corporations. Cosmetic brands saw an opportunity to profit from the excitement and the novelty around the emergence of beauty boys. Once the initial buzz died down, however, many brands lost interest. Instead of welcoming them into their regular rotation of models, most brands dismissed beauty boys (and gender-inclusive marketing) as a passing fad.
But men wearing makeup is not a new idea: in the 17th century, men wore makeup and dressed as women during performances of Shakespeare’s plays. In Georgian England, aristocratic men wore voluminous wigs, paled their complexions with white powder, and painted their cheeks and lips with rouge. Drag probably emerged as an art form in the 1890s, when William Dorsey Swann, a former slave and early gay rights activist, began holding drag balls. Even 20th-century vaudeville performances featured so-called female impersonators.
But while these men performed femininity as caricature or parody, Instagram and YouTube’s beauty influencers have shifted that paradigm in the last decade. By publicly declaring that wearing makeup can be an aspect of their daily lives, the young men who populate and follow Instagram and YouTube’s beauty community have become even more subversive than RuPaul’s drag queens.
“I try to push the rules of makeup to show how it isn’t to cover yourself up. I like to think of it as a way to bring yourself out,” says Adam Marshall, a 17-year-old aspiring makeup artist. “I don’t want to change facial features; I just want to enhance and display them.”
The online beauty boys community has chipped away at the taboo against men wearing makeup, mostly without support or publicity from major cosmetics companies. Social media held the door open for LGBTQ+ teens, from Nikita Dragun to Bretman Rock, who were done waiting for mainstream cosmetics brands to recognize them.
“These MUAs [makeup artists] are now household names and they haven’t had to rely on cosmetics brands to give them their platforms,” Cerretti says. Out in the real world, though, without curated posts and fawning followers, the welcome hasn’t been quite as warm.
“I feel uncomfortable in [cosmetics] stores. I see women glancing over and thinking that I have no clue what I’m doing and that I’m out of my depth, which is a shame when it should be a place where I can be in my element. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another male buying makeup,” says Bailey, a 17-year-old aspiring drag queen from the UK, who asked that his last name not be used. “Makeup ads don’t represent me. Males are rare in the posters. A drag queen would be one in a million to see in a mainstream store. But I don’t just want how I wear makeup to be used as a cheap marketing ploy.”
The lack of representation at upscale beauty brands is starting to feel pointed, but the truth is undeniable: teenage boys armed with Instagram accounts have queered the cosmetics industry. Both Marshall and Bailey told me they don’t think wearing makeup is feminine or masculine. Their perception of the self exists outside the restrictions of gender, and that gives them real freedom to create and re-create their identities as often as they want.
“For men, every time you put makeup on it’s a political movement, showing that it’s not taboo, that it’s normal and shouldn’t be looked at twice,” Ceretti says. “Putting on makeup for a man is breaking down gender norms. It may seem like a bit of concealer or a pit of powder but it’s changing the way people look at gender.”