Male beauty advisers at the counter

In an industry where women dominate, the male gender can sometimes give them an edge; at other times, it can increase the pressure on them to perform.

 |  LOU Qiqin


By LOU Qiqin


At around 1:00 p.m. on a weekday, the white collar workers who come to the department store during their lunch breaks  have just cleared out.  It is the quietest moment of the day. All beauty advisors at the first-floor cosmetic counters — both male and female are finally able to catch their breaths.

For BA, Kelvin, it’s time for a touchup. After spending the morning under the counter’s hot spotlight, his forehead glistened with a light coating of oil and sweat. Kelvin finds a spot against the brand LOGO mirror, and he uses an oil-absorbing paper, loose powder and an eyebrow pencil to adjust his makeup. He then quickly puts the packet back under the counter. His movements are cat-like.  A few minutes are enough.

Male beauty advisers have been wearing makeup since they started in the industry.  Kelvin is 31 years old now, and he has worked as a male beauty adviser for 13 years. At the very beginning, he put on makeup because the brand he worked for requested that he do so.  Regardless of whether a BA is male or female, when you are at the counter, the company instructed, you will at least wear a foundation. Now, Kelvin puts on makeup for his performance. After all, he sells skin care products and cosmetics. “The more exquisite I appear, the more convincing my words are,” he says.

Kelvin’s makeup is light, compared with his female colleagues at the same counter, or the young boys from the competitive brands. Usually, he only puts on foundation, concealer, and fills in his eyebrows. Recently, he began to highlight his nose and brow because the brand he works for released a new highlight palette.

He has tried to put on the so-called “mermaid” makeup, which is the pink, sparkling eye makeup that the new employees wear in talent and variety shows. This is very popular among young male beauty advisers.  Yet for once, he follows his wife’s advice. “It is immature to put on eye shadow for a man at your age, she said, “not to mention the pink color.”

Kelvin is a little anxious. He is worried that he will be overlooked as more men come into the profession. “When I entered the industry, there were merely a few male BA’s in the mall, but these days, some counters only want to recruit male beauty advisers,” he says.

Gender edge

WEN Dong is 36 years old. He majored in tourism at university and has first worked as a tour guide and shopping guide for boutique clothing brands. Eight years ago, he became a male beauty adviser.

He heard about the job from a friend, who is also a male beauty adviser. At the time, the brand was interested in hiring only male BA’s.

The numbers of male salespeople for clothing and jewelry had just started growing, and the male beauty adviser was rare.

Even the concept of men consuming beauty products was unusual.  Back then, talent shows such as “Good Men” and “Happy Boys” expanded the definition of the word “beauty,” which used to belong to women.  Slowly, the concept of male beauty advisers gained traction in the minds of the Chinese public. The logic was simple.  If male models can attract female fans in the business world, perhaps male shopping guides, especially good-looking ones, could attract female customers.  Soon, it became commonplace to find a male BA behind the department store counter.

This phenomenon is related to the increasing income, stronger consumption power, and higher social status of women. Men, a group that used to be “pleased” by women in the past, are now increasingly involved in the industry of pleasing women.  From hairdressing and makeup, to clothing and jewelry — even underwear, all these industries were once dominated by women, and men stayed at a respectful distance away because of tradition and social constraints.

Of course, this phenomenon is also inseparable from the dominant “male-centered aesthetic” in society nowadays. In all beauty industries, although women are the targeted consumers, a large part of the reason behind their demand for beauty is that they want to cater to male-centered aesthetics. This makes it easier for a male practitioner to gain the trust of a female customer.

Wen Dong agrees with the theory of “sexual attraction” to some extent. His female colleagues are prone to complaints from female customers, but he has never gotten a complaint. It is easier for him to convince the female customers, because he shares his advice from the male perspective.

Still, the longer Wen Dong works in the beauty industry, the more he believes that the “unspoken rules” are just the same as those of other industries. Makeup brands also value ​​the “gender edge” of men.  Men are typically physically stronger; they will not have to take leave for pregnancy; and in a society where customary gender division of labour is followed, fewer male employees will ask for leave for family reasons.

Being a salesperson at the counter is actually manual labour.

In general, working at the counter follows the rules of “two shifts” and a “single weekend.” The morning and evening shifts generally last for 7 hours. Working entails standing at the counter which is a hard on one’s feet.  In addition, it’s normal to have to take on spontaneous overtime work during peak sales seasons. If a salesperson works at a counter, performs well and is highly valued, then he or she will likely receive an invitation to lead the opening of a new store.

If he had to name a male’s advantage in this industry, Wen Dong thinks it may be that society doesn’t judge men’s age and appearance as they grow older as harshly as it does a woman’s aging process.

There is rarely a long-term female beauty adviser at cosmetic counters. Most of them leave on their own initiative, and some will be dismissed by managers. One of the important reasons is that their age and appearance no longer invites people to experiment with the beauty product.

At the counter where Wen Dong works, there is only one female colleague close to his age. Recently, this colleague failed in an effort to sell an expensive product.  Her own face suffered with age spots.  The customer pointed out, “with access to such an expensive product, you still have spots and wrinkles on your face.”  She had no effective retort.

A job for the young

Dylan, who just graduated from college one year ago, has not experienced this phenomena. On the contrary, he has been rebuffed because he is male.

He was once rejected by an elderly female customer directly, and she requested to be served by a female beauty advisor. Most of the young female customers don’t mind his service, but it is hard to say whether their boyfriends mind or not. He has become accustomed to being stared at by their boyfriends.

In this job, it’s critical to make the customers accept, trust, and even like you in a short time. The brand gives them training regularly, teaching some sales talk and routine practices. However, in practice, it all depends on an individual’s connection with the customer.

Aside from all the conventional methods, the male beauty advisers will make progress in sales by taking on the role of a female customer’s “male bestie” or their professional heterosexual makeup artists.

For the elderly customers, being more professional means being more convincing. As for young female customers, the male beauty advisers need to be able to talk about gossip and hot topics.  After all, the key opinion leaders in beauty teach consumers about the beauty and skin care industry and specific products.  This allows the average customer to come prepared with a clear goal. Therefore, an excellent male beauty adviser only needs to leave a good impression on the customers to close the deal.

Kelvin and Wen Dong are already “skilled salespeople.” They have passed through the stage of trying to meet specific sales goals. After a long period of work, they have accumulated more loyal customers so that they will bring in strong sales numbers.  But many people do not succeed in the profession.  Another male BA who entered the industry the same time as Wen Dong chose to leave in the fifth year. Wen Dong thinks that it was perhaps because he became a father and was anxious to raise a family.

The makeup and cosmetics business is increasingly serious and full of fierce rivalry. Colleagues at the same counter contend for customers. They also face competition from other shopping representatives and even e-commerce.

In the 1990s, a cosmetic beauty adviser earned a monthly salary of over RMB 10,000 (around $1400) and could drive a Volkswagen Santana to work. This attracted many people to the industry. However, in the past few years, salespeople at cosmetic counters in main shopping malls in the first and second tier cities only earned a monthly salary of several thousand yuan — less than 10,000 yuan. These days, salespeople earn a monthly salary of 15,000 to 16,000 yuan only when some famous brand enters peak seasons.

Therefore, if there is an opportunity for promotion -- some senior male salespeople go to the brand headquarters as training instructors. Even though the income of the new position is no more than the salary they earn when they work as salespeople at the front line, at least it is not a toil. It is a nine-to-five work, and they can finally enjoy weekends and holidays.

Many people believe that being a male beauty adviser leads to a dim future.  The earning ceiling coupled with the difference between the professional characteristics and the expectations of the society for men, has left many people around Dylan biased against his career choice. Fortunately, he has a good reason.  He majored in cosmetic marketing and management at university, so any job in cosmetic sales fits his professional goals.

Why staying?

Everything is in Dylan’s plan currently.  Having been interested in beauty products since childhood, he is always eager to do a job related to cosmetics.

He chose to start his career as a male beauty adviser voluntarily. Once he knew this was his chosen profession, he began taking his mother shopping from time to time, and tried to educate his family about the industry.  He often told his mother that he felt male beauty advisers were handsome. Finally, being a beauty adviser allowed Dylan to unabashedly dress himself up in a glamorous manner.

By comparison, it was a total coincidence that YUAN Chenfeng, who majored in art, became a male beauty adviser.

In 2011, he decided to participate in a competition to find the “Dream Team of Male Makeup Artists” held by Za, a Shiseido Group brand. Yuan passed with flying colors. Despite his lack of makeup experience, his experience with painting gouache and his sensitivity to color set him apart. Later, after a series of trainings in Japan, provided by Shiseido, he became a makeup artist who was able to work independently. He has also served some other brands. At present, he serves as one of the makeup artists for a new makeup line under Shiseido. His daily work is to help customers test the products at the counter. In addition, he will also go to different cities and different shopping malls to give makeup tutorial on behalf of the company.

From a layman to a professional, Yuan Chengfeng has worked in the industry for eight years. He only keeps in mind those happy memories. For example, a customer once told him that her husband, who hardly gave compliments, praised her appearance when she returned from a makeover with Yuan. There were customers who insisted they only wanted to purchase cosmetics through him — even if they found them abroad.  Yuan is most proud; however, of the fact that he did his sister’s wedding makeup. That made him feel on top of the world.

Wen Dong and Dylan also have the similar feelings.

Wen Dong has now become the “makeup foundation master” at his counter. He says this is not a title of his own making, but one which the brand gave him.  Before receiving this title, Wen Dong arrived at work at least one hour early every day.  He practiced on his own face, and then put makeup on all his colleagues. At the very beginning, he didn’t know how to adjust the strength and the angle of the brush on the face, so his colleagues’ faces were always getting hurt. One day, all of his colleagues finally told him, “You’ve finally mastered it.  Your makeup is great, and the process of application, comfortable.”

Dylan has made a lot of new friends, most of whom are close to his age. From the perspective of work, these customers tend to have less purchasing power so that the time he spends with them may not be financially worthwhile. However, he is willing to chat with these customers, and sometimes he honestly confides his pressure to them because they encourage him.

“They are so sweet,  They always cheer me up and promise to come back to me.”