Last week, cosmetics brand CoverGirl unveiled its first cover boy: James Charles is a 17-year-old high schooler in New York. In the year since he started his Instagram account, Charles has amassed 643,000 followers who eat up his wildly creative makeup looks.

And he’s not alone. A growing number of male bloggers are now holding court before millions of beauty obsessives across social media, gender norms be damned. Jeffree Star, a former MySpace it-boy, regularly sells out of his signature lipsticks. Meanwhile, makeup artists Manny Gutierrez and Patrick Simondac command loyal fandoms that, combined, add up to 5.2 million on Instagram alone.

While there have always been men in the industry (makeup artists Kevyn Aucoin and Wayne Goss did pioneering work in the 1990s), this new generation has found a massive audience online.

U.K. teenager Lewys Ball first got interested in beauty at 14 but only found how-to videos made for and by girls. There weren’t many boys like him around. Indeed, his first trip to the drugstore Boots was a nerve-wracking experience.

“I was so embarrassed I didn’t even look at shades for anything and just picked the first products I had seen YouTubers talk about,” he said. Last year, he started making beauty videos on his own. Gradually, he found his voice online. This year, he said, has been a “great year” for male beauty — and the attendant brand partnerships.

“So many amazing and talented people have been recognized for their makeup skills and have had huge brand success with some really impressive collaborations,” he said. “I think brands have realized that makeup isn’t just for girls; it’s for everyone.”

With over 86,000 subscribers, the 17-year-old recently signed to Gleam Futures, the talent agency that represents the U.K.’s biggest influencers, including Zoella and Jim Chapman. He’s done numerous collaborations with brands like Sephora on YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat.

“I think the space for male influencers in the beauty industry is vastly growing really fast and, with that, so is the competition within the industry. I feel that it is so different and unique to see a boy wearing makeup on social media, and this is why everyone is taking more notice of us now,” said another influencer, Marc Zapanta, a university student who has been making videos for two years.

‘A clever move’
Dominic Smales, CEO of Gleam, said androgynous young influencers like Ball and Zapanta are notable as they are breaking through the crowded beauty space. “Their audiences are growing and becoming more engaged. [CoverGirl’s] was a clever move and one that has drawn a lot of attention across the industry. We expect other brands to follow suit.”

Gen Z, the group that comes after millennials, takes up the attention and budgets of many beauty marketers. This demographic is more gender-fluid than any previous generation: 81 percent say gender doesn’t define a person like it used to, while 56 percent know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns like “they.”

Before CoverGirl’s announcement, L’Oréal Paris tapped U.K. blogger The Plastic Boy (Gary Thompson) in its campaign for TrueMatch foundation. Meanwhile, Benefit, Sephora, Tarte, Maybelline and others have been ramping up their work with male bloggers on and off social media.

“The championing of diversity in the beauty industry is not necessarily a new frontier,” said Sam Pierce, who heads up Ogilvy’s LGBT-focused brand consultancy.

“You now see brands using LGBT individuals as brand ambassadors in ways that could not have been imagined 10 years ago. That’s not to say that controversy has gone away, but using LGBT influencers as a ‘token’ is no longer the norm,” Pierce added.

The holdouts
Not everyone is on board. Tammy Smulders, global managing director at Havas LuxHub, says cosmetics companies are locked in a game of one-upmanship over who can be the most progressive and innovative: areas that attract accolades and column inches. As far as male influencers go, Smulders doesn’t expect more spokespeople like James Charles. Beauty customers are looking to someone they can emulate, “and a male would not necessarily fill that role,” she said.

“My research shows that men are taking more interest in their appearance and grooming, but that’s not extending to color. Men wearing color is still a tiny base of people,” she added.

It is not clear exactly how many men buy and wear makeup. While there are reams of data around the booming grooming market (and the rise of “manscaping”) there’s less about those venturing into color. However, male-centric products exist, as do male-centric brands like MMUK (and South Korea is leading the charge here).

Jake-Jamie, aka The Beauty Boy, is the blogger behind the viral #MakeupIsGenderless campaign. According to him, advertisements featuring only women make many men uncomfortable about using cosmetics and going public with it.

“It’s 2016 — we live in a very modern world. A huge amount of men are wearing makeup and have done for years, but it’s like a private members club that everybody seems to keep top secret!”

2016’s BIGGEST trend right now – No Make-up, Make-up! Just discovered the @iconic.london Cream Contour Kit, it allows me to add shade and dimension to my face in the most natural, wearable way! It’s AMAZING! Super creamy, super blendable, super GORGE! Brushes: Iconic Face Set Spritz: Body Shop Vitamin E Hydrating Face Mist Powder: Makeup Forever HD Pressed Powder Song: Fifth Harmony – Work From Home #iconiclondon #creamcontour #iconicbae #bodyshop #makeupforever #mufe #hd #vitaminehydratingfacemist #hdpowder #bblogger #bbloggers #lblogger #lbloggers #youtube #youtuber #youtubers #brian_champagne @brian_champagne #mensmakeupmay #makeupforwomenandmen #beautyblogger #mua #makeupartist #tutorial #contourandhighlight #makeupisgenderless

A video posted by Jake-Jamie Ward (@makeupbyjakejamie) on

Benefit Cosmetics,which has partnered with male beauty bloggers like Manny Mua, said 95 percent of its social following are women. However, Michelle Stoodley, Benefit’s head of digital marketing, thinks its male base might be bigger than reported, with women buying products on behalf of men. One product in particular, the “porefessional” face primer, is so popular with men that the team is considering giving its packaging — which features a woman on the go — a unisex makeover.

“I think as the blogging industry has grown bigger, there’s more scope for people to break through. As long as you’re great in front of the camera, it doesn’t matter what gender you are,” Stoodley said.

“Some male influencers whom we’ve partnered with have the most loyal and dedicated fan bases that consist of both genders,” said Nicole Frusci, Benefit’s vp of U.S. Marketing.

Still, the market for male cosmetics remains small, and it’s not just men that watch the likes of Mua, Charles and Ball. Their fan base is beauty-obsessives across the gender spectrum. But the question remains whether there is genuine momentum toward a “genderless” industry, as Charles suggests, or if brands will ultimately just keep chasing the same demographic they always have: young women.

Neil Waller at Whalar, an agency that connects brands with influencers, thinks it’s too soon to tell if this trend has more staying power than a long-lasting lipstick. “I’m hoping this is a genuine long-term collaboration,” he said. “If James Charles is working with them [CoverGirl] in six months, all these questions will go away. If he’s dropped, maybe it was a stunt.”

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