Local lads slap on Korean makeup for K-pop look

Their skin is smooth, their hair is salon-fresh, and between them they've sold millions of records. Now, they're making it acceptable for young Asian men to buy beauty products.

South Korea's male K-pop icons have been enlisted by the country's cosmetics firms as they try to expand beyond its borders to take on global giants like L'Oreal and Unilever across the continent.

"The male K-pop stars are very good looking and I think the make up helps them look good. So why not me as well?" says Lenard Heng, a 26-year old graphic designer out clubbing in KL.

South Korean men spend US$900 million (S$1.1 billion) a year on beauty products, more than a fifth of the global total, research firm Euromonitor says. But even the vanity of a nation is no longer much of a growth opportunity.

By contrast, in the emerging markets of Asia the middle class is rapidly expanding, and with it opportunities to sell goods like foundation, lip balm, skincare lotions and eyeliner.

"Using male K-pop stars charms the ladies. It may also prompt younger men to want to look more like these idols," said Kim Jungcheon, CEO of South Korean cosmetics firm Tonymoly.

For the region's young men who were raised on K-pop, the metrosexual appeal of boy bands like 2PM, Big Bang and Super Junior, their faces glowing with youth, is a quality Western or Japanese competitors can't deliver.

"In Korea male stars use foundation so a few of my guy friends in Bangkok have started wearing foundation too," said 28-year-old Thai man Pitak Iamsamang.

Cosmetics firms also hope to use the appeal of K-pop's divas to market their wares to women, still the core market for beauty products. Slick acts like Girls' Generation all add to the aspirational pull of "Brand Korea".

"Cosmetics sales tend to mirror the popularity of Korean cultural exports, so K-pop stars are the best way to market our products," said Kim Hee-jeong, marketing manager of The Face Shop, which has over 1,000 overseas stores.

Mass brands such as Amorepacific's Etude House and Tonymoly play up their origins by blaring out K-pop hits while sales agents chirp "annyeonghasaeyo" (hello) in stores from Ulan Bator to Manila, backed by posters of heartthrobs like boy band JYJ.

Women like Nattakarn Nattudee, a 35-year-old shopping for cosmetics in Bangkok, have bought into the K-pop sales pitch. "Posters of K-pop stars with their bright, clear faces make me want to buy the products so I can have clear skin like them," she said.

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