The Beauty Routine Of A K-Pop Star

Photo: CJ E&M Music.
At first glance, the life of Eric Nam could be the perfect storyline for a movie. A Korean-American twentysomething graduates from Boston College, begins covering songs on YouTube while applying for jobs, and — in the blink of an eye — auditions for a competitive TV show (Birth of A Great Star 2), gets whisked off to South Korea, and instantly becomes a mega-celeb in Seoul. Talk about a major life change.

Five years later, Nam has become the "good guy" star on the K-pop scene, a go-to TV host in South Korea, a guest on SNL Korea, and a successful singer. Not exactly what you would expect from someone born a world away in Atlanta who had planned on a career in consulting. (Like we said, it's movie gold!) "Sometimes, I think to myself, Oh wait, this is my job?!," Nam tells Refinery29 in a recent phone interview.

Of course, no pop-star success story is complete without a makeover and some major life lessons — and Nam is no exception. He hadn't heard of BB cream until after college, but now Nam is famous for his flawless skin — even nabbing modeling contracts for makeup brands in South Korea.

The country has consistently been cited as one of the top markets for male grooming since 2010 — with Brazil and the U.S. catching up. For Nam and the rest of the male K-pop crowd, wearing cleverly applied foundation, concealer, brow gel, and more isn't a dirty little industry secret; it's a fact of life and a necessity of show business.
Ahead, we chat with Nam about demanding beauty standards, his daily routine, and how he plans to bring his stardom back stateside this year.
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How much has your appearance changed since you’ve moved to South Korea?
"When I go back to the States, one of the comments I get the most often is, 'Oh, you dyed your hair?' Yes, I've been dyeing my hair since I got to Korea [four years ago]. Korea is a very fashion- and beauty-forward country, so [hair and makeup] is not a taboo topic. It's just like, 'Oh, cool, it's a new style.' There's not that stigma or stereotyping that comes when [men] take good care of [their] hair or skin."
When did you realize that your look would be an important part of your career?
"In the audition process for [Birth of A Great Star 2]. [Other contestants were] just using BB cream in the beginning, but as I started progressing, things got more and more intense. I remember thinking, Oh god, how do people sit in these chairs for hours? For guys, it's about an hour, and for women it's about two. I felt like my skin couldn't breathe and I hated it. But then you realize that this is show business. You have to play the part, and you have to look the part."

You have to play the part, and you have to look the part.

Eric Nam

What was your first reaction to wearing a full face of makeup?
"You know, it was really weird because you look like the movie version of yourself. I definitely looked a lot sharper and a lot cleaner. In person, it was kind of weird."

What does your skin routine look like nowadays?
"If I have time, I’ll try to go to a dermatologist, but usually I don’t, so once or twice a week I'll do a mask. Recently I'm into these molding masks. [It's] a powder or a gel that you mix together, and you apply it to your face. There are also these little round stickers that are flesh-colored, and if you have a breakout or pimple, it magically makes them disappear. I'll put it on and take it off after eight hours, and the redness is gone. Those are my latest Holy crap, where did you come from? discoveries.

"I do four or five steps in my daily routine. I wash my face, put on toner, [then] serum, and then a face cream. Then, I'll put a little SPF on. Overall, I have pretty dry skin, so I make sure I have a good base of moisturizer, like a water-based cream, and I stay hydrated. The difference is, I have to do it morning and night every day; otherwise, the amount of makeup we have to put on just tears your skin apart."

What does a daily face of makeup look like for you?
"I go to hair and makeup every day because sometimes I'm on TV for 16 hours. It takes 30 minutes to do my hair and 30 minutes to do my makeup, and I usually have someone follow me around and do touch-ups during the day. [My makeup team] usually puts on a bunch of basics: toner, serum, moisturizer. Then, they do some concealer, foundation, [and] go back with concealer. The details take a lot of time; they're very keen on eyebrows."
Have you noticed any differences when you perform in the U.S. versus in South Korea?
"I have English-speaking friends in South Korea, and we often wonder if American stars wear the same amount of makeup we do. I go back and forth to the States, and in the States, makeup artists tend to go with your natural look. Here, the standard for makeup is a lot thicker. They're like, 'Let’s cover everything up. We want you to have perfect skin.'"
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What have you learned from this focus on your skin?
"You know, as a college student, skin care isn't cheap and it's not your biggest priority. But I've realized how important it can be for first impressions. When you're well put-together, and you have clear skin, it goes a long way. I was interviewing the Star Wars cast, and Daisy Ridley asked me why my skin was so nice. She said, 'I'm going to call you radiant man, because your skin is so radiant.' Like, 'Okay, nice to meet you.'"
You just released a new track, "Into You," with L.A.-based Kolaj. What would a crossover career mean for your look?
"Every time I go back to the States, I look different and dress different from when I left. So there are definitely differences that I'm aware of. The Korean and Asian market is completely different from the U.S., and I think, as an American, you look at K-pop and you see the way we dress [as] very different. So to cross over, I'll have to play the part of the American singer, and I don't [know] that scene yet."

What are some of the obstacles you anticipate coming back to the U.S.?
"The first time that I've seen an Asian actor win the heart of the leading female character was Steven Yeun in The Walking Dead. It felt historic to me. We're not always seen as the knight in shining armor, or that super-masculine, hunky character. We need to be cast in more diverse and interesting roles...and we still don't have a lot of representation in music, so I'm hoping that whether it's me or someone else, we get visibility and can be appreciated in the arts in the States."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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