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You're So Vain

You probably think this story is about you. And it is if you're among the new breed of urban men clamoring for face peels, hip fashion, even chin implants -- all in the name of guy power.


It's a rainy late-winter Thursday, and a generation of former frat boys who never got over the Thursday-night beer bashes off-campus have re-created them at Light, a velvet-rope nightclub on East 54th Street, trading the Rolling Rocks for $10 Absoluts. Many work at the investment banks and white-shoe law firms that line Park Avenue.

It's a standard New York scene: moneyed young men in cobalt-blue button-down shirts blowing off the steam built up on the trading floor, as they did through the whole manic nineties boom.

But something's missing tonight -- in particular, the boom itself. Drinks are still flowing, but the high-fives are few, and the post-closing-bell bellows have been dialed down twenty decibels or so. That smugness that stuck in your clothes like Camel smoke only a year ago -- before the NASDAQ disappeared down an open manhole -- is conspicuously absent.

"Look at these guys. They look like dorks," says a brooding 31-year-old man with a helmet of black hair. He's wearing a thin, black merino-wool Kenneth Cole sweater with a shallow V-neck. His grooming stands out more than his penetrating, judgmental eyes. He wears a tiny, meticulous Satan beard chiseled into a little diamond point on his chin. A pleasant, if indistinct, fragrance wafts gently around him. He is, however, a guy's guy. Do not forget that.

"Do I go for that kind of feminine grooming stuff? No way," he snaps. "Well, I get manicures, yeah," he allows. "But that's it."

Well, that's not quite it. He also gets his hair cut every two weeks and frets as much as any Canyon Ranch-hand about those puffy lower eyelids, which sport Benicio Del Toro bags as dark as game-day eye-black. "I wouldn't mind something for my eyes. Concealer, maybe? I have these dark circles . . ." He shrugs. "Women are already doing this stuff. I guess you gotta meet them halfway."

A couple yo dudes away, a hollow-eyed guy in sports marketing is standing there sipping a Corona in that same Kenneth Cole, merino-wool sweater with that shallow V-neck.

"Yeah, it's weird. All my friends are going for manicures all of a sudden," he says. "I think they're just going for, you know, the 'massages' in back," he says, chuckling salaciously.

A young Swiss banker with a gel-flecked 'NSync-ish brush of hair has plenty of energy to expound on perfect grooming and the benefits accrued to building up "Brand Me": "A lot of people think I'm gay because I like to dress well, to look my best. But it's important. You need to stand out, whether at work or with women or whatever."

The bull may be slaughtered, but Power Pampering, strangely, is exploding in ways unthinkable even in the first great Age of Product, the go-go eighties. "You've seen American Psycho? The first five minutes, where he's getting dressed and using all those face creams and everything?" asks one square-jawed young man with the authority of a quarterback. "That's how it's done," he says, glowing with admiration.

"That's the ideal."

The testosterone-soaked narcissism that emerged with gym culture has entered a new chapter.

"I get facials. And I'm such a regular at the nail salon, I've learned Korean," Marc Streisand tells me the next day. Streisand, 33, is the top lieutenant to high-end Upper East Side custom wardrobe designer David Lance. "I mean, I grew up in New Jersey playing sports. I used to bite my nails. But when I got into the business world, I'd be sitting across the table from guys making $5 million. They didn't just have the Rolex. They had perfectly manicured hands. You need the full presentation to match the personality. Women have always known this stuff."

The city's having its hangover moment right now. We partied. We woke up. We look like hell. Enter the responsible self-indulgence -- the conspicuous consumption that is bag-free eyes, the affordable luxury that is a Kiehl's moisturizing mask. It's still indulgence, sure, but it's indulgence that might actually help you hold on to that tenuous analyst's salary until Silicon Alley -- with its next round of options -- finally rises from the ashes. These are scary days. What better time to hide behind the mask of Superman?

Love-handled corporate lawyers undergoing triple-oxygen facials. Television-sports producers anxiously debating the Atkins diet. Male-pattern-baldness-type corporate lawyers filling shopping bags with bottles of Clinique. At first glance, this explosion of male vanity might lead you to believe that men have at long last embraced their softer, feminized selves, 40 years after Betty Friedan fired the first salvo at the patriarchy. A decade after Iron John, are we all just giving up on our inner child in favor of our inner Marcus Schenkenberg?

"At first, it was just the curiosity factor. My wife got facials," says Jared Boshnack, 28, who works in production at ABC Sports and tried his first facial at Reebok Sports Club last year. "But the curiosity turned into a habit. I work hard, and I probably don't give myself enough treats on the side. Now I get manicures as well. I even forced one of my best friends to get one before his wedding. Hey, you look better, you feel better."

Often, the male primping impulse starts with a simple massage at a day spa -- the need to decompress after a brutal day in corporate combat. But for men who begin down the road of ladies who lunch, that's not always where it stops.

"I always had a weak jaw. It runs in my family," confesses Dennis, 32, a management consultant. "And the way I looked made me feel very self-conscious, especially when I was dealing with female clients."

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