David Yi Talks About Men, Makeup and Pretty Boys

Author David Yi talks about his new book, Pretty Boys.
Author David Yi talks about his new book, Pretty Boys. Sarah Yun
It’s all about being seen.

Pretty Boys is not only important,” says fashion director and editor Nicola Formichetti. “It’s culture-pushing. We need a bold, beautiful, glittery beacon of hope more than ever.” Colorado author David Yi’s new nonfiction mashup of history and how-to as it regards men and makeup is exactly that: a spotlight that illuminates our common humanity.

We caught up with Yi over email just as his new book, Pretty Boys, is hitting shelves to talk about the project, how it works within his larger paradigm, and just what’s being revealed in that (very good) light.

How did the idea for Pretty Boys come about? What was it that inspired you?

The book is all about the history of men, masc-identifying folx, makeup and masculinity from the beginning of time to now. It was inspired by my curiosity with the gender -binary and gender roles — and why we adhere to those today. Makeup and cosmetics have no gender identity. They are tools used to enhance and inspire those who use them. My own upbringing as a Korean American allowed me to have a more expansive view of masculinity as well as my relationship with skin care. As a beauty founder of Good Light, a gender-inclusive brand that launched in March, it has been so empowering to write how there have existed people who've celebrated their beauty from the inside out.

The book is such a cool hybrid of history and how-to. Was that something that rose naturally from your research, or was that the plan from the beginning?

It was a collaboration between myself and my editor, Jenny Xu, who thought it was imperative we also empower people through tips and hacks. This was so that people could understand their relationship with beauty and to make it approachable as well. I love how we can have eyeliner tutorials after Pharaoh Ramses, or talking about side parts after Clark Gable, or lip colors with Shi Pei Pu. All so important that people can also relate and learn from the bests in Hollywood from Sir John, Beyoncé's makeup artist, to Jess Ortiz, who works with Timothee Chalamet, to more!

click to enlarge HOUGHTON-MIFFLIN
I love what you say in the reference notes at the end — that "all history is inconclusive to some degree." How did you balance and embrace that natural subjectivity in prepping for this book?

Historians are, to some degree, biased. We see this with the gatekeepers of history — usually cis, straight, white men — who tell and retell stories from a specific lens. I wanted to take a more expansive look, but only looked at primary and secondary sources. It's difficult to truly have one take on history, and I tried my best to ensure that I was being fair, going over all information, and being super thorough with my findings. Jenny, my editor, can attest!

Speaking of the history...there's so much I didn't know in this book. Neanderthal makeup habits? How cool is that?

Thank you! I needed to be super diverse and include people from as many places as possible. This was essential for the thesis: that makeup isn't just for one group of people. Everyone used it! As such, it was imperative we scope places far and wide from history, time, and location. Neanderthals were fascinating, as I believe they show and prove how people in their nascent forms want to beautify innately. Humans are a part of the animal kingdom as well, and so many male species, as we know, amplify their power through beauty.

Any eras you skipped over? What didn't make the cut?

So many eras! We skipped 3200 BCE to 0 CE because there was a lack of information I was comfortable with publishing, but I do hope that if I get a second book, I want to fill in those holes.

There's a page at the beginning that's in Korean, probably a dedication. Care to translate for us?

It says "This book is dedicated to my loving parents Sun Chin Yi and Sung Yong Yi." I didn't think it was necessary for anyone to know this except for my parents — it's a message that didn't need to be translated for anyone else to see.

So many amazing stories in this book. What surprised you the most?

I think what surprised me the most were the Vikings who we all feel are the most gruff and macho in history! But they were pretty boys — and serious about their beauty! I feel this can allow men to rethink their own macho standards. If the Vikings beautified, so, too, can they!

Talk a little bit about the amazing work of Very Good Light.

Thank you for asking! Very Good Light was always a site about redefining masculinity through a beauty lens. Beauty is a conduit of change — and we wanted to ensure that we can be that change. We aim to speak to Gen Z and talk about issues no one else is, amplifying folx and their voices to empower. It's been so humbling to see our small team work so hard day after day!

Can you tell us a little about your connection to Denver?

I've always come to Denver on weekends when I was younger, to feel a little more accepted. I'm from Colorado Springs, just a bit south, just a little bit more...conservative. Denver was that nice escape to find culture, more food, and a little bit more understanding of who I am. I actually moved back to Colorado during the pandemic. I lived in NYC for a decade and came to Colorado to finish my book.

What's that part of Colorado that will always inspire you?

I love how Colorado has so many places to go explore, be present, and get lost. I love the long hikes in the mountains, running on trails, being away from technology. It's the perfect place for people like me — who need healing, who need Mother Nature, who need the universe to speak to them. I love Colorado and so appreciate that I live here!

David Yi’s Pretty Boys is available at your favorite bookseller now; for more information on the scope of his work, check out the Very Good Light website.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen