David Yi spent most of the pandemic traveling — time traveling, that is. In his new book, Pretty Boys, which debuts on June 22nd, the author and founder of Very Good Light takes a journey all around the world to spotlight some unexpected beauty icons who have redefined what masculinity looked like throughout history. We sat down with Yi to chat about his experience writing his first book, plus the surprising things he learned about beauty along the way.
Sunday Edit: As the founding editor of Very Good Light, you paved the way for creating a more inclusive definition of beauty and a leader of genderless beauty. How did you get started?
David Yi: Very Good Light started as a publication to redefine masculinity and to understand why we have been conditioned — as men or masc-identifying people — to see the world in a certain way. I started at the New York Daily News and before that, I was at People magazine and Entertainment Weekly. Then, I was kind of hustling: I was a stylist, I was an on-camera person, I started an online show, I did a cooking show for Fashionista, and I was a reporter at Women’s Wear Daily.
I was trying to see what my role in the industry was and realized that I wanted to do more than fashion and uncover fashion and beauty from a humane, social justice standpoint. This is why I took a job at Mashable [that gave me that platform.] There, I did a story in 2015 called ‘The Faces of Transgender Teen America’ that transformed my life. It was on 11 trans teens and they were coming out to the world for the first time. The youngest girl I interviewed was only six or seven. I thought to myself: ‘How do people know who they are at such a young age?’ Not only did the story go viral, I got my first GLAAD nomination, and I was also able to realize that’s what I wanted to do in journalism. I wanted to elevate different stories and voices and it was my duty to do so.
This was the spark that led me to Very Good Light and to merge my journalism background with social good. I can write about people and about disenfranchised folks who perhaps aren’t getting much shine in the mass media. So in 2016, I went out on my own and started Very Good Light.
SE: Your writing style is so smart, thoughtful, yet relatable. How did you nail down your voice?
Yi: I think that it’s the Malcolm Gladwell “10,000-hour” rule. You do something for over 10,000 hours and you hope that you’ll become an expert at it! I think that refining your journalistic voice takes time. I was writing for a lot of different publications for well over a decade. I’ve written ‘serious’ journalism, business journalism, and profile stories, but finding my own voice took a long time to cultivate. It took a lot of practice.
SE: Let’s dive into your new book, Pretty Boys. How would you summarize what your book is about and who it’s for?
Yi: Pretty Boys is the history of men, makeup, and masculinity — and masc-identifying folks as well. From the beginning of time to now, it’s about elevating the voices of these powerful figures who happened to use beauty and cosmetics to empower themselves. I want everyone to know that beauty is not part of the binary and beauty is not meant for one gender. Everyone has celebrated their own beauty throughout different time periods and cultures around the world. I hope that history buffs can take this book and say, ‘This is interesting. It’s a different take on history.’ I also hope people who want to find a community can find themselves in this book. And, if you’re looking for beauty advice, you can also get the best tips — you’ll find self-care tips and, of course, how to glow up.
SE: In your book, you talk about how social media has aided in the cultural shift of people who are questioning gender roles and traditional views of masculinity. What are examples of people or brands on social media that you think are doing a good job at this?
Yi: My new skincare brand, Good Light, is all about gender inclusivity. The DNA of Milk Makeup has also always been super inclusive of all people and all identities. In general, more brands need to think outside the binary. I mean, did you ever think how it’s so weird that when you walk down a CVS or Target aisle, it’s so gendered? One section is all hyper-masculine with beard oil and shaving cream. Then, on the other side, it’s all about hyper-femininity and makeup for women. Where do I belong? I want to shave, but I’m also someone who loves skincare and loves to sometimes wear eyeliner and eyeshadow.
I think that beauty and beauty products have no sexuality — they have no identity. They’re there as tools to enhance what you love about yourself. I hope that we can promote that notion through all brands.
SE: You recently tweeted that someone once told you that Korean culture was a “trend.” How has being an Asian American shaped your beauty journey?
Yi: Being Korean is everything to me. I grew up in a very white city and I was the lone Asian American in many of my schools. For a lot of Asian Americans who are products of immigration, you deviate towards either rejecting your identity because you want to assimilate or adopting your ethnicity and becoming hyper-militant in your cultural identity. It was the latter for me — I’m very Korean. I made sure that I spoke Korean in the household. I made sure that I was connected to my roots through K-Pop and through K-Dramas. That was my form of entertainment because I never saw myself in American television or media. At the end of the day, being Korean isn’t just ‘trendy.’ Korean pop music has existed long before anyone in America ‘discovered’ it. So, for me, it’s very offensive when someone says Korean culture is just a trend, because that also means that we’re not human, right? Being Korean American has painted every part of my life. I’ve been an activist for Asian Americans since I was super young. I hope that we can continue these conversations around diversity and inclusion and not forget that Asian Americans have existed and we are part of this American diaspora.
SE: Speaking of Korean culture, you talk about the Korean hwarang from the sixth century in your book. What was their impact on male beauty?
Yi: Hwarang is directly translated to ‘flower boys,’ which is another way of saying ‘pretty boys.’ The hwarang were a part of the Silla Dynasty in the 600s. What’s fascinating about them is that they were able to really beautify as a spiritual practice.
To backtrack a bit, there were three different kingdoms in that time period [comprised of Baekje in the west, Goguryeo in the north, and Silla in the east]. King Jinheung helped the Baekje reclaim their land, but turned on the Baekje right after. To keep enemies away, King Jinheung needed ‘Big Buddha Energy’ and he thought the Silla’s hwarang could deliver that supernatural energy.
He found these men within months and then created an army and they proudly joined the assassinship. They learned horseback riding; they learned martial arts. They were trained by monks, so they learned about spirituality with Buddhists and Confucianism teachings. It was fascinating because they also learned how to beautify.
Though there isn’t distinct knowledge of exactly what powders and creams they used, we think that because Korea was very much inspired by the Tang dynasty of China, that a lot of their customs could be traced to the Tang dynasty. So, from safflower oil to lead powder that the Chinese used, I’m assuming that the hwarang would’ve used that as well. But we do know from special onward from the Tang dynasty, that there are records from the Chinese folks who visited in Korea that basically said, ‘the hwarang boys are just so beautiful, so handsome, and everyone in the land respects that.’
So it was a thing: The hwarang were known throughout East Asia as being these ‘beauty boys’ who were super fierce as well.
SE: Were the hwarang the inspiration for the title of your book?
Yi: No, I titled it Pretty Boys because I wanted to take back power from the idea that men who were ‘feminine presenting’ or who were too ‘woman-like’ or beautiful are traditionally called ‘pretty boys’ in the western world. So I wanted to put that on its head and say, ‘Well, yes, we’re pretty, but that doesn’t make us less powerful.’ I want to reclaim that phrase and say, ‘Pretty is pretty powerful.’ I hope that men today kind of reclaim that word and say, ‘Yes, I am a pretty boy and I love it — I bask in it, I’m walking into my light, and I am my authentic self.’ That’s what a pretty boy is.
SE: What was the inspiration behind creating a book like this? How did it come about?
Yi: I wanted to look back in history and pose the question: Why aren’t beautiful men or pretty men celebrated? As if they’re incapable or even shameful in some way? Now we know that the fiercest men — even the warriors and kings, like the Pharaohs or the Vikings or Alexander the Great — they’re all pretty boys. I was surprised that there weren’t already historic books dedicated to the subject and that really piqued my interest. I knew that I had to do this. In one way, I feel like it’s an obvious book and anyone really could have written this book.
SE: Well, we think you put a great perspective on it though that no one else could have. The mix of people featured is so unique. How did you narrow down who to profile?
Yi: It was difficult. It was very hard and this book doesn’t have every person in the world, but it’s more of a starting point. I wanted to have diversity and make sure that we had representation everywhere. There were some cultures that I wanted to represent more, but I just couldn’t find primary or secondary sources to back up what I found. Hopefully, I’ll be able to if there is a second book or a sequel. It was important to me that we have that intersectionality and we’re able to delve into these cultures and show that ‘pretty’ is universal and that every culture around the globe wanted to amplify their power through their aesthetic. I think that that was essential to the piece because some people might say, ‘Oh, beauty is just a western thing,’ or possibly just a ‘Korean thing,’ — but no, it wasn’t. Beautifying was an act that everyone participated in.
SE: If you could narrow it down to two or three of your favorite people that you featured in this book, who are they and why?
Yi: I love the Shi Pei Pu story because it was a dramatic love story that had a lot to do with espionage and secrets and sex. It was really delicious to research and write. My other favorite chapter was getting to know Prince better. I was a Prince fan, but I didn’t realize [until I researched for this book] just how much of a spiritual vessel he was — and beautiful from the inside out.
SE: It sounded like a bulk of your book was written during the pandemic and this book gave you the opportunity to sort of escape from reality.
Yi: I feel like the pandemic was the hardest time in life for you, for me. I’m assuming it was the hardest year for everyone. If not, then I’m so sorry that you had another harder year. I had so many dreams and people I wanted to see — things that I wanted to accomplish. But this book allowed me to survive another day as dramatic as that might sound. I was stressed out and depressed. I almost feel like I was able to escape my painful present through this book, and time travel to meet Cyrus the Great or to be a part of the Mayan tribe and watch and observe their ruler. I was able to go back to 50,000 BCE to observe our Neanderthal cousins, beautifying with foundation and blush and grinding pyrites for highlighter. Last year was such a difficult year, and this book allowed me to escape, make some friends along the way, uncover some secrets, and understand people a little more.
SE: What do you hope people take away from reading this book?
Yi: I hope they keep being inspired to grow and to rethink the gender binary — to rethink everything that we’ve been taught. Because if you think about it, who writes history? Why do we learn one history? Or why are certain people more important than others when it comes to our history? And it comes down to dig deeper than historians and they look a certain way and there are biases. We need to question why they amplify a certain person’s brawn and their brute strength, but they don’t amplify the fact that they also use beauty products.
I hope people can question their history, reread history, understand that there are multiple sides of history and nothing is so exact or precise. You can make your own conclusions outside of the confines of your school or another textbook that you’ve read. I hope that this can inspire people to be more like themselves and to find people like that in history because they’re all there.
SE: Was there anything you’ve learned about beauty from your research for the book that you didn’t know before?
Yi: Everything in the book! I didn’t know anything going into it. I didn’t know that King Louis XIV was the impetus for France becoming a nation of luxury. I had no clue that Pharaonhs had such an extensive morning routine — hours on end being dumped in baths, having their nails clipped to their hairstyle, their wake style, being sugared, which is their version of waxing. I also learned how sacrilegious it was to bathe for Anglo-Saxons. Some queens like Isabella I of Castile only bathed twice in their life: Once after birth and once before their wedding day. There was this idea that bathing too much was sinful and not very modest for a Christian, but also from a beauty standpoint, they believed that having dirt on your body was a good thing for that bacteria to then get to your pores. These days we know that that’s not correct.
SE: In your last section of the book, “What I Love About Me,” you feature 10 pretty boys on how they came to accept themselves. How did you find these individuals?
Yi: It was super important to nail down that point that you are beautiful and you are a pretty boy because you define your own beauty. And I think it was essential actually, for the book, to find diverse people. We feature everyone from non-binary individuals to Muslims to plus size to political refugees to disabled folks. I wanted the full spectrum and the breadth of beauty because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You are that beholder.
It was very important and essential to the kind of connect with people who aren’t traditionally lauded as being beautiful. I found them through Instagram or friends of friends — it took a year. But I was very adamant that we were going to try to find a representative from a very diverse group of people.
SE: Thank you for carving a new path of what should be defined as ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful.’ We can’t let you go without us asking: What’s your favorite BTS song?
Yi: I like “Spring Day.” I also like “Pied Piper” and “DNA.”
We only recommend products we have independently researched, tested, and loved. If you purchase a product found through our links, Sunday Edit may earn an affiliate commission.