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Over the last two years, Axe has successfully changed its messaging from “we’ll get you laid” to “snuggling kittens and wearing high heels as a man is totally fine.” As a continuing part of its new “Find Your Magic” ad campaign, the Unilever-owned brand is launching its next initiative, called Senior Orientation, in which it will work with high school seniors to teach them how to mentor and support younger students.
The brand tapped John Legend and Carlos Andrés Gómez, an author and poet who literally wrote the book on manhood, Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood, to speak at a media event in New York City, along with 15-year-old high school student Solomon Mussing and 21-year-old transgender activist Hunter Klugkist. Legend and Gómez will both work with some senior students at a high school in Columbus, Ohio, and the school will be treated to a performance and poetry reading.
As I sat in the venue, a gymnasium set up to look like a classroom, and listened to the kids tell their stories, I welled up. Mussing got bullied for wearing pink, then two years later, when Nike came out with pink outfits, all the boys in his class started wearing the color. He never got an apology. Klugkist told the story about going to the beach without a shirt on with his girlfriend right after he got top surgery and how freeing it felt.
The cynical part of me felt duped for about two seconds for succumbing to the emotional machinations of a brand, but then I just went with it. Yes, Axe is owned by Unilever, a huge company that’s had its share of issues. I’ve been critical of some of its past Dove campaigns that missed the mark, and Unilever has long been criticized for selling skin lightening products abroad. But goddamnit, the world is a stressful place lately, and Axe’s new message is just good.
Also good? John Legend, a man who is not afraid to speak out on issues he believes in. Legend has been involved for the past few years with the brand in a program called the “Axe Collective,” in which he worked with artists and musicians. He says transitioning to this larger initiative was a no-brainer for him. I was able to meet with the singer in his trailer before the event to talk about toxic masculinity, the current political environment, and, because this is Racked, shopping.
Legend clearly remembers what “being a man” meant when he was in high school. “The quintessential man was athletic; he’s strong, he’s tall, he’s fast, he’s the quarterback of the football team, and he has sexual prowess and is getting all the girls,” Legend says, while also acknowledging that that applied to very few boys at his school. “Myself, I was more of a nerd. I was more into reading and politics. I was a writer and a singer and a performer, and I was a terrible athlete and I wasn’t tall and I didn’t get a lot of girls at the time! What we’re just trying to do is encourage some space for them to figure it out and a way of taking some of the pressure off.”
On one hand, there is definitely more visibility now for different types of guys and the emergence of fluid gender expression. But Legend says that with this kind of progress comes backlash. “Some of the political conversations we’re having and some of the negative things we’ve seen happen is almost a backlash to the world becoming more inclusive and more permissive and more open to different expressions of gender identity and us electing our first black president and all these things,” he says. “There’s sometimes a reaction to that, a backlash, from people who feel like they might be losing something because other people are becoming more equal, and because there’s more justice for other people. We saw it in Charlottesville, fueled by people who feel like they were losing something by seeing other people being treated fairly or equally.”
When asked if he feels more of a sense of urgency to combat toxic masculinity now that he has a daughter (16-month-old Luna with wife Chrissy Teigen), he says, “I’m always suspicious of people who become feminists only when they have a daughter. I don’t like that you have to have a gay son to be for gay marriage. I feel like you should have enough empathy for other people that you don’t need someone to be in your family to think they’re valuable. I thought of myself as a feminist before I had a daughter and before I was married. Having a daughter might reinforce that, but it shouldn’t be the only reason I care about women’s rights. And so I think it’s important that we speak out against sexual assault and it’s important that we look at the root causes for why men feel the need to be dominant in that way and to be that toxic. We need to attack the causes for that so that women can feel more safe.”
The clothes you wear and how you groom yourself obviously sends a message about how you want to be perceived in society. I asked him about how his style has changed and whether he talks about skincare with his friends. He laughed, and another man in the trailer started shaking his head vehemently. “It’s funny because remember when metrosexuals were a thing people talked about? One of my guy friends looked at me and said, ‘Uh, I think that’s us, I think we’re metrosexuals.’ Now it’s generally more acceptable just for guys to care about how they present themselves and how they dress,” he says. “I still don’t talk about skincare with my friends honestly [laughs]. But we talk about clothes plenty, like, ‘Where’d you get those shoes?’ and, ‘That’s a dope jacket you have on, where’d you get that?’ I think there’s a comfort around guys wanting to dress well and wanting to present themselves in a way they feel good about and not just looking a mess.”
Since Axe is a grooming brand, is it the final frontier to get men to talk openly about their “beauty” routines? Legend says he uses Teigen’s products at home, mostly La Mer moisturizer and a cleanser whose name he can’t remember that comes “in a blue bottle.”
“There is such a range of the way guys want to present themselves. I don’t wear makeup other than the basics for TV or whatever, but there are plenty of guys who are doing that. Some of it goes in waves. In the ’80s, Prince was wearing makeup and Rick James was wearing makeup and some of our coolest artists that we love and value now were wearing makeup,” he says. “I think we need to allow people to be creative and not put limits on how they present themselves just because you’re a man [and] you’re supposed to be this way.”
On this particular day, Legend was wearing a floral T-shirt and bomber jacket matching set. He hates going to stores and primarily shops at Mr Porter and Barneys. “I usually pick out my own clothes for my own wardrobe, but I have a stylist for more professional clothes.” And yes, Teigen gives him her opinion on his everyday clothes. “If she’s home, I’ll show them to her like, ‘What do you think of this?’ and she’ll give me her feedback. Sometimes I’ll disagree and say, ‘I want it anyway.’ And she’ll do the same and be like, ‘Do you like these shoes?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Eh, they’re not my favorite,’ and she’s like, ‘I like them anyway, sorry.’ But most of the time we agree.”
So kudos to Axe. As the mom of a 14-year-old boy who’s about to start high school, these are all messages I am happy to have him stumble on as he’s scrolling through YouTube. Gómez says about the initiative, “My hope it that all of us have permission to grow and evolve. When I saw that a big consumer brand like Axe was saying, ‘I want to take a bold stance and I want to promote this inclusive definition of masculinity,’ the fact that it aligned directly with my life’s work felt like an organic fit. Anything that supports guys being who they are, that makes me excited and I want to be a part of that.”