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In just a year, the television show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy has gone from a kitschy cult hit into a mainstream phenomenon. If you haven’t seen this wildly popular show on Bravo or NBC, the premise is this: Each week, five urbane gay men (experts, respectively, in the areas of personal grooming, fashion, interior design, culture and cuisine) adopt a severely style-challenged heterosexual man and do their best to remake him.

The hosts, known as the Fab Five, have become pop sensations — partly because their sharp-but-kind take on men’s quirky living and grooming habits are hilarious, but also because they perform a very real and much-needed public service: They show men how to take better care of themselves.

The Fab Five coax, counsel and cajole their victims into turning over a new leaf — and they virtually always succeed. By the end of the show, the formerly scraggly guys not only look better, they also seem to feel better. Post-makeover, they appear happier, more confident and, interestingly (given the striking transformation they’ve just undergone), far more at ease in their own skin.

Some of the most impressive transformations (and most touching moments) on Queer Eye take place during the show’s grooming segments, where many of the subjects have their first encounters with facials, manicures, waxing and other professional personal-care services. While the effects of the services themselves are dramatic, the men’s commentary on the services is often even more compelling.

While obviously somewhat nervous about being “worked on” at first, most subjects eventually relax gratefully into the feeling of being cared for, of having their haggard selves buffed and massaged back into shape. As one 20-something fellow admits from behind his steaming facial towel: “You know, I always thought facials were, you know, for girls, but I can see now how really everybody needs this. I need this.”

Tough Love

He’s right: Everybody probably does need some personal care. But men in particular. The workaday world can be brutal on a guy’s body. Long, caffeine-fueled days leave bags under the eyes, ragged fingernails and knotted back muscles. Yet many men don’t notice their slow demise, nor do they take the time to get a massage or a manicure because they’ve been taught that such things are effeminate, overindulgent and silly.

In truth, though, how a guy looks often speaks volumes about how he feels about himself. As Queer Eye demonstrates so clearly: Send a man to the barber for a shave and a haircut, and nine times out of 10 he’ll leave the shop with a spring in his step, feeling like a new man.

Many women have long been aware that paying for extra pampering at the salon or spa every now and then can relieve stress and improve self-esteem. Now, thanks to a boom in the spa industry over the last few years, there are plenty of places for guys to go for grooming, tips, products and a little TLC.

In fact, the stereotypical image of beauty parlor as exclusive female retreat has been all but shattered. More and more men are joining their wives and girlfriends in full-service salons to have their skin exfoliated and eyebrows shaped up. In the summer of 2003, USA Today reported that 30 percent of those using day spas were male. And for those guys who are still a little uncomfortable being cared for in mixed company, there are a growing number of “men only” retreats that are not only convenient, but just plain cool.

The most written about is New York’s Nickel. Housed in a former bank building that sports stately marble pillars, the markedly masculine salon has the sparse, steely look of an industrial warehouse, but it offers services — such as body scrubs, waxes and wraps — once thought of as inherently feminine.

The Grooming Lounge in Washington, D.C., has all the amenities of an old-school athletic club, its leather chairs accented by dark wood paneling. The Barber Shop Club in Los Angeles looks like something out of a hard-boiled, 1950s film noir, where the black-and-white tile is as sharp as the straight- edge razors. At Schmidty’s, which opened in Minneapolis in 2002 and soon debuts in Chicago, clients watch ESPN and play billiards while waiting for an apricot scrub.

Tom Schmidt, who opened Schmidty’s after noticing that some men were still reticent about joining the opposite sex in his two other, more traditional salons, says that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy helped markedly increase his walk- in business in 2003. He does note, however, that guys keep coming back because they always leave feeling as great as they look.

“People are simply learning to take better care of themselves,” Schmidt observes. “Good grooming not only changes what you see when you look in the mirror, but how you look at yourself in that mirror.”

The Rough Edges

Eager to see a better man staring back at you? Consider the following six-point grooming guide. Some of these items you can no doubt handle yourself. But if you sense you need extra help with something technical or mystifying, don’t be shy about striding into a local spa and putting a pro on the job.

First, get a mirror. Now, take a top-to-bottom look at yourself.

1. Study Your Hair

Have you changed your haircut or style in the last five years? If not, there’s a good chance you have an unflattering or outdated haircut — perhaps even a comb-over or an orphaned ponytail, left behind when the hair above it disap- peared. Do you see dandruff? Ear hair, nose hair, overgrown eyebrows or a “unibrow”? They all say you aren’t pay- ing enough attention to yourself. Seek advice from a stylist. Ask him or her to recommend someone to help groom your brows. And invest in a nose-hair trimmer!

2. Check Out Your Face

Examine yourself closely in a mirror. Be on the alert for enlarged pores and blackheads (especially around the nose); flaky skin; dull, coated teeth; and chapped lips. A good facial can get your pores de-clogged and your flakes exfoliated, but then you need to follow up with regular care and good products. Bad breath can be related to other health concerns, but regular dental visits combined with brushing after meals, daily flossing and tongue cleaning solves most problems.

3. Tour Your Body

Chest or back hair that climbs over your collar is not a good look. The Fab Five recommend “manscaping” (trimming or waxing) any spots prone to overgrowth, noting that reducing body hair makes your trunk look trimmer and “everything else look bigger.” You can use wax to remove all of the fuzz or a trimmer to thin the growth a bit. Once you’ve removed hair, keep your skin in good condition to prevent ingrown hairs as it regrows: Exfoliate regularly with a loofah or body scrub.

4. Hold Out Your Hands

Uneven, long, dirty or ragged nails are a turn-off to the ladies, but they’re also a sign to others that you’re not good with details. Keep nails tidy and smooth with a clipper, file and nail- brush. Use a pumice stone on calloused spots, and push cuticles back with a towel after showers. Rub in a dab of hand balm before you leave the house in the morning. Do visit a manicurist at least once to get an idea of how your hands are supposed to look. Don’t worry: You can say no to the polish.

5. Focus On Your Feet

First, if you have fungus in your toenails or calluses, see your health professional for a diagnosis and a systemic treatment. Athlete’s-foot powder should not be a fixture in your life. Rough, craggy calluses? A pumice stone is your first line of defense, but if it’s a big job, you may want to see a pro for a pedicure the first time, then do the maintenance yourself. Clip your nails just after you shower, when they’re softer. Then slather your dogs with an herbal-based moisturizer.

6. Seek Aroma Therapy

Funny thing: What you can’t smell, other people can. Strong body odor and too much cologne are both bad. No matter how time-crunched you are, don’t just step in and out of the shower: Really wash (a long-handled back brush extends your reach). After toweling off, apply deodorant and, if it’s your style, a dash of aftershave. If you like cologne, try the Fab Five Hip Tip: “spray” (into the air), “delay” (let the mist fall), “and walk away” (walk through the mist so you get a light, even application, not a drenching).

You Look Marvelous!

Ready to go for the pro? Pick up service menus from a few salons in your area and see which ones appeal to you. Typical prices for popular spa services range as follows:

  • Facials: $50-$100
  • Full-body massage: $50-$125/hr
  • Manicures: $15-$45
  • Pedicures: $30-$65
  • Brow shaping: $10-$25
  • Body waxing: Varies depending on parts waxed
  • Body scrubs: $50-$125

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