Paint fingernails, then dab on foundation. Lots of foundation. Lipstick and eye shadow go on next. Slip into a comfortable blouse, apply one final blast of VO5 to the hair -- and voila!

A guy is ready for a night on the town. Not just any guy, baby: A trend-setting Center Guy.

Who he, you ask?

Named after the busy Center Gai shopping strip in Tokyo's teemingly trendy Shibuya, where they first appeared early last year, Center Guys are the male version of yamamba (mountain hags), or mamba for short -- those teenage girls who run around in clownish makeup, lugging plastic shoulder bags full of who-knows-what.

What kinda man would want to copy that act? A man like 18-year-old Tsuyoshi Iwabuchi.

A former hip-hop B-Boy and, before that, Yankee bad-boy, Iwabuchi found himself attracted to women's clothing and late last year started showing up at Center Gai dressed like a mamba. There, he was far from alone, as this sizeable male subculture with an average age of about 18 is always being featured on TV and in fashion magazines like Men's Egg.

One theory has it that Center Guys dress up as a way of getting closer to mambas, whom they respect for being outspoken and spunky -- though to many they're simply foulmouthed and crude. Indeed, one colorful young woman on Center Gai as good as confirmed it, saying: "It's because they look like girls that they're so kawaii(cute)."

But Iwabuchi, who studies business management at college by day, says his reason for the move was purer than that: "I just wanted to stand out."

Oldies' aversion

All the same, he did start dating a mamba, and now he and Tomomi, who's slightly younger, can be found most any Friday, sitting on a sheet of cardboard on Center Gai, relaxing and swapping makeup.

Away from that zany locale, though, when Iwabuchi waltzes on to a train with his funky, dyed hair, older folks often vacate their seats. As he put it: "Senior citizens are always saying, 'Well, that's the end of Japan.' "

What the silver set might not realize is that it takes dedication and perseverance to be a Center Guy -- virtues that surely even the frumpiest old-timer can appreciate.

By way of dedication, there is the 100,000 yen Iwabuchi spends every month on women's clothing of the Alba Rosa brand and other accoutrements de rigueur -- money he says comes both from his own savings and an allowance from his parents.

(Iwabuchi's mom, a hospital receptionist, and his high-school sis, always provide last-minute tips on color coordination. Dad the salaryman keeps his opinion to himself.)

As for perseverance, Iwabuchi spends hours every month practicing para-para dancing -- which is a bit like semaphore set to trance music -- so he looks his best when he performs at giant mamba get-togethers, some of which can draw as many as 1,000 participants.

To Iwabuchi, though, nothing matters more than making his face kawaii, which generally takes him 1 1/2 hours to achieve.

Imagine all the decisions that need to be made!

Should he apply a tasteful number of Disney stickers on his cheeks -- say, 10 -- or virtually cover his face with them like they do down in Osaka? Iwabuchi opts for restraint.

And to achieve that signature mamba look of first-degree sunburn, does he use MAC-brand foundation (praised for going on smoothly and evening out complexion) or stage makeup (the kind actors use to play black roles)? This time, he goes for the high impact of stage makeup. "The blacker the better," he explains.

All this dressing up as women, though, may beg the question: Are Center Guys secretly gay?

"There's absolutely no correlation," Iwabuchi responds coolly, repeating for the record that ostentation, not sexual preference, is his sole personal motivation. He does see Guy-ness as a sign of social change, though. "Men can now talk to each other about what clothes look cute," he says. "Japan was so uptight before."

Historical continuum

For all their gaudy shock value, Center Guys are, after all, part of a historical continuum in Japan. For years, groups of kids in caked-on makeup have hung out around nearby Harajuku Station -- many of them men dressing as women. In the late 1990s, too, men of all ages were visiting makeover salons amid the bishonen (pretty boy) vogue. And as for kabuki, well its actors have been impersonating women since the 17th century, when females were banned from the stage.

Still, precedent or no, Center Guys' popularity may be peaking as quickly as it blossomed.

Word has it that some factions of mambas say Guys tarnish their image and want the men out of their sight. Many music clubs also turn them away, while the police and gangsters, too, are said to be chasing them away from Center Gai -- where passersby often spew the word "kimoi (gross)" in their direction.

Whatever happens, Iwabuchi seems resigned. He'll have to change his hair back after graduation, anyway, and if he lands a good job that'll be the end of his Shibuya late nights.

"There's the future to think about," he says. "And about age 20 is the cut-off."