Yesterday, in part one of this series, we met Miss Korea beauty pageant contestant Heejin Kim, and took a closer look at the country’s plastic surgery obsession. Today, we’re going behind the scenes with the girls as they prep to compete for the title of Miss Korea, to reveal just how gruelling training for a beauty pageant can be.
The Miss Korea pageant has traditionally allowed countries outside South Korea with large populations of Koreans to participate. Every year three from Los Angeles (the city with the biggest population of Koreans outside of South Korea), three from New York, and one from Washington DC are allowed to compete. In total, 56 girls head to Seoul each year to compete for the title.
Besides Heejin Kim, one of the three New York winners was Glory Lee, a recent graduate from the University of Maryland. Up until recently, the 23-year-old worked in administrative finance.
Currently, Lee is enrolled at FIT for a couple of courses and wants to eventually pursue her own business, possibly a makeup line or maybe dabble in culinary school.
“I’d love to be on Chopped one day,” she says. “I figured being in this competition and labeled a Miss Korea contestant would make me interesting enough for the show.”
For now, she blogs at NYCGlory.com.
“One thing that I have to mention is that you’re at a huge disadvantage in the competition if you’re committed to a career or if the competition sees that you’re ambitious,” Lee says. “It makes [the competition] wonder if you’re committed to Miss Korea.”
Lee admitted that in order to compete, each of the girls had to sign a contract that they would be completely celibate–free of any and all relationships. At the time, Lee was engaged to her fiance. She later decided it’d be best to postpone her wedding for an entire year so there wouldn’t be any conflicts.
“It might sound crazy,” Kim says. “But the judges are looking for girls who are completely focused and who really want the crown. They want a blank canvas where they can paint the girls’ futures.”
When the girls finally arrived in Seoul, they were taken to a beautiful resort just outside the city.
Immediately after arrival they were separated from their mothers who had accompanied them on the trip–which came as a surprise, especially to Lee who relied on her mother to speak on her behalf since she wasn’t fluent in Korean.
It was also there that they sized up their competition for the very first time.
“We go through an orientation process when you first meet your competition and size them up while comparing yourself to them,” Lee remembers.
She noticed that at 5’6” she was one of the shortest girls there.
One by one, Lee recalls, she observed each of the girls. Most looked so different from her even if they were ethnically Korean. For one, all of the other girls had porcelain skin, and thicker, shorter eyebrows.
“In America we copy people in Hollywood with arched eyebrows that are thinner. [In Korea], girls have straight, short thick eyebrows. And they’re pale–ghostly pale. In America we’re just more tan, we love the sun.”
Then there was that weight issue. For the first time in her life, Lee, a size 2, felt she was the biggest girl in the room.
“In the States I’m really skinny but here, I was definitely the biggest in the room,” she said.
Another difference? Most girls in the room had undergone some sort of cosmetic surgery, whether a minor procedure, like double eyelid surgery, or more invasive surgery, like rhinoplasty.
“It was obvious that more than fifty percent of the girls had [the double eyelid] surgery,” Lee says. “I could see when they looked down, their scars. And what real woman has a pencil straight nose?”
Lee–who has natural double eyelids–says she used to be completely against plastic surgery. But after being in Seoul for a couple of days, she says she’s become more open to it.
“Everywhere you go there are advertisements to get plastic surgery,” she says. “Women walk home bandaged up like it’s completely normal. I do think that getting plastic surgery gives [girls] a higher self-esteem.”
“And I don’t think they would have that confidence if it weren’t for these enhancements. A lot of the girls were comfortable admitting it, they’re not ashamed of it at all.”
Lee says she didn’t think there was any competitive advantage to having an all-natural face.
“Everyone has an opportunity to get plastic surgery,” she says. “It’s not an unfair advantage [to have not had surgery] because I could have gotten it myself. I think it’s an exception for Miss Korea. In any other pageant it’s not respected but Korea it is. It tells the judges that the girls are serious about their careers. Ninety-nine percent of the reason why they go in is that there’s a much bigger and better chance of becoming an actor, singer or entertainer. So this is great exposure for them.”
“Going into it I thought that Western beauty was the advantage,” Lee says. “In Miss Korea they look for traditional Korean beauty. The more Korean, the better. No one in Korea is going to their doctors and saying they want to look like a Hollywood celebrity. They just want to look more beautifully Korean.”
Which is possibly a good explanation as to why no Miss Korea has ever won a Miss Universe pageant. The closest was Ha-Nui Lee who came in fourth in 2007–one of the sexiest (and curviest) women to have come from South Korea in a while. While Miss Universe looks for bronzed skin, sexy curves, and a bombshell body, Miss Korea looks for the opposite: slender bodies, small faces, and porcelain complexions.
“Your confidence level drops to zero when you’re surrounded by all these beautiful women,” Lee says.
But she had no time to think about that for too long. The demanding schedule proved to be more than she could handle. Everything was militant and the handlers were extremely strict, she says. No girl was allowed to speak up, nor were they allowed any form of privacy.