Some of the rules:
1. No Smoking. To ensure the girls did not smoke (because Miss Koreas don’t do such things) each of the rooms’ windows were closed shut at all times. Girls were also subject to random room and bag searches.
2. No leaving the premises. None of the girls were allowed outside the hotel even to go to a local market, or buy anything they needed.
3. Girls were to wear their numbers at all times. Each of the girls were given a number so that when they lined up handlers could easily spot who was missing. Kim was #38, Lee, #49.
4. None of the girls were to ever be out of sight. Whether changing into their next outfits, eating at lunch—or inside a bathroom stall, security was to always follow.
“This wasn’t a beauty pageant,” Lee says. “This was a prison full of pretty people.”
The daily schedule was absolutely gruelling, Lee remembers. Each of them woke up every single morning at 5 a.m. which wouldn’t have been so bad if they had proper time to recuperate.
Instead, each contestant was given two to three hours max to sleep. Because the schedule was so tight and there was so much to accomplish throughout the day, girls would find themselves arriving back in their beds around 3 a.m.
After the morning alarm at 5 a.m. each was expected to quickly get ready, eat a small breakfast and then go off to their daily makeup class where they would master techniques for hours upon hours. This was followed by hair, smiling, etiquette, walking, posing and dance classes, among others.
It was difficult for Lee to stay awake. She was utterly exhausted. While the other girls applied their mascara ever so perfectly in their makeup class, Lee would doze off, attempting to get a few more minutes of sleep in her system.
On the other hand, Kim says, “I actually learned so much from these classes. Before I entered the Miss Korea New York pageant I YouTube-d Kim Kardashian applying her makeup. Now I would be able to learn how to master makeup for an Asian face.”
If classes weren’t intense enough, every day the girls were required to shoot one photo shoot after another–each of which might require several costume changes–that would on until the early morning.
After only eight days in the competition, Lee started having doubts that she even wanted to remain in the pageant.
And it made matters only worse that she couldn’t understand the language: some days she’d show up to class wearing the wrong color or arrive at the wrong location. All of which had consequences of having points taken off her overall total score.
Other instances where her score was deducted: Tardiness, talking back, and sleeping in.
So it was only a matter of time until Lee—who became a ticking time bomb—would eventually explode. She realized this one day when she lashed out against handlers who began verbally assaulting her.
“They were yelling at me in Korean, and I yelled back because I didn’t understand,” she says. “It easily escalated. I was complaining to them that in my country (United States) this is so illegal to torture people like this. I was questioning if we had human rights. It became really scary.”
By the eighth day she completely broke down and finally decided she would have no other choice but to leave. Sitting alone in her bed one early morning while the other girls were fast asleep, she began devising a plan to escape.
She realized she couldn’t just walk out of the doors. Not only would handlers not allow it, but she had also signed a contract stating that all girls were required to stay throughout the training process before the actual competition.
Lying there wide awake, while the sun began to creep its way into the day, she finally figured out a loophole.
“At the camp my teeth legitimately started hurting,” she recalls of her wisdom teeth growing in. “I figured this was the only out of the competition and I went with it.”
Packing her bags, she explained to the organizers that because of a medical emergency, she would no longer be able to participate in the competition. To her surprise, they obliged.
She didn’t know it then, but she would go down in pageant history as one of the only girls who left the competition.
But the pageant went on for Heejin Kim and the 54 others. Unlike Lee, Kim wanted to at least place in the top three. And she wanted it badly. So for the next month she sacrificed hours upon hours of sleep and somehow made it to the end.
When the pageant finally came around it was all a blur to her.
“I mean, I was really bloated that day of the competition, that’s really what I remember,” she says, laughing. Kim, you see, had felt uncomfortable going to the bathroom, because of the pageant’s security detail, which was required to wait just outside her stall.
After weeks of training–weeks of security following her every move, sleepless nights, exhausting hours–she walked onto that stage prim, proper, and every bit perfect. Lights shining down on her, she realized the entire country was watching her. It was exhilarating.
Kim didn’t end up getting crowned that night–the title of Miss Korea went to a girl named Ye-bin Yoo. But that was expected: While women from outside of Korea are invited to compete, they’re not allowed to win.
“For me, the Miss Korea pageant really helped me a lot,” Kim says, in retrospect. “I’m so grateful for the entire experience. I learned so much from the other girls, makeup tips, hair tips, and really how to get through life.”
Very diplomatic of her to say, I tell her.
“I don’t see it that way,” she replies. “I honestly met some of the best girls and made so many great memories. More than anything though, life skills. After Miss Korea, I definitely can handle anything. I’m tougher, stronger. I’ve grown up.”
Since the pageant, Kim has returned to Long Island where she’s finishing up her degree in pharmacy at St. John’s University. She hung up her badge and has retired from pageantry, though she hopes that the exposure will help her land a modeling gig. Already, an agent from Barcelona has reached out to her.
Lee, on the other hand, is still trying to close this chapter in her life. When she returned to New York City after leaving the competition early, she says she entered a deep, dark place.
“I’m a really happy person; I’m usually in a good mood, never depressed,” Lee says. “I think I got clinically depressed when I got back to New York. I was stuck in a really dark cloudy place in my head. I was depressed for the first day of my life, ever. I was worried Miss Korea did that to me.”
Currently, Lee is still searching for her next big move and is unemployed. But happily so.
“I’ve put Miss Korea behind me and I’ve finally become my old self–my old, happy self,” she says.
With that, the Miss Korea competition still lives on with a brand new batch of hopefuls trying their luck at becoming the country’s next new face.
The pageant is currently working on Miss Korea 2014 and will be holding local competitions in the new year.
The Miss Korea New York chapter, sponsored by The Korea Times, has not responded to any of Fashionista’s e-mails or calls for comment.