In defense of a man's right to be just a pretty face

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In defense of a man's right to be just a pretty face

The master of ceremonies of the beauty pageant turned to one contestant, a particularly graceful,enticing piece of eye-candy, and asked, "What part of you do you think is the most attractive?" Without skipping a beat, the leggy God's-gift said, "I'm afraid I cannot select just one, for all of my features are equally stunning."

Just in case the audience ?150-odd women in their 20s and 30s ?had any doubts, the contestant strutted provocatively across the stage and executed a few titillating turns and coquettish pauses. Then he danced superbly to high-energy pop music for a few minutes before ripping off his shirt for a grand finale. At that, the 50-something MC reproached the contestant for vulgarity, but the audience cried out, "Leave him alone!"

That bold and unbridled display of high-caliber beauty won Bang Seung-jun, 23, the "most photogenic" award over 22 opponents in the men's beauty contest. Yes, a men's beauty contest ?or, as some of the audience began calling it, a "pretty-boy contest."

The event was organized by the Internet company Joy Hunt and its chief director, Choi Yun-yeop. The 23 men competed in talent shows, modeling exhibitions, celebrity impersonations and some other, more unconventional categories, like breaking chopsticks after jabbing them up their nostrils.

The men did all they could to stand out; but it was the soft, sensitive guys who won over the audience more than the beefcake brutes. One contestant, Park Ji-yu, boasted that he could down 25 bottles of beer in quick fashion but stay sober; the crowd roundly jeered him. Another, Jeong Han, at a lean 6-foot-2 and 69 kilograms, tried to prove that his Roman nose was not bought - by squeezing it up and down. Hong Bong-pil's strategy totally bombed: He tried to appeal to the women's intellects by opining on the war against terrorism and its implications for the local economy.

Instead of a swimsuit competition, the audience was treated to a song-and-dance routine the 23 hunks performed while clad in snow-white T-shirts and loose, knee-length shorts.

"This pretty-boy contest was designed to achieve gender equality," Mr. Choi explained. "Men have been deprived of displaying their pulchritude for centuries; now we're fighting for our rights for the peace of humankind."

Quite frankly, the event failed to measure up to such lofty ideals. Nevertheless, the optimistic Adonises, aged roughly 18 to 25, shone with confidence and pride. They were chosen from a pool of 300 applicants who had submitted profiles to the Joy Hunt site, which provides general entertainment information. More than 4,000 women members of the site voted on the most qualified dreamboats.

Initially Joy Hunt planned to present the grand prize to the handsomest, first runner-up to the toughest, second to the sexiest, and third to the best "pretty boy." But the Web site members protested: The consensus was "Who thinks anymore that tough guys are attractive? We want pretty boys." Joy Hunt obliged and elevated "prettiest" to first runner-up, demoting "toughest" to third.

"Clearly, Korean women have changed," Mr. Choi said.

The grand prize went to a 22-year-old college student, Choi Seong-wook, who measures 195 centimeters tall and tips the scales at a slim 72 kilos. The MC placed a golden laurel wreath on the victor's head, presented him with the blue ribbon, and handed him a check for 10 million won ($7,700).

Overcome with joy, Mr. Choi gushed afterward to the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition: "I thank God for my good looks, I feel truly blessed."

He added that he felt especially lucky because he had been tormented for days by a couple of pesky pimples conspicuously camping on his right cheek. Miraculously, he said, they disappeared just before the contest. "I was trying everything," the top lady-killer explained, "from plaster facial massages to medicines and creams my dermatologist gave me."

The event was hatched in September when a controversial book, "I Love Pretty Boys," was published. According to the author, Nam Seung-hee, a young culture critic, a pretty boy is cute and submissive, and women who expect to be told they are pretty are old-fashioned and weak. "Women should be calling men pretty instead," she wrote.

Ms. Nam is a protege of a Yonsei University professor, Ma Gwang-su, whose 1989 book "I Love Gaudy Women" was blasted by conservatives as obscene. He was even imprisoned for his racy writings.

Ms. Nam posits that the era of macho has passed and a new age of pretty boys has arrived. Until the last couple of years, tough guys took top billing. It was de rigueur for celebrities to ostentatiously deck themselves head-to-toe in leather and rev their Harleys. Their visages had to convey rumble-ready ferocity, along with the unbending will to protect their meek and delicate dates. But now the entertainment scene is peopled with young actors and singers described as kkot minam, "flowery men." They are tall, lean, lithe and light-complexioned, with practically all "toughness" expunged.

The new trend has not been driven solely by women's desires. Ms. Nam says that men are eagerly riding the pretty-boy wave. "After all," she says, "it's the man who gets liberated from all those stereotypes that restrict his ego from freely expressing his beauty."

Evidently the men concur. An acting major at Kookmin University, Park In-chul, 21, one of the contestants, said: "The best compliment that a guy from my generation can get is that he is cute and pretty." To win recognition, he said, young men don't hesitate to actively display their charms. "I'm no exception, which is the main reason that I'm so popular, and I'm pretty happy about that."

Supporting these theories, many beauty shops have sprung up lately that specialize in services for men, and newspapers run regular stories on products and grooming methods men can use to fine-tune their looks.

The movement to ensure a man's right to be pretty probably has a way to go. But one thing is clear in Ms. Nam's message: Today's women are getting more and more powerful and clamoring for men to unleash their softer sides.

Mr. Choi, the grand prize winner, fought back tears as he said, "This is a truly a great honor, and I will remember this night until the day I die."

by Chun Su-jin

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