1,000 ways to say ‘gorgeous’Are you good-looking in Europe?”
Of all the personal questions he’s gotten in Korea, this is the one that most annoyed Bernard, a blond, blue-eyed German actor. “What kind of question is that?” he asks. “Can someone be ugly in one place and good-looking in others?”
Apparently so. Take Nancy Glendale, a Korean-born American. With her almond eyes, perennially tanned skin and long, jet-black hair, she testifies to being regarded as “hot” by Western men, a quality she says helped her land her husband, a successful New York attorney.
But once, while visiting Korea, she went on a blind date that rattled her self-image. “Can I tell you something?” she says her date told her. “Women like you are not marriage material in Korea. My parents will not like you.”
This affected Ms. Glendale enough that she still vents about it. She was a big hit in Sweden, she wants you to know.
“Do you remember Madonna’s music video mimicking Marilyn Monroe, where she’s surrounded by a dozen handsome suitors?” she says. “When I went to a bar in Stockholm, I was that girl!”
What Ms. Glendale came up against in Korea was, specifically, the fact that her style of beauty ― dark skin, makeup accentuating the “Asian-ness” of her features, a cleavage-revealing pinstripe suit ― is a turnoff to many in the older generation.
But in a larger sense, it’s just the age-old fact that what’s beautiful in one part of the world isn’t necessarily beautiful in another.
No one knows this better than fashion industry professionals. When the Elite modeling agency held an international modeling contest in Seoul for the first time last year, the judges chose two winners. One was for the Korean market, and the other was for the global market.
“What the international market wants from Asian models is a face that evokes the image of ‘mysterious Asia,’ with a straight, lean body,” Calvin Cheng, the regional head of Elite Model Asia-Pacific, told the JoongAng Daily at the time.
Mr. Cheng cited the actress Lucy Liu as an example of what the global market ― in particular, the West ― is looking for in an Asian woman. “Westerners find her gorgeous, but in China, she is considered ugly,” Mr. Cheng asserted.
But this is changing ― and not just where Ms. Liu is concerned.
For years, the dominant images of beauty in the global mass media were of Westerners ― specifically, Caucasians. Because of this, media insiders and media consumers alike became familiar with a broad variety of possibilities when it came to the characteristics and charms of Western models and actors.
The femme fatale, the wholesome small-town girl, the bad boy, the suffering, sensitive type ― there have been Caucasian icons for all of these categories, and many more.
But for models of other ethnicities ― Asian and African, for instance ― it’s been a different story.
For a long time, while the global modeling industry embraced Caucasian models of many styles, African models and Asian models were called upon simply to represent their ethnicities.
For models, a practical result of this was that, at any given time, only a handful of “ethnic” models were sought for global ad campaigns. And from Asian models, what the industry was seeking, on the international level, has been the “mysterious Asia” look.
But within the Asian countries themselves, those traits seen by Westerners as “mysterious” haven’t necessarily been considered desirable.
Hwang Seon-yong, the president of Bless World, an Asia-based entertainment agency, says relatively few beauty types have historically gone over well both in Asia and the West. Those that do, she says, tend to have “classic, ageless beauty” in the face (think Gong Li) and a longish body (think Nicole Kidman).
Traditionally, the ideal Asian “princess” has had a young, aristocratic look, with ivory skin, delicate features, an oval face and a petite figure. Darker skin, an angular face and a more muscular body, in the past, have suggested the working class. And signs of non-Asian features, such as lighter hair or eye color, or a longer nose, were long thought to be almost scandalous.
But Western influence has changed this. Ms. Hwang points to an array of photos of extremely young models whose features almost seem more Caucasian than Asian.
“Asians prefer the youthful and pretty type, with occidental features,” she says. “The Japanese have always loved half-European-half-Asians, but now Koreans are into the trend, too.”
As Western fashion began to influence Japan during the 1960s, pop stars and models braved the scalpels of plastic surgeons. With enlarged eyes, prominent noses and bee-stung lips, a new kind of Asian beauty was born: a cross between the East and the West.
Anglophile Japanese were the first Asians to openly accept biracial entertainers as well as Westerners, while most other Asian countries remained largely conservative. But the famously Korean-centered tastes of Koreans have begun to change in the past decade.
Domestic cosmetic brands may still adhere to domestic faces in their campaigns, but many other youth-oriented companies have used biracial faces in their advertisements.
Hitomi Shigeta, the president of Elite Japan, who established the first international modeling agency in Tokyo 24 years ago, notes that “Asian models from Japan, Korea and China are becoming very international. Classic beauty is always in the market, but the ‘mixed’ look is another strong market, because people find diverse cultural backgrounds interesting.”
What about the dark-skinned, southeastern-Asian type? “They are too exotic [for Asian tastes], and so there’s not much market,” Ms. Shigeta says.
Yoon Yong-o, a representative of Yifi Group, a Shanghai-based entertainment agency, and a business partner of Hwang Seon-yong’s, notes with some surprise that so-called “extremely ethnic-looking” Mongolian models have increasingly been embraced in Western campaigns.
“Westerners think that’s ‘exotic’ ― completely untouched by urbanites and Western influence,” Mr. Yoon says.
“You would think that unsophisticated Chinese models should be polished by working in Korea and Japan, and then go to Europe,” he says. “But, to our surprise, European and American agencies didn’t think so.”
That “ethnic” look ― high cheekbones, angular jaws, a lanky figure ― runs counter to the image of the delicate, aristocratic “princess” that has been a beauty ideal in Asia for so long. But in recent years, such models have been cast in global ad campaigns ― notably for the Benetton clothing company, whose image has long been aggressively “inclusive.”
And these campaigns have not gone unnoticed in Asia, where they seem to be playing their part in diversifying beauty standards.
With new confidence in their potential in the global market, Asian models who might once have been dismissed in their home countries as unusual or even homely are entering the fashion and entertainment industries in greater numbers.
The notion of the pretty blonde as the one and only beauty ideal has never seemed further away.
To promote its brand L’Oreal Paris, for instance, the L’Oreal Group cosmetics company recently used Lee So-ra and Ko So-young in Korea, Gong Li in China and, in America, R&B singer Beyonce Knowles.
“These non-white faces used to be unacceptable in the cosmetics industry,” says L’Oreal Korea CEO Pierre-Yves Arzel.
“There is no standard of beauty today,” he says.
by Ines Cho