A new era for the tiara?To many contestants in the Miss Korea 2005 pageant, Geum Na-na, Miss Korea 2002, is an enviable symbol of the aspirations of a career woman.
The first medical student to compete in the pageant since it began in 1957, and the only Miss Korea to have gone on to enter Harvard University, Ms. Geum has become a model for many young, ambitious women in Korea who dream of being known for their beauty and grace, as well as their intelligence.
That includes Choi Lim, a student of international politics at the University of Toronto, who wants to become an international lawyer when she graduates.
Ms. Choi was recently crowned Miss Gyeongbuk in a regional beauty pageant in her hometown of Pohang, North Gyeongsang province, where she is staying with her family while she takes a year off from her Canadian university.
“It’s an old story that Miss Korea selects women based on conventional standards of beauty,” she says. “Everyone here is very bright and has unique personalities. Nobody here wants to become a Cinderella.”
Ms. Choi was in a blue swimsuit on a recent afternoon, getting ready for a photo shoot on the lawn of the Mayfield Hotel. There, the 53 regional winners who will compete in the Miss Korea pageant on July 2 were spending three weeks in workshops.
As Ms. Choi and the other Miss Korea contestants took off their robes to pose for the photographer, men from an insurance company, which also happened to be holding a workshop at the hotel, swarmed in to watch the scene.
“Honestly, I don’t see the fuss about the swimsuit competition,” Ms Choi said breezily. “It’s good that our personalities show through different kinds of outfits. But it’s okay that we get a chance to be evaluated on what we are.”
The contestants may not mind, but there are certainly others who do.
In 2001, the Miss Korea pageant, which every year is one of the largest public events held in the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts’ main hall, was banned from being aired on public broadcasting stations because of vocal protests from women’s groups. Public broadcasters have not carried it since.
Last year, a cable channel affiliated with the Korean Broadcasting System announced its intention to air the pageant, but without showing the swimsuit competition. That wasn’t enough for the feminist groups, who said a publicly funded company shouldn’t be objectifying women, whether they’re in swimsuits or not. From 1999 until last year, a satirical Anti-Miss Korea pageant was an annual event.
The pageants’ organizers have become extremely media-sensitive since the protests. The swimsuit competition, which has long been zeroed in on (not just in Korea) as symbolic of everything that’s wrong with beauty pageants, was removed from the main competition in 2002.
Instead, photos of the contestants in swimsuits were printed in catalogues and given to judges as part of the unofficial screening process. News photographers are restricted to bust shots of the contestants in swimsuits.
“We have been bashed and bruised,” says Lee Hyun-geol, coordinator of the business department at the Hankuk Ilbo, which sponsors the Miss Korea pageant. “For the past few years our reputation has withered. But if this event hadn’t been run by a media company, it would have produced all kinds of messy scandals. And it’s not like the event will disappear, either.”
In order to revamp the pageant’s image, the organizers seem to have come up with other ways to develop a modern image for Miss Korea, such as selecting contestants from a diverse range of national, academic and personal backgrounds.
Of the 53 contestants this year, one fifth are Koreans living abroad, some of whom are citizens of other countries. One, Caroline Kim, who will represent Hawaii in the pageant, is ethnically half-European.
Academic background plays a prominent role in today’s Miss Korea. Except for two teenage contestants, who are high school students in the United States, all of the women competing in the pageant have either received or are in the process of earning college or postgraduate degrees.
Kim Ju-hee, Miss Seoul, is a senior communications major at Yonsei University. Sim Han-wol, Miss Incheon, is a theology student who says she wants to be a social worker. Baek Ji-hyeon, Miss Gyeongnam, studies tourism and wants to be a successful businesswoman. Other professions, such as law, journalism, academia, art criticism and interpretation, are cited as career goals by the pageant’s contestants.
In the past, the women who became Miss Korea could be easily divided into two groups. On one side were those who used the title as a stepping stone to get into the entertainment business. On the other side were the Miss Koreas who attracted publicity by marrying men from affluent families.
Indeed, part of the unparalleled glamour of being Miss Korea came from the fact that she was guaranteed to marry the son of a jaebol family if she wanted to.
For years, the system that produced Miss Korea candidates was backed by major beauty salons. Seri Beauty Salon, which produced numerous Miss Korea candidates during the 1980s, the golden era of its television coverage, was even dubbed “the Miss Korea Academy.”
“That’s an old story,” says Mr. Lee of the Hankuk Ilbo. “Now half of the candidates join the pageant as individuals without being represented by certain beauty salons. That’s a relatively small number compared to the past, when major salons had special staff who went around to ‘recruit’ potential candidates for Miss Korea.”
Still, half of the pageant’s winners now are sponsored by major salons, which are experienced in nurturing celebrities and know the mechanics of the industry.
“There are so many things you have to train yourself in if you want to win,” says Park Si-hyeon, who lost the regional competition in Daejeon twice before winning this year. “It takes so much effort to become Miss Korea. By the time of the competition, a friend often becomes a rival.”
As Ms. Choi sees it, the critical difference between Miss Korea today and 15 years ago is that many contestants hope to use the title not to break into entertainment, but to get ahead in their professional careers.
“I want to use the title of Miss Korea to actively pursue a job in my profession,” said Sim Han-wol, 19, who is a sophomore at Seoul Theological University. “In that sense, I think that Miss Korea is still the dream of many women.”
For contestants today, it’s getting easier to find more role models like Ms. Geum. Kim Ga-rim, Miss Daegu of 2001, is a journalist with the Korea Broadcasting System. Kim So-hyung, a doctor of oriental medicine in her late 30s, got some media attention herself after pointing out that she had been Miss Korea in college.
Several past Miss Koreas have been involved in unpleasant scandals related to adultery, drugs and fraud. The first Miss Korea in 1957, Gang Gui-hee, who eventually became a lobbyist for a French rail company, caused a storm when she included bribery allegations about the company in her autobiography.
Ms. Park, one of the few contestants who will flatly say that she wants to be an actress, believes that contestants still aspire to break into the entertainment industry, but don’t say so publicly ― perhaps because the pageant is linked in the public mind with an obsession with power and success.
“I don’t think things have changed that much,” Ms. Park said. “There may be more people whose initial goal is to end up in the entertainment industry, but they just don’t say it out loud, because it doesn’t sound good.”
by Park Soo-mee