Its luster lost, Miss Korea’s crown now a relic

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Its luster lost, Miss Korea’s crown now a relic


Miss Korea contestants in 1978. The beauty pageant, whose 57th edition runs tonight, has become an entertainment show that interests few. [JoongAng Ilbo]

“Miss Korea,” the latest song by Lee Hyo-ri, one of Korea’s most influential pop divas, is topping weekly charts and making headlines in recent days.

In the song, she sings, “I’m a Miss Korea / I am the world’s coolest girl .?.?. Would luxury bags make me shine? / Is there anything I wouldn’t do to get beautiful?”

The singer, who released her first studio album in three years, said that the song - which she composed and wrote - seeks to give hope and encouragement to today’s women and is based on the motif of Miss Korea, which is something that she had dreamed of becoming when she was young.

While many people might have heard of Lee Hyo-ri’s “Miss Korea,” what most people don’t know is what’s going on with the real Miss Korea, Korea’s major pageant show, which is in its 57th annual edition and is being held tonight.

Fifty-six contestants that made it to the final round will find out who’s the beauty that represents Korea at 7 p.m. at the Sejong Center for Performing Arts in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul. There will be seven winners who will get not just the tiara but also the prize money and the opportunity to take part in major international beauty pageant shows, including Miss Universe, for the next two years.


Miss Korea contestants in 2009. Experts say the show is controversial in terms of gender equality and lacks competitiveness as entertainment content, resulting in public indifference toward what used to be a nationwide event. [JoongAng Ilbo]

The Hankook Ilbo, the organizer of the event, attempted to drum up people’s attention for the event with photos of the finalists who were on the 25-day training camp. They live together and participate in several daily group events, in which they are observed by judges. The media institution posted photos of the finalists in swimsuits posing for cameras at a water park, with provocative headlines like “2013 Miss Korea Contestants Show Off Their Beautiful Legs,” “2013 Miss Korea Contestants Wet in Waters” and “2013 Miss Korea Contestants, ‘We Love Playing in Waters.’ ”

Still, people’s interest in the show is at a historic low. “Miss Korea? Does anyone care about that anymore?” one renowned expert in gender issues questioned the Korea JoongAng Daily. “Miss Korea is still being held?” another professional in women’s rights issues asked.

Before the 2000s, when women’s rights activists strongly protested the event, Miss Korea used to be a national event: It was aired live through terrestrial broadcasters and was something that many households would watch. The winner was instantly catapulted to stardom, hosting entertainment shows, getting major film roles, and signing deals with big shots to be the faces of major companies in their ads.

But it wasn’t just the feminist movement that the embattled show had to deal with. With the influx of newer and hotter entertainment content like reality shows and audition programs as well as the sea ofgirl and boy bands, Miss Korea never really regained its former glory. It also dealt with one scandal after another, like bribes given by contestants’ parents and stylists.

The Korea JoongAng Daily examined the history and scandals of this controversial show, as well as what experts think of its future.

Some say there is no such thing as bad publicity.

If that’s true, this year’s Miss Korea has something to smile about.

In late April, the Daily Mail of the U.K., the Huffington Post of the United States and the People’s Daily of China reported about how Miss Korea contestants look strikingly alike.

The Daily Mail said, “cosmetic procedures have left all the contestants looking the same,” reminding the readers that even Psy had once said that “his record label had urged him to get plastic surgery.”

The Huffington Post wrote, “Do Korean beauty pageants have a Photoshop problem? A plastic surgery problem? Both?” but also pointed out that this isn’t something limited to Korea as pageant participants tend to fit a certain standard of beauty, no matter the country.


Becoming a Miss Korea was a big honor back in the day, as shown in this car parade in the Gwanghwamun area, central Seoul, in 1959. The pageant was also aired live on terrestrial TV stations.

The photos of 20 Miss Korea wannabes - which are not those of finalists but contestants in the regional competition in Daegu, south of Seoul - was first posted in an Japanese blog that has anti-Korean sentiments, and then on the U.S. social networking site Reddit. The photos on Reddit - titled “Korea’s plastic surgery mayhem is finally converging on the same face” - garnered over 3,000 responses, with a majority of them criticizing how Korean girls go under the knife to get a Westernized look, eventually losing their individuality.

Korean media also reported about the incident not long after. While critics said it’s a shame that the so-called “plastic surgery monsters” - a term popularly used in Korea in recent days - are becoming the “representative beauty” of Korea, supporters claimed it’s a personal choice to get plastic surgery and participants of beauty pageants in other countries also go out of their way to conform to certain standards.

The explanation of the Hankook Ilbo, the organizer of the show, was this: “When contestants come to the training camp, they have to give up their individuality to some degree for the sake of fairness,” it told a local entertainment news program. “We give them the same T-shirts and shorts and cosmetic products. So they could look alike.”

Kim Man-hee, the so-called beauty director of Miss Korea, also told Korean media that “[contestants could look similar] when their makeup and hair are done by one stylist at the same beauty parlor.”


One scandal after another

Miss Korea began in 1957, as the country was recovering from the Korean War (1950-53), and it has been taking place every year since.

For decades, Miss Korea enjoyed nationwide attention, and the winners became - and still are - huge TV stars as soon as they clinched their crowns. They include some of the biggest names in Korea’s small screen and film world today, like Ko Hyun-jung, Kim Sung-ryung, Yum Jung-ah, among others.

But since the 1990s, Miss Korea began losing its sparkle.

For starters, one scandal after another emerged. In 1993, one of the organizers was imprisoned for taking bribes from the family and stylists of 1990 winner Seo Jeong-min. Seo was stripped of her title. It was revealed then that money is what makes Miss Korea, not true beauty inside and out. Also, the media reported about how a certain beauty parlor pocketed huge sums of money for producing numerous Miss Korea winners and abusing its reputation.

But it wasn’t until the 2000s that the ugly side of the beauty pageant really began to be uncovered: That it treats women, their faces and bodies as commodities. Women’s rights groups - like iF - began an “anti-Miss Korea movement,” and their work bore fruit. In 2002, Miss Korea was banned from being broadcast live on terrestrial stations. Since then, it’s only been shown through cable channels.

But even after the feminist movement somewhat subsided, the event never really regained its former glory.

“Korean media is already filled with beautiful women whose looks are standardized. It’s to the point where it’s rather pathological. People are tired of them,” Lee Na-mi, an expert in analytical psychology, a Seoul National University instructor and author, shared her views with Korea JoongAng Daily. “So people don’t need to watch Miss Korea to see beautiful women anymore.”

Miss Korea also failed to make a leap as competitive entertainment content, media watchers say, and continued to make headlines with disgraceful incidents.

In 2008, Kim Ju-yeon (who came in third in 2007 Miss Korea) revealed that she dated a football player, got pregnant with his child and had an abortion. Kim was stripped of her title. That same year, Kim Hee-kyeong (who came in third in 2008 Miss Korea) was found to have been featured in pornographic material. Kim also was stripped of her title but alleged the organizers knew about the pornographic material and said it was OK.

Seeking a turnaround

In the past decade or so, many local beauty pageants - like “Anchovy Lady” in Busan, “Chili Lady” in Yeongyang, North Gyeongsang, and “Sweet Persimmon” in Gimhae, North Gyeongsang, named after the local delicacy or festivals - also disappeared.

In the early 2000s, with the feminist movement and experts’ assessment that such events proved ineffective in revitalizing local economies, Korea’s culture ministry asked local governments not to overdo such pageants that cost hefty sums of money. In 2005, the Korea Tourism Organization supported such a move, saying that “although local governments have held such events competitively, the actual PR effects of such pageants remain unclear and there can be other tourism products.”

In response, plus in light of rapidly declining youth population in rural areas, local governments got rid of beauty pageants. Media reports speculate the number of such events declined from about 150 in the early 2000s to 70 in the late 2000s. Still, some pageants continued in a slightly modified format, like changing “Lady” into “ajumma” or “ajeossi” - which are terms referring to middle-aged women and men, respectively.

Meanwhile, in attempts to regain people’s attention, the organizing committee announced a host of measures it’s taking to stay in sync with the present time through an article in the Hankook Ilbo.

For starters, it’s teaching contestants how to do their own hair and makeup, so that on the day of the final competition they would have to do all their own grooming. The committee said that the new measure aims to prevent certain beauty parlors from asking for money from the contestants and dispel concerns that only those with money can compete in Miss Korea.

The committee got rid of the height requirement to tackle criticisms that they are looking at contestants’ outer looks only and is holding an information session every year in efforts to lessen the event’s negative image and bias toward it.

But the response has been lukewarm.

“It doesn’t really change the fundamental problems,” Lee Yun-so of the Fair Media, an organization that studies the media’s portrayal of women, and related to Korean Womenlink, a women’s rights group, told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “Miss Korea may have severed its ties with beauty parlors but is now closely working with other commercial entities, like plastic surgery clinics. But most importantly, it doesn’t change the fundamental issue that the show is judging women by their looks and resumes.”

Pageants and surgery

As the case with Reddit indicates, most of the scandals surrounding Miss Korea today have to do with plastic surgery.

Last year, allegations emerged that winner Kim Yu-mi got plastic surgery. Kim acknowledged that she got parts of her face done. “I never said I was born beautiful,” she was quoted as saying. The incident made people criticize the show, saying, “It’s a competition between plastic surgeons: Who’s done a better job?” Plastic surgeons, like Kang Chang-gyun, also admits that the contestants resort to nip tuck to win the crown. “They would resort to all kinds of means to become pretty - plastic surgeries or other treatment,” he told JTBC recently.

Asked about judges’ principles on plastic surgery by Korean media, the Hankook Ilbo said there is a category in the application form, and applicants can admit whether they’ve had plastic surgery. “If the surgery makes them look unnatural or over-the-top, judges deduct points,” Lee Sang-seok, a plastic surgeon who was once a judge in the show, was quoted as saying by Korean media.

Against this backdrop, two companies that developed plastic surgery-related mobile applications - namely GoodDak and BabiTalk - are holding what’s called a beauty pageant for those who went under the knife. The so-called Miss Babi will be selected through votes between June 3 and 20, and the winner will get 8 million won ($7,096) in prize money. “We are not trying to encourage a superficial world,” Park Jeong-mo, CEO of BabiTalk, told local news institution OhMyNews. “Although it’s regrettable that many people choose to get plastic surgery, it’s not something that people should be blamed about.”


An image from Miss Universe in 2007. Winners from tonight’s Miss Korea can take part in international beauty pageants, including Miss Universe. [JoongAng Ilbo]

Does anyone care?

But a bigger hurdle for Miss Korea than the stigma attached to plastic surgery - perhaps the biggest challenge of all - is people’s indifference. In other words, does anyone care about what’s going on with Miss Korea or what happens to it in the future?

Most of the sociologists and gender issues experts the Korea JoongAng Daily spoke with seemed to agree that it’s highly unlikely that Miss Korea will be people’s favorite show as it used to be, and that in today’s world, there’s no place for a show like Miss Korea.

“Nobody really cares about how Miss Korea should change, what the problems are anymore,” Eom Eul-soon, the head of iF, told the Korea JoongAng Daily in an e-mail interview. “The only people who care about Miss Korea are those that make money out of it - those that alter women’s faces and bodies and those who judge who did the best job in such a transformation.”

Shin Gyeong-a, a sociology professor at Hallym University, said that the event will disappear with time and it should disappear. “Just like we view polygamy as a social system that’s not in sync with the present time, in decades or so people will view Miss Korea out of touch with the times and even uncivilized.”

Oh Han Suk-hee, a famous gender issues expert, lecturer and author, also shared similar views with the Korea JoongAng Daily. “In Kenya, Miss Kenya is picked based on how gracefully she walks - just like a giraffe, given that the country is known for its wild animals. Miss Korea is a Miss Korea when there are features of Mongol-like elongated eyes and a flat nose, not a Western face,” she says.

“Jin, Seon, Mi [the first top nominations in Miss Korea] each stand for Truth, Good-heartedness and Beauty. Plastic surgery is not truthful, competition is not good-hearted and outer beauty is not what beauty is all about.”

By Kim Hyung-eun []
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