It’s the cliché’ story that every model and actress claims when they’re plucked from obscurity: ‘I never imagined I would become famous’. But for Soo Min, participating in the Miss Korea 2018 pageant was a way to boost her résumé and extend her comfort zone. While looking for news reporting positions, she chanced upon a Miss Korea advertisement online. She was immediately intrigued by the new experiences and opportunities it could present. Soo Min spontaneously decided to apply, despite having no background in pageantry. “We often say the only way to overcome your fear and grow as a person is to challenge yourself,” Soo notes.
The application process demanded more than just good looks. Soo Min submitted complex essays in the initial digital application and subsequently underwent an intense series of interviews that delved into global affairs and academic knowledge. The process was rigorous and included several screening rounds that spanned four months: “Once you enter the local state pageant and make it to the top three and earn your state title, then you are eligible to enter the Miss Korea national competition,” Soo Min reminisces.
Upon acceptance into the Miss Korea pagaent, Soo Min says she felt like a fish out of water. Trainers at the competition would examine her face thoroughly and constantly point out problems with her appearance, whilst offering solutions to fix her apparent flaws. Soo Min was told that she had too many dark spots and freckles, which required heavier foundation and concealer coverage. Her eyes were deemed too small and she was told to apply more dramatic false eyelashes to create the illusion of bigger, more defined eyes. Soo Min states that they even criticised her hairline, urging her to fix the wispy baby hairs with hairspray.
Though she was told to project a perfect image, she wasn’t comfortable with the illusory aesthetic of flawlessness. Soo Min would look in the mirror and see a stranger. “It didn’t look like me,” she said. Soo Min decided to buck the trend and apply makeup that enabled her natural beauty to shine though. “Though you can see my dark spots and freckles in the photos taken when I was crowned, I’m okay with it. It looks more like me,” she says.
Having defied the conventional styling requirements, Soo Min was surprised when the judges called her name. After the MC listed the runner ups, Soo Min was certain she could quickly rush off stage once the winner was called. She was initially relieved that she didn’t win a place in the contest, as she yearned to take off her heels, go home, and eat delicious food with her family. “But then, they called my name. I honestly could not think of anything at that moment. My mind just went blank,” Soo Min still recalls with disbelief.
When Soo Min first received an onslaught of comments attacking her appearance following her pageant win, she was shocked. “It was hard to believe that people could say such hurtful things to a person they don’t know,” she says. Vicious comments such as “the regular girl on the street is more beautiful than this ugly face” and “she’s so overweight and out of shape” led to her ultimately closing her Instagram account.
People speculated that Soo Min was so “unremarkable” that her win must have been the result of a quid pro quo; rumours emerged that her ‘wealthy’ parents bribed the judges to secure her crown. Soo Min says these attacks deeply affected her parents, who come from humble origins. While she concedes that she initially felt weighed down and distraught over the attacks, her parent’s pain caused her the most suffering. “Knowing that my family also had to see that hurt me the most,” Soo Min sighs.
After a brief period of self doubt, Soo Min sought to change her perspective and tune out the white noise. Instead of focusing on the criticism she couldn’t control, she decided to appreciate what she had in life and channel her energy into personal development. Soo Min used this time to laser in on her own goals and prioritise things that could make a tangible difference in life, such as creating a concrete map of how she could achieve her dreams. “It took me a good amount of courage and time to train myself to view things positively and take action, but I’m thankful for this experience. I got to learn how to take ownership of my life,” Soo Min says.
Despite the chaos that ensued, she’s grateful that winning the pageant gave her the opportunity to help others. The highlight was working with Childfund Korea to help children with disabilities live a healthy and fulfilling life. She also raised money for children’s education and assisted with community projects that helped even out the playing field for disadvantaged children.
“It taught me the true joy of my own life too. Even the smallest thing, like bringing a smile to a child’s face, gives me joy. It gave me a sense of contentment and self-worth too,” she says.
Soo Min once felt a strong sense of pressure to conform to conventional employment goals. However, Miss Korea has broadened her mind and highlighted the suite of possibilities that exist beyond the typical 9 to 5. “I worked as a spokesperson for social causes, hosted TV shows, emceed for international forums, and now I’m working as a content creator, producing videos for my Youtube channel,” she says.
Ultimately, Soo Min wants people to know that they don’t have to tick a certain criteria to be considered beautiful. Soo Min shares: “Regardless of what people say, your beauty can only be defined by you.”
Story by Kristina Zhou. Images supplied by Soo Min Kim.