Anyone who pays attention to fashion ads in South Korea knows that there are a lot of white models here, most especially in underwear modelling. Some see this as evidence of a globalized Korea, others see a willing acquiescence in cultural imperialism. Whatever you think, give a read to this investigation of the phenomenon by a reporter from the Sports Chosun. The original Korean article is here, and you can also discuss over at Korea Beat.
Lingerie shows have recently become hot topics. Every night on home shopping programs models strut their stuff, clad only in heart-pounding underwear. Women’s magazines overflow with underwear ads. But we haven’t gotten to the really interesting thing yet. Pretty much all of the models are foreigners. Foreigners dominate the market for underwear models. Why is it so difficult to find a Korean in this market? Top stars have said they were going to make forays in to it, but it seems like they’re being kept top secret. From home shopping to TV shows to interviews it seems like foreign underwear models control the world.
Underwear modelling is “the land of foreigners”. Even if you keep your eyes peeled it’s difficult to find a Korean in that land. This isn’t even to draw a comparison to foreign players in pro baseball and basketball being more important than their numbers would suggest.
A representative from one foreign modelling agency said, “right now there are over 100 foreign models active in Korea.” 40 of them are models for home shopping programs. The rest are in women’s magazines, fashion shows, and beauty modelling.
The largest number of them are from Russia. Many also come from Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Others are from eastern Europe and Germany, but none from Southeast Asian countries. Decisions are made by body shape and skin color.
Starting last year there have been big changes. The number of Brazilian models has significantly increased. They don’t have the bodies of the Russian models, but their dark and lustrous skin makes them look healthy and sexy. Their stock has been rising as they get hired during the summer bikini season. They are making tidy sums of money with 6- or 12-month tours through Korea, China, Japan, and similar countries.
21-year old Ukrainian Natalya, who came to Korea just last week, said, “this is my first time in Korea but I’ve already worked in China, India, and Japan.”
There are two big reasons for the trend towards foreign underwear models.
The main reason is the body types of foreign models. They’re tall and their skin is white and clean. Above all, they have glamorous figures which let them effectively show off the underwear. With well-developed chests and bottoms, they have a sexual magnetism that stimulates the interest of women consumers. Underwear manufacturers and home shopping programs also choose foreign models. And with no aversion to being exposed, they are willing to strike daring poses without feeling it to be too much.
On the other side are Korean models, who shun underwear modelling. Goh Gyeong-ho of the modelling agency DCM said, “Korean models have a strong tendency to avoid underwear modelling, because they see it as beneath them. As far as exposing their body, if it’s a fashion they consider it art but modelling underwear, no. So A-level models don’t get attention.” Underwear models also make less money than runway and beauty models.
Home shopping underwear models started as nude models. At the end of the 1990s S and over 10 other star nude models caused a stir by moving into underwear modelling on home shopping programs. But they were able to get a lot of work when their attractive faces and bodies came into demand. So more and more of them started showing up, and after 2000 almost all underwear models on cable TV were Korean.
Foreign models grow rich in the Korean underwear market. In short, they really rake it in.
Kim Seon-hui of 미가라인 said, “in Russia fresh university graduates can expect to make about 500,000 won a month, but if they come to Korea they can four or five times that much. It’s possible to make over $10,000 a month.” But there are cases of women returning home empty-handed. One Russian woman badly damaged her image by falling into bad company.
Foreign underwear models either sign contracts specifying their monthly salaries, or else receive guarantees about how much work they are to receive. The contract specifies everything from their vehicle to their manager to room and board. And of course when they leave the country, those costs are taken care of.
Hiring a foreign model is easy. Kim said, “every day we get dozens of requests through the internet. Go to a shoot and you’ll see candidates lined up.” The selection process is complicated. It starts with the photo and swimsuit. Next is body, spirit, and any imperfections. Recently they even check videotape.
In the domestic market a pretty body and cute face are paramount. Sexy models are not particularly popular. They can compete in TV commercials but are not chosen for advertising products
Most foreign models working in Korea are in their mid to late 20s. Most of the Russians are 18 to 23-year old college students. They once could work at 15 or 16 but today no minors are chosen to do underwear modelling on TV. At the age of 20 one is assumed to be mature enough for that work. The success rate is no more than 5%. Instead they often get part-time modelling work or appear in commercials.
The biggest hold-up for foreign models is visa trouble. 90-day working visas are issued, but it is not enough time. A model who works for just three months before going home is frowned upon in the future, so many of them go back and forth several times.
There are 30 to 40 Korean agencies for foreign models. It doesn’t take much money to start one up. But they disappear quickly, too, because it is expensive to take care of the models’ costs. Bringing one model can cost roughly two to three million won at minimum.