Foreign Lingerie Models in Korea

June 12th, 2008 · Economy and Worklife, Fashion, Foreigners · 11 comments

A Sports Chosun writer recently used his blog to explore the subject of the domination of the Korean lingerie market by white models. While this author doesn’t criticize it, last year I translated a letter to the editor from a woman who felt this was harming the Korean psyche. I’m curious what readers think — is the prevalence of white people in Korean underwear ads an indicator of colonialism, are Koreans really just shy, or are white women just more attractive?

Don’t forget to also check out the discussion over at Feet Man Seoul.

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.

11 comments

  • It seems pretty obvious that someone doesn’t think that Korean women should be exposing themselves in the same way it’s all right for foreign women to. Go to Shincheon on a Sunday afternoon and you can see hundreds of tall, beautiful women who could easily do the job. Surely one of them would be happy to take the money.

    And exactly who do you think is up at 2AM watching Dong-a TV? My guess is that if I don’t have to work the next morning and am not yet ready for bed, and stop channel surfing when I come across a Dong-a lingerie show, I’m joining about 100 schoolboys / uni guys / shift workers / sleepless, bored ajeoshis for every one Korean woman interested in what kind of underwear she should purchase.

    Yu Bumsuk · June 12th, 2008 at 10:02 AM

  • I always assumed that Koreans (and by that I don’t mean just the models themsevles) thought it whoreish to do underwear modeling. I wouldn’t think it indicates colonialism. Just the same faux-naiveity that leads Korean to say 다방 is just for tea and coffee.

    Aaron · June 12th, 2008 at 10:04 AM

  • It’s strange that they shy away from lingerie modeling when I get the impression that bikini modeling is considered to be somehwat glamorous. And at the risk of making a gross generalisation, it seems like Western girls have fuller figures than Korean girls, which might make them more appropriate choices for the models. But I do agree that there’s most likely a bit of a stigma attached to lingerie girls in the same vain as the racing girls, i.e. they are brainless bimbos with no class. If an established Korean model managed to land a prestigious lingerie gig (someone like Jang Yoon-joo) the perception might change.

    baekgom84 · June 12th, 2008 at 11:11 AM

  • It’s not just in lingerie modelling where there are more foreign models than Korean ones, although it’s true that the disparity is greatest in those. As the journal article ”Content Analysis of Diet Advertisements: A Cross-National Comparison of Korean and U.S. Women’s Magazines” (Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, October 2006) in the link makes clear, advertisments for Korean women’s magazines regularly have more foreign than Korean models for ALL types of products:

    http://ctr.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/24/4/345

    (it’s an Adobe Acrobat file, automatic download

    Please forgive the deliberate blog plug, but I write about the same topic (and the article I mention) here.

    James Turnbull · June 12th, 2008 at 11:44 AM

  • They don’t have the bodies of the Russian models, but their dark and lustrous skin makes them look healthy and sexy.

    Obviously the author has been doing a lot of “research” on the matter…

    William G · June 12th, 2008 at 2:50 PM

  • Imagine, models thinking other models are below their station based on the clothes they choose to model. Egad.

    Once you have decided to make a living by walking down a runway, posing and walking back, you are already off the radar measuring meaningful occupations.

    Hey if they can make a buck doing it, good for them, but pleeeeeese don’t even pretend what you do is more or less meaningful based on what clothes you are wearing.

    Simply, in general, I think Korean models are perhaps worried about being judged badly (like models should be given a huge amount of respect anyway :/ ) and more probably worried that they just don’t have the “goods” necessary to satisfy all those late-night tally wackers.

    Who believes the ladies are up late watching langerie modelling on Dong-a TV anyway ?

    hitest · June 12th, 2008 at 6:39 PM

  • […] Chosun did a little . . .uh, research into the issue, and Korea Beat kindly translated it into English There’s also a discussion going on over at FeetManSeoul. The Grand Narrative has also talked […]

    Too Many Models? · June 13th, 2008 at 3:52 PM

  • It’s one of two things:

    Racism, plain and simple

    or

    Korean women expect to get paid entirly too much
    to show off their bodies. So it’s a labor cost issue.

    I suspect a little of both.

    Cloying_Odor · June 13th, 2008 at 8:48 PM

  • I just want to say that Cloying Odor is an excellent screen name.

    Korea Beat · June 13th, 2008 at 11:10 PM

  • […] KoreaBeat has translated an interesting Korean article about the numbers of foreign models in the Korean Lingerie industry, and although I’m not going to discuss it here, after all I’ve written on the advertising industry and women’s body images then I’d be remiss in not directing it to your attention! Reading about the numbers of Brazilian models entering the industry was especially interesting after what I’ve written about Caucasian body ideals, and I’d give it much more attention were I not currently half-way through a major post as I type this. […]

    The Politics of Lingerie Modelling in South Korea « The Grand Narrative · June 13th, 2008 at 11:56 PM

  • “Korean women expect to get paid entirly too much
    to show off their bodies. So it’s a labor cost issue.’
    Can totally agree, as foreign ( esp. russian) models have good price-quality rate, and lingerie is not a very huge market, as , say, lipstick. So the models must not be expensive.
    If you see the major modelling agencies in the world, there are a lot of russians there, but NOT AT THE VERY TOP HIGH PAID LEVEL.
    They occupy worldwide the middle market of modelling.

    favoree · July 31st, 2008 at 8:28 PM

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