Aurora Schreder, a Belgian schoolteacher, landed the job of her dreams as a model while on a working holiday in South Korea in 2020. But her career stagnated until she changed her agent and, crucially, her hair color.
“I decided, ‘Why not try to be blonde?’ Then I noticed the modeling gigs coming,” she said. “Blonde, white, blue-eyed works best.”
Schreder, 30, followed a well-worn path of white, Western immigrants who capitalized on their skin color in an Asian country where porcelain white skin has commercial appeal. While the shop windows of Prada and Gucci in the Korean department stores now employ a diverse range of models, local Korean brands still stand out in their homogenous vision of what foreign beauty looks like. White commercial models are ubiquitous as extras in films and dramas. Despite South and East Asians being by far the largest source of migration, modelesque Caucasians are the go-to people in TV talk shows featuring foreigners.
But in 2021, the year when BTS reasserted K-pop’s global staying power with the funky summer anthem “Butter,” Schreder began receiving an unusual request: Can you charge less?
An influx of Western immigrants to Korea in recent years drawn by South Korea’s growing cultural clout has upset the market for white models. Every time a show like Squid Game goes viral or a BTS song becomes a hit, it is to the detriment of the beneficiaries of this niche market.
“We know that it will bring new arrivals and the prices will drop,” Schreder said.
“We’re not the ‘Wow!’ thing like in the beginning.”
Korea’s population of European origin has more than tripled from around 30,000 in 2011 to almost 100,000 in 2019, census data shows, with the Russian population in particular quintupling from 6,000 to 30,000.
The global success of Korean stars and TV shows also chips away at the long-held notion among Korean companies that consumers prefer whiteness to their home-grown cultures.
“We’re not the ‘Wow!’ thing like in the beginning. Our value has decreased because of that.”
Nowadays when Schreder sets a minimum rate, brands tend to balk and instead find international students or foreigners on Instagram. Ultimately, she has had little choice but to accept a lower pay.
“Gradually it went lower, and lower, and lower,” she said.
More South Korean fashion brands have also embraced diversity, if not just in their adverts, further weakening demand for white models. With hip-hop music and fashion becoming a cultural juggernaut among Korea’s youth, Black models are increasingly sought out to work for niche brands and are preferred by clients seeking an athletic, sporty image. African-Korean models like Han Hyun-min and Bae Yu-jin have gained attention in mainstream Korean media and abroad as well.
But Shin Gi-wook, who researches ethnic nationalism in Korea at Stanford University, argues that the glimmers of diversity in commercial modeling reflect companies’ desire to appeal to an international crowd, rather than shifting sociocultural values. “The Korean establishment, they haven’t changed,” Shin said.
“‘International’ means we need a pretty, blonde white girl, a pretty white boy and a Black guy, and that’s it.”
Guillaume Desbos, 30, witnessed this firsthand working with Korean companies as a modeling agent. “‘International’ means we need a pretty, blonde white girl, a pretty white boy and a Black guy, and that’s it, then you got your international ‘feel’ and you can sell better,” said Desbos, a Frenchman who settled in Korea seven years ago.
The diminishing commercial appeal of whiteness in Korea was a stark departure from just a few years ago, when shows that were focused on white participants were a trend and “the funny foreigner who somehow spoke Korean” had a wide audience.
Shows like JTBC’s Abnormal Summit, a panel format program about “Korean culture through the eyes of a foreigner,” catapulted Caucasian men like Tyler Rasch and Julian Quintart into sustained mainstream fame. The popularity of Abnormal Summit started a trend of “good-looking foreigner shows” such as MBC’s Welcome, First Time in Korea and Love of 7.7 Billion. While the public interest in the concept faded eventually, first marked by the cancellation of Abnormal Summit in 2017, the supply of Westerners eyeing an entertainment career in Korea was only further encouraged.
“Six to seven years ago, the only skill a foreigner needed to be on TV was being white and speaking a bit of Korean. Now, the interest has dipped,” said Desbos, who is also a musician.
He said foreign models’ pay has almost halved since 2017, a decrease that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. As restrictions limited the number of people who could gather in a location, many shoots became impossible to execute, leading numerous models to lose work. Recognizing this new environment of scarcity, models felt compelled to lower their rates amid the increased competition for fewer opportunities. “The problem is that when the rates go down, they stay down,” Desbos said.
Some models, pushed out of the market, now find themselves working illegally in so-called “talking bars,” where usually older Korean men pay a premium for talking and drinking with beautiful younger women.
“They realize that they no longer have anything to offer. So what do they do? They go to the bar and pour drinks for old Korean men,” Desbos said.
Schreder, the Belgian model, regularly receives advice-seeking messages on Instagram from women who think that Korea is a golden land, where they can easily become a model and meet their favorite K-drama actor. Now she is eager to dispel these myths and share everything she knows about the industry, including its dark side.
The competitive environment among foreign models in Korea has emboldened brand representatives to pounce on desperate models and coerce them into sexual favors with promises of “sponsorship,” she said.
“There are sometimes sexual favors asked, or you have to go to this bar with this client. Even if it’s not going all the way, it’s still weird,” Schreder said.
Hardly any such coercion is reported or publicized, as foreign models feel like they are in a legally precarious situation with Korea’s infamously unforgiving immigration office. The fear of facing disadvantages at the office looms large, as well as the prospect of alienating clients in a tightly knit industry, where upsetting the wrong people can lead to blacklisting. With reporting and naming of agencies being risky, experiences with coercion and exploitation are instead privately discussed on Reddit, Facebook groups and modeling chat groups on KakaoTalk, Korea’s largest social media service.
Visa scams are also widespread, where foreigners seeking to live out their Korean dream are charged thousands of dollars for a “sponsored” modeling visa by disreputable agencies who ultimately don’t do good on providing any agency work. Model and YouTuber Peris Kagiri has also reported that certain agencies withhold the passports of their models and take 30 to 50 percent of their income.
Desbos, the French modeling agent, is blunt in his message to anyone who might want to pursue the entertainment path in Korea.
“If you are young and good-looking and you want to do some modeling, why not do it?” he said. “But don’t think about making a career in Korea. That’s foolish.”