Thursday, December 9, 2010
Randomness is an inherent part of traveling, and is undeniably one of my favorite parts of venturing abroad. Almost unfailingly, the experiences that were unplanned and unexpected throughout my travels are the ones that I hold nearest and dearest to my heart. Each new place brings with it its own idiosyncrasies, surprises, and entertainments; to this, Seoul is no exception. So when Allison and I were asked to be models in a make up competition, how could we resist?
The weekend before the competition we arrived at the Seoul Fashion Design School in Gangnam not sure what to expect but ready for anything, or so we thought. We were expecting a once in a lifetime experience, something fun and interesting to write home about, take some interesting pictures of, and get a few laughs out of. We took the term “model” loosely, thinking it was just a more polite way of saying we were going to be make up test dummies on which to practice the latest and greatest trends in smokey eyes and bold lips. Never did we expect to be actual models. For starters, in a world where models are by definition 6 feet tall, size 0, and are set apart from the rest by unique and interesting features, we fall well below the bar. Under these standards, we are both too short, too fat, and too plain. Incredibly, Korean standards are less demanding, putting us well above the bar. Both at 5’7” we were at least above average but with the extra four inches from our high heels we could even be considered “tall,” our curves weren’t considered “fat” but “glamorous,” and being the only foreigners in the competition, our Western features weren’t only desirable but set us apart from the dozens of Korean models. Somehow, we had found ourselves models in one of Korea’s most prestigious competitions for make-up artists.
As we spent several hours trying on our hand made dresses and sitting while our make up artists tried to adjust their make up designs to our western proportions, they gushed over our height, small faces, and large eyes; fretted about how to fit our curves into the A-cup bodices of our dresses; and discussed just how high our heels needed to be, practically rejoicing when I proved I could strut my stuff in the four-inch stilettos I had brought along for good measure. By the time our trial day had ended, it was quite clear that this competition was about more than just makeup. It seemed we had volunteered ourselves to be canvases in what was turning out to be a human art exhibition.
The following weekend, the weekend of the competition, it sank in just how serious our roles were. The night before the big day we stayed near the school at one of the make up artist’s apartments so there would be no delay in starting our day. After our 4:30am wake up call, we hurried to make it to get dressed, get breakfast, and make it to the school by 5:00am to get our hair done. As Julie bought us a breakfast of egg McMuffins and coffee she informed us that this would be our last food and drink for the rest of the day (we couldn’t risk messing up our look or schedule with spills or trips to the restroom). We were real models. But, too late to back out now. So 2 hours and several pounds of fake hair, hairspray, and bobby pins later, we left the school to take vans to the Kintext Convention Center in Ilsan, a suburb of Seoul.
From the moment we left the school we made quite the spectacle. In the few yards between the school and the vans several gaping Koreans, probably on their way home from a night of bar-hopping, stopped us to take pictures on their iphones. (The first of many impromptu photoshoots throughout the day.) The gawking was understandable though - while Allison had her hair piled onto her head in a bouffant-meets-treasure-troll look, I was channeling Queen Amidala with my hair and braided hair extensions twisted into two huge buns on the sides of my head. Who wouldn’t stare? Our day in the limelight had begun.
Once we got to the convention center we were completely at the whims of our make up artists. For the next three hours we sat as they applied the final touches, when the actual competition started they would have no time to waste on hair and accessories. As they gave us costumes and applied feather headdresses, hair jewels, 2-inch long fingernails, jewelry, and tubs of glitter we were poked, prodded, and dragged all around the convention center. When they wanted us to sit, we sat; when they wanted us to move, we moved; when they wanted us to pose we posed. Yet their instructions only came minute by minute, we still had only a vague idea what would happen during the competition and what our roles would be. One moment we would be “go, go, go!” and it would seem as if something big was about to happen, the next moment we were back in the dark, utterly confused and waiting for someone to tell us what to do. Maybe it was the language barrier, but a lot of the time it seemed they were being purposely elusive, no one even attempting to enlighten us.
When the competition part of the day finally rolled around, both of us were exhausted, starving, thirsty, and in pain from the pounds of fake hair, feathers, and product that were piled on our heads. For the next hour and a half we sat perfectly still and model-like as make up was applied to our faces, necks, shoulders, and chests; the roving judges monitoring our progress. By the time the bell dinged, signaling the end of the competition, we had been transformed. Between Allison’s portrayal of a contemporary Maria Antoinette and my resemblance to Lady Gaga, we stood in stark contrast to the dozens of Korean models covered in feathers, tassels, and rhinestones and resembling glorified Vegas showgirls.
By this time, Allison was glaring and I was shaking, but we did our best to look poised and modelesque as the judges continued to roam and scrutinize. (Not as hard as you would think, we looked 7 feet tall next to our make up artists and with the make up completed we looked as if we had just walked off Hollywood movie sets.) Soon we were milling about with the other models, thinking we were close to finished and waiting to be told what to do next, when all of a sudden Allison was being dragged off for photoshoot (we’re still not sure what for) and I was being pushed to the front of a queue leading up to none other than a runway. As music blared and cameras flashed I strutted my stuff, posing and pouting to the best of my abilities (all the while trying to remember every ANTM episode I’d seen in high school). And as far as I’m concerned my debut on the runway was a success; making it off the stage without incident was good enough for me.
Weak-kneed I found Allison (who had somehow bypassed the runway ordeal) and posed for dozens of pictures with Korean spectators before running off to sneak bites of gimbap from our make up artists’ bags. It was finally time for the results and to our surprise and our artists’ delight, Allison and I took first and second place, respectively, in the entire competition. This of course prompted another lengthy photoshoot, but eventually we were allowed to start the long-awaited process of becoming our normal selves again. When it was all said and done, we walked out of there one crazy experience and 100,000\ richer, but more than happy to leave the modeling life behind to dig into a feast of fried chicken and cold beer at the nearest Chicken Hof.