Women Who Travel Podcast Writer Elise Hu on Life in Seoul and the Rise of KBeauty
Women Who Travel

Women Who Travel Podcast: Writer Elise Hu on Life in Seoul and the Rise of K-Beauty

Host Lale Arikoglu chats with Hu about her new book, which dives deep into the six billion dollar Korean beauty industry. 

K-Beauty is one of biggest beauty markets in the world—and one that people travel from all over the world for. This week, Lale chats with Elise Hu, a broadcast journalist, author, and host of the podcast TED Talks Daily, whose new book Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Beauty from the Korean Capital, reflects on her time living in Seoul and dives deep into the six billion dollar industry and its impact on Korean culture.

Lale Arikoglu: Hi, and welcome to Women Who Travel. I'm Lale Arikoglu. And today, I'm excited to explore the beauty industry of South Korea.

During the pandemic, unable to travel, I found myself attempting to escape my teeny-tiny apartment through, really, any medium, foreign language movies, recipes from around the world, just about every type of music, and a lot of it came out of Korea. I was running to K-pop, watching Bong Joon-ho's Parasite like every else I knew, and teaching myself how to make Bibimbap. I was also doing a ton of internet shopping, which meant spending far too much money on K-Beauty.

Today, my guest is Elise Hu. Elise is a broadcast journalist, author, and host of the podcast TED Talks Daily. She also has a new book out called Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Beauty from the Korean Capital. It's Elise's first book, and as a fellow journalist, I was curious to find out what it's like to go from reporting to writing an entire book dedicated to a single subject.

Elise Hu: I've been a longtime journalist, of course, and I'm so used to spitting out stories that feels sort of ephemeral. And this is just a tangible thing, you know? [laughs]

LA: A little more final, I imagine.

EH: Mm-hmm. Can't go back and change it now.

LA: Are you gonna be doing any book tours or sort of traveling with the book?

EH: Yes, it's a 10-city tour, and so hopefully I'll be in a city near you, wherever you are.

LA: I love it. And, um, you are in Los Angeles, right?

EH: I'm in Los Angeles, but I love to travel, so this will be an interesting time. This will just be an interesting experiment in packing for various climates and trying to keep everything really light. I know this is something you, you all probably talk about all the time, but just trying to be very light and sparing in my packing but also have what I need in the various towns I'm gonna be in.

LA: Are you a packing cube person? I feel like that is... When it comes to, like, multi-city stops and different climates, I'm always told that that's the thing that's gonna help the most. But I'm very disorganized, so I rarely get around to actually utilizing it.

EH: I used packing cubes, but I don't organize what's in them. You know, I don't separate like, "Oh, this is for Dallas and then this is for Boston." I use packing cubes just for space, just so it really, um, stuffs... I can stuff so much stuff into a packing cube and then get it into my suitcase.

LA: Back in 2015, Elise went to start South Korea to start a news bureau for NPR in Seoul.

What was your relationship to Korea before you went there to set-up this bureau?

EH: I knew very little. I obviously am an Asian-American. My family is from China and Taiwan and so I'm familiar with tho- you know, the areas in which Korean and Japanese and Chinese culture overlap. In, in many places, they do overlap, and so there were some, um, sort of northeast Asian ideas and cultural norms that I was quite familiar with, that made it easier for me when I went abroad. And also, I speak Mandarin Chinese and so many Koreans also speak Chinese that when they didn't speak English, we would use what I called the Chinese loophole. So, I'd try English and then I'd try Chinese, and their Chinese would often be better than the English, and so we, [laughs] we... Both of us non-speakers of the other language. So, I was an English speaker who couldn't speak Korean and then these Koreans that didn't speak great English, so both of us were using, you know, our second languages of Chinese in order to communicate.

LA: I love that [laughs].

EH: These are the things that happen when you're abroad.

LA: You get creative, right?

EH: Kind of magical. Exactly. It's a good hack, the Chinese loophole.

LA: I love it. Just using a- you know, any second language is a loophole. That actually... I used to have that with my, um, grandmother who was Turkish and she didn't really speak any English and I didn't really speak any Turkish, but she spoke fluent French and I had enough high school French that we used to have this slightly bizarre phone conversations in Fre- in sort of butchered French, at least on my end. She was very good.

EH: It's just like that. It's totally just like that.

LA: You know, as you do with anywhere that you kind of yearn to visit, I have a picture in my head of what it's like in Seoul, and I'm sure it's probably totally inaccurate.

EH: I was watching Succession the other night-

LA: Oh, I watch Succession.

EH: Do you watch Succession?

LA: But I am I'm two episodes behind [laughs].

EH: Okay. Okay. Well, this won't give anything away. This isn't anything plot-related. It's actually just about Seoul specifically. The eccentric tech billionaire that's played by Alexander Skarsgård, Lukas Matsson, says to, I think, Kendall, the Roys sons, um, of New York. He was like, "If you look down there, it's look like Legoland compared to Seoul."

Seoul is humongous. It's incredibly dense. It's just all lights and sound and skyscrapers reaching high into, um, the clouds. The air is often polluted. There's so many cars in the streets. There's just an amazing subway system that can get you anywhere. You never have to lose your connection to whatever you're streaming, even deep in the bells of the subways. You can get anything delivered to your door instantly, nearly instantly. It's electric. It's vibrant. It's made me feel like I was in a country that was sort of first world plus [laughs], uh, but as a result of that, I feel like it masked a lot, uh, some of the issues that I then got to see as some of the social issues, that I then got to see and report on after I had stayed there longer.

The skyscrapers reach high into the clouds and you can see mountains in the background, but you're also seeing just images of the same or similar-looking ideal Korean women everywhere. So, you're seeing them on the sides of buses, you're seeing them on the sides of buildings, you're seeing them rush across you on the placards on top of cabs. And so it was really rather inescapable that I got a sense of what the ideal woman was supposed to look like.

LA: When Elise went on her longterm assignment to Seoul, the beauty industry was hardly top of mind. In addition to setting up shop as bureau chief, she had her many reporting tasks: investigating lead stories, researching, interviewing sources. She was wearing multiple hats. All of this is actually kind of similar to life as a travel writer, and it made me think of all the assignments that I've been on, in search of new stories in hard to reach places. Like when I went to rural Japan and covered a story about women's hiking groups only to end up walking through a forest with a mountain priestess. And while I do this for work, I'd argue that it's applicable to all sorts of travel. After all, isn't asking questions and being curious about a place what travel at its heart is all about?

EH: I moved to Seoul in the beginning of 2015 and founded NPR's first bureau covering Northeast Asia. So, it covered North Korea, South Korea, and Japan. And I was really instantly spit into one of the most unpredictable and chaotic global stories, North Korea, as it intersected with one of the most unpredictable and chaotic American presidents, Donald Trump, who was elected that year after I got there. So, it was sometimes thrilling, it was frequently exhausting. It felt important, um, but there was the sense that you could never really take a breath. And as a result, I didn't get to ever take a comprehensive look at something that really nagged at me, which was the state of gender inequality in South Korea. South Korea has one of the lowest women's labor participation rates, one of the biggest gender pay gaps, and one of the lowest percentage of women in leadership positions in the developed world.

LA: You did a lot of reporting for this book and also wove personal experience in to it. How did they idea come to you?

EH: It was really my unfinished business. I moved home in 2018, at the end of 2018, which was the same year of the top three largest women's rights rallies in South Korean history. The feminists of Korea are some of the most organized and can-do and just inspiring women in the world. And I think that they deserve a lot more attention for what they were trying to stand up against, which are really punishing standards for how women were supposed to look, but also women were supposed to behave.

I never got to go to a single one of those rallies, because that was the same year of tons of missile tests from North Korea, a rapid, um, rapprochement between North Korea and South Korea. There was a unified Winter Olympics that year in Pyeongchang. There was an Inter-Korean summits for the first time in many, many years between North and South. There was also a historic US-North Korea summit in Singapore that year, between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. The first time a sitting US president met with the North Korean head of state. That was all in 2018. So, I really, by the time I got back, did not feel as though I covered the domestic women as well as I should have.

LA: Although Elise wasn't writing about beauty when she was working for NPR, the advertising and messaging around the beauty industry hit her from day one.

EH: When I got to Seoul, the pla- the first place that I stayed with is a neighborhood called Myeong-dong, which is the makeup and skincare district. It's where you have one makeup store after another, after another, after another. And the same brand name store can have three or four different locations just on the same block. So, I write about how I could stand on a corner and see a Face Shop across the street from a Face Shop across the street from a Face Shop.

LA: Wait, what do you mean by face shop?

EH: It's the, it's the brand name of a, of a-

LA: Oh, okay. All right.

EH: ... [laughs] line, of a line of Korean beauty products. It's called The Face Shop. And, uh, they're known for all sorts of natural ingredient sheet masks, which were really hot at the time. And I think they were kind of new at the time for the rest of the world in 2015.

LA: Elise shared with us some tapes she recorded. Here she is in the heart of Seoul, at the global headquarters of the superstore, Amorepacific.

EH: We're in this vast open lobby of Amorepacific, where you feel really small and then it's so new. There's granite, light gray granite everything, and a spinning ring of moving words in English and in Hangul suspended in the air above, around circular sign in desk. Like, it's Star Trek: The New Generation, like the captain's command center. And then I came over to look at the guide to see which floor we're on, and a map of the 20 floors is a mirrored sign, such that you can't avoid mirrors everywhere you go.

Now, I'm in the Amore headquarters, Amore Shop, which is where they're selling products hair, makeup, sun care, skincare products from all their lines. And I've stumbled into the hair color aisle, where every hair color model is a member of Black Pink, the world's largest female, girl group.

LA: The bounty of Korean beauty products available to buy online can be overwhelming, even for those of us like me who are somewhat obsessed with skincare rituals. There are sheet mask formulas with snail serum, jelly-like moisturizers promising to make our skins look smooth and glowy, cleansing balms to open up our pores. It's almost like the more you know, the harder it is to figure out what's actually right for you. For Elise, this endless advice really hit her personally. More on that after the break.

EH: There was this idea of transformation in the air, and the idea that you can pay to transform yourself all around me. It also triggered of me some of my deep-seated but largely forgotten insecurities about how I was supposed to show up in my body when it came to physical appearance.

LA: Elise once worked as a teenage model, but by the time she went to college, she had felt it was something that was very much in her past.

EH: I ultimately came to this kind of detente with appearance culture, where I thought, "You know what? I'm not gonna participate in this." And so I understood that for myself, but I didn't think about it kind of in the larger scheme of the experiences for all of us, for my community or just for women broadly, until I moved to Seoul, where people didn't seem to be shy about talking about your looks rather loudly. So, I was approached about my freckles a lot. I have freckles. It's no big deal. I've never thought they were a big deal. In fact, I thought they were cute, but a lot of Koreans would just be like, "Ooh, freckles. We can fix that for you." The rise of K culture, K-beauty, but also K-pop, K-film, K-drama, and all of these things, as it turns out, are interrelated, which I then got to take a deep dive into after I move back and repatriated to the United States.

LA: I think we're throwing around the term K-Beauty a lot and it's something I'm super familiar with, partly because I love my products, partly because I work in magazines. Um, but for those who maybe don't actually really know what the term covers, um, can you demystify it a little bit?

EH: For me, I describe K-Beauty as anything that includes products from Korea, uh, cosmetics, skincare, treatments, tools, and procedures. So, [laughs] Korea is one of the leading exporters of cosmetics in the world, behind just the US and France. So, it's the world's third-largest exporter of cosmetics. The most sophisticated surgeries and innovation in procedures, um, for skin and for body are happening in South Korea, which is one of the most advanced and sophisticated cosmetic surgery markets in the world. And so Korean surgery also falls in K-Beauty in my definition.

What was different about Korea was how explicit the lookism was. It's called lookism there. It's appearance-based discrimination. So, passport photos come Photoshopped by default when you go and get your photo taken. They automatically Photoshop them. Head shots are required on resumes, for government jobs, for accounting jobs. For non-modeling jobs, head shots will often come on resume. Koreans will refer to their physical selves with the term specs, specs that we use to describe computers or gadgets like, "Oh, I'm gonna improve my specs. What are your specs?"

So there was a lot of just diagnosis, a lot of ratios and lines of the correct ratios for your face, the correct lines that your silhouette should look like, the correct lines and ratios for your... the thickness of your calf. And then when doctors and industry kind of established those standards, they could then sell you the surgery or the procedure or the injectable or the treatment to fix it, to get to the ideal.

LA: It's not just residents of Korea committing to these sorts of procedures. Travelers are also coming from all around the world for shopping and medical tourism, sometimes even starting the process before they've left the airport.

EH: You can get off the plane at Incheon Airport and go to their medical tourism center, which is right at the airport, and get a skin analysis. So you're getting a skin analysis in one of those giant, like, multi-thousand-dollar machines, which they're like, "Ooh, you should probably fix this." You know, like, "Oh, I can really those UV, that UV damage in this particular part of your cheek."

LA: That is wild. I also can't think of anything worse than getting off a flight from, like, New York to Seoul and then... [laughs]

EH: And then getting your s-

LA: Like, stuff of nightmares.

EH: [laughs] So, there are these brokers. There's an entire network of brokers who offer concierge services to those outside of Korea, to, to foreigners to come into Korea to get a suite of treatments. There's concierge brokers that provide translation services. If you do choose a, a surgery, they, they can kind of be at your side and be the first people that you see when you come out of anesthesia. And all of these brokers are paid for by the doctors, so you pay nothing for all of this extra translation and concierge help. And, and I write in the book, you know, when you're not paying for the product, you might be the product. This is something that is really deliberate to try and lure people in to Korea.

LA: A big theme of Elise's book is the research and development and the technical innovations by beauty brands, and the rapid introduction of new products into the market.

Elise Hu: Increasingly, that lens that we are having to kind of be seen through is technological. It is algorithms. It is AI. As technology improves, we are also forced to improve with it, because it shows us ever narrowing and cyborgian and sometimes alarming standards for what we're supposed to look like. And so one of the big themes is asking this question again and again of, "Where do we draw the line when technology makes our standards ever out of reach?" But technology also presents us with more and more ways to change our physical bodies to reach those standards.

LA: Coming up, Elise tells me about some of the women she interviewed for the book and shares their stories.

What were some of the most memorable conversations you had and who were a few of the women across those generations that, um, I guess, that made the biggest impression on you or shi- shifted your way of thinking in some way?

EH: Oh, gosh. That's hard. I mean, obviously, I love speaking with the spunky second-graders. You know, and they were just telling me about how a lot of their friends already start wearing bright-colored lipstick to school, and then there's actually lip tint pockets in their school uniform. They're kind of encouraged to start doing some aesthetic labor even when they're in elementary school. But some of my favorite people that I talked to were the, um, activists, the women who are now in their 20s but, um, came to feminism, I guess, in their late teens when they started participating in the Escape the Corset movement. It's called Escape the Corset and it's obviously a figurative corset, but, um, they were part of those big historic feminist rallies in 2018.

And they all talked about how they began to feel self-conscious about their looks to a person they talked about. The need to have to change their appearance, um, that started when they were... they themselves were seven or eight years old. Um, a lot of them talked about being teased and being called monkey or gorilla for being too hairy when they were just children. A lot of them talked about kind of getting into a cycle of spending a lot of money and a lot of time in front of mirrors, and how that really felt like a trap that they couldn't escape because there was no other way. It's like they felt like it was empowering and they were empowered by trying to look their best and spend a bunch of money and time improving their appearance. But it was also not a choice, because this was demanded professionally, you know, just to get a job. It was also demanded of them by their family members who were constantly like, "Oh, let me gift you cosmetic surgery for, uh, graduation," or "Let me help you get a leg up."

LA: Here's a short passage from Flawless, featuring one of the women Elise talked to about what happens when lookism is enforced within the family.

EH: [inaudible 00:21:02], 27, recalls being in middle school when her father started showing her Ms. Korea pageants on television. She grew up in Gwangju, a metropolis in the souther part of the country. For nights on end, she say, she sat in her living room after dinner as her dad played on repeat, a video of pageant contestants walking in their bikinis and high heels to, quote, "Teach me how to walk," she says. "Then I had to walk in front of my dad with this video every night to be a good daughter." "What if you refused?" I asked. She said she feared her parents would've shamed her and starved her, had she disobeyed. "They kind of were starving me already. I remember every morning, my mom and dad would talk about how big my legs were, how big my stomach was, saying, 'She's not going to get picked as a wife later.'" Her example is not unusual for her generation. With the emphasis on beauty as an instrument to both social and economic success playing out inside many families.

LA: An interview after interview, Elise heard how women were turning away from what was expected of them.

EH: They decided to participate anymore. They were like, "You know what? We're gonna participate in..." Essentially, it was a general strike against aesthetic labor. They cut off their hair, shorten it really short. They crushed their compacts on social media, and they found community in one another. And it ended up being really beneficial to their mental health, because there isn't, there is a real stigma against getting therapy in South Korea and not a lot of mental health resources. And so finding each other in this activism was actually a way for them to support one another in... support one another's souls, you know, without signing to woo-woo. Um, and it was just really, I thought for me, nourishing and fortifying to hear from them.

LA: We, you know, we, we're talking about... We keep going back to these rallies that took place in 2018, and I'm assuming that everything that you were just describing was a large impetus for why they took place. Um, but was there, like, a specific turning point that, um, you know... When I think of here in the US, there's usually-

EH: Yeah.

LA: When it comes to any sort of like a large social movement or uprising, um, and protesting, there's usually one, uh, con- considerable moment that sparks it.

EH: Yeah, there were two and both happened. There's probably a lot more and I would, um... And, and so I don't want to make it sound as these were the only galvanizing incidents. There was a murder of a woman, um, so violence were both of the reasons, both, both of the impetus. So, there was the, there was the killing, um, the stabbing death of a woman in a public bathroom just outside the Gangnam Subway Station, and Gangnam famous from the song and, uh, famous for being just one of the posh districts in Seoul.

LA: And a huge tourist destination.

EH: A huge tourist destination. And the man who did it, he waited in the bathroom. There was CCTV cameras that showed he let all sorts of men passed by without attacking him and then waiting for a woman victim, attack the woman victim with a knife, and killed her. And later said, um, "I killed her because she's a woman." And so that was particularly galvanizing and it became a lot of feminist sort of community building in online spaces and offline spaces.

There's also an epidemic of spy cam porn, which is something I hadn't heard of before. But it's the same reason that you cannot buy an iPhone in South Korea or Japan that does, that allows for you to take photos without the loud camera sound. The clicking sound, you can't turn it off, because there was such an epidemic of upskirting in secret, filming.

Yeah. And it's called Molka. And tiny pinhole cameras would be installed by the perpetrators of this particular crime in places like changing rooms, in public bathrooms, um, in restaurants, in subway stations. Just everywhere. And then these unwitting victims of spy cam porn, they were often, you know, changing clothes or undressing, right? In a public bathroom stall, for example. They would... These videos would then get sold, um, on various porn hubs for folks who wanted to see this kind of content, just random strange women being filmed without their consent.

It also happened in intimate relationships. A lot of revenge porn, a lot of secret filming of, um, sex and just private moments inside homes, and the people doing it were everybody from, like, bus drivers to church pastors. Like, this was just a huge problem and it was happening all over the place, but rarely, rarely prosecuted. So, it was functionally legal until 2018 when a woman secretly filmed a nude male model in an art class and she got prosecuted. She almost instantly got prosecuted. And so this actually led a lot of women out into the streets.

LA: I mean, essentially you... I mean, you've written a book about beauty, but you've written a book about so much more. And really, it's a book about gender and equity.

EH: Well, I appreciate that. Thanks.

LA: Um, you know, not to be all doom and gloom, um, [laughs]...

EH: It also is a fun and heartwarming book. There is a lot of my family in it and then what I do celebrate about touch of beauty workers. I still love getting a facial. I'm not somebody who completely issues beauty rituals. I just think we need to break the link between ourselves and our physical self. Like, your self is so much more nuanced than what you see.

LA: What do hope readers gain from your book? You know, what do you hope that they... Especially, I think, you know, both Koreans and non-Koreans, because really reading it is probably gonna be a quite different experience.

EH: Yeah. I think reflection is really important, right? Like, ask yourself who you're trying to be, because sometimes I want to buy something because it feels like a step further into myself. And other times, when I make a choice of buying something to change my appearance, it's an attempt to be more like someone else or it's an attempt to not get judged. And so distinguishing whether your choices are ego-driven or truly soul-driven is what requires awareness that I talked about, and it's something that you can kind of just take a quiet moment and really ask yourself.

I feel like we covered so much ground. It was a wide-ranging podcast episode, everybody. Hang on to your hats.

LA: Yeah, exactly. And then hopefully buy some sunscreen, which I am 34 and have become diligent about my sunscreen.

EH: Good. Good. And look at your skin. You may not see her, but I can and, wow, look at that glowy skin. You're looking great.

LA: Look, I just got back from a vacation, so it's, you know... I've had a week of not being under this fluorescent lighting and it did wonders for me. Thanks to Elise for her storytelling and insights, which made me even more fascinated and eager to experience Seoul and restock my cabinet with some brand new sunscreens. Next week, re-wilding huge areas of Argentina and Chile.

I'm Lale Arikoglu, and you can find me on Instagram, @lalehannah. Our engineers are Jake Lummus and Gabe Quiroga. The show is mixed by Amar Lal. Jude Kampfner from Corporation for Independent Media is our producer. See you next week.