Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ask a Korean! News: Gyopo Makeup

Here is an extremely interesting article from Dong-A Ilbo (albeit with questionable journalistic standard and near-total ignorance about America,) which somewhat ties into the tanning question and immigrant time warp.

If you don't know, "gyopo" is a Korean term for Koreans living outside of Korea. For the record, the Korean knows nothing about makeups (gyopo or otherwise,) which made the translation a little difficult.

"Why Do They Completely Change in America?": Truth about Gyopo Makeup

Wonder Girls, touring in the U.S.

In late 2007, figure skater Yuna Kim was featured as a cover model for International Figure Skating, a well-known figure skating magazine. The Korean fans were surprised at the cover, wondering if the cover model was really Kim because the makeup with dark complexion and exceesive eyeliner -- as if following the older figure skater Michelle Kwan -- was too awkward. However, American fans who saw the cover said Yuna Kim was very pretty. This sparked a heated debate on "gyopo makeup" among Korean fans, who were accustomed to young Yuna Kim's bright and light-spirited makeup.

Emphasized Hues on the Cheeks and Strong Eyeliners are Corny?

The makeup style of Wonder Girls, who are currently touring in the U.S., is also a popular Internet gossip fodder. The fashion and hair style reminescent of the movie Dream Girls, set in 1960s-70s, have been the same from Korea, and therefore did not create any controversy. But a controversy rose regarding the dark skin tone and complexion makeup, which looks like the makeup worn by singers in Itaewon (near the U.S. Army base) in the 1980s and is therefore considered corny. This is another rendition of "gyopo makeup" controversy, similar to Kim Yuna's case.

Korean fans of Wonder Girls are agitated, claiming the makeup to be "terrorism" against the teenage girls. On the other hand, Korean American fans of Wonder Girls retort that it is a necessary adaptation to operate in the U.S.

Gyopo makeup controversy also arose when Miss Koreas appeared in international stages. Miss Korea 2006 Honey Lee and Miss Korea 2007 Ji-Seon Lee, who showcased elegant beauty in Korea, appeared with darker makeup for Miss Universe competition. The makeup attract criticism from Korean fans, who said they should not win based on such non-Korean image.

How did gyopo makeup, which gets a relatively low mark in Korea, come about?

Beauty in Korea is Different From Beauty in America?

The origin of the term "gyopo makeup" is unclear, but fashion experts say the term slowly took root around 1990s. Gyopo in the term refers to the Korean immigrants in California, who take up a considerable percentage of Koreans living abroad.

Gyopo makeup boldly expresses eyes, nose and mouth, with a special emphasis on cheek bones. It also gives dark complexion, smokey eyeshadows and strong, perky lips. Other characteristics of gyopo makeup include strong impressions created by upturned corner of the eyes, and hair that gives the maximum-volume feel.

Prime examples include Chinese American newsanchor Connie Chung who appeared on ABC, or Korean Americans May Lee or Elena Cho of CNN.

As to the origin of gyopo makeup, the first explanation offered is that it was a natural result of adapting to the strong sun and open nature and culture of California. Ms. K (age 39) of Houston said, "I came to America about 10 years ago when natural makeup was in vogue in Korea, but I was surprised to see the dark circles around Korean American women." She added, "Longer the gyopo women have lived in America, more accepting they were with stronger makeup."

A number of Korean Americans said, "Asian women's faces are not very three-dimensional, so they intentionally use darker makeup to emphasize the cheek bone." They also explain that the makeup is darker because unlike Korea where light skin is preferred, America likes tanned complexion.

A reporter for Korean American daily newspaper based in Los Angeles, said, "At first, the strong makeup looked awkward, as if the trend went back to Korea in the 1980s. But because the climate as well as the culture are completely different from Korea, I just accept it as a natural consequence." In other words, the makeup methodology that developed as a result of adaptation to the locality's culture and environment should not be criticized as "corny".

Pictures of Yuna Kim that created the "gyopo makeup" controversy

Big Eyes, Emphasized Cheek Bones -- Asian Women Seen by Westerners

On the other hand, there is analysis that gyopo makeup responds to how white people of America views Asians.

Elle Korea, which reported Yuna Kim's gyopo makeup controversy in 2007, offered at that time that "gyopo-style makeup connects with the Asian women style preferred by white people of America." Citing examples of Disney movies such as "Mulan" or "Pochahontas", it explained that slanty eyes and strong cheek bones, relatively disfavored by Asian women, are loved in America as a typical Asian image.

There are other interpretations, such as that it was an attempt for Asian American women to appear stronger, or that unlike Korea or Japan where fashion trends change very fast, Asian American women remain in the American trend.

Finally, there is an argument that the expression of "gyopo makeup" betrays the changed power relations between Korea and the Korean American society.

Choi Young-Il, a cultural analyst, offered, "In the past, America and Made-in-America mark were the symbols of the cutting edge of culture. But since 1990s, the views on America changed, and the younger generation's changed perspective and self-assurance are indirectly expressed in the term 'gyopo makeup'."

In other words, the expression of gyopo makeup appeared as the admiration for Korean Americans faded. Mr. Choi pointed out "The expression 'gyopo makeup' is problematic because it has a mocking connotation. There needs to be an effort to understand each other's culture on equal basis."

It must be noted that majority of Wonder Girls' fans in America are Asian American teens. It remains to be seen whether the gyopo makeup of Wonder Girls will capture the hearts of white American teens who regard Pochahontas as typical Asian beauty.


Just for the sake of information, here is a picture of Yuna Kim as a model for advertisement in Korea.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. She's hot either way - but she was actually a little cuter in the gyopo makeup

  2. In this case, I think the reason is simply because her make-up artist for the shoot was American (I assume).

    Beyond that, I strongly believe that environment affects appearance. For instance, European Koreans have the beautiful clean complexion that many of us lack. From diet or the air they breathe, I don't know... My Brazilian and Argentinean Korean friends have these sexy curves that I could never imagine possible for Koreans. And in America, Korean girls are pretty avg sized. I feel like in Korea, there are two body types: super skinny, and really sturdy. In America, the emphasis is to be in shape, so those that would be larger tend to exercise themselves down, and those that would have been Korea thin, are meatier due to i dunno.... maybe a combo of sports and our crappy diet.

    I'm not sure what my point was originally... but i wrote it, so i'm posting it.

  3. Chris, there's your white male's preference showing itself ;)

  4. I would like to go on the record as a white man who much prefers Kim Yuna's "Korean" look over the gyopo look. But I also agree with Chris - she's hot either way.

  5. I'm confused.

    Previously, I think the Korean explained that modern Koreans have moved towards liking more tanned skin, but that the American-Koreans are still stuck on the white-skin admiration. Here it seems that the author of article claims the opposite, that the American-Koreans prefer darker complexion than Koreans because of the California sun.

    What is the correct one??

  6. i think it is interesting to point out Kim Yu Bin for this discussion. she recently was voted Hottest K pop female under 25, despite being up against girls who are arguably much prettier (Jessica and Kwon Yuri from SNSD among others). I think it is reasonably fair to say that Kim Yu Bin is the most "gyopo" looking one of the three.

    i also think it is fair to assume the fact that AllKpop is mostly geared towards,read and viewed by foreigners (mostly in USA) due the site being in english.


    Yu Bin is (or was a short time ago) the most followed wondergirl on twitter. i think it is also fair to say that yu bin is the most 'gyopo' looking of all the Wondergirls...sun ye a close second.

    everyperson i know in the states think Yu Bin is the hottest one (again even with arguably prettier bandmates like Sun Mi). also interesting when i ask if she is the prettiest they stop and think for a second and usually respond 'well i dunno...but shes definitely the hottest'

    when i ask my friends why she is the hottest they say 1) tan 2)not super skinny 3)has muscular thighs 4)has a naughty look about her 5)has a butt. all of these traits i would consider way off from typical korean beauty ideals, but spot on for what many americans find attractive (at least off the runway).

    please do not take offense to this because my intent is NOT to turn the lovely Yu Bin into a mere sex object, i am just trying to illustrate the fact that Americans (and probably american gyopos) has a certain inclination towards Koran girls with athletic builds and tan skin.

    Yu Bin is all of these things. that is why she is my favorite wondergirl.

  7. Another white-guy in favor of the gyopo look. Course, my fiancee is half Northern Cheyenne, so I probably skew towards darker skin. And coming from California, I was inculcated into the cult of the tan at an early age.

    I find it odd that this is notable at all, since most stars in the the US try on radically different makeup looks, nearly from event to event..

    Although as I think about that I do recall similar questions regarding photo-shoots of Beyonce for different audiences.

  8. "I find it odd that this is notable at all, since most stars in the the US try on radically different makeup looks, nearly from event to event.."

    exactly!It seems,that average Korean makeup or Korean beauty idol allows less changes.Variety and uniqueness are not basic principles,as in the west,I guess.Everybody is cute-pretty-hot,but there is no hotness without being cute or pretty,and there is no one pretty without being cute or hot,and etc...

  9. Am I missing something? Wasn't Pochahontas... um... *not* Asian? I seem to remember something about that from elementary school social studies.

  10. In my time in Korea one thing I've noticed is that the ladies there wear a hell of a lot less eye makeup but wear brighter lipstick. Also, Korean women in Korea are thinner probably because they do a hell of a lot more walking and they have nicer complexions. The gyopo ladies tend to be a little more plumper and darker.

    Regarding eye makeup. I think gyopo ladies are surrounded by gals who have bigger eyes so they put more shadow around their eyes to make them look bigger to compete more with the rest of the female population around them. In Korea, pretty much all the gals have the same sized eyes so why put a ton of eye makeup when there is no competition, right?

  11. Also Korean diets are typically less "fatty" and smaller than what many Korean-Americans eat.

    A large sized Korean cola is small by American standards.

    As the Korean have said, the article was very interesting. But what point are they trying to make?

  12. Edward,

    please take a look at "Ulzang look":

    thank you

  13. I'm just confused as to why Pochahontas is refered to as "Asian."

  14. Golden Girl,

    The article is making the point that Americans like tanned skin more than Koreans in Korea do, and Korean Americans are responding to the American preference.

    Alex & Bluti,

    The Korean gave a caveat in the beginning -- the writer of this article has no clue about America. She thinks Americans think Pochahontas is Asians, while all Americans clearly know that she is a Native American.

  15. I like the lighter makeup as it looks more natural, "gyopo makeup" makes her look at least 5 years older than she really is seriously

  16. ohhh actually this is what I really dislike about Korean make-up...everybody looks like as if she was in her adult women in that fashion(blah) therefore "sexy" means something totally different too...what is well,quite strange for me o_O

  17. oops,maybe it seems now,like I'm a crazy "Korean style make-up hater" but you know what:first,I really liked "Ulzang look".It's cute,it's innocent,it's sg totally different,sg fresh,etc.But when I was in Seoul,it just became TOO MUCH!!Because you see the same EVERYWHERE!!AND ONLY THAT!!There is no such big amount of girls anywhere in the world,who are really innocent and cute and etc..."Ulzang look" became just as unnatural for me,like Pamela Anderson.I'm upset about this whole thing.

    Good night!
    (for those who are sharing the GMT+1 with me)

  18. Yeah, I don't get it. I don't really think WG were styled differently. Yes, maybe Yoobin's makeup is a little lighter in Korea, but they were rocking a dramatic look when they did promos for Nobody because the song was a 60s ripoff. Hello, Twiggy anyone?

    Anyways, I think Yuna is attractive either way, I just think Koreans get upset when she is styled to look like an adult or a real woman since her image is that of the girl next door. Oh Korea, your attachment to your celebs is just a little crajee.

    I also think they are reading a little too much into this notion of gyopo makeup. Maybe Americans prefer to give a little color and Koreans go a little lighter, but the variations in Yuna's skin color, besides the makeup, also rely on the lighting of the photographs. (So perhaps that is also an extension of the gyopo vs goognae appeal, but whatevs.)

    Actually, if I am being completely honest, they half-assed their makeup and styling in the International Skating photo shoot. Her makeup to me screams "We wanted to tart her up but then we remembered that she's only 15, so maybe we should exercise some restraint."

    I am also at a bit of a loss to this notion that Korean women don't wear eyeshadow. They don't necessarily go for the smoky look Yuna was sporting, but on my trip in 2008, I saw women wearing as much eye shadow on the street on a regular basis.

    And yes, I am female and I wear makeup, as is made obvious by my too long comment.

  19. I see it for what it is: someone from one market trying to appeal to another one. I compare this situation to when identical pictures of Beyonce showed up in two different magazines and one was photoshoped to make her skin appear lighter. One magazine was geared towards African Americans while the other one was geared towards White America. Just as there were rumblings within Korea about their celebs appearing to look different than they are used to seeing them, there were complaints by Aferican American watch-dog groups about Beyonce. The make up look is the main difference. Putting on the darker tone make up in a more direct choice weather the decision was made by the celebrity (unlikely) or the handlers (more likely) than some editor telling their graphics and art department to photoshop something.

    It is right? Eh, hard to split hairs here. I think the main problem is that people have to be aware of the messages they send when they make certain decisions. Interesting article.

  20. I hope the comments on the subject of Gyopo make up is over with...

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. Regarding Pocahontas: she may be "native American" (lol) but don't forget where these "natives" immigrated from: Asia.

    And by the way, yes Disney had an Asian model for her character, see the article
    "Pocahontas Needed An Ethnic Look".

  23. Are Koreans in the US becoming more accepting of darker make-up because of the multi-cultural environment around them?

    East Asians traditionally are scornful of darker or tanned features because they associate it with the peasantry. I wonder if Western-raised Koreans are gradually losing this prejudice in a country where women like Beyonce and Jessica Alba are justly lauded for their beauty.

  24. I have been contemplating this issue for awhile. As an Asian growing up in the US, was I trying to look for Caucasian? Was I hating my Korean features? I haven't fully come to my conclusions but I know two things:
    1. One does things as it is done. So, when all the friends, books and magazines show a certain style (clothes, make up, hair) then you usually go with that style.
    2. I noticed one ethnic group tends not to properly or accurately see the features of another. Wearing 'gyopo' or westernized make-up made people LESS likely to interpret my eyes as being "small and slanty." Or so I thought.

    If I ever come to any conclusions, I'll send you the link to my blog post.

  25. Wonderful blog! I, too, very much prefer the Korean natural look but it's difficult to find those colors here in the US.

  26. I'm coming in late to this discussion (WAY LATE) and I don't know if this has been mentioned yet, but in the case of magazines and advertisements in the US, the models most certainly had little say in their appearance- their makeup would have been done FOR them, by the magazine/company's makeup artist, and it would have been however the magazine or advertisers wanted her to appear, regardless of whether or not she wanted to wear "western" makeup or not.

    I can't speak for those who immigrated and changed their appearance to fit current trends...I'm not one of them, so I don't know. My guess would be that they would be trying to fit in, or as others mentioned, adapted to the climate, or a mix of both.


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