Han Hyun-Min’s powerful strut has made him a star on the country’s catwalks, but his agent knew his heritage would be a problem in the ethnically homogenous country.
And while the 16-year-old is becoming a regular on the runways and glossy magazines, he suffers the legacy of discrimination against ‘mixed blood’ Koreans.
Han reveals the racism he faces despite rising through the fashion world ranks
‘When I was playing with other kids at school, some mothers whisked them away from me, saying things like, ‘Don’t play with a kid like that’,’ said Han.
As the child of a Nigerian father and Korean mother, he was regularly stared at in public, with an elderly woman once asking him: ‘What are you doing in someone else’s country?’
‘I wanted to become invisible,’ he said.
‘I hated my looks that stand out from everyone else.’
He found his escape in fashion, taking part in modelling auditions and posting his photos on social media until Youn spotted the images. (Youn a pageant tycoon)
After seeing Han (then 14-year-old) demonstrate his ‘electrifying’ stride on a Seoul street for five minutes, Youn signed him up immediately.
‘Being a fashion model helped build my confidence tremendously,’ said Han. ‘Now I enjoy being looked at by other people, instead of being ashamed or embarrassed.’
He hopes to become a role model for multiracial children. ‘I want to be more successful, not just for myself but also for people whom I represent.’
The duo were initially stonewalled by designers and magazine editors, some of whom openly dismissed the dark-skinned model as ‘bad luck’ and urged Youn to recruit whites instead.
‘Some of them told me, ‘We don’t do dark-skinned models,’ or, ‘For us, non-Korean models mean white models with blue eyes and blonde hair’,’
But a handful of designers found Han’s look unique and charismatic, and he hit the runways at more than 30 shows at the two Seoul Fashion Weeks after his debut last year – an unusually high number for a novice. – Youn said.
Han’s slim physique ‘had a good combination of strengths of both Asian models and Western models’ said designer Cho Young-Jae, who used him to display his men’s clothing line, Chaos From Undermind.
Neighbouring Japan has a similarly homogenous population, Cho said, but a longer history of immigration and already has a number of biracial star fashion models.
Most foreigners in the country are from China and Southeast Asia, migrant workers or women who marry rural South Korean men unable to find local spouses willing to live in countryside.
Discrimination against them is widespread. Many are openly mocked at public transport for being ‘dirty’ or ‘smelly’, or refused entry to fancy restaurants or public baths.
A government survey in 2015 showed that 25 percent of South Koreans do not want a foreigner as a neighbour — far higher than the 5.6 percent in the US and China’s 10.5 percent.
Mixed-race children are bullied at school and constantly taunted as ‘tuigi’, a derogatory term that literally means cross-bred animals.
DAILYMAIL Reports that many complain of poor opportunities in many aspects of life, including difficulties socialising, getting a job or finding a spouse.
South Koreans have until recently been taught at school to take pride in the country’s ‘single ethnicity’, with one race and language enduring for centuries.
Commentators on social media, though, have warmed to Han.
‘He has such good aura around him,’ said one. ‘I hope that our society will become more open to people like him.’
We are social