Soo Joo Park on Diversity and “Signing Her Life Away” to Become a Model
Whether she’s on the runway or the sidewalk, Soo Joo Park doesn’t fly under the radar. She’s a barrier breaker who isn’t afraid to take charge and push for what she believes in.
It’s the last set-up before breaking for lunch and Soo Joo Park is causing a scene. This is not at all surprising. The Korean-American model—who happens to be the first Asian-American to land a spokesperson contract with beauty behemoth L’Oréal Paris—is leading a small procession of photographers, stylists, makeup artists and assistants of all stripes along a cramped sidewalk off of Canal Street in New York’s Chinatown. She is a dollop of pink meringue with golden socks and pointy-toed pumps that walked out of a fairy tale.
Actually, the entire dress—designed by Marc Jacobs—has a distinct storybook feel, albeit from a book illustrated by a surprisingly chipper Tim Burton. Across the street and in her wake, small crowds form and disperse like rain clouds on a hot day. The people who aren’t slaves to their curiosity walk past and through the fashion shoot melee like they’ve finally had it with all these supermodels taking over their neighbourhoods.
None of this brief chaos on Mott Street distracts Soo Joo. If she’s focused on anything while she walks, stops, poses and repeats, it’s not external. “I’m thinking more about my body language and making an emotional connection,” she says. “For me, it’s about being present. Working. I don’t know if I think about anything specific.” It’s almost as if, for Soo Joo, modelling is a form of mindfulness. No wonder she’s calm.
It’s a focus that demands, and inspires, respect—like when you see someone raking their lawn and you think maybe it’s time you knocked off some chores, too. But that’s on the street. In the studio, the situation is slightly different.
In case you are under the impression that models are as serious about the clothes they wear as their solemn faces would imply, consider what Soo Joo posted to her Instagram before leaving the studio with her procession in tow. She’s perched on the toilet—wearing the meringue gown in a comically cramped bathroom—yet she’s still seducing the camera. Over lunch, she workshops captions for her picture and lands on “Runway to real way,” punctuated by the toilet emoji. (I’m not too offended that she didn’t go with my suggestion: “I look flushing flawless.”) After she posts it, more than 10,000 hearts show their approval.
Soo Joo gets noticed. It’s how she became a model. Nearly 10 years ago, she was scouted while vintage shopping in San Francisco. Since then, she has walked for Jean Paul Gaultier and Balmain, been friends with the late Karl Lagerfeld, broken barriers and basically earned mononym status. But that attention is complicated. On the one hand, she is one of the few faces in fashion that personify diversity, and that’s important. But she’s more than that, isn’t she? It’s a small jump from being a pioneer to being defined solely by your ethnicity.
“I think everyone is becoming more conscious that diversity is important, but some people still feel like it’s not a necessity,” she says. “It should be. The world is becoming smaller and smaller, and it should be inclusive to everyone. At the same time, fashion is a very superficially driven industry; it’s hard to say that it should include everyone. But it’s nice when it does.”
“The world is becoming smaller and smaller, and it should be inclusive to everyone. At the same time, fashion is a very superficially driven industry; it’s hard to say that it should include everyone. But it’s nice when it does.”
Although with her bleached hair and eyebrows—and a presence that feels charged and in charge—Soo Joo would get noticed no matter what. To her credit, she uses her platform to push for more diversity; but there’s only so much a model can do to change the industry. Actually, the concept of control in general can be tricky for models.
Take Soo Joo, for instance. By her own admission, she is both a planner and a perfectionist by nature. “I get very obsessed with details, and I can get very caught up with things that have already happened,” she explains. “In a way that’s good, because you’re very proactive and you’re trying to troubleshoot.”
“When you become a model, you are kind of signing your life away in the sense that it’s not really within your control.”
Yet, after looks, Soo Joo’s profession rewards obedience above nearly everything else. “When you become a model, you are kind of signing your life away in the sense that it’s not really within your control,” she says. “Part of that is really freeing, because you’re not tied down to anything else. At the same time, it can get really nerve-racking. I like to know where things are going and what’s next. But I also like to challenge myself. That’s why I embrace this career and industry.”
And it’s not like she’s entirely powerless. She might not be able to cast whomever she wants or wear what she likes, but she still has agency. “It’s very contradictory to my career,” she says. “Even though I don’t get full control, I am always thinking of ways I can improve myself. I can suggest things. I can pose in a certain way or try something else entirely. It’s more about pushing boundaries in a good way and seeing how I can do more. Always more.”
Only, this year, she says she actually wants to do less. After seven years of walking in fashion weeks all over the world, she’s taking some time for herself. “When I decided to pursue modelling full-time, I was shocked that there wasn’t much I could control,” she says. This year will be a bit of a correction. And part of why she’s able to do that is her work with L’Oréal Paris. “Being an ambassador is such an important step. It’s a milestone. It eases you from working too many different jobs because you become identified with the brand and that kind of solidifies your name.”
It also gets you noticed. Although, again, getting noticed doesn’t seem to be a problem for Soo Joo Park.