'Greynaissance' takes South Korea social media by storm

Older South Koreans, such as YouTube channel Korean Grandma's Park Mak-rye (above) and modelling school-agency Show Project's models (right), are reaching audiences through online videos, and challenging the idea that social media platforms are a you
Older South Koreans, such as YouTube channel Korean Grandma's Park Mak-rye and modelling school-agency Show Project's models (above), are reaching audiences through online videos, and challenging the idea that social media platforms are a young person's game.PHOTOS: NYTIMES
Older South Koreans, such as YouTube channel Korean Grandma's Park Mak-rye (above) and modelling school-agency Show Project's models (right), are reaching audiences through online videos, and challenging the idea that social media platforms are a you
Older South Koreans, such as YouTube channel Korean Grandma's Park Mak-rye (above) and modelling school-agency Show Project's models, are reaching audiences through online videos, and challenging the idea that social media platforms are a young person's game.PHOTOS: NYTIMES

SEOUL • In 2017, Ms Kim Yura shot a video during a vacation she took in the Australian city of Cairns and later posted it on a YouTube channel.

Like many seemingly random online videos, it became a mild sensation - there are 1.3 million views - and has made something of a celebrity of its co-star, Park Mak-rye, 74, who is Ms Kim's grandmother. Their channel, Korean Grandma, currently has 1.31 million subscribers.

And although Ms Park may be one of the better-known examples, she is not alone as an older person claiming a share of the spotlight in South Korea, where a "greynaissance" is helping reshape the culture.

South Koreans aged 50 and older are becoming key consumers and makers in the country's economy, including the fashion and beauty industries.

It is partly a result of the fact that South Korea has a rapidly ageing population. It is also partly the success of some YouTube and TikTok creators, who are an important factor in shifting beauty ideals and are becoming popular in South Korea and abroad at the same time.

Ms Hyeyoung Hwang, digital editor at Vogue Korea, credits social media as the driving force of the movement. And while "lack of senior representation in the media" has been a problem in many countries for decades, she said, the "visibility of Korean seniors working in these industries has a particularly positive influence as pressures to follow age norms are so strictly defined".

Analyst Jeon Mi-young from the Consumer Trend Research Institute at Seoul National University, said: "Koreans like to see young faces, even if they're being served at McDonalds, so the fact that even a few seniors have been able to find work as models or YouTubers is remarkable."

Ms Park, whose many subscribers tune in for her cosmetics reviews and kitchen secrets, is just one example.

"Beauty, to me, is not about being wrinkle-free," she wrote in an e-mail. "What's made me youthful over the years is my ability to overcome my fears about ageing and pushing myself to do new things."

Ms Kim started the channel because her grandmother began showing signs of dementia, and she wanted to document the fun they had together.

She said she had the idea for her grandmother to focus on beauty because make-up tutorials were trending at the time, though the channel has other kinds of videos as well.

"I understood that most viewers weren't going to follow my grandma's tips since she used non-famous brands," said Ms Kim. "But I thought it was a way to tell a story about her."

Ms Ashley Kim, 30, a Korean American who lives in Melbourne, Australia, discovered Ms Chang Myung-sook - also known as Milanonna and another YouTube creator - when searching for self-care content online at the beginning of Australia's lockdown in March last year.

"I was like, oh, it's a granny?" Ms Ashley Kim said of Ms Chang, 68. "It's a Korean granny."

Milanonna's videos, including one called "Korean Old Lady's Self Care Night Routine", include skincare regimens that are similar to those of other YouTubers and to life hacks that come with age.

"In South Korea, there's this idea that once you hit a certain age, you're no longer a woman, so it's appealing to see these grandmas not give in to that narrative," said Ms Esther Oh, 32, who lives in Virginia and watches videos of self-described "Korean grandmothers".

More recently, some older South Koreans have joined TikTok.

One account, @thenewgrey-, highlights the Ahjusshis, a crew of fashionable men in their 50s and 60s. Mr Jee Sung-eun, 55, a founding member of the Ahjusshis, said he hopes the crew's success serves as a reminder that one is never too old to try anew.

"They used to say, 'Life is a marathon', but I think it's more like a triathlon," he said.

Although a handful of older social media stars have garnered millions of views online, finding an audience in the commercial fashion industry has been tougher.

The Show Project, a modelling school and agency in Seoul, was founded in 2015 to connect older people with second careers.

The agency now represents Kim Chil-doo, 66, and Choi Soon-hwa, 77, two of the best-known older models in the industry, and has trained more than 100 aspiring models.

Mr Im Sung-min, a manager at the Show Project, said the industry has made some changes since 2016, when he first took Kim to an audition.

"The casting director asked why I brought him a grandpa. He said, 'I thought I told you to bring me some real models,'" Mr Im recalled.

Two years later, the agency got its first real break when fashion label Kimmy. J hired Kim and Choi for a runway show at Seoul Fashion Week.

Still, companies rarely use older adults as models, even though labels like Millet, MLB and Spao have.

"A lot of seniors come to us looking for the kind of success Kim has achieved, but the truth is that everything, from maintaining your body to landing gigs, is really hard," said Mr Im.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2021, with the headline ''Greynaissance' takes South Korea social media by storm'. Subscribe