SEOUL • Five years ago, she was working 20 hours a day in a hospital just to make ends meet.
Now, at 75, Choi Soon-hwa is an unlikely fashion star and model in South Korea, one of a handful of seniors who have become socialmedia and fashion celebrities in a country where inter-generational conflict is mounting as the population ages.
“I think of having this job at this age as a miracle,” Choi said. She is now the oldest professional model in the country and has walked the runway at Seoul Fashion Week.
It is a far cry from her life even just a few years ago, when she was a care worker forced to take long shifts, often seven days a week.
“It was hard to even get myself lunch. The stress was excruciating – it was as if a volcano was about to erupt inside me,” she noted, adding that she was in heavy debt and all her earnings were spent paying off loans.
About 45 per cent of older people in South Korea live in relative poverty and the country has one of the weakest social-safety nets among developed nations.
By chance, Choi saw a television commercial about senior models and saw an opportunity to make a change. She decided to enrol in classes and was snapped up by agency The Show Project, making her catwalk debut soon after.
When she worked at the hospital, she had to dye her hair as patients did not want someone who “looked too old” looking after them. Now, her pale locks have become an asset to a new generation of designers who value distinctiveness.
“I make clothes for those in their 20s and early 30s,” said Kim Hee-jin, a 32-year-old designer who hired Choi for her Seoul Fashion Week show last year, where the senior model donned a bright purple padded jacket and red-flame tights.
“There is something very unique about Choi – she has a quality that is different from anyone else and I think it goes well with the kind of originality I strive to achieve when making clothes,” Kim added.
This echoes a newfound trend in Western markets, where brands now choose models who reflect the diversity in society and social media.
In the past five years, catwalks globally have seen greater age diversity and models such as Jacky O’Shaughnessy and Jan de Villeneuve making names for themselves as fashion stars in their 60s and 70s.
South Korea’s elderly have lived through Japanese colonial rule, the Korean War, severe post-war poverty and the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
“This country was very poor when I was young,” said Choi, whose adult life was also one of hardship.
After her husband abandoned her and their two children – simply leaving home one day and never returning, she was forced to juggle working full time while being a lone parent in a nation that can be hostile to single mothers.
“During my years as a single parent of two kids, I would wear the same clothes for as long as 20 years,” she said.
Today, South Korea boasts a US$37-billion (S$50.1-billion) fashion industry, but those aged 60 or older spend an average of US$33 a month on clothes and shoes, while those under 40 spend three times as much.
Choi said her generation had been “forcing themselves to be too frugal”. She noted that now is the time to try and live her own life.
She and other older celebrities have captured the imagination of South Korea’s youth and garnered large numbers of acolytes online, providing a small link between generations that are increasingly divided both politically and socially.
Fellow senior model Kim Chil-doo, 64, has some 75,000 followers on Instagram, while 72-year-old Park Mak-rye, whose posts include make-up tips, is a YouTube sensation with more than 400,000 fans.