- Harisu:South Korean Cosmetic Media and the Paradox of Transgendered Neoliberal Embodiment
In 2001, the South Korean firm, Dodo cosmetics, aired a commercial for their Palgantong Fania (Red Box) line of facial powder that featured Harisu,1 a then relatively unknown male-to-female transsexual Korean model. Born in Songnam, South Korea, as Lee Kyeung-Yup, Lee moved to Japan as a teenager to study hair design for two years before undergoing sex-reassignment surgery at the age of nineteen and changing her name to the more feminine Lee Kyeung-Eun. Soon after her transition, she was discovered by Korean talent agents and chosen by Dodo cosmetics to be their new spokesmodel. Cannily exploiting the absence of explicitly queer representations on Korean television, Dodo's 2001 advertisement hoped to capture the attention of the Korean public by revealing Lee's transsexuality in its final shots. Lee, who had adopted the stage name Harisu (a transliteration of an English term, "hot issue"), was quickly thrust to the forefront of media attention in Korea. As word about her reached mainstream U.S. and diasporic Korean American media outlets, English-language blogs and websites dedicated to tracking Korean popular culture began to script biographical narratives about her. A number of these narratives also assign significance to the 2001 ad, locating it as the origin of Harisu's subsequent transnational and transmedia stardom, since she soon afterward ventured into other entertainment projects. In [End Page 248] addition to holding leading roles in Korean films and releasing multiple Korean-language music albums, she has starred in a Taiwanese television series, performed her music at Korean American cultural festivals in Los Angeles, and published a book of beauty tips catering to Japanese women, to name just a few of the transnational facets to her celebrity.
Since the airing of Dodo's ad in 2001, Harisu has also become a vocal representative of transgender rights in East Asia. In addition to speaking out in interviews about prevailing queer- and trans-phobic attitudes in Korea, she famously paid for male-to-female sex-reassignment surgery for a woman living in China who could not afford the procedure. Moreover, she fought to have her name-change legally recognized in the family register by the Incheon District Court, making her allegedly the second person in Korea's history to achieve this. This more politicized aspect of her public personae has been a persistent focal point within U.S. press reports about her: the Korean American media, and even the mainstream U.S. press, have celebrated her as a symbol of South Korea's political and cultural progression toward becoming a fully modern nation, reflected by its more flexible cultural attitudes around nonnormative sexual identities. Thus, her appearance in Dodo's 2001 Palgantong ad not only has served as a launching pad for her expansive career but also emerges at a complex intersection of forces exerted by national, transnational, visual, and sexual economies.
The figure of Harisu could be analyzed via a multitude of cultural, national, and political frameworks because she is a celebrity who deftly plays with many star personae. Richard Dyer's foundational Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society offers a productive critical lens for understanding the different meanings that have circulated in Korea and the United States about Harisu.2 Dyer begins his book with a description of a photograph of Joan Crawford taken by Eve Arnold at the request of Crawford, who wanted the artist to capture the intensive labor demanded by stardom. In this photo, Crawford's image is figured from three different angles: at the center of the frame, her face is reflected in sharp focus by a small handheld mirror revealing the details and texture of her makeup; in the distance, we see a soft-focus image of her entire face reflected by a larger mirror; and, in the foreground, we are presented a slightly obscured glimpse of the back of her upper body. Dyer uses this tripartite image as an analogue for the threefold dynamic at work between the star's manufacture, appearance, and person, a construction that invites us to ask which one of these dimensions captures the...