At the Miss Koreatown beauty contest in the Baltimore Washington Area, Third Aunt applied so much stage makeup on Sister that she looked exactly like Dee Snider, the deranged looking front man of the one hit 80’s metal band, “Twisted Sister”. He infamously shout sang, “We’re not gonna take it anymore!” while costumed in striped spandex tights and muppet wild hair, in mime-white powdered foundation with chalky, turquoise eye shadow and rouged lips with a dash of lightning bolt slash, contour blush, painted like a fresh tattoo on his witchy cheekbones.
Minus the football shoulder pads, the huge, manly nose and the spiral blonde wig, my sister could’ve been his doppelgänger if it was Halloween. Her classically elegant face was solidly caked into a mask of gaudy colors, kabuki exaggerated features and trying too hard grotesqueness.
I’ve seen actors after the curtains final fall with stage makeup on and it’s disorienting to see them in ordinary light, dramatic shadow scapes play on their face and they resemble ghouls and vampires. But here the lights weren’t as powerfully blaring as theatrical spot lights; none of the other contestants had the overly zealous backstage help of my well-intentioned Aunt.
Third Aunt was an expert fashionista, known for being impeccably chic and stylish. She wore tailored, designer clothes, sleek, luxurious leather and rich silk fabrics in bold flamboyant hues, textured leopard patterns with golden tasselled embellishments, and name brand handbags galore. She had a superstar Michael Jackson type of magnetically charged flair, and a trophy wife, aristocrat’s courtesan, worldly glamor.
Because she was diabetic she completely avoided sugar, so she also had the tiniest waist and miniature US women’s size 5 feet, which matched her ballerina like body. She was so petite, her head appeared slightly larger, like Nancy Reagan and most Hollywood actors, her head was disproportionately swollen, somewhat resembling an artificially dimpled korean version of vampy Joan Collins. Her every hair strand was perfectly spray lacquered into place like a helmeted wig and her smooth, ageless face was always perfectly made up and glistening with sparkles of freshly applied shining lotion.
She was wealthy for most of her adult life, had millions of alimony dollars secretly stashed in Korea and at one point she even bought her house in Maryland with bundles of cash, but she went from wartime rags to post-divorce riches then back to senior citizen rags again.
I watched in horror as Sister glided confidently across the stage. She had perfect feminine poise, she walked like Grace Kelly at the Academy Awards except she was floating in a one-piece black spandex swimsuit with shiny black patent heels. She had the statuesque grace of a monarch but with the clownishly freakish war painted face of a psychotic! As she naively approached, the surprised announcer stepped back at first and the shocked audience gasped in slow-motion enthrallment. But my emotionally charismatic sister could win over a hostile audience with her undeniable innocence, even in a radioactive, orange gorilla suit, she could make the devil weep.
There were two stages of competition; the swimsuit and the ballroom gown portion with morality questions and tiaras. I went back stage to alert them during her costume change, but Mother and Aunt smiled busily and wouldn’t listen, they were oblivious, too proud and too close, to gauge any immediate crisis. She finished the competition with the full kabuki makeup on, and she miraculously won second place out of 5 equally beautiful competitors because of her exquisite poise and character.
After the contest ended, my sister cried, and I comforted her as best as I could, with half lies and truths. I told her she looked beautiful (lie) and that she had the best speech (truth). I told her I was proud of her, I didn’t mention the obvious makeup disaster because it was too late for that truth. Raw Truth was salt in a fresh wound and I couldn’t deliver that blow, no matter how shallow I thought the whole humiliation of a beauty contest was in the first place. Young women parading themselves half-naked on stage to be subjectively judged for their physical attributes, I viewed it as a barbaric pseudo fairy tale ritual of being chosen and crowned as a virginal princess Bride. My mother wanted me to also compete in these contests and I instantly refused.
I was a depressed teenager, I dressed in all black everyday. I didn’t wear ankle length floral patterned dresses like my sister who was a devout born again Christian. She only wore church clothes, never jeans or pants although ironically her nickname was Jean. I often thought she was born in the wrong era. She belonged on the prairie with pioneering homesteaders or maybe in a past life she was a southern belle wearing an umbrella hoop skirt adorned with pastel ribbons and lace and parasol. Even though she dressed in old fashioned clothes, she always looked attractively attired in photographs while I looked awkward and angry in outdated clothes that Mother chose for me.
I had to wear styles that were so opposite to my personality that they looked like costumes; enormously puffed sleeves of Victorian age blouses with intricate sparkling sequins embossed in the high neck collared front that was shaped like a V, paired with a polyester burgundy ankle length skirt and bright scarlet red rough pig skin leather, Oxford style ankle boots with wrinkled black shoelaces. Or the pale lavender blazer suit with matching lavender, white and blue wool plaid skirt, with a chaotically striped collared pseudo polo shirt which daringly peaked underneath the lavender power suit blazer and the final matching clash, striped, cuffed terry cloth socks showing above those same, red, ankle Robin Hood boots.
In every family photograph I appeared in clownish costumes that my mother proudly insisted that I wear and in every shot I looked like a dark skinned refugee with mismatched Kmart outfits seemingly patched together by a color blind heirloom quilt designer. I don’t think my mother intended to make me look freakish but I always did in the styles that she chose for me. She could wear the same clashing stripes with bold plaid patterns and somehow carry the look off as an avant garde statement, but I was an awkward and shy introvert so I just looked like a backwoods, fresh off the boat, textile disaster.
So I trained myself to believe that appearance didn’t matter, that style was a vain waste of time. I wanted to camouflage with the night, in my all black uniform, even in the daytime. I agreed with depressed Morrissey when he sang, “I wear black on the outside, cause black is how I feel on the inside.” Black looked anonymous, mysterious, serious and reserved; it was slimming, stylish and matched with everything. My mother, sister, and father didn’t understand, but my favorite ally, my brother, did. He showed support for my depression when he bought me a black sweater for Christmas. Directly and indirectly, he always let me know that he accepted me, despite our differences, I always felt his empathetic support.
(Photograph by Judy Eun Kyung Kim c2018, taken at the “Couture Korea” exhibition on February 4, 2018).