Not many people think that the 16 year-old fashion model Han Hyun-min is Korean — they think he is a foreigner. People approached Han speaking in English during Seoul Fashion Week last fall, but Han does not speak English. Some fashion designer gave him the nickname "Paul," but Han neither likes that Western name nor wants to be called by any other name than his real name, Hyun-min.
Born to a Nigerian father and a Korean mother, Han is Korea's first Korean-African model. Fortunately, he takes his uniqueness positively while living in Korea, and working in the fashion industry where racism is still strong.
"My strength lies in my different look from others," said Han during an interview with The Korea Times at a cafe in Hapjeong, western Seoul, last Thursday. "I look different from my outer appearance and I have a different skin color, which I find the best. I was a super skinny boy standing 184 centimeters tall and weighing 56 kilograms last year. My friends called me anchovy."
Han grew five centimeters taller and gained a little more weight to follow his dream to become a model. He became one of the top male models to on the catwalks in last season's Seoul Fashion Week, appearing in 11 fashion designer shows.
It was his second season, although his success could have come earlier if he had not signed an exclusive contract with fashion designer Han Sang-hyuk opening the brand Heich Es Heich.
"I could not believe I participated in the show. I've never learned to walk as a model and I only watched them on shows on YouTube," said Han.
However, it was his company's CEO's job to make his career look beautiful outside and deal with less attractive situations inside.
Han Hyun-min would practice walking in 12-centimeter high-heels at gay clubs to prepare for the fashion show's concept of gender neutrality, but he was replaced by another model on the day to participate on a different catwalk.
He was not cast in his most favorite fashion designer's show as the young dressmaker said he did not hire black people.
Still, the discrimination does not disturb Han from growing as a model thanks to his slow and positive personality or perhaps his longtime-learned skill to ignore such irrational reactions.
"People would not talk to me backstage at fashion shows because they thought I didn't speak Korean. But once they learned I did, people start to gather around me and talk to me," said Han.
"I would participate in the rehearsals and coordinators there yell out orders in English only to me. I would wait until the end and tell them I don't speak English so please talk to me in Korean," added Han.
Unlike many Korean models' dream to become a top model in Europe, Han wants to work in the Japanese fashion industry. He was impressed by his experience with Japanese Gentlemen's Quarterly (GQ), last year, when he shot a page for the monthly fashion magazine. Han said the outcome there was unique and stylish while his works in Korea are mostly too typical.
"Also, there are many black models in Europe. My ultimate goal is Japan, where people don't look at me interestingly," said Han.