70-year-old YouTube star redefines beauty in South Korea

Park Mak-rye is the latest social media sensation, with 400,000 followers on YouTube and Instagram, who tune in for her make-up tutorials and wisdom

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 July, 2017, 8:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 July, 2017, 8:01am

One of South Korea’s hottest YouTube stars is a 70-year-old grandmother whose cool, undaunted style and hilarity are a breath of fresh air in a social media universe that exalts youth and perfect looks.

Park Mak-rye’s videos are all about showing off her wrinkles and her elderly life in the raw. Young South Koreans find her so funny and adorable that big companies such as Samsung Electronics and Lotte are banking on her popularity.

Despite her new life as a celebrity, she still gets up before dawn to run her diner.

See Park’s YouTube channel here

Serving kimchi, wearing a dotted pink top and short skirt with a kitchen hygiene hat on her head, Park isn’t exactly the most stylish beauty icon. Yet South Koreans love to watch her give make-up tutorials, reunite with an old friend or try pasta for the first time in her “Grandma’s Diary” YouTube videos

“She’s real. She’s not fake,” says Lee In-jae, a 31-year-old living in Seoul. “It’s refreshing to see the world through the eyes of a grandmother.”

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Before YouTube, Park says, her life was “dead like rotten bean sprouts”.

“We used to think, ‘Since I’m over 70, my life is over,’” says Park, sitting in the living room that she turns into her YouTube studio by taping a broad piece of paper on the wall.

“But as I started doing this, I realised that life starts at 71,” she says, adding an extra year as is the custom in Korea and many other Asian countries.

Park’s stardom defies conventional expectations of the elderly in South Korea, often depicted in the media as suffering from poverty or as angry patriots protesting for conservative values. South Korea has the highest elderly poverty rate among developed countries.

Encouraged by a granddaughter to start making videos as a way to stave off dementia, Park is living it up. She’s posed for a women’s monthly magazine spread, hosted a home shopping show for retail giant Lotte and is now appearing as a model in a YouTube commercial for Samsung.

Kim Yu-ra, Park’s 27-year-old granddaughter, stopped working as an acting instructor to travel with her grandmother after a doctor told the family she had a high risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease like her three older sisters. Kim took her grandmother to Australia as a treat.

A video of the duo visiting Cairns, Australia in January shows Park describing her first time diving in the ocean and her sprinting to a swimming pool like a child. It was a big hit among young South Koreans: six months later, Park has about 400,000 followers on YouTube and Instagram.

Since then, everything has “flipped like a pancake”, says Park.

“I learned then that my grandmother was just like us. She likes to travel, eat tasty food and take pretty photos,” says Kim, who films and edits the videos. “I’m her fan too. She is such a cool person.”

Her fans love Park’s unfiltered comments in her local dialect, such as a remark about Korean soap operas – “those things get pregnant days and nights”.

Park’s unabashed willingness to share her story and emotions, and her lack of shame about her poor education, appeal to young South Koreans.

“The reason she is so popular is that she talks candidly and without pretension about things that women feel uncomfortable about,” says Lee Taek-gwang, a professor of culture studies at Kyung Hee University. “She talks about topics that we don’t dare to talk about, especially on women’s issues.”

About cosmetic companies’ promises to make women younger and prettier, Park says, “You just have to be born again.”

Offering make-up tips to help people look a decade younger, she warns teenage viewers, “You guys shouldn’t do this or you’ll look like infants.”