Sebastian Lee, a rising senior at St. John’s School, is not your typical teenager. While for most of his friends summer break might mean family vacations or other leisurely social activities, for Lee it means flying to South Korea to model.
The 17-year-old is the second youngest model signed to Morph Management, a modeling agency based in Seoul, and has been modeling for two years. He does commercials and projects that include makeup, fashion and clothing brands like Montbell.
Lee recalls his mother Stephanie Heo encouraging him to walk like a model just in case he were to be scouted in South Korea. He also thought modeling would be a great addition to his resume.
“In hindsight, it was something very shallow, but then I realized after I did my first job, it was way harder than I expected,” Lee said.
Lee ended up at Morph after meeting a walking instructor who worked as a head for the agency. He signed with them shortly afterwards at the agency headquarters in Seoul.
Behind the glamour
Lee often wakes up at 5 or 6 am on the day of a shoot to remove any puffiness in his face and he plays R&B music on the way to calm his nerves. The shoots that last for two or three hours at a time are very draining for him.
“Being a model is really not glamorous, and I’m very gifted that I’ve been handed a lot of my jobs, which I’m incredibly grateful for,” Lee said. “I’ve seen a lot of people who work incredibly hard — people who work so many jobs per week while attending multiple shoots per day.”
“I’m really impressed by their ability to do it because after every shoot, I’m completely drained,” he added. “I just shut down immediately in the car and just started sleeping.”
And although he’s never considered himself a “stylish” person, he’s slowly building his confidence.
“I had no fashion sense at all when I started, but still I’ve been trying to improve that and finally started becoming more comfortable with my skin,” he said. “I try new things and new poses, and even if it doesn’t work out, I can always try again.”
“They can always take more photos and pick out different photos. I feel accomplished being able to get three or four photos that they want because I sometimes get really nervous,” Lee added.
But the biggest challenge for him is capturing the image of the brand he happens to be working with. Each brand has a specific image, like Formal Bee, for example, a Korean cosmetic product.
“Their target market was late teens and early 20s, and it’s kind of hard for me to envision what they want because I’m not in that target market that they’re approaching,” Lee said. “I have to really envision myself to kind of fit what they want.”
When he starts doubting himself, Lee looks up to model and executive director of Morph, Noh Sunmi.
“She’s able to give a lot of help, and she’s very critical,” Lee said. “At that point, it’s good because I can definitely see what areas I can improve.”
“Sometimes she comes to my shoots and says how I should improve and also hypes me up,” he added. “To be a model in Korea, you have to be comfortable with your own skin and really shine out with fashion.”
As the K-pop industry continues to boom globally, Korean representation in the media has improved. Finding the “perfect” model for a photo shoot, however, is still considered a controversial topic in the Asian entertainment industry.
“In Korea, if you’re light skinned, you get so many more jobs,” Lee said. “As you can see, I’m not the most fair-skinned, and I’m a lot darker.”
“It’s kind of unfair to be judged because of your skin color and not get jobs as much as if you were pale skinned,” said Lee.
Summer is ending and Lee will soon fly back to Guam and enter his senior year in high school. His focus is on applying for college, but he hopes to also expand his role in the Korean entertainment industry.
He has dreams of being a TV or film actor. He has already had to turn down a South Korean reality show because it did not fit in with his school schedule.