As a girl in South Korea, Kristen Yoo walked with books on her head to cultivate a model's ramrod straight posture.
When she moved to Alaska as a teenager, her dreams of strutting down the runway faded.
On April 15 in Koreatown, she finally had her chance. At 59, she was one of the younger contestants in a Silver Models USA audition.
Dressed casually in a baggy white shirt and faded jeans, she took a question from a judge: "How would you convince someone that you have what it takes to be a model?"
She addressed her answer to her son, Josh, who died in an accident four years ago, when he was 29.
“Josh,” she declared, pausing for a moment. “Mom can do it.”
Yoo's odds of winning weren't bad. Of about 80 contestants, 20 to 30 would be chosen to work with Silver Models USA, starting with a training program and progressing to runways at a fashion show in Paris and at the Los Angeles Korean festival.
For these older Korean immigrants, the audition offers a chance to fulfill dreams of glamorous careers they set aside as they worked to put food on the table in their adopted country.
The demand for older models is growing in the Korean American community, as a booming senior population looks for people like themselves in advertisements and fashion shows.
Aging baby boomers have fueled a similar trend worldwide. Maye Musk, 74 — Elon’s mother — appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s 2022 swimsuit issue. A 106-year-old Apo Whang-Od recently went viral as the cover model for Vogue Philippines.
Silver Models USA, or SM USA for short (no relation to K-pop behemoth SM Entertainment), evolved from a nonprofit to a full-fledged modeling agency in January.
Co-founder Jenny Cho hopes to connect senior citizens to opportunities ranging from movies to commercials for medical groups.
"They lived all their lives working hard and struggling, without their own lives, without their own names," Cho said. "They are trying to challenge themselves so they can live a happy life."
Yoo, who teaches English as a second language in Anchorage, said she bought her plane ticket to L.A. four days before the audition.
"In America, with a non-American face, I thought I couldn’t be a model,” she said. “But I want to do this for myself.”
Before the audition, makeup artists and hairstylists applied final touches for contestants ranging in age from 55 to 84.
Three women practiced strutting in a hallway as an instructor clapped and barked instructions, reminding them not to walk too fast.
Agency staffers dispensed tips: Look directly into the camera. Be natural, but walk ssig-ssig-ha-ge — bravely or confidently.
“I feel like I’ve become a star,” a contestant quipped.
Tammie Cho, 66, of Stanton, who was a cafeteria worker for decades and is now an art teacher, said her black mesh dress "makes me look a bit more skinny.”
Jae Hoo Hwang, a 59-year-old doctor of Korean medicine from Hancock Park, chose a shiny gold dress "because I want to walk the kkok-gil” — a path filled with flowers.
“I need to shine to walk that path," she said.
The six judges included an actor, a designer of traditional hanboks and a doctor from event sponsor Seoul Medical Group.
“We want to understand the contestants’ motivation and passion,” said John Go, a judge and a senior model himself. “We can see right away if someone has the talent.”
The event began with contestants strutting across the ballroom to electronic instrumental music as camera operators captured their every move.
Judges asked wide-ranging questions, from how do you stay skinny to how often do you wear a suit.
“I don’t really wear a suit,” a male contestant answered. “I wear golf clothes more often.”
After her audition, Seonghee Jung struck up a conversation with Sharon Kim, who is already working as a senior model for SM USA.
Jung, 56, studied theater at the Seoul Institute of the Arts, where she was a hubae, or younger classmate, of Kim, 62, who studied dance.
“If you see me from behind, people tell me I look like I'm 20," said Jung, a former preschool teacher who is a homemaker in Palm Springs.
Jung dabbled in modeling in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. Now, she has her hands full caring for her mother, who is ill. She hesitated about auditioning, but Kim's success inspired her.
She applied secretly, telling her mother that she was going to see a friend.
“I really want to do this. … If I keep pushing this off, I feel like I would not be able to do this,” she said. “When I put on makeup, I’ve become more confident. I feel like I’m a different person.”
Growing up in South Korea, Grace Ju looked like a model — people called her "Miss Korea." Her son models in Korea.
Ju, 55, who lives in Koreatown, came to the U.S. a decade ago at the invitation of her older sister, who was at the audition to cheer her on.
She thought of her 89-year-old mother, who is in a hospital in L.A.
“Before my mother closes my eyes, I want to show her my best self,” Ju said. "I want to show her how we can come to this vast country and live in a different way.”
After about four hours of auditions, it was time for the final stroll down the catwalk, featuring both hopefuls and current models, with Lizzo's "About Damn Time" blaring.
The winners will be chosen in a few weeks.
Yoo strutted toward her daughter, Paulina, who snapped cellphone photos.
'She has never done something like this,” said Paulina, who flew in from Denver. “I didn’t think she would actually do it. … It made me happy watching her do it.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.