In this edition of ‘Skin Stories,’ we sit down with one of the co- founders of Korean beauty retailer, RosiePot.com, Ann Choi, and her mom, Monica Choi. We discuss growing up in Korea, the rise of Korean skincare, and advice for a flawless complexion.
I’m heading to meet Ann Choi and her mom, Monica Choi, at a quaint cafe in Koreatown – Caffe Concerto. The spot was chosen for its known quiet atmosphere, not necessarily the menu. I’m pretty sure I’m heading to the only Korean owned cafe in Ktown that serves Italian cuisine.
The interview was set up last week. Ann and I were talking about Korean skincare in regards to her own business, RosiePot.com, and time and again I heard her say, “My mom would nag me to do this…or do that….” when it came to skin care. I stared at Ann’s porcelain complexion and wondered what else her mother nagged her to do growing up. And then I thought, maybe other women might be just as curious? Thus, here we are.
What was it like growing up in Korea after the Korean War?
Mrs. Choi: “Korea was very poor back when I was growing up. Lots of starving people, many homeless after the war. It was a hard time for Korea. But I was lucky. My family was very wealthy during those times. My father supplied clothing and food to the military in Korea and he did very well. I attended private school, ate well, but so much of the country barely had anything to eat.
“Before I was born, my father was from North Korea. He migrated to South Korea during the war and settled in the city of Daegu; two hours south of Seoul and the third largest city after Seoul and Pusan.”
On how women took care of their skin back then…
Mrs. Choi: “Makeup was really scarce in Korea. It wasn’t readily available at all when I was a child growing up. All we did was wash our faces with regular soap and use any kind of lotion we could find. Around middle school and high school, I started using toner and various lotions, but not like we have nowadays. Maybe a two step routine.
“Amore Pacific was the main brand around during that time. They are the biggest and oldest skincare brand in Korea with the longest history. They were very popular back then. But a lot of Korean women back then fantasized about American brands. If someone owned Ponds Cold Cream that was a big deal.”
Who taught you to take care of your skin?
Mrs. Choi: “My parents always taught me cleanliness. That’s what they were able to do back then. They always emphasized to keep yourself clean because it was so hard just to keep clean back then.
“My father was educated in Japan and at that time Japan was a much more advanced country. So he taught me a lot of things he learned from Japan about health, cleanliness, and exercising.”
What did you teach your two daughters about skincare?
Mrs. Choi: “I always emphasized cleansing. Using a cream cleanser first to remove all the makeup and then a foam cleanser. And always wear sun block. I believe in extractions and getting the bad stuff out. And not to touch your face because your hands are always dirty. But I really think that skincare isn’t something that happens overnight. Its something you have to do for the rest of your life and it should be started early.”
Ann: “She nagged a lot. Like, ‘don’t go to sleep unless you wash your face.’ She would tell me to floss every day. And I noticed that people don’t really do that. I would see my friends in college and they would just wash their face quick and put a lotion on, but I always had a four step and would take care of my skin. In the beginning when she nagged it was really annoying, but after years of that she brainwashed us. I feel dirty if I don’t take care of my skin or floss every day.”
Spas in Korea
Mrs. Choi: “It was labeled more of a bathhouse than a spa back then. People would go there to get clean. Nowadays they have all of these different rooms – salt rooms, clay rooms, different pools – but back then they didn’t offer those things. It was just a huge tub of water and people would go in it to steam and scrub their skin. They would even scrub each other. That’s a Korean thing. I make a lot of friends at the spa because when I go there, the woman sitting next to me, she’ll offer to scrub my back or I’ll offer to do hers and then we talk about our lives, our kids. That comes from the tradition back in Korea.
“Going to the bathhouse was only for special occasions. It wasn’t expensive, but we had a very large family and it required a lot for us to all go. So it only happened on special occasions like birthdays or if someone was getting married, or funerals. But in Korea these days the spas are much more advanced. Upscale. There are entire high rise buildings containing all spas.”
Ann: “Yah, I’ve seen ones where they have karaoke at the spa! You can spend the entire day there. They have a Korean BBQ restaurant inside and you go to the spa, then sing karaoke, go eat and go back to the spa for more treatments. It’s not that expensive in Korea because there is so much competition that they can’t really charge a lot of money for it.”
On Korean spas in Los Angeles and dragging her daughters…
Mrs. Choi: “I go to Grand Spa or WiSpa. Sometimes I’ll go to Century Spa because it’s quieter if I just want to relax, but mostly I go to Grand Spa.”
Ann: “Growing up she always took me to the spa, but I hated going. She would scrub me and I hated it. It was embarrassing! When I got older I didn’t want to go. But every two weeks or so she would take us. She wanted to go more often, but because we didn’t want to go we were only dragged every two weeks. I wanted to wear a bathing suit when I was older, but she was like, oh, people are going to look at you funny. So I had to be naked.
“Now I go to the spa and the longer I’m there the better my skin looks. I steam my face and then do extractions myself with this tool I bought for extractions. Doing it at the spa is much better for your skin because everything comes out easier and you won’t scar your skin.”
What did you notice about how Americans take care of their skin versus Koreans when you moved to the states?
Mrs. Choi: “I noticed people looked older than their age and had much more wrinkles. We would go to the beaches a lot when we lived in Hawaii and California and I would always cover my face with a hat, wear sunscreen. But I noticed people wouldn’t wear anything and they would lay out in the sun. Even when I’m in the car I cover my face and have a shade I put up because I don’t want to get burned or get spots.”
The conversation moves away from Korean skin tips. I inquire about how she met her husband, Ann’s father, and on moving to the states. Mrs. Choi smiles, blushing like a teenager, when she recalls the story of how she met her husband at a friend’s house. She says he was tall, handsome, but his sense of humor was what ultimately won her over. He had her laughing all night long. Shortly there after the two were married. When Ann was in grade school, they decided to move to Hawaii to raise their children.
On raising independent daughters…
Mrs. Choi: “To us, America was the land of dreams and opportunity. We wanted our children to grow up in America and speak English. Because back then if you spoke both languages you had a much better chance of getting a good job and being very successful.”
Ann: “My dad had a very successful golf tourism business. He would bring people from Korea to the states for golf tours. He had worked at a lot of travel agencies and Swiss Airlines in Korea so that’s why he started the golf travel agency.
“Life was comfortable. I went to private school, my mom didn’t work, but after the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, the business collapsed. My dad moved back to Korea to find work and my mom, my sister and I moved to Woodland Hills, California to be near our aunt who lived in Calabasas. But then shortly after my dad got cancer. And since treatment is much less expensive in Korea, my parents moved back to Korea and my sister and I moved to live with our uncle for a year, while my dad got treatment. He got better right away and after the third round of chemo they didn’t see anymore cancer. When they came back to California they started a restaurant in the valley. A Japanese restaurant.”
Mrs. Choi: “Back in the day women didn’t work. I was not independent at all and I had to depend on my husband for everything after I got married. I couldn’t support myself and because I came from a wealthy family I was never trained to work. Women back then were trained to become good housewives, learn how to cook and prepped for marriage. So once we started struggling financially it was tough. I wished I could contribute, but I didn’t have any skills. I couldn’t speak English and I struggled a lot.
“That’s why I wanted more than anything to teach my daughters to become independent. To become career women. I wanted to make sure they can support themselves and not rely on anyone. I tried hard not to spoil them because I wanted them to learn about saving and be smart with money.”
Does Korean society nowadays still see women’s role as housewives?
Mrs. Choi: “It’s mixed. A lot still want their daughters to marry rich husbands, but there are ones that send their kids to America and want more education for them. They want them to be independent. But the traditional Koreans still want them to get married and have kids.”
The necessity of beauty for success in Korea…
Ann: “When you submit your resume you have to submit a resume photo in Korea. They even have classes that teach you how to take a good resume photo because it’s so important. You have to look good and have good skin. There’s a lot of pressure in Korea. If you don’t look good it’s much more difficult to get a job. The prettier girl will always get a call back first, because in Korea they think that women who are prettier have a better chance of succeeding and doing a better job. That’s partly why plastic surgery is so popular in Korea.”
What’s your skincare routine like?
Mrs. Choi: “First I use IPKN Calendula Massage Cleansing Cream. I mostly love it because it’s in a big jar. I like to use a generous amount since I’m obsessed with cleansing. It’s easy to massage and thoroughly removes my makeup. I follow that with Shiseido White Lucent Cleansing Foam and then use IASO Profressive Age Care Toner & Emulsion, IASO Progressive Age Care Serum, which really moisturizes my skin and makes it really soft. The IASO Progressive Age Care Cream I really love because of the light citrus scent. This cream is known as the “botox cream” in Korea. I haven’t been using it long enough to know if it will help with wrinkles, but I really like the texture. For eye cream, I use Laterre Eye Cream. I wanted to try it because the Korean actress, Choi Hwa Jung, uses this product. She’s in her 50s and is known for looking SO young. For daytime, I’ll use the Missha Perfect Cover BB Cream.”
Any Korean skin tips for women out there reading this?
Mrs. Choi: “I think the American diet is so different from the Korean diet. They eat more red meat here in the states, but in Korea red meat is very expensive. If you want nice quality, its expensive and you get very little. People in Korea eat more pork and chicken. Korean BBQ is for a special occasion in Korea. Not that often. But at home, most Koreans eat more stews, vegetables and rice. That’s where the health of your skin starts, with diet. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes. You have to be healthy to have good skin and every single part whether its your finger to your face, every detail in your body matters. It’s also important to let your skin breathe. When you block it out with foundation you need to make sure you take it off really well so you give skin the natural breathing time. And sunblock. You have to develop a fear of the sun.”
Photographed by the author