Jessica Seobyn Ryu:Becoming Miss Korea

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the plans of millions all around the world, but for one NYU Shanghai student, it has led to a full-time job as a Miss Korea. 

When Jessica Seobyn Ryu ’23-’24, decided to take a gap year last winter, after NYU Shanghai closed campus to prevent the spread of COVID-19, she suddenly had the time to enter a competition her friends had long encouraged her to join. To her surprise, she won the local pageant in her hometown of Busan in June, earning the chance to compete in the national contest. In October, she went on to win second place in the Miss Korea pageant and was crowned “Miss Korea Sun,” signing a two year contract with the pageant sponsor to train for and make public appearances.

Recently, Ryu took some time from her busy schedule to chat with the Gazette about her experience so far.

What made you decide to enter the Miss Korea pageant? Had you been involved in pageants before?

Since middle school, my friends have been telling me to try a beauty pageant. Back then, I thought beauty pageants were sort of weird. No offense. I just couldn’t understand why judges were empowered to judge others’ beauty. But later on, I saw how people who went for beauty pageants became public figures and did a lot of good activities afterwards, and I thought that was very cool.

This time, a friend of mine mentioned the Miss Korea Pageant to me right before the pandemic. As I could stay in Korea and had enough spare time after taking the gap year, I thought this could be my chance to try it.

Before going to the pageant, I was worried that other contestants, who were all super pretty, would be sassy and aloof. But it turned out that all of them were very kind-hearted and down-to-earth. I really enjoyed the days I spent with them. The judges also broke my stereotypes towards beauty pageants. Throughout the contest, they’ve been stressing that there’s no fixed image of beauty. What they looked at was who you were as a person and how you would fit Miss Korea. Hearing that, I realized that the beauty pageant was not as bad as I thought. It really speaks for the diversity of beauty.

For those of us who aren’t too familiar with pageants, can you tell us more about the Miss Korea Pageant?

It’s pretty much like the pageant that every country hosts annually. In South Korea, each region will have three winners go on to the national contest. We had a three-week camp in person where we completed individual and group “missions” to gain points. The judges then chose the 20 finalists who would be invited to train for the final competition.

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Ryu dancing on the final stage

In the final round, the judges selected 5 winners -- one Miss Korea Jin (1st place), two Miss Korea Suns (2nd place), and two Miss Korea Mis (3rd place). I was honored to be named one of the Miss Korea Suns and win 2nd place.

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Ryu awarded second place

Originally, the winners would go on to compete for Miss Earth after the national contest, and I was supposed to go because I’m the only English speaker among the five awardees. However, because the Miss Korea Pageant had been postponed from June to October, it was too late to compete in the Miss Earth pageant. 

What “missions” did you do in the competition?

This year, the organizing committee of the pageant really focused on the natural and inner beauty of contestants. So, in our first photo shoot mission, we were required to wear business suits and remove all the makeup. The second mission was another photo shoot for a magazine. Out of the 37 contestants, the professionals selected six people to be in the magazine and these people got extra points.

The third mission was a group campaign mission where we had to advocate for global social issues, such as ending plastic pollution and promoting social distancing, through fashion campaigns. My team’s topic was recycling, and we collaboratively prepared the materials and took photos to make campaign posters. This was pretty hard because it not only tested our understanding of beauty, but also required strong teamwork skills. Luckily, even though we were all competing with each other, we still bonded as a team and learned a lot about the topic.

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Ryu in the photo shoot missions

What are you working on now? 

Though many festivals and events got cancelled because of the strict social distancing policies, we still try our best to support public service events hosted by NGOs and the government. For example, I attended a donation event last November to help kids living in poor conditions. I’m very glad to contribute my part to this kind of event because we can use our influence to call for more attention to people in need.

Along with the events, we are taking classes. We have signed a two-year contract with the entertainment agency who hosted the Miss Korea Pageant and the agency is providing various training courses to make us better public figures. Some of us, including me, are interested in becoming an actress in the future. We are now having meetings regarding our acting career and we might be on screen for several shows.

I return this semester to NYU Shanghai as an online student. Since I have Miss Korea schedules in the daytime, I’m taking some night classes. 

Why did you choose NYU Shanghai? And how has your experience been?

NYU was always my dream school. But then, I was aware of the fact that they had different campuses. So, I looked up all the campuses and noticed NYU Shanghai. I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to learn about China, South Korea’s neighboring country, and its culture.

I always wanted to study psychology in college, so I felt a little bit disappointed when I found out that NYU Shanghai didn’t have a psychology major. But then, I learned about the social science major and its psychology track, which actually made me want to go to NYU Shanghai more. This major gives students freedom to explore other social science areas besides their track and I thought that would be really helpful to expand my vision. 

I enjoyed my first semester in Shanghai a lot. I got close to a lot of my friends during the orientation week. Our classes were smaller than I expected, so we had more chances to interact with the teacher. I also really liked my dorm. I stayed with my Chinese roommate, Wei Jiankun, who helped me integrate into the new environment. Now, I’m really looking forward to the Spring semester, and I hope I can meet with my friends in person soon.