Long before Blackpink dominated American music charts, BTS sold out Wembley Stadium, and Psy’s Gangnam Style broke the Internet, Korea’s biggest sensation came in a smaller package—a one-woman solo act called Harisu. Standing at 5’6” tall with lean curves and a cascade of chestnut brown hair, her debut year featured many firsts: Her first movie role in Yellow Hair 2, her first variety show appearance (more notably, TV hosts interviewed her alongside Psy, then a rookie), and her first album.
Temptation, the album’s title track, earned her a multitude of TV performances and an eventual concert—a dream come true for the 26-year-old from Songnam, who fantasized about fame from an early age. But a year prior, few people had heard of her. Reminiscing about her early years on Free Doctor M, Harisu says despite an already active modeling career, it didn’t lead to any recognition.
“Before promoting under the name Harisu, I already did plenty of work as a photo model,” Harisu told host Oh Sang-Jin, as reported by KBizZoom.
A chance meeting with a model scout changed that in 2000. Spotting Harisu in a Japanese nightclub—at the time, she also attended hair styling school in Japan—he invited her to sign with TTM Entertainment, an entertainment agency based in South Korea. She signed immediately. Not long after, she caught the attention of Dodo Cosmetics CEO Lim Yong-Seong, who goaded its executives to make an offer: We’ll put you in a TV commercial if you’ll reveal your biggest secret.
That secret, unbeknownst to nearly everyone, was that Harisu was transgender. Harisu—and Dodo Cosmetics—were about to make history.
Why Harisu Said Yes
Coming out is never an easy task. But to do it on national television—never mind that, through a commercial promoting face powder—is jaw-droppingly risky. Dodo’s proposal was the first of its kind in South Korean history.
Harisu’s answer? Yes. But behind that answer lay a more important concession: That its face powder had the power not only to transform her appearance, but how she passed too. To sell this point, Dodo would even splay the words “red liar” across her body.
She acquiesced—privately, she dreamed it would lead to her big break. In the meanwhile, Dodo dreamed of something else: Avoiding liquidation.
In 2001, Dodo joined an ever-growing list of beauty brands trying to avoid bankruptcy. Just 4 years prior, the Asian Financial Crisis had devastated South Korea’s thriving economy, a “national humiliation” that caused chaebols¹ to go bankrupt and triggered mass layoffs. Desperate to save its economy, the Korean government accepted a controversial solution: A $58 billion bailout package from the International Money Fund, or IMF.
Attached to it were stipulations the Korean government and its people considered humiliating, including “opening the economy to foreign investment” and “making it easier for firms to hire and fire workers,” according to political journalist Steven Borowiec. That, to many Koreans, was akin to losing their sovereignty.
Although the agreement intended to reverse South Korea’s financial situation, its effects came too late for many. By 1998, a staggering 80 percent of households, mostly women, experienced a “loss of income,” decimating the beauty industry’s most profitable demographic. Examining their profits closely, beauty brands discovered a more alarming problem, however: Even if they had money, women weren’t buying Korean beauty products.
Instead, they filled up their vanities with Chanel and Estée Lauder, pricy status symbols. They wanted foreign makeup, not Korean.
Writing about this discovery, Patty Ahn, Ph.D., author of Harisu: South Korean Cosmetic Media and the Paradox of Transgendered Neoliberal Embodiment, writes that:
After realizing that companies like Estée Lauder, L’Oreal, and Chanel had been outselling their brands at Korean department stores throughout the mid-1990s, AmorePacific, as well as other Korean corporations, recalibrated their attention to nationally specific branding tactics…they now aggressively fought to take control of the domestic market and interpellate new Korean female consumers who would identify with these companies’ aesthetic definition of what constitutes a specifically Korean cosmetic care of the body.”
In other words, wresting control of the beauty industry from foreigners wasn’t just a matter of improving their financials, but spreading a Korean, not Western, beauty aesthetic. They could not allow Korean women to value beauty in the blue-eyed, flaxen-haired faces of Europeans and Americans, their beauty always unattainable. Korean beauty, however, was ancestral, achievable: They could pretend, if only briefly, that they could also be immortalized in these same magazine spreads and TV ads. And they could attain it, more importantly, with their cosmetics.
A tableau of products catered to these beauty standards in the years to come: First, skin whitening treatments (Korea’s history of it dates back at least 2000 years), then anti-aging creams and skincare infused with traditional Korean ingredients. Plastic surgeons even made eyelid surgery more affordable, appealing to the struggling middle class.²
They also added another weapon to their arsenal: The Korean celebrity endorsement™. Beauty brands had used them throughout the 1990s, but now its importance became a matter of Korean sovereignty. Actresses such as Song Hye Kyo and Lee Na Young soon had their images plastered everywhere, from subway walls to TV screens. And, in doing so, beauty brands hinted at what women should really covet: Dark hair, creamy white skin, and a delicate figure, traits imbued into all Korean women.
Somewhere in between all of this, Harisu mulled over a commercial deal offered to her by Dodo Cosmetics. A recommendation by CEO Lim Yong-Seong—he thought she possessed a “provocative” beauty—had led to their meeting. The end of its recent campaign with singer Uhm Jung Hwa had hastened its search to find someone new.³
Harisu excited Dodo’s executives, although they had trepidations about using a transgender model. Harisu had reservations too—the commercial’s entire premise hinged on revealing she was trans, something she didn’t even identify as.
“I don’t think I am a transgender,” Harisu told the Korea Times in June 2001. “But as you know, the concept of the commercial was a transgender and I didn’t want to lose that chance to debut as a model.”
An even later interview, held 21 years later, revealed another reason: Not coming out as trans had stalled her career. Even before signing with TTM Entertainment, Harisu had sought modeling work, adamant on keeping her true identity hidden—she worried how others would perceive her. But in doing so, she limited what jobs she could accept. Quick, under-the-table deals filled up most of her schedule, whereas contracts were eschewed. All of her official documents—her family registry and driver’s license—still identified her as male.⁴
Signing any modeling contract meant revealing her true identity. Dodo or no Dodo, she would never get far without divulging her secret.
So she acquiesced: Yes to outing her gender, yes to the objectification, and yes to splaying “liar” over her body. Dodo Cosmetics also had a new spokesmodel, though not famous—at least not yet.
The Filming of Harisu’s First Commercial
As Harisu’s career remained in limbo, Dodo Cosmetics executive Chung Yong-Mo met with the ad agency Daehong Communications to iron out the commercial’s details. What exactly do we film? What’s the concept? More importantly, how do we do The Big Reveal?
Mulling over the last question, Daehong Communications proposed something out-of-the-box: Giving her an Adam’s apple.⁵
“The Adam’s apple was actually digitally composited onto Harisu’s image, and aurally enhanced, in post-production,” writes Ahn. “She does not actually have a pronounced vocal box.”
Sitting in a blackened room, Harisu held her head high as CGI artists juxtaposed an Adam’s apple onto her neck, an act of re-masculinization. Harisu’s lengthy transformation both in Korea and Japan—in 1995, Dr. Kim Seok-Kwun performed bottom surgery on her, with subsequent surgeries feminizing her hips, chest, and face performed elsewhere—proved so successful that she appeared cisgender to the Korean public.
This transformation served as the commercial’s climax. But what would happen before it? Dodo Cosmetics and Daehong Communications settled on something more mundane: Making Harisu, and nothing else, the focus of the video. Sitting in a darkened room clothed in black, Harisu’s eyes would peer out from the shadows like soft, warm embers, unthreatening. Then came the pose, most important here: Sitting placidly with clasped hands, her pose nearly evocated the Mona Lisa, an ethereal visage of buttery skin and an indistinct smile.
All of it served an important purpose, according to art critic Kate Korroch. To Koreans, Harisu didn’t occupy a female or male body, but a distinct third category, transcending the human form itself.
“Society did not understand where to place her, so she was treated as beyond the normal societal bounds,” Korroch writes in Queer Asia: Decolonizing and Reimagining Sexuality and Gender. “As the embodiment of an idealized female body, instead of being ostracized she was glorified. For the public, that was transcendence to an almost non-human space.”
Did Harisu know she was being conceptualized as an ethereal “other?” We’ll never know. But by early 2001, Dodo Cosmetics had all of the necessary footage: Shots of Harisu’s body, a close-up of her neck transfigured with an Adam’s apple, “liar” splayed across the screen as she laughed, and yes, even a shot of the product itself (a face powder called Palgantong), tacked on after the commercial’s penultimate shot.
Despite having planned everything alongside Daehong Communications, however, executives at Dodo Cosmetics worried.
“Choi Kyu-Keun, president of Dodo, admits that he had some apprehension about their casting decision and claims that they were fully prepared for all possible scenarios, including pulling the ad off the air if it was received poorly by Korean audiences,” writes Ahn. “In other words, the company had planned to support the commercial so long as it did not alienate consumers.”
His concerns, unsurprisingly, lay with its profits—Dodo Cosmetics, after all, was desperate to avoid bankruptcy. But as he OK’d the commercial’s release and readied himself for any blowback, less, if any, concern was given to its spokesmodel. Prior to signing Dodo’s contract, Harisu returned to Songnam to visit her parents. Her father, unable to come to terms with her transition, refused to talk to her again.
Harisu: Finally, a Superstar
Despite his concerns, Choi gave the go-ahead in early 2001, Dodo Cosmetics readying to promote its Palgantong face powder. Harisu, still struggling to find her big break, had made many concessions to secure this opportunity. But would it pan out?
As the commercial blared on TV screens nationwide, the Korean public responded—not in disgust, as Choi feared, but confusion instead.
“In 2001, the majority of the Korean public understood Harisu as a woman and presumed the digitally inserted Adam’s apple to be inserted onto a [cis] woman,” writes Korroch, who interviewed a handful of Korean women from 2010 and 2017. “They did not make an association with the Adam’s apple as a reference to Harisu’s socially assigned birth gender.”
In cyberspace, people debated its implications. While some people applauded her bravery for coming out, others lamented her as further proof of societal collapse, referring to Harisu in air quotes as a “she.” But Dodo Cosmetics’ profits spoke a different story. That year, its profits “increased from 3 billion to 70 billion won,” according to Ahn, in addition to securing Harisu a plethora of TV appearances. Dodo Cosmetics—and its mysterious spokesmodel—were high in demand.
Dodo Cosmetics excitedly envisioned incorporating her into a new advertisement later that year. But in private, Harisu reeled in horror. Despite all of the details she agreed to, Dodo Cosmetics neglected to mention the most important part: The addition of a fake Adam’s apple.
Reportedly, Harisu yelled evil when the commercial aired.⁶ Dodo Cosmetics had re-masculinized her in secret, sending Harisu spiraling between shock and melancholy.
Why hadn’t Dodo Cosmetics told her about this, after all they agreed to?
In the meanwhile, Daehong Communications was quick to tell the press about its latest “great sensation”, in reference to the powder, not Harisu. She served as its catalyst, exemplified by the commercial’s conclusion: Harisu fading out into darkness, replaced with the product itself. More importantly, it made them look good.
Critics haven’t been shy about labeling Daehong Communications and Dodo Cosmetics’ treatment of Harisu as exploitative. For instance, Korroch writes that:
By swapping out Harisu’s body for a supposedly transformative cosmetic, the company uses Harisu as a commodity to increase sales and play to their customers’ desires for consumption and their very own transformations. Through this reading, it is clear that Harisu is treated as a commodity.
Ahn, on the other hand, doesn’t see the brand’s decision as strictly exploitative. She writes that although it can be interpreted as “an exploitative marketing gimmick,” it also worked to raise awareness of the transgender body—an “untethering of biology from gender.”
Regardless of why Dodo chose to re-masculinize—and exploit—Harisu’s body, the harm it caused was undeniable. Instead of basking in her newfound fame, Harisu could scarcely watch herself on TV, her femininity obfuscated by a bulging lump on her neck.
Despite this, Harisu didn’t utter an unkind word to them—at least in public. Their tenuous relationship continued. Later in 2001, as Harisu juggled endless opportunities—appearing on variety TV shows, recording a debut album, filming a documentary and a movie, and somehow writing a tell-all book—she appeared in another TV ad, and in January 2002, signed a new contract worth 2 billion won, according to Jangeup News.⁷ Dodo Cosmetics rubbed its collective hands together, envisioning selling its face powder overseas.
The Bitter End of Dodo Cosmetics
As 2002 came to a close, Harisu’s stardom only increased—and the money poured in faster than she could count. With her second album Liar slated for an October release, she now had media rounds to attend to, where she gushed about its “upbeat rhythm” and “very Euro/techno/house” vibe.⁸ She even had a music video filmed for the album’s title track, today still her highest-charted album to date.
But at Dodo Cosmetics headquarters in Seoul, executives panicked. Despite increasing its profits by more than twentyfold, the company had a 1.7 billion won bill to pay—an amount they couldn’t afford.
“Despite a large spike in sales and revenue following their 2001 Harisu ad, Dodo could not thrive in this fiercely competitive landscape and was ultimately forced to file for bankruptcy in 2002,” writes Ahn.
A myriad of problems made its bankruptcy inevitable. In addition to poor distribution management, employees of a Dodo Cosmetics subsidiary alleged that Lim had failed to pay at least four months of wages, causing extreme financial difficulty.⁹ Claims of controversial ingredients found in its products surfaced as well, increasing distrust among consumers. Throughout 2002, managerial problems threatened the very fortune Harisu helped accrue—a problem that no amount of marketing could undo.
On October 8th, just weeks before Harisu’s newest album appeared on store shelves, Dodo Cosmetics filed for bankruptcy. Industry experts nervously anticipated more companies to follow. Headlines in the following months talked about Dodo’s failures and poor mismanagement, its effects threatening South Korea’s already fragile beauty industry.
But Dodo, still as stubborn as ever under Lim’s leadership, refused to close its doors. They bartered with collectors to work it out—a “managerial restructuring” deal, according to Ahn.
By 2003, the brand had readied itself for a big return. Lim, unsurprisingly, focused on its marketing. With Harisu no longer in contention, actress Ha Ji-Won of Damo fame became its new spokesmodel, giving the brand a grittier vibe. It also, inexplicably, vied for an ad spot in Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy (yes, the movie) for its hair care line NYX, even distributing product samples to moviegoers at its premiere.
But it didn’t take long for its legal disputes to re-emerge. In 2005, actress Lee Young-Ae filed a lawsuit alleging it used her image in training booklets long after her contract expired (she served as a spokesmodel in 2000). Then came worse news: After noticing that its restructuring deal made Dodo lose even more money, they accused Lim of embezzling company assets. Lim fled to Japan.
Dodo officially closed its doors in October.¹⁰ Dodo—the brand that launched Harisu’s career—was ultimately the victim of its own management, not the Asian Financial Crisis or transphobia.
As for Harisu’s career, 2005 granted her biggest acting role to date: Playing a transgender woman named Hye-Jeong in Beating Hearts, an MBC miniseries. This time, Harisu’s humanity, not a “digitally composited” Adam’s apple, took center stage. Slowly but surely, some Koreans began to see her as more than a spectacle. Harisu was a woman, a daughter, and more importantly, human.
¹ Korean conglomerates that are usually family owned.
² This isn’t to imply any of these approaches were unique or first introduced during this era. They have always been present in the Korean cosmetics industry. They became a primary focus following the IMF crisis to promote a purely Korean type of beauty, however. All of this is detailed further in Harisu: South Korean Cosmetic Media and the Paradox of Transgendered Neoliberal Embodiment.
³ In 2000, Dodo Cosmetics also signed actress Lee Young-Ae (of Lady Vengeance fame) to a 1 year deal to promote their Isocaim (in Korean, 이소카임) line. Harisu was specifically contracted to promote their Palgantong line, whose previous spokesmodel was Uhm Jung Hwa. This is why I say Uhm Jung Hwa was its previous spokesmodel, not Lee Young Ae.
⁴ The source for this includes two references: Harisu’s 2022 interview on Free Doctor M and a now archived article published originally 2007 by Yonghap News. In 2002, a year after her commercial with Dodo, she petitioned to have her gender changed on all legal documents, which was granted.
⁵ This is mentioned extensively in Korean news sources, but Ahn’s paper on Harisu appears to be the only English source available (they also referenced Korean sources for their essay).
⁶ One journalist reported that while watching Dodo’s commercial on TV, she screamed “악.”This literally translates to “evil” in Korean, but is best understood as an interjection, not Harisu accusing them of being evil.
⁷ Lee Young Ae’s contract with Dodo between 2000 and 2001 was worth 400 million won, so Harisu was paid less, not more, than her. I do not know the details of Uhm Jung Hwa’s contract.
⁸ These quotes are pulled from the article “Harisu Superstar” by Markus Augustus, published in issue 28 of Giant Robot magazine.
⁹ In reference to their financial difficulty, I’m paraphrasing a complaint made by its employees, which says in Korean “극심한 경제적 고통으로 신음하고 있는 동안.” Translation is my own.
¹⁰ In 2013, several Korean sources reported Lim was arrested and inducted for embezzling assets from the company. This source claims he had been “on the run” in Japan.