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Soo Joo Park: 'My parents worry because modelling isn't for ever'

Model of the moment Soo Joo Park talks insomnia, perfectionism and trying to make her distinctive mark in the industry

By Amy Verner

Despite the fact that she is this evening dressed down in skinny jeans and a Stevie Nicks T-shirt, sporting a messy mop of peroxide-blonde hair, Soo Joo Park is still an unmistakeable presence when she glides into the lobby bar of Paris's glamorous Le Roch hotel, near the Place Vendôme. But if even off-duty she seems to exude an outward air of confidence, in person she is unassuming.

"I was worried, I was in the car and I was like, 'Do you have any powder?'" she says, when I make a (positive) comment about her complexion. "There are little breakouts. I'm wearing a little bit of make-up right now but underneath are very dark under-eye circles… I was thinking I wasn't looking so normal."

If she does not exhibit the same self-assuredness as a Kate, Naomi or Christy might do, Park has still managed to follow them into mononym status. And though the Korean-American supermodel may not have been around for as long, she's a regular on the Chanel catwalk, and has been an agent of change in the beauty world as the first Asian model to land a multi-million dollar contract with L'Oréal.

It's thanks to Chanel that we're meeting. Park counts the house's creative director, Karl Lagerfeld, as one of her greatest supporters and has spent the day shooting at the grand Château de Vaugien, south-west of Paris, clad in the fashion house's latest couture collection, all flamboyant frothy gowns and pastel-hued tweeds.

This is a world in which Park is now in control. Millennial models such as the Hadid sisters and Kendall Jenner might have had to walk in show after show this year alone, but Park, 31, can decide how busy she wants to be - partly because: "I'm a horrible perfectionist. I'm almost never happy with anything I do, 100%." Compared with previous seasons, this most recent month of ready-to-wear shows was a breeze; aside from appearing in the Baja East presentation in New York she only walked the Chanel show with its unforgettable simulated rocket launch within the Grand Palais.

The trade-off of such success is that she has outgrown the desirable niche of newness. "Even though there are a more diverse group of [models], you still are categorised as a person into a certain type; and a lot of the time, they want something new. I had my time, the blonde hair was new and refreshing to the scene at that point," she says, matter-of-factly.

In many ways she still doesn't fit the traditional model mould.

The industry might give the impression of pursuing greater diversity but she remains among a small group of internationally known, in-demand Asian models that include Liu Wen and Fernanda Ly. Unsurprisingly, models.com has ranked her one of its 'Money Girls', a benchmark of the size and quality of her contracts. This puts her in the company of the 'new supers' such as Karlie Kloss, Cara Delevingne and Joan Smalls.

Park made history in 2015 as L'Oréal's first Asian-American spokesmodel (the French beauty behemoth dates back to 1909) and she is the face of Redken, making her the first Asian-American to front two large beauty brands.

Her hair happens to be a pearly shade of white, which defines her from the above group, imbuing her with a non-conformist edge. Only after dyeing her hair did she end up on Chanel's radar thanks to former French Vogue editor-in-chief, Carine Roitfeld. The bleaching takes its toll to be sure, but it has helped maintain her visibility. And Park is unlikely to run out of defining moments soon.

The current issue of W Korea features three covers of her shot by three top Korean photographers; unbelievably, this is the first time the magazine has devoted the cover to a single Korean model. She realises all these firsts have a cumulative effect. "It means something more and more," she explains. "And that, in a way, shows who I am in this industry, especially because it's an opportunity for me to kind of make my culture; and I am."

Interestingly, modelling was an accidental career for Park. She grew up in Seoul until the age of 10 when her family moved to California. Before fashion, she had studied architecture at the University of California, Berkeley (she can wax poetic about Bauhaus and Mies van der Rohe). She is also a keen linguist: "I speak Korean and English fluently. I picked up French when I was studying in high school [and] speak a tiny bit of Japanese, because it's very similar to Korean."

It was in 2010 that she was first scouted in a vintage shop in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. She recalls a woman approaching her with questions about her height and age.

Upon learning that Park was 23 at the time she apparently said, "You're a lot older than I thought." Park's reaction: "What a terrible thing to say."

Was there ever any resistance from her parents over dropping out of university and pursuing modelling? "They're very proud of me. At the same time, I think as parents they worry about the next step, because modelling isn't a lifetime thing for most people." This might be why she hasn't, she says, missed a single Chanel show since she started. When Lagerfeld presented his Resort 2016 offering in Seoul, Park opened the show and took the final loop with the designer and his godson, Hudson Kroenig.

Spending time in a lower register - listening to music, watching Netflix or practising meditation - is critical to staying equalised, Park insists. She's swapped the West Coast for New York and is currently based in trendy Bushwick while she has her apartment in the East Village renovated.

At one point, she says that she was experiencing severe insomnia - an occupational hazard primarily, but also because she says she has a tendency to get caught up in her own thoughts.

"I was flying from one place to another, and every successful model has to learn how to cope with that; mine was even worse because I just get too in my head." She admits that her perfectionism doesn't help: "It takes a lot for me to just kind of pat myself on the back."

Enter meditation, kundalini yoga and breathing exercises, which complement her fitness routine that includes kickboxing and floor exercises with a trainer friend who owns Rumble Boxing in New York. "I'm trying to diversify my regimen," she says, citing regular facials and massages as additional essentials. "I'm more low-maintenance than most people," she says, before clarifying, "not most people - most models, I guess."

Indeed, there is a grounded nonchalance in her attitude, which she chalks up to having a sense of who she was before she began. "This industry can make you very disillusioned, but I started later so I think I was able to kind of forge who I was a little bit more. I also have really good people around me whom I love."

This group includes her boyfriend, photographer Jack Waterlot, and an architect university friend who is currently overseeing works on the East Village flat. "It's going to be sick," she enthuses, name-checking Paris architect Joseph Dirand as inspiration. Certainly, for someone who is fast becoming a global fashion icon, a sanctuary-type home feels as much like a necessity as an indulgence.

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