Irene Kim doesn’t compromise. Offered a dream modeling job aged 15, the Korean-American walked out of the contract signing when the agency insisted she undergo minor plastic surgery, preferring to work her way up through the grueling fashion industry on her own terms. Told that dying her hair would ruin her career, Kim did it anyway, and her scarlet locks became her trademark, inspiring a swarm of imitators.
“My mom always said ‘if you’re happy, you’re confident, and if you’re confident, you’re beautiful,’” says Kim, who grew up in Seattle but moved to South Korea in her teens. “I’ve always just had this mindset of being positive and confident in whatever I do.”
Today that means modeling for the likes of Chanel and Calvin Klein, hosting popular South Korean fashion television shows and since last year working as an Estée Lauder consultant alongside Kendall Jenner. It’s a meteoric rise for a 28-year-old who only started gracing catwalks three years ago, but has now broken new ground for Asian women in fashion.
“Irene’s individuality, combined with her positive energy, incredible work ethic and ability to communicate beauty in an engaging way across social media has made her an influential member of the global beauty community,” says Sarah Creal, head of global partnership initiatives for Estée Lauder.
Key to Kim’s success is her shrewd social media presence. A graduate of New York’s prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology, she has 755,000 followers on Instagram. Eva Chen, head of fashion partnerships for Instagram, says Kim is part of a new generation of fashion personalities. “Rather than have a ‘you can’t sit with us’ mentality, they invite their millions of fans to sit with them through fittings, front rows and more,” Chen says.
Read More: A Teenaged Playwright Grows Up
Peeling back the industry’s gloss is especially pertinent in South Korea, which has the unfortunate distinction of being both the cosmetic surgery and teen suicide capital of the world. Being bombarded with images of perfectly coiffured, stick-thin K-pop stars can be crippling for adolescent self-esteem, and Kim hopes her light-hearted and honest snapshots help young people keep beauty in perspective.
“It’s about being yourself and loving yourself,” she says. “There were several times when people said I couldn’t be what I am now—I was either too old, or didn’t have the typical, traditional Asian face structure. But I did whatever I wanted to do.”
Kim is now using all these qualities to develop a digital content platform for creative types, and may even launch her own clothing line. Whatever comes next, you can bet it will be purely, uncompromisingly, Irene.