By Ines Min
Staff reporter

It may be easy for some to scoff at the words “beauty pageant.’’ Not unlike Sandra Bullock’s character in the beginning of “Miss Congeniality,’’ most people just don’t get it.

The Korea Times sat down with Miss Korea 2010 and the six runners-up, at the Alpensia Resort in PyeongChang County, Gangwon Province, Tuesday. Here are their stories, the personalities behind the faces, the lives behind the media.

Chong So-ra, Miss Korea 2010

Chong So-ra, crowned the most beautiful woman in the country not two nights before, sits before me calmly, wearing a slightly mischievous, easy-going smile. With only the lightest of make-up and a bow in her hair, the 19-year-old university student from Seoul is composed with a grace and friendly confidence.

“It’s still hard to believe,’’ Chong says of her monumental win. “I didn’t expect it at all.’’

The multilingual student, enrolled at the University of California, Riverside, is more than just another pretty face. Born in the United States and having lived abroad in China for several years ― where her father is the chairman of the Korean Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai and CEO of Humantech China ― Chong speaks her mother tongue, English, Chinese and Japanese fluently. The last of which was self-taught and mastered within a year-and-a-half.

“I want to eventually learn 10 languages,’’ she said lightly, most of which will be Eastern tongues. “Not only do I want to represent Korea, but I also want to be a good representative for all of Asia.’’

Training for the upcoming world pageants and participating in volunteer work is what she’s most looking forward to, Chong said in near-perfect American-English. “I want to find methods to represent Korea in a new way and to represent our beautiful culture,’’ she said, adding that she is learning the traditional Korean drum dance. “I want to do something my (predecessors) haven’t done before.’’

The sudden spotlight may be difficult for someone as young as Chong to handle (her personal blog has jumped to more than 120,000 visits in three days), but the grounded beauty knows how to take it with a grain of salt. Not that she isn’t guilty of reading articles written about her.

“Once you start, it’s really difficult to stop reading,’’ she said with a laugh. Photos from her website have filtered into the news, from fun shots taken with friends, to her picturesque, multi-storied house in China.

Ambitious might be the best way to describe Chong, who admitted that she has a list of 100 goals she would like to achieve in her life in addition to becoming a diplomat.

“My first goal was to become Miss Korea 2010, and I want to become Miss Universe in 2011.’’

And, for future hopefuls for the competition, Chong offers this advice: “Don’t try to come into training camp and just try to stand out. If you come with sincerity, there will only be good results.’’

First runners-up

Chang Yoon-jin

Chang Yoon-jin, also from Seoul, was named first runner-up in the competition and also Most Photogenic by her peers. The diverse, 24-year-old has shown her talents from musical acting (performed in English, Korean and French) to interpretation.

The English major from Ewha Womans University originally had no plans to enter the Miss Korea contest. But while living abroad in Hawaii, Chang watched former winner Lee Honey in her rise to Miss Universe and was inspired, realizing that it was a chance to help introduce the Korean culture to the world.

Exchange of traditions, knowledge and friendship is what Chang values most, whether it’s overseas or right here on the peninsula.

“Meeting a lot of people from all over the country was the most meaningful for me. I didn’t know so many intelligent, lovely, talented and sweet people were here,’’ she said with a laugh.

Chang, always curious about the world around her, worked as an intern with the U.S. branch of the Hankook Ilbo and has done work as an interpreter at such international-level outlets as the World Knowledge Forum.

Kim Hye-young

The 20-year-old Kim Hye-young from North Gyeongsang Province speaks clearly, precisely and brightly. The first-runner up, a lover of word puzzles and literature, is a student at Dongguk University, and is a perfect balance of beauty and brains.

Kim ― who believes the most important thing for a person is to be independent and unafraid of being unique ― is passionate about her Korean culture. Born to a mother who loved the “gayageum’’ (Korean zither), Kim also grew to love the traditional instrument.

Although she first tried her hand at the piano, the young woman soon realized that the Eastern instrument fit her better.

For Kim, the best part of the competition was the great sense of camaraderie that was found throughout the training period.

“Everybody took care of one another during that time,’’ Kim said, “It was a good opportunity to learn and grow from each other.’’

Second runners-up

An Da-hye

Second runner-up An Da-hye and Miss Hankook Ilbo from North Chungcheong Province is of an elegant feminine beauty.

The multi-talented 21-year-old who graduated from Chung Cheong Universsity is skilled in crafts, working in “hanji’’ (traditional Korean paper), and self-defense. The slightly shy, soft-spoken An feels that the competition has helped her to grow, both into herself and the world.

“I’m 22 (Korean age), but this the longest time I’ve been away from home,’’ she admitted, although it’s the experience has been great. “Now, I even forget to call my mom,’’ she laughed.

Ko Hyun-young

Ko Hyun-young, Miss Union Group, from Busan is full of enthusiastic energy. The 20-year-old became a natural group leader among the girls, rising to be a pillar of support and comfort.

The student from Yonsei University said that she’s most excited for the overseas events, meeting new people and continuing the learning experience.

“I’m still looking for the right way to represent my title,’’ she said, and is looking forward to trying new things in the future. She hopes to work in trade someday as well. “I want to become a female role model for our society.’’

Lee Gui-joo,

The 19-year-old Lee Gui-joo, also named Miss Alpensia, from North Jeolla Province is cool and composed. The broadcasting and entertainment major from Dongduk Women’s University has been dreaming of entering the Miss Korea pageant ever since she was little. But, unlike most of the other contestants, Lee wasn’t shooting for first place.

“I wanted to be placed in either the first or second runners-up,’’ she said honestly, adding that her family had wanted her to be crowned with the title Miss Alpensia. “And I got it!’’

Ha Hyun-jung

Ha Hyun-jung from Seoul is one of those enviously natural beauties. In fact, the 23-year-old graduate of Dongguk University first learned to do her own hair and make-up at the competition.

“I never wore make-up before,’’ she said. In fact, the modest Ha didn’t even tell her parents when she first entered the preliminary competition. “I figured that if I didn’t make it, no one would know and it’d be no big deal.’’

But Ha was hard to simply glide over, and her final placement was a pleasant surprise for the whole family.

“Although I’m glad to have won, I was even more so because my mother was happy too,’’ she said, wiping a tear from her cheek. “My mom being happy makes me the happiest.’’