David Bowie is singing and Soo Joo Park is lip-synching.The model is clearly having a moment with the icon, sitting on a cold marble floor under the domed structure of what used to be a Brooklyn bank, built in 1875. As Park poses in the building, now an event space called Weylin B. Seymour’s, she looks to the 20 oval windows through which sunlight is pouring in and listens to the music reverberating around the stone walls: “Nothing will keep us together…We can beat them for ever and ever.” Park is reeling in the song, mouthing the words and tilting her head to the sun above. A camera is clicking heatedly and a chorus booms out of the speakers as Park kicks up her Dsquared-clad heel and exhales: “We can be heroes—just for one day.”
It is only hours after the posts announcing Bowie’s abrupt passing flooded our newsfeeds, and Park is being photographed for FASHION’s April cover. It is surely a time of sadness, but the model wants to turn the mood around and encourages the crew to treat the day as a tribute. “We should be celebrating him and be thankful, not sad,” she says. “He’s given us the kind of inspiration that will not end.” At her request, the continuous playing of Bowie’s Sound + Vision boxed set soundtracks the entire shoot.
As a woman on the catwalk who typically stands out from the pack, Park isn’t afraid to convey emotion in a way that avoids Zoolander tactics. That is likely one of the reasons why L’Oréal Paris chose her as the first Asian-American model to be a global brand ambassador. That choice—and Park’s presence in fashion right now—is very much a sign of our times. “We are living in a time of expanding beauty ideals, and questioning what the idea of beauty is,” she says. “I see the changes happening in front of me, and I applaud everyone who’s pushing boundaries.”
Born in South Korea, Park moved to California with her family and ended up going to school in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her early years in SoCal were filled with Barbie dolls, and she later witnessed the goth, ska, EDM and skater cultures blooming around her, as well as the red carpet mania of Hollywood. She was scouted while vintage shopping in Haight-Ashbury at 24, and soon after, she was walking for Chanel. Since the start of her ascent, most of the articles about her have focused on her choice in hair colour.
It’s a tricky subject,” she says. “I had an interview once and they asked me why I changed my hair colour and I said, ‘It’s because I didn’t want a stereotypical look.’ They said that I didn’t want to be typecast as a typical Asian,” she says, shaking her head. “There was a lot of push back from that. They thought I was ashamed to be Asian. It’s not that at all! It’s just that I want to be myself. People may think that it’s a superficial and vain method, but I am who I am. This is part of it.”
In terms of people in the fashion world with whom Park empathizes, she names Lea T, the famous transgender model who worked with her on a Redken campaign. “I know that it’s really hard [for someone like her, too] because fashion can be fickle and people can seem disposable,” Park says. “These things go in and out of trend. Real issues almost become trends. Asians, blacks, ethnicities, gender…those things almost become a novelty, which makes me upset. But look, it’s changing. I’m on your cover. I’m Asian and I’m blonde.”
On the future of modelling, Park hopes that the young women who come after her also represent something more than conventional glamour that attracts the most likes on Instagram. “I want to see more people with stories,” she says. “I want to meet models with something to say, not just the ones who are picked up in a store by an agent at a very young age. They don’t really have an identity.”
As a self-described bookworm, Park’s quiet yet assured personality is reflected in what she reads and the music she listens to. She refers to J.D. Salinger’s classic novel The Catcher in the Rye as inspirational and important, and flips between being an introvert (she adores hardcore lounging) and an extrovert (she DJs on the side and hosts a TV series in Korea that’s comparable to America’s Next Top Model). When it comes to the more private aspects of her life, she is chill, a trait reflected in the music she loves to put on her setlists (she counts Canadian-based downbeat house DJ Cyril Hahn as an inspiration). Park also intends to release a solo album “by the end of the year or next.” Her influences include the Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine, and she describes her vibe as “a little bit of a modern version of dream pop. I like dreamy, ethereal sounds.”
Yet even with all these projects lined up for the year, Park is certain that it’s her nonconformist ways that have brought her to the place where she is now. “It’s crucial to be independent and different nowadays,” she says. “Being like someone else isn’t an option anymore. You can’t follow other people’s tastes. It might not suit you—you have to be adventurous and take risks. Sometimes it might not stick and be a complete failure, but you won’t know until you try.”
See our April 2016 cover star answer our “Would You Rather” questions below.