She’s a Korean by birth, but Grace insists she has become more Filipino, after spending 18 years in her adopted country.
Although she still carries a Korean passport, she hopes to be a bona fide Filipina soon. “My sister Jin Hee and I are applying for Filipino citizenship.”
She’s willing to take all the naturalization exams that are required by law. “I can sing the Philippine national anthem by heart. I sang it in school when I was young.”
She dresses like a typical Filipina, too. “In my closet, there are lots of jeans, comfortable shirts,” she volunteered.
A self-confessed “super girly-girl,” she insisted that she “tries to dress down” when she’s not in front of the camera. “Comfort is my priority. But I try to combine comfort and style, too.”
Largely because of work, she keeps cocktail dresses in her wardrobe. “I prefer dresses that can shift from day to night. Aside from the usual plain outfits, I also have a few dresses with interesting prints. Animal prints.”
Her closet is bursting with colors, she admitted. “Lots of violets, pinks, mint greens. All shades of blue, too. After all, I’m a true-blue Atenean.” Just like the President.
Upon checking out the Salvatore Ferragamo couture dresses she was set to wear for this shoot, she enthused: “It’ll be my first time to wear Ferragamo, which is too mature for me. But these clothes are chic.”
The practical shopper frequents Greenbelt, but prefers to travel abroad for good buys. “I shop in Korea and Italy,” she owned up. On her last European shopping spree, she scored Yves Saint Laurent shoes for only P15,000. It was a steal.
If there’s one color that she avoids, it’s beige. “It’s the only color that doesn’t go well with my skin.”
She often gets complimented for her flawless skin, a distinction she shares with most Korean celebrities. “I have my parents to thank for my skin,” she said, laughing.
Still, she has to take care of her genetic gifts, she confessed. “The Belo Medical Group helps simplify my beauty regimen. I go there twice a week for facial treatments.”
She also adheres to the daily skin care system of ZO, Zein Obagi. “I have day and night creams. I have a simple skin care regimen. But I always put sunblock on, since we live in the tropics.”
She also swears by BB cream, a Korean beauty product that’s all the rage these days. “I use it every day. It’s like an efficient, anti-aging, whitening product with healing properties,” she said.
She was planning to import BB cream into the country when she met with Ever Bilena executives months ago. Instead of becoming an importer, she was signed up as an endorser by the cosmetics company.
Best of both worlds
Grace feels fortunate that her youth was divided between two cultures—Korean and Filipino. In a lot of ways, she got the best of both worlds.
Before migrating to the Philippines at age 10, Grace traveled all over Korea with her mother. “My mom was quite a traveler, too, and she wanted to make sure that I would not be a foreigner in my own country,” she looked back.
It was a pretty normal childhood, she reminisced. “Like a typical Korean mother, my mom gave a lot of importance to academics. I recall studying up to 11 p.m. when I was in Grade 2.”
Grace’s mom also made certain that her hobbies made her well-rounded. “I took piano and painting lessons. I was into figure skating and swimming. Everything I saw and fancied on TV, my mom allowed me to try.”
“Enriching” is how she described her childhood in Seoul. “I was able to experience everything that I wanted.”
When the family moved to Manila (to start a Korean car import business, and later a grocery store) over 18 years ago, Grace was enrolled in St. Paul’s Pasig, an all-girls school run by nuns.
It was a smooth transition for young Grace. “There was no adjustment period. Everyone in school and in our neighborhood was nice to me. Although I felt like an alien at first, my classmates welcomed me and were so accommodating.”
Her Filipino classmates would often give her little gifts like stationery and teach her Filipino and English words. “They taught me patintero and other street games, too.” In return, she taught her Filipino friends how to rollerblade.
“Since I knew how to figure-skate, rollerblading was easy for me,” she said. “Figure-skating was so feminine. But as an adult, I went into snowboarding, which is the opposite of dainty.”
She made lifelong friends on campus—including the school principal, Sr. Teresita Agana. “I still visit her every month,” Grace said of her mentor. “She seems quite stern and strict at first. But soon you’ll realize that she is the most caring, kind, accepting person you’ll ever meet. She is a source of strength and joy to those around her.”
By the time she enrolled in college at the Ateneo de Manila University, she was totally immersed in all things Filipino. She offered as proof her fondness for Filipino food: “Pinakbet, sinigang, Bicol express, kare-kare.”
Although her upbringing was “traditionally Korean,” her dad Lee Dong Yuel and mom Lee Song Soon Il eventually relented and adopted Filipino customs. “My parents have been living here for so long, they’ve changed, as well. My mom combined her rigid Korean traditions with more liberal Filipino ways. She saw that my Filipino friends turned out okay naman. So she relaxed a bit, too.”
While Grace was in high school and college, she worked as translator for visiting Korean dignitaries, including pop superstar Rain, who flew in for a shoot in the country.
“He wasn’t as huge then as he is now,” she recounted. “We were together for three days. Nobody knew him, and he was able to walk around Manila in peace. With my mom as chaperone, I took Rain to Malate. I showed him the bars and restaurants there. He’s a nice guy.”
When Rain returned to Manila recently, Grace was assigned to interview him again. “My mom went with me. At the press conference, my mom waved at him from afar and Rain stood up to greet her. He remembered me. He kept looking at me. In my mind, I thought it was because I was pretty,” she joked.
Read the entire story in the May-June 2012 issue of LOOK Magazine, available in leading bookstores and newsstands nationwide.