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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Life begins at 70 for South Korea's supergranny YouTube star

Park Makrye's videos are all about showing off her wrinkles and life in the raw as an older person

South Korea's unlikely YouTube star, Park Makrye, 70, Despite her new life as a celebrity, she still gets up before dawn to run her restaurant. AP
South Korea's unlikely YouTube star, Park Makrye, 70, Despite her new life as a celebrity, she still gets up before dawn to run her restaurant. AP

One of South Korea's hottest YouTube stars is a 70-year-old grandmother whose individual style and warm humour are a breath of fresh air in a social media universe that exalts youth and perfect looks.

Park Makrye's videos are all about showing off her wrinkles and life in the raw as an older person. Young South Koreans find her so funny and adorable - a fact that big companies like Samsung Electronics and Lotte are now keen to exploit for marketing purposes..

Despite her new life as a celebrity, Ms Park still gets up before dawn to run her restaurant. Serving kimchi clad in a dotted pink top, mini-skirt skirt and kitchen hygiene hat, she is not a typical beauty icon. Yet, South Koreans love watching her give make-up tutorials and love following her adventures her "Grandma's Diary" YouTube videos.

"She's real. She's not fake," said Lee Injae, a 31-year-old living in Seoul. "It's refreshing to see the world through the eyes of a grandmother."

Before YouTube, Ms Park says her life was "dead, like rotten bean sprouts. We used to think, 'Since I'm over 70, my life is over.' But as I started doing this, I realised life starts at 71 years old," she said, adding an extra year as is the custom in Korea and many other Asian countries.

By "this" she means starring in YouTube videos about her life as a latecomer to adventure. Her film studio consists of a sheet of paper taped to her living room wall.

In conventional portrayals, the elderly in South Korea are either poor or angry about the decline of conservative values, and indeed the country has the highest elderly poverty rate among developed countries. As younger generations move away from Confucian traditions of reverence for age, fewer people are supporting aged parents, and the government has struggled to provide better social safety nets and jobs for the elderly.

Ms Park defies all that. Encouraged by her granddaughter to start making videos as a way to stave off dementia, Ms Park is living it up. She' has posed for a women's monthly magazine spread, hosted a home shopping show for retail giant Lotte and will be appearing next week as a model in a YouTube commercial for Samsung's TV.

Her fans travel from across the country to eat at her restaurant in a remote part of Yongin, a city 34 kilometres south of Seoul with no easy transport access.

Kim Yura, Ms Park's 27-year-old granddaughter, stopped working as an acting instructor to travel with her grandmother after a doctor told the family she had a high risk of developing Alzheimer's disease like her three elder sisters.Ms Kim took her grandmother to Australia, as a treat after more than 40 years of working and bringing up children.

A video of the grandmother-granddaughter duo visiting Cairns, Australia in January shows Ms Park her sprinting to a swimming pool and describing her first swim in the ocean. It was a big hit among young South Koreans: less than six months later, Ms Park has t 400,000 followers on YouTube and Instagram.

Since then, everything has "flipped like a pancake," she said.

"I learned then that my grandmother was just like us. She likes to travel, eat tasty food and take pretty photos," said Ms Kim, who films and edits the videos. "I'm her fan too. She is such a cool person."

Ms Park's unabashed willingness to share her story and emotions, and her lack of shame over her poor education, appeal to young South Koreans.

"The reason she is so popular is that she talks candidly without pretension about things that women feel uncomfortable about," said Lee Taek Gwang, a professor of culture studies at Kyunghee University. "She talks about topics that we don't dare to talk about, especially on women's issues."

Offering make-up tips to help you look a decade younger, she warns teenage viewers, "You guys shouldn't do this or you'll look like infants."

In between giving make-up lessons and kayaking on the han river in Seoul, Ms Park is having the time of her life.

Her father refused to send her to school because she was a girl. As a teenager, she walked for hours cutting firewood and hauling it home.A neighbour taught her basic reading and writing but she still cannot spell most words.

"My mother and dad didn't teach me even though we were not poor because they wanted to put me to work," she said. "As I do YouTube now, I feel sorry that I haven't been educated."

Being barely literate does not stop her posting on social media. Deciphering her posts is part of the fun for her followers.

Ms Park's husband ran up debts and then abandoned her with three young children. She got up every morning at 4am to start work in the restaurant, returning after 9pm. She paid off all the debts and brought up her children alone at a time when many single mothers were forced to put their babies up for adoption and received little to no government assistance.

All three children finished high school, and Kim, her granddaughter, was the first in the family to attend college.

Asked how long she will keep working, Ms Park does not hesitate to reply, "Until I die."

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