When you think of K-Beauty tutorials, glass skin, gradient lips and perfectly coiffed hair come to mind—it’s not common to see a bald woman dishing out makeup tips. But that’s what you’ll see when you watch some of Korean beauty vlogger Dawn Lee’s video.
You see, she isn’t your usual beauty vlogger. The 29-year-old was diagnosed with lymphoma cancer, but like any resourceful and brilliant artist, she took this brutal hardship and turned it into something deeply inspiring. Her story demonstrates the most perfect harmony of inner and outer beauty, making you reach in equal parts for your tissues and your beauty blender.
How she found out about her condition
It all began earlier this year in February when Dawn checked into a neighbourhood health clinic over a particularly severe cough. Her doctor looked concerned and decided to refer her to a bigger hospital. Ever the optimist, Dawn remained calm, convincing her parents not to come up to Seoul from their home in Busan. Instead, she went to the larger hospital, accompanied only by her sister. After an extended series of tests, the vlogger was told she had Lymphoma Cancer, an illness that begins in your lymphocytes, attacking your infection-fighting cells.
It’s hard for anyone who hasn’t been in her shoes to imagine what it’s like to be told those three terrifying words: you have cancer. Some people would choose to drop everything and find comfort in privacy and relative solitude. Some would despair and wonder why the world’s against them or even resent the universe for their misfortune. But Dawn is made of truly industrial-grade courage—her first thoughts? Treat it and beat it.
While cancer was about to make her hair fall out, her nails brittle and her body frail, it wasn’t going to stop her from doing her job. Since 2014, she had been diligently posting helpful product reviews and creative makeup tutorials to YouTube, and with over 600,000 subscribers, she wasn’t about to give it all up. Dawn says, “I was determined to show my followers that I could be brave and unflinching, or at the very least that I could soldier on and do this job because at the end of the day, I was still me and there was no reason I couldn’t keep going.”
Why she chose to share her story
Clearly, Dawn had the mindset of a seasoned professional with remarkable spirit, but in the world of beauty-vlogging, your appearance is your canvas and Dawn had her fair share of lows while thinking about how her canvas was about to change. She knew that chemotherapy would cause her hair to shed, so she scoured the Internet and found an inexplicable sense of comfort when she read posts about the difficulties of hair loss. “There’s consolation in relatability—knowing you’re not alone,” notes Dawn. Then turning her attention from forums to YouTube, Dawn searched for visual references of the ordeal, hoping to find a face to which she could match these precious thoughts. But she found nothing from her native country and her next project.
“I was determined to share my experience—the sights, the sounds, everything—so that someone else could find the same comfort in my video as I had done in reading about this ordeal,” says Dawn. Part of this experience is the head shaving that many chemo patients opt for, and in a heart-wrenching 12-minute video, Dawn courageously lays bare the entire process. In the beginning of the video, she had an adorably short cut, commenting on the loose strands she finds everywhere. By the end of the video, she has a beautiful, shaved head and takes comfort in her boyfriend’s arms. To date, it has one of the highest view count among all her videos.
While tears were shed in the video, Dawn has since found great joy in creating dramatic new looks through changing her hairpieces and building up anticipation among her subscribers as to which fabulous wig she would sport next. Far from allowing the hair loss to hinder her creativity, she used it to inject another new flavour of fun and showmanship in her videos, enhancing and diversifying her already rich tapestry of work.
A support network she never expected
The support from her subscribers has been overwhelming, and Dawn commented that while she initially set out to provide people with a sense of comfort, she ended up being the recipient of this sense of consolation and camaraderie through the warmth of her followers.
Dawn, who loves art, was touched by the number of illustrations she received from other Instagrammers and proudly features this on her feed.
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This support network cultivated through her work has become another pillar of strength in Dawn’s resolve to overcome tragedy through normality.
Aside from her work, a huge part of this normality has been the support from her family and her ever-devoted boyfriend. “Prior to all this, my sister and I lived in Seoul while my parents resided in Busan, but during the length of my treatment, they decided to move in with us. It’s the first time in over a decade that we have all lived under one roof.”
Every day, Dawn’s mother lovingly prepares food to deliver to the hospital while her father looks after the house chores and her sister tends to outpatient care.
Throughout all of this, Dawn’s boyfriend has been the kind of loving hero that could put any K-drama lead to shame. “He’s not normally one to show much emotion, so it’s been heartbreaking to see tears well up in his eyes every time he sees me in pain from the treatment,” says Dawn.
She adds, “The chemo has made my hair fall out, my body gain weight, and occasionally, my personality becomes worse. At times, I’ve said half-jokingly to him that he’ll have a change of heart from all this and he’s always flabbergasted by this, reassuring me that nothing of the sort will ever happen. And in my heart, I know it won’t.”
Of course, that is not to say nothing’s changed since the diagnosis. Dawn hasn’t been able to film travel videos or attend networking events quite to the same extent, but her commitment to the tenets of Korean beauty and belief in its power remains unwavering. Even prior to her vlogging days, Dawn ran an informative blog, discussing all things beauty, so it’s no surprise that in her home country of Korea, she’s now considered quite the guru.
K-Beauty isn’t just about trends
So, what does Dawn think differentiates K-beauty from everything else out there? “Well, first and foremost, the foundation of K-beauty lies (ironically) beneath your foundation—that is, in your skin. Korean women possess a religious zeal for skincare and have personalised routines consisting of masks and detoxing massages that all make a huge difference in both the short and longer term.”
Dawn stresses the importance of identifying a routine that works for you and her channel features multiple videos about how to get plump, dewy skin. Hint: it involves a lot of misting and essence. She also recommends investing the same amount of time in cleansing as you do on your makeup.
Once you’ve achieved baby soft skin, you’re ready to adopt some of Dawn’s masterful and artistic makeup techniques. “People think K-beauty is all about trends, and while it’s true that K-Beauty evolves quickly, Korean women don’t just blindly adopt every trend under the sun. K-Beauty is about making sure to tailor the makeup to suit your look and lifestyle.”
According to Dawn, part of understanding your look is making sure you carefully analyse your face in the mirror. “Don’t be afraid of your reflection,” remarks Dawn, adding, “It will help you with your makeup.” To paraphrase an ancient Greek aphorism, know thyself to better know thy highlighter.
While Dawn stresses personalising your makeup above all else, she also has a healthy penchant for trends and her favourite new obsession is using white eyeliner to make your eyes pop. “I’ll have a new video up on it shortly,” she adds cheekily.
However, if Dawn is known for anything, it’s her signature pout, and watching her perfect her lip is like watching an artist add the finishing touches to an oil painting. While she has reviewed dozens of lip products in careful detail, her current holy grail item is the YSL Vernis a Levres Water Stain, which has reached cult status in Korea.
So, who is Dawn’s own personal makeup hero? “I love Jung Miyoung of Korean makeup brand Jung Saem Mool. She does singer Chungha’s makeup, which, needless to say, is always on point,” says Dawn.
“There’s a freedom in makeup. It allows you to be anyone you want.” And Dawn seems to prescribe to this notion because in one of her latest tutorials, she transformed into Disney princess Moana, complete with golden foundation, lustrous beach waves and a brief tropical dance number.
Few YouTubers could navigate videos ranging from topics as heavy as dealing with the consequences of chemo to transforming into a fictional character, but Dawn executes it with panache.
“I’m still a beauty vlogger. Beauty is my bread and butter. While I want to show others who have this illness that they’re not alone, my videos are still more about cushion foundations than lymphocytes.”
Images: Dawn Lee
Text: Kelly Im