celebrity autograph Kollen Park restaurant Yaksu Seoul

Fame Is a Fleeting Thing

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There is a small food joint near Yaksu station that I sometimes stop at for a bowl of instant noodle and gimbab. Taped to the air conditioning unit in one corner is a laminated piece of paper with a hastily scrawled autograph by Kolleen Park, a noted musical director.

It’s customary for restaurants to solicit autographs from visiting celebrities. Almost always jotted on white A4 sheets, they bedeck the walls of many eateries as seals of approval. The phrase “I enjoyed it” or “It was so delicious” sometimes accompanies the signature, informing diners that they made the right choice in patronizing a particular establishment. If celebrities eat there, then it must be good, the logic goes.

But it isn’t always. The instant noodle and gimbab in Yaksu are decent, but no more special than what you find at hundreds of other noodle-and-gimbab shops. (Sorry, Ms. Park.) I often find myself eating in Hannamdong — where many actor and singer types reside — and the area brims with restaurants that proudly display celebrity autographs, some from figures so obscure that only an online search elucidates their identities. The food is often about as sterling as those names.

Restaurant owners are known to insist on this promotional scheme, as entertainers — called yeonyein in Korean — wield significant influence over consumer behavior. Where yeonyein go, people follow. At least until yeonyein lose their luster, to be replaced by a newer, fresher batch of yeonyein.

If I had felt in other countries that celebrities were cultural projections and not real human beings — so removed did they seem from my life and those of the people around me — in South Korea the relationship with celebrities is decidedly intimate. This country of 50 million is packed into a small piece of land, traversable from one end to the other in roughly three hours by bullet train. Since Seoul and its surrounding area host about half that population, yeonyein sightings are surprisingly common in the capital. Famous people don’t just leave behind autographs for the rest of us to gaze at; they can be our fellow diners, neighbors and even lovers.

This must be what it felt like to live in ancient Greece, where gods came and went as they pleased, mingling with mortals.

Spring is a popular season for getting married. A number of K-pop idols are tying the knot, and we humans obsess over their prospective spouses. Beautiful, famous people are expected to end up with other beautiful, famous people, and they often do. But when a celebrity marries a non-celebrity from an unremarkable family, that person is referred to as an ilbanin — “ordinary person.” I prefer “muggle,” the word for non-magical humans in the Harry Potter stories. Yeonyein are magical beings, whereas we are not, and by marrying one, you can bask in the reflected glory (and appear on your spouse’s Instagram account). The media will most certainly write about you and your child. You will become a demi-celebrity.

The difference is that while gods are gods forever, yeonyein’s time at the top is fleeting; their prominence can sometimes evaporate in a month or less. For all their beauty, power and fame, many a celebrity has fallen over allegations of crime and general misconduct, including drinking-and-driving, infidelity, drug use, gambling, assault, avoiding military service, dating and just having sex. Sometimes allegations are proven and sometimes not. Either way, they can be fatal to a career. Yeonyein are also dubbed gongin, meaning public figures; they are held up to a higher ethical standard than us ordinary people. (If only we could demand the same of politicians.)

Even without a misstep, fame is precarious. Not only do celebrities have to be beautiful, they must also be beautiful at heart, or at least appear to be. Internet users are brutal on actresses deemed to lack manners. In December, one starlet was hounded just for standing with her legs apart and touching her nails during a press event. Another was roundly condemned for leaving less-than-friendly replies to comments on her social media accounts. Men, too, can be called out for behaving poorly, but women bear harsher criticism for myriad failings.

Then there is the actual problem of beauty, which doesn’t last. (A common criticism against yeonyein who are unattractive or losing their looks is “Why didn’t they get some work done?”) One popular term in South Korean yeonyein talk is “time of Leeds,” or Rijeu sijeol. It supposedly originated in discussions of British footballer Alan Smith, who hit his peak early in his career while playing for Leeds United. Meaning so-and-so’s ‘Golden Age,’ celebrities are routinely compared to their respective times of Leeds, the bygone era of perfection, when they used to be more beautiful, more likeable, more successful. ‘Ah, you should have seen her in her Rijeu sijeol.’ It’s not unlike lamenting the fall of cherry blossoms, so exquisite they are at their peak, and so ephemeral their beauty.

This year’s it-girl easily becomes next year’s has-been. Most South Korean celebrities have shelf-lives that are longer than that of cherry blossoms, but not that much longer. One day they can be in every commercial imaginable, and suddenly disappear the next. The public isn’t entirely to blame. “She is reviewing options for her next film” is a stock answer given by entertainment agencies when accounting for their top clients’ whereabouts, so inactive some hot-shot actors and singers. Still, rather than sully the memory of their professional peak, they would happily fade away, like Hollywood actresses of yore who stopped acting as they neared their thirties.

But the ones who can afford to drop out willingly are lucky A-listers. I regularly check news on portal sites, and the top search keyword is bound to be the name of a ‘celebrity’ unless there is a really big breaking story. One day last week on Daum, it was an actress of no renown who vowed to do a “sexy photoshoot.” Over on Naver, it was a different actress, who seems to have lost a lot of weight and possibly received a procedure to reshape her jawline. She is denying that she recently had any surgery. But if she did, she would only have been doing what she had to in order to survive, and people are still talking about her. That’s something to boast of when there are too many yeonyein in this country, all vying for attention.

Precise figures are not available, but domestic media routinely claim that some one million South Koreans are aspiring yeonyein. At least one survey from last year showed that 38 percent of primary school-age respondents chose “entertainer” as their dream job.

I cannot understand why. Being a yeonyein is hard work. One writer calls them emotional laborers, because celebrities are, in their true form, glamorous service workers. They must be pleasant on the eyes, smile a lot, and never outright refuse requests or advances. And their careers last only so long.

It just goes to show that the walls of autographs at restaurants are not so much seals of approval as graveyards of fame. Some yeonyein get to spend so little time in the public eye that their names are no longer recognized after a while. The only thing they leave behind is those signatures, preserved in plastic like insect specimens. 

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Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Inside Higher Ed among other publications.