Song Ji-ah: The Perfect Korean Celebrity
First they raved about her, and now they want to take her down. But influencer Song Ji-ah perfectly captures Korea's materialism out of control.
You might have seen the Korean influencer Song Ji-ah, a.k.a. Freezia. She is on the hit Netflix reality dating show Single's Inferno. Vivacious and unapologetic, she became its breakout star. She has 3.6 million followers on Instagram, and nearly 2 million on YouTube. Her most popular video, about the contents of her closet, has racked up more than 6 million views.
Just as her fame appeared to be heading to another level, things began to fall apart.
A week ago, criticism surfaced in Korea that many luxury fashion goods Song showed off were knockoffs. Differences between the imitation items she wore and the genuine products made and sold by the brands stoked anger online. It also emerged that she has accounts on Chinese platforms Bilibili and Weibo as well as a separate Chinese-language YouTube channel (a big no-no for Sinophobic Koreans). And heaven forbid, she is learning Chinese.
In response, she issued a handwritten apology on Instagram acknowledging that she had worn counterfeit items "out of ignorance". She also deleted the social media posts featuring the fake goods, but has been edited out of at least one Korean TV program in a backlash.
Still, the public outrage doesn't abate, and not just because Song was passing off designer knockoffs as genuine articles. Many of her critics point out she used brand-name fashion to construct her persona as what Koreans call a 'gold spoon' (geumsujeo 금수저). They assert that she attempted to appear as something she isn't—a privileged child of high society—and is a fake.
It's a strange charge against her considering the country's current media landscape. 43 million people use YouTube in Korea, equalling more than 80 percent of the population. And 1 out of every 529 Koreans earns ad revenue from running a channel, at a ratio seen nowhere else in the world (other countries may have more YouTubers but also bigger populations).
With even many elementary school students saying online "creator" is their dream job, the competition to stand out on social media is cutthroat, and embellishment and deception by YouTuber make the news not infrequently. Abusing animals for a channel that advocates animal welfare, falsely claiming a delivery worker has eaten the food on the way, and not declaring sponsored contents are only a few recent high-profile examples.
In 2020 a married YouTuber couple named Peter Park and Jenny had to apologize for "not correcting the viewers' impression that we are chaebol [members of rich entrepreneurial families]." They ran a channel focused on high-priced automobiles and had fueled the gossip that they had been early investors in Tesla and had connections to British high society (both appear to have ben untrue).
And just last year a minor celebrity named Ham So-won came under fire after her homes in China were revealed to be rentals contrary to her telling. Her Chinese husband in turn was accused of exaggerating the scale of his garment business, compelling her to say sorry.
What makes Song's crimes so worthy of condemnation from the Korean view is itself food for thought. To begin with, she represents a new breed of influencers nurtured and managed by specialist agencies, like Milanonna, a beloved 70-year-old YouTuber who was revealed only last fall to have been groomed into a star by Chosun Biz, the business arm of the country's biggest newspaper Chosun Ilbo.
Although there is nothing unseemly in the highly polished contents, her connection to a large corporate entity registered as a major shock, leading many to question if the online personas they follow are 'authentic'.
Against this backdrop of suspicion toward managed talents Song came along, having received considerable help in shaping her online persona despite her agency Hyowon CNC's denial: "we don't have the ability to pull something like that [creating an online persona out of nothing] off." They worked on "branding Ji-ah for many years", said a noted local branding expert only two weeks ago in a praise that proved to be damning once the Korean media reported it as proof that, well, Song is an engineered product for meeting the public's expectation and turning a profit.
But Hyowon CNC's involvement in Song's career was never a secret (the agency co-CEO posted numerous pictures with Song on Instagram before deleting them over the weekend) and became an issue only after charges of inauthenticity were heaped on her.
She and her agency did make missteps, notably wearing designer-looking fashion and inspiring breathless media coverage about the brands without issuing any correction. Song made no secret of the fact that she lives at the Seoul Forest Trimage, a high-end residential complex on the Han River known for its many celebrity occupants; her subscribers largely assumed she or her family owned it, but she is renting the place at her own expense, her agency confirmed last week.
And when asked about her background, she replied obliquely in one of her YouTube videos, "I am not a gold spoon but grew up comfortably," which was nonetheless understood to be an admission of her gold spoon status and admired for its frankness.
That juggling act—showcasing trappings of privilege without saying it aloud—allowed the public to fantasize that she is a gold spoon, with some even praising her as a rich girl "with high self-esteem" (jajongam 자존감).
And that same ambiguity has riled Koreans more than anything else, now that they think they were taken for a ride.
The discovery that her apartment is a rental prompted derision that "while the rent at Trimage is a significant amount, it means it's not a 'gold spoon pad' paid for by her parents."
A video of her parents' home from two years ago has been presented in some circles as evidence that she is "no real gold spoon" because the place doesn't look rich enough.
In fact, the hundreds of news articles and online posts about Song's downfall as well as thousands of new comments on her YouTube videos (now made private by the channel admin) fixate on this notion of gold spoon and how she pretended to be one. "Freezia was actually a commoner," spits out one online post.
So what if she is? If she worked hard to afford her high rent at Trimage, it should be seen as a plus. If her agency provided it to her, then they must have thought it a good investment given her potential.
But according to the twisted logic of the Koreans who seem so eager to cancel her, it would have been better if she had been born into wealth and spent it liberally without having to work. The propriety of showing off money that one doesn't earn herself, on the other hand, never came under critique.
That in itself reflects Korea's out-of-control cult of money, opined a journalist at the online outlet E-daily in a rare rebuke of Song's critics: "I would like to ask if it's healthy—this social climate of admiring and idealizing people who are born rich and wrap themselves in designer goods."
There are Koreans who agree. In a related thread on a forum popular with married women, one poster lamented, "Why do they—especially young kids—like gold spoons so much? I understand liking a celebrity for being pretty or good at acting, but I don't understand praising and liking someone just for being a gold spoon."
As an insightful reply put it, "They idealize people they cannot live up to: young and rich. They don't idealize celebrities who grew up poor. They idealize being born rich, growing up comfortably and living comfortably."
In this culture of rampant materialism, Song gave many young people exactly what they wanted to see and want for themselves—beauty, popularity and luxury—armed with certain feigned wealth, but look at Korean Instagram accounts and see who doesn't do the same to a certain extent.
Even her many designer fakes exposed Koreans' indiscriminate love affair with brands including the massive market for knockoffs—how did they even know her stuff wasn't real if they aren't obsessed with it?
Showing off in Korea has reached such an absurd level that some kindergartens are doing craft projects making paper Gucci and Louis Vuitton handbags, and parents are reportedly buying imitation designer handbags for their preschool-age daughters so that they can post "couple looks" on social media.
One astute scholar of Korea, who asked to be anonymous, remarked while following the scandal, "Koreans hate Ji-ah because she reminds them of the parts of themselves they hate."
Song is an authentic representation of the fake life that's taken over contemporary Korea, and now Koreans want to take her down for it.
Cover: a screen-capture from Song's YouTube video "Q&A: Do You Have Rich Parents, I Need Underwear Advice!, Have You Fought With Your Mom"