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It Was So Much Like My Own Story that I Cried My Eyes Out!

It Was So Much Like My Own Story that I Cried My Eyes Out!

Posted August. 23, 2004 22:10,   


For the star of a theatrical production, hearing that you’re “perfect for the role” is a great compliment. But for singer Jinju (24), who plays the lead in the original musical “Tomfools,” such a comment seems almost cruel.

The title “Tomfools” is also the name of the four-member female vocal group that the show centers on. The group’s particular brand of “tomfoolery” is the fact that they’re extraordinarily talented singers with unfortunately unattractive mugs. The story follows the Tomfools, who provide the voice for a group of beautiful but talent-challenged singers called the Sapphire Girls, as they overcome the limits of their video-unfriendliness and achieve success. The musical, which satirizes “show singers” who merely lip-synch to other people’s vocals, as well as the music industry’s pervasive privileging of pretty exteriors, stars Jinju as “Geumhee,” the oldest of the Tomfools.

The key criteria for casting decisions during the pre-production stage were singing talent and (the lack of) looks. At the interview with Dong-A Ilbo on August 20, Seon Da-in, the head of planning at the theater company Eunsegye, said that the script immediately brought Jinju to mind, and even joked, “I was worried that she might have gotten plastic surgery and become pretty, but when I met her, I was relieved to find that she was still ‘in good condition.’” Jinju gave him a sidelong look, playfully chastising Seon for the “appalling treatment of the show’s star.” On a more serious note, she confessed that she cried her eyes out over the script, because it reminded her so much of her own life story.

Jinju was handpicked by singer and producer Park Jin-young in 1997, and drew the public’s attention with her explosive vocals for the Korean remake of “I Will Survive.” Although she appears to have made a sudden meteor-like rise to fame, her debut was actually a long and painful journey. She was recognized for her singing talent early on, and enlisted to provide backing vocals for other singers when she was in just the fifth grade, but she was continually frustrated in her attempts to record her own album. Instead, she ended up singing for other artists who already had a recording contract. On countless occasions, she was turned down by record companies for her uninspiring looks.

“They would invite me to come in after listening to the demo CD, but when I actually turned up, they’d refuse to see me, saying that the boss was on a business trip, etc. I was an unknown for about five years, constantly subjected to comments like ‘You’d cost a fortune in plastic surgery.’”

In “Tomfools,” the eponymous group gets an offer to “release an album without unveiling the faces of the singers,” as a “mystery marketing” strategy.

“My real name is Ju-jin. The name Jinju (meaning ‘pearl’ in Korean) was a type of ‘mystery marketing’ on Park Jin-young’s part as well. Because ‘Jinju’ conjures up an image of a pretty face with pale skin, right?”

When she made TV appearances, Jinju had to wear large sunglasses to cover up her small eyes. She even received “directions” to keep her mouth closed as much as possible, so that her uneven lower teeth wouldn’t show.

“After a while, I found that the public perceived me as a quiet and serious person.” (Laughs.)

Unable to turn a blind eye to the criticism on her looks, she had surgery to enlarge her eyes and consulted with a famous American doctor about realigning her teeth. “But I had to give up on braces,” she laments, “when I heard that a realignment would change my oral structure and alter my voice.”

Although she has suffered much from the industry’s premium on good looks, she is broadminded on the subject. “A singer needs to have an appeal that will captivate the masses. Be it looks or talent, what the public wants tends to take precedence. For myself, I’ll need to concentrate more on the talent part…”

With her fifth album well on the way, Jinju is working under a new management company and is even engaged to its representative, Kim Seong-hyeon (24). “If I were a pretty singer like Sapphire Girl No. 1, I’d probably deny having any romantic attachments at an interview like this,” she laughed.

“Tomfools” is playing until August 29, with Jinju starring on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. 02-747-2250

Sue-Jean Kang sjkang@donga.com