Within a month, Cha Ji-yeon, 29, has gone from obscurity to renown in the music industry. That may seem like an instant in a world where stars are born and flame out quickly, but Cha's whirlwind success has actually been years in the making.
It all started in May when she appeared as a backup singer with Yim Jae-bum on "Survival: I Am a Singer", a popular reality TV show. Though the segment was short, Cha managed to captivate the audience.
She also managed to impress a few record company executives, who offered her a recording contract. She released her first single, "Where Are You?", at the end of the month.
Then, earlier this month, she was named best actress at the Musical Awards on June 7 for her performance in the musical "Seopyeonje".
Taken together, she said, the experience was magical.
"Last month felt like a dream. Every morning I would wake up afraid of feeling too blessed", she said.
To some, Cha may just seem like a lucky woman. But she has endured all kinds of hardship in her relatively young life. When she was still a teenager, her family's business failed and she moved to Seoul with her younger sister to earn money for her family. For the next six years, she worked at bars and food stands while taking care of her sister and continuing to pursue her dream of becoming a singer. During that time, she sent demo tapes to record companies, but never had any success until a friend suggested she audition for a musical.
It wasn't long before she was cast as an understudy in a Japanese production of "The Lion King". She got her turn on stage when the actor playing Rafiki, a leading role, was unable to continue and she was selected to play the part.
Despite having a tough journey on her way to stardom, Cha is familiar with fame. Her grandfather, Park Oh-yong, is a renowned pansori (theatrical form of narrative singing) singer and an intangible cultural asset. As a child, the people in Cha's neighborhood referred to her a "gugak (Korean traditional music) prodigy". So it was fitting that she won her best actress award for Seopyeonje, which tells the story of a pansori family.
The JoongAng Ilbo recently sat down with Cha to talk with her about her recent success and future plans.
Q. How do you feel about winning the best actress award?
A. As someone once said, if you follow your passion there will come a day when you finally get what you want. The award has surely given me confidence. I'm pleased that the way I've lived my life is worthy of an award.
What does Seopyeonje mean to you?
It is a piece that marked a turning point in my life as an actress. Prior to that, I was used to playing tough characters who were unlucky yet passionate. But in Seopyeonje, I was able to be rather relaxed and natural.
What do musicals mean to you?
When I received the award, I was not exaggerating when I said that I have never thought of myself as someone special. I was uneasy about my future in my 20s, but musical theater was an escape. As an actress I was trying not to let my life collapse. It feels unreal that I get to sing and act on stage. I guess I am well suited for the theater.
How did you end up working with Yim Jae-bum on I Am a Singer?
When I was in The Lion King, songwriter Ha Gwang-hun saw me perform. Later, he came backstage and told me that he felt like something interesting would eventually happen with my career and he was eager to see what I would do. His generosity made me trust him, just as a daughter has faith in her father.
Two days before the I Am a Singer episode was to be taped, he asked me to sing backup vocals for Yim Jae-bum. I was a little afraid, but Ha encouraged me by saying, "You can do it". I had one day of rehearsal before the taping, but I think I did well. And I was shocked by the positive reaction from the audience.
Now that you have a recording contract, how do you feel about having to face the record producers who once rejected you?
I act as if nothing happened, but facing them is quite uncomfortable. It was heartbreaking to try for six years to produce an album only to fail. But I think those years helped me become the person I am today. If it had been easy, then I wouldn't have the passionate and obsessive attitude toward my job that I do now.
What are you planning to do next?
I'm going to be a guest on Yim's upcoming Korea tour and plan to release more albums. I'm also thinking about auditioning for a movie or television drama. I want to be adventurous and try new things. This will help me find my inner self.
By Choi Min-woo
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2015 51st PaekSang Arts Awards