Expat superstars

Rising foreign performers reveal the world of Korea’s entertainment industry

Published March 2014 in Groove Korea

Story by Emilee Jennings and Elaine Ramirez

Photos by Dylan Goldby

Additional reporting by Sophie Boladeras

Expat superstars cover spread

Showbiz is one of the toughest jobs out there. The glamorous celebrity life, the thing the public sees, is the product of hundreds of hours of work. Practice, filming, schmoozing, cultivating a persona — the list goes on. And if it weren’t tough enough, factor in the challenges of finding a job in a foreign country and communicating in a language you’re unfamiliar with. If you can imagine what it’s like to juggle all of this, often without a social or financial safety net, you can start to understand what it’s like for expats in Korea’s entertainment industry.

“There were days when I would just cry or vomit from the stress, and there were days when I wondered why I chose this path,” says Bronwyn Mullen, one of four expat entertainers who offered Groove a glimpse of what it’s like on both sides of the camera.

So what is it all for?

Beyond the attention that fame brings, there’s a certain validation that comes from celebrity. Artists and performers have an almost innate drive toward perfection that keeps them striving for more where others might settle for less. And on some days, it can actually be fun.

“You will never really be satisfied,” says rapper and TV host Jake Pains. “So will I ever achieve everything I want to do? Probably not, but I’m gonna have a lot of fun trying, and I’m sure this is just the start.”

Whether they’re an actor, musician or TV personality, they all have one thing in common: They have laid down plans for the future, and are working steadily toward their goals.

Bronwyn, one of the most recognized foreigners among Koreans next to actor-model Daniel Henney and comedian Sam Hammington, has worked tirelessly for nearly a decade to become the mainstay personality she now is on Korean morning TV. Jesse Day is breaking the ice as an LG spokesperson, while Jake is working on winning the hearts of hallyu fans around the world. Pinnacle TheHustler, a hip-hop performer and entrepreneur, is springboarding off the career he built in Korea, going global with his music production business.

Each one has gone through the highs and lows that come with working in the Korean entertainment machine. But one thing’s certain: They’re all moving forward.

The daily grind

They rub shoulders with Korea’s celebrities, but it’s not all partying with rock stars. Getting to that point requires countless sleepless nights and days, often of simply getting through it.

Much of Jake’s job is spent planning “Jjang,” a K-pop variety show on Mnet, from start to finish with his small, tight-knit production crew. It begins with tossing around ideas, then researching, writing skits, pulling stunts, filming in studio, booking celebrities and conjuring up witty questions that will catch them off guard — all for 23 sharp minutes of entertainment every week. Whether it’s 2 p.m. or 2 a.m., they hunker down until the job is done. “There’s a lot of stress in television because there’s always a deadline,” says Jake. “If it’s live TV or if it’s in a studio, you still have to do things right.”

It’s even more intense on travel shows, where presenters have to film for days or weeks for 40 minutes of material. No matter how cold the water gets or how long you’ve been in a car, you still have to maintain a perky, adventurous attitude for the camera. “There are arguments and tears and 20-hour work days and not being able to wash, and putting makeup on top of makeup,” says Bronwyn. “And you’re standing in the cold, smiling, so happy to be on top of the mountain, when really you want to be in bed at home.”

Sometimes you can give it your all and still barely make the cut. In Jesse’s first travel episode, he knew he wouldn’t be able to garner much attention since his Korean was still poor. So he had to improvise: He decided to dance to Girls’ Generation.

“We had an opportunity when we were in the countryside and this grandmother made us soup, so to show how thankful I was I did my dance,” he says. “It’s the only thing that got me noticed in the episode. If I hadn’t have done that, I would have barely gotten any air time.”

Auditions, shoots and script delivery are often last-minute, and sometimes directors are vague about what they want. Instead of complaining, the four have had to accept and adapt to the work culture. During scriptwriting at “Jjang,” language barriers and cultural differences used to make it hard for Jake to explain to his Korean crew members that what may be funny in Korean simply isn’t in English. It used to lead to squabbles, but over time they simply learned to trust each other.

“It’s been quite organic and I’m very lucky with my crew. They’ve put a lot of confidence in us as foreigners,” says Jake. “We’ve tried new things that they didn’t really like, and it’s worked, and now they’re quite confident in our abilities.”

The glass ceiling

They have all come to accept that they can’t force Western ideals onto a Korean system. The Korean entertainment culture has some elements that might not be considered fair elsewhere, but they have learned to use those things to their advantage.

Bronwyn acknowledges that with her own pale skin and slender physique matching Korea’s ideal of beauty, she has had a certain advantage. But that same leg-up is what enforces a glass ceiling for women on TV.

“It is extremely difficult to get on a panel or to get an emcee seat as a foreigner or as a woman,” and it’s a double-whammy if you’re both, she says. “If you look at my shows, always, even the talk shows, it’s three emcees of two men and one woman. If it’s two emcees, it’s one man and woman or two men. So we are still, as women, considered to be a support emcee.”

Behind the scenes, gender and office politics could keep her off the air if she refuses to go to dinner and drinks after work. “As a young female, you are really not allowed to turn this stuff down. If they say, ‘We are going for dinner Friday,’” she explains, “you’ll be there or you’re not in the next show, guaranteed.” When she once turned down such an invitation from her colleagues on her first talk show because she was busy filming a commercial, she saw herself shafted from the show for the next week.

She was disheartened by the discrimination at first, but is seeing gradual improvement, she says. Now there are a few more shows that are catered to women or offer them a better opportunity that doesn’t reinforce the traditional cutesy, inferior feminine role. “There’s definitely a glass ceiling … but hopefully it’s gonna change.”

Living in the limelight

Work doesn’t end when they walk off the set, and life doesn’t get easier off camera. They have to deal with scorn from the anonymous bullies of the Internet, telling Bronwyn that she’s ugly or Jake that they hate what he represents. Bronwyn has found the expat community especially judgmental of her. One girl, she says, posted on Facebook: “‘She’s just a bad example to young women as a foreigner living in Korea. I’m so offended by her; she’s just uses her looks to get where she is.’”

Jake’s solution is to kill hate with cordiality. “It’s like some people do it just to get attention, and if you give it back in a polite way, then they’re not as bad as you think,” he says. When a Twitter user told him he hated his work, Jake responded coolly: “‘If people really hate you, that means people really love you, too. It’s better to have that than to have everyone indifferent.’” One tweet later and the hate-tweeter was telling him to keep up the good work. “That was the quickest turnaround ever. It’s maddening,” he says.

Just like for other entertainers, fame has necessitated that the expats manage their celebrity personas even when not working. “There’s always a line. And even out of the public eye you have to be real careful,” says Jake. “You have these different personas that are you. It’s like you’ve crafted versions of yourself.” He has found he has to create separate personalities for different occasions: There’s Jake Pains the rapper and emcee, Jake Patchett (his real name) the global hallyu TV host, Jake the boyfriend and “Baek Young-nam,” as he is known in some Korean hip-hop circles. But somewhere along the line, either he becomes them, or they become him. “It’s weird because you’re not being yourself, and then that starts turning into yourself.”

On the flipside, the constant limelight is a necessary evil, and one that Jake welcomes. “People talk about their privacy being invaded … I’d be like, ‘Fuck that, I don’t care man, come into my house and take photos while I’m asleep naked.’”

He says that he was never in it for the fame, but attention is a gauge for success. “It’s like a verification of what you do. The more popular you get, (the more) it shows that what you’re doing is being noticed. It’s like a positive indication of what you’re doing is being recognized.”

For Pinnacle, it’s a matter of professionalism. He has the added pressure of being one of the few black people in the public limelight here and feels like he must be a good representative. “You are definitely an ambassador to your demographic when you’re in front of a lot of people. And for me, it’s kind of difficult sometimes because I have to combat the media portrayal that black people have,” he says. On top of that, he sees black people acting ignorantly in public and feels the need to offset the negative stereotype being reinforced.

It’s important to adapt to your surroundings, he says. The fight-to-survive mentality of his hometown Cincinnati, isn’t necessary in Korea.

“My mentality has been changed being out here, and the way that I conduct myself has changed as well,” he adds. “So, yes, I do feel like I’m an ambassador and, yes, I do feel like I have to keep a level head, in order to combat or to offset the ignorance that you see sometimes from other black people in Korea. But at the same time, I’m always gonna be real. I’ll always be me.”

Sacrifices, mistakes and regrets

Groove Korea March 2014 -41-page-001Free time and privacy are not their only sacrifices. It’s a reality they all had to accept when they chose this path. Hobbies, friends and other passions, including love, have to come second.

For Pinnacle, too much was happening at once. He was in his first long-term relationship when his career finally started to take shape, and trying to be both Pinnacle TheHustler and Pinnacle the boyfriend was tearing him in separate ways.

“She was the first relationship that I had of that kind where it was a long-term relationship, and it was also the first time that I was so busy with so many different things that I was stressed out. She would say some things to piss me off, and it was like a back-and-forth,” he says.

If he could go back, he would have treated her better, he says. “I would’ve employed better time management so that I could give her more time and attention and do things I need to do as a boyfriend, and then handle the business stuff. It was like 24/7 business, but not 24/7 girlfriend. So that was a mistake I made there.”

In a sense, he says, he had to sacrifice her for his career, to the point where they had to split up for a spell. But he says he learned from mistakes he made and that the two are doing better than ever. “Now I know what I should not do. And because of that learning experience, me and her are stronger now. I think it was good for us to go through that.”

He would do two things differently, he says, if he could start back at the beginning. One is waste less money learning the ropes and pursuing fruitless projects. The other is manage his relationship. But does he have any regrets about the sacrifices and mistakes he’s made for his career? “I thought about this the other day,” he says. “It’s an interesting question, and the answer is no.”

At the end of the day, he says, it all made him stronger: “I needed to make those mistakes, and I needed to fail, and I needed to be broke. I needed to learn what it means to have absolutely nothing and rely only on yourself to pick yourself back up and to keep moving forward.

“And when I bring somebody else up after me, I’m gonna know how to better navigate them so they don’t make the same mistakes I made.”

Things are getting better

It wasn’t too long ago when xenophobia, particularly against Americans, was rampant. But Korea is slowly but surely growing, developing and becoming better for non-Koreans, says Pinnacle. And that’s one reason he keeps coming back. He sees it at every show — people from near and far, with different tastes, experiences and cultures, coming together to enjoy the same music. Koreans and foreigners alike have shown him the kind of support he couldn’t expect in the U.S. or other big markets.

“Throughout the hardship and difficulty, and the triumphs and the successes, one thing that I’m always most appreciative of in Korea is the foundation of support that’s here,” he says. “In the expat community, people rally behind you if they really like what you are doing, and they’re unwavering. That’s something I really love about the community. People truly appreciate art. And sometimes you don’t get that back home.”

The same goes for his Korean fans, who remember some of his earliest stuff from 2009. He believes people are honest about their reactions to his music, and the people who follow him aren’t groupies — they truly appreciate his music. “So the support here is absolutely fantastic, which is why I think that, for as long as I can, I’m always going to come back to Korea and show as much love as I can.”

For this reason, it is also getting easier, bit by bit, for expats to tap the entertainment market as Korea becomes more open to foreign dramas, films, music and other art, Jake notes. The English obsession provides a great gateway for aspiring actors to get into English education programs and promotional videos, says Jesse, whose first job here was a kids’ show; Bronwyn was one of many participants from all over the world who went through “Global Talk Show,” and Jake sees a lot of foreigners working on the popular MBC show “Surprise.”

But he reckons that because domestic entertainment will always be catered toward a Korean audience rather than a global one, foreigners who land gigs will always be considered something of a novelty. Foreigners on TV, including Jake, Bronwyn, Jesse and even Sam Hammington, can be seen performing caricatures of themselves. Pinnacle has been asked to “act more black,” but when he asked for more direction, he got a stuttered response.

“Part of me thinks they are still seen as foreign for the sake of being foreign … not because of their skill. If you can speak Korean and you’re a foreigner, then it’s almost like you’re halfway to finding a job,” Jake says, though adding that taking the next step is a lot harder. “I think there’s still a long way to go for foreigners in Korea.”

Bronwyn, dubbed the “darling of Korea,” knows it as well as anyone. She acknowledges that she got her first job because the auditioners were amused by her elementary Korean skills and found it cute that she was trying. Throughout the season, questions she was asked on the show started with cultural differences, food and travel hot spots, but quickly digressed to what she thought about dating Korean men.

“Toward the end of season one, the topics that we were being asked to discuss became borderline offensive to me. … I was dating a Korean at that time, but I didn’t feel that I wanted to put my personal life out there. And then it would be things like, ‘What do you hate about Korea?’” she says. “Basically, I thought KBS was setting foreign ladies up to fail so they could get a headline.”

If anything will change in the way Koreans see and treat foreigners, Pinnacle says, it has to come from the people. The government tries to embrace globalization and sets up call centers, investment services and translation hotlines for expats, but Korea having a truly open society will depend on how people’s mindsets change.

“I think in 10, 15 years, 20 years from now, Korea will definitely become more of a powerhouse, once it learns to allow other cultures to assimilate better within their society,” he says. “There’s things that are set in place to help, but it’s not gonna be better until the mentality of the society and the general public becomes more accepting. I think it’s just gonna take time.”

Foot in the door

Despite the difficulties, the four of them are tackling obstacles and paving the way for other foreign performers. “Working in the Korean entertainment industry is a real blessing and honor. You also have a lot of responsibility, but it’s a responsibility you should be happy in taking and indulging in,” says Jake.

And breaking into the industry takes a certain kind of person. Each of them dared, as all expats do, to make the leap to Korea. Some left cushy teaching jobs — or came with no job at all — to pursue a far less secure dream. They often don’t know where their next paycheck will come from, but those who become successful need to be able to take risks, diversify and dedicate themselves with everything they’ve got.

“The whole point of being diverse is so that I can have longevity in my career,” says Jesse, who has been a hip-hop emcee, product spokesperson for LG, kids’ English program host, music composer, broadcast TV presenter, model and actor. “There’s the corporate stuff, then there’s the emcee side; I try to fit whatever program or situation I’m in.” Performers need to be able to put up with setbacks and keep moving forward, believe in themselves and their abilities and do it all in stride. “It’s hard when you feel tired and worn down, but regardless, you have to keep going and maintain a level of respect and good attitude.”

Aside from charisma, Korean language abilities are, predictably, a necessary part of moving up. But even more important, the foreigners who make it into the entertainment industry must have a respect for the country’s culture, says Pinnacle.

“An attribute that we definitely share is a congenial personality and a respect for Korean culture. Obviously I don’t like everything that goes on here, but I’m not gonna disrespect anybody, and I’m not gonna disrespect anyone’s culture,” he says. “When I meet with other Koreans … I talk to them appropriately, I say the things I’m supposed to say in Korean, I bow to them as I’m supposed to, I have respect for their culture and they appreciate that.”

“You have to think like a Korean,” Bronwyn adds. “You have to accept that you have to work 20 hours a day and that what the production designer says, goes. Accept, at least in the beginning, that you’re gonna have to make extreme sacrifices.” There’s no 9-to-5 schedule or vacations when you feel like it, and she was tired, stressed and high-strung for a good five or six years before she could relax enough to have a life. “If you want to make it in the Korean entertainment industry, basically you have to put parts of your life on hold until you have established yourself.”

Establishing yourself is easier said than done. It’s a catch-22, Jake notes, that you can’t really land jobs until you’ve had experience and proven yourself, but the only way to do that is to land a job. So he advises doing as much as you can on your own to get yourself noticed. Though he was known in Korea’s music circles for a while, Jake’s TV break came after someone at CJ discovered a silly YouTube video he did for fun on the streets of Itaewon (check out “Trade Up Chopsticks” with comedian Albert Escobedo).

“If you want to work in entertainment, you gotta get yourself out there, you’ve got to be known. No one really trusts you just from a picture and a video,” he says. “Put yourself out there, make lots of videos and get yourself around. Try and be performing. Show that you’re confident.”

A quality that Bronwyn finds vital is the strength to endure it all. You can’t go into the entertainment industry unless you have a very thick skin and you can look into the mirror and know who you are, she says. You’re going to be hurt and brought down, but you need a supportive group of peers and the confidence that you can move forward.

“There are days I have to go to work and smile and do my job, but when I come home I cry or just vomit from the stress. Then, as a few years go by, every time you do well or every time there’s a good news story about you, or every time you earn a paycheck and it’s a lot more than you earned the year before, you kind of feel good about yourself and it encourages you to keep going,” she says.

“People say, if you love something and you have enough passion about it, it kind of works (out). You don’t do something for the money or the fame. You do it because you feel like it’s your calling and you love it.”

The calling

There’s no turning back now, and this fearless foursome is set to keep chasing that calling.

Jake wants to keep doing what he’s doing and build on his foundation at CJ Entertainment. He has accepted his role as an English-language representative of Korean music, and one of his aims is to show the best of Korea to the world through every medium possible. “I kind of like having that responsibility, and so I’d like to not let people down with regards to showing a good side of Korea through my eyes.”

Jesse is taking every day as it comes. “There is no stable gig. I work show by show, season by season,” he says. This year is seeing him in Vegas, Barcelona, Berlin, Italy and wherever LG sends him to promote its latest innovations. He adds that he’s finally comfortable enough to be able to save away some money, and now he just has to be careful about not sitting back. “I’ll be content in my career when I can appear on TV regularly, similar to Sam Hammington and Robert Holley.”

Bronwyn, already a mainstay on Korean morning TV, hopes one day to have her own show in Korean, where she can pick her own topics and ensure balance and accuracy. “(I want) to be able to lead the conversations and be able to debate about stuff without having someone to pull the foreign card on me or the female card on me,” she says. “I’m hoping in the next two years, but nobody knows. So, my goal would be 2015. I still have a way to go, but we’ll see.”

Pinnacle is already taking on the world, forging connections in the U.S., Germany, Guam, the Philippines, Italy and wherever else he can throw the line. In the next five years, he hopes to establish Planet Hustle well enough to be able to sign other artists and help them to achieve their goals, and gain enough stability to start a family.

But for a man whose life’s mission is fighting complacency, when will TheHustler finally be satisfied with what he’s achieved?

“My end goal is just to maintain happiness,” he says. “I’m happy where I am, but I feel I have more things to do. Once I get to that point, to where I have a successful business, I have enough time for family and I can use my art to move forward, that’s pretty much all I need.”

That’s it?

“Yeah, that’s it.”


Introducing GrooveCast

Groove Korea is launching GrooveCast, a podcast hosted by Chance Dorland. In the first episode, Chance and Groove’s music and arts editor Emilee Jennings sit down for a chat with Pinnacle TheHustler and Jake Pains. Check it out at groovekorea.com.


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