So, you wanna sell lingerie?Song Hui-young gazes into the mirror, smacks her lips then practices her spiel, glancing down at a sheet of notes in one hand. Nervously, she straightens her hair and her coat and experiments with a few postures. She's ready.
Ms. Song takes a deep breath, then walks onstage in front of the camera. Stopping beside a table, she picks up an electronic clothes brush and begins to talk about it.
No longer the person who fumbled with her notes, Ms. Song is now the host of a TV home shopping program -- or the closest thing to it. During her performance Ms. Song made one mistake -- she dropped the clothes brush gizmo -- but that didn't shake her confidence. As long as the camera was on, she was unflappable.
Ms. Song, 27, attends classes at Avatar Homeshopping Broadcasting Academy, an institute in downtown Seoul that trains people to be hosts of home shopping shows. She and the six other women in her class come from different backgrounds; one was an actress, the others were secretaries or saleswomen or teachers. But they have one dream in common: to become well-paid show hosts. The class is in its third month.
The students are determined to succeed. Even on weekends, when their peers are lounging in bed or at the movies with boyfriends, Ms. Song and her classmates are working on their appearance and practicing their demonstrations.
"It's a really attractive job, and I can assure you it's truly a challenging job," says one of Ms. Song's classmates, Joo Sun-kyung, 27.
Another, Jung Eun-hee, 28, says, "You have to become everything when you're in front of the camera; you need to act, dress well and speak well. Most of all you have to gain the trust of the audience. The way you look on the screen determines whether sales go up or down."
Park Hyo-suk, 28, adds that a show host has to know about all consumer products, not just the ones she pitches. "Even a woman host has to know the pros and cons of mechanical products, in case she has to sell them," she says.
Do you think you'll ever see these girls in casual clothes? Doubtful. They're always trying to look their best. "A show host always has to be an example because that's the way she gains trust," Ms. Jung says.
"I would like to wear casual clothes," Ms. Joo says. "But elegant clothes come with the job."
Ms. Song, to maximize her chances to get a job on television, dyed her hair black again to look conservative -- it had been a shiny blonde. "She looked too young when she had that yellow hair," Ms. Jung says of her classmate. "This is much better."
So do any of the girls go to extremes to look more attractive and thereby better their chances? Have any tried plastic surgery? If so, none were willing to say so, but an employee at the institute said some had. Going under the knife to make their eyes look bigger is the first "improvement" they make, he said.
What do the women do in their spare time? Ms. Joo says she carefully monitors home shopping channels to see how the hosts introduce and promote products. Ms. Song says she practices in front of her mother, who records it all on videotape. In fact, Ms. Song says her entire family is so supportive of her that they have given up watching regular programs, and that their TV is always tuned to shopping channels.
Most of the other women's families are also supportive. "My mom is very serious when I practice in front of her," Ms. Song says. Ms. Joo says her sister is fully behind her.
The one exception is Ms. Park's family. Ms. Park hasn't told her parents that she's attending the class. "Because I'm about to turn 30 my parents would definitely disapprove," she says. "While all the other girls my age are getting married I'm trying to become a show host? My father would probably throw me out of the house." She says she'll break the news to her parents after she gets a job.
If the secret she keeps from her family isn't enough, Ms. Park even broke up with her boyfriend recently because he was strongly opposed to her dream. The other women have also had troubles with their boyfriends.
"They hate it because we don't get to spend much time with them," Ms. Jung says. "They think we're learning how to work at a medicine show."
Two students who have kept their boyfriends think they can work things out. Choi Sung-soon is trying to sell her man on the idea, while Kim Jung-yun tells her boyfriend that she'll break up with him if he complains about her goals too much. "I'm betting everything to become a show host," Ms. Kim says. "If I lose my boyfriend it's not the end of the world. Half of the people in the world are men."
Is it worth it, all the trouble and sacrifice for a small shot at a big dream?
If they succeed, of course. Show hosts are very well paid. Starting out they don't make much, about 20 million won ($17,000). But once they become established, which is determined by their sales numbers, they can make five times as much or more.
Other plusses the women point out are flexible working hours and opportunities to advance while they age. "That contrasts with entertainers and a lot of other jobs women do, when they lose their popularity as they age," Ms. Song says. "But a show host doesn't need to be young. In fact, she gains rapport with her audience if she is older."
While all the women in Ms. Song's class are single, another class at the institute has a housewife. Lee Seong-weon, 34, says she's not taking the class to get rich; she's doing it for the challenge. "I think working as a show host would be a great job and career," she says. Her husband and her in-laws are completely behind her -- in fact her husband loves the programs (see box). "They are supportive because if I succeed the money will surely start rolling in," she says.
Ms. Lee is pursuing the dream even though her friends make fun of her for it. She is confident that she's doing the right thing by attending the classes and devoting hours and hours to speaking practice.
"Married people should try to become a show host," she says. "This is a really good career move for women."
Careful, it's habit-forming
The concept of shopping from home by watching television was introduced to Seoul in 1995. Today it is a 4 trillion won ($3.5 billion) industry and its sales numbers go up every year.
The two big companies in the market are LG Home Shopping Inc. and CJ Home Shopping Ltd. LG expects revenues of 2 trillion won this year, and CJ projects sales of 1.5 trillion won. The local home shopping market is worth 4 trillion won a year, and is growing fast.
Who watches the home shopping channels? Plenty of people, according to a recent survey of 500 people conducted by a consumer advocate group. A third of the respondents said they watch home shopping programs once or twice a week, and 29 percent said they watch home shopping programs on a daily basis. Just short of 4 percent said they were addicted to the shopping channels. Nearly all of the addicts were women; most were in their 30s and had a college education.
Unsurprisingly, the addictions lead to domestic problems now and then. "There was this one case we had in which the husband wanted a divorce because of his wife's compulsion to buy from home shopping channels," said a social worker who works at the Korea Legal Aid Center for Family Relations.
Lee Seong-weon, a married woman who is studying to become a host of a home shopping channel, said her husband is an addict. "He's one of those guys who really hates to go shopping at malls and department stores," she said. "Since he started exercising in the morning, he has started to watch home shopping channels after his workout."
At first Ms. Lee's husband just flipped through the channels, but now he's buying things. "He started buying lots of things like cleaning products," she said. "And he doesn't even clean; it's really irritating when he buys things and I don't know about them." Ms. Lee said that she and her husband have fights about his obsession, but she expects her husband to overcome the problem.
"One time we went to a resturant and a man sitting next to us was wearing the same pants my husband had bought from a home shopping channel," she said. "It was really funny."
-- By Lee Ho-jeong
by Lee Ho-jeong