Like him or hate himTHE HOME
On a recent Saturday morning, Cho Young-nam looked scruffy but alert behind his enormous black spectacles.
“I woke up at 4 a.m. today because of jet lag,” he says in the living room of his apartment in Cheongdam-dong. “I just came back from a two-week trip in the States. You know, while I was there, I visited Ground Zero in New York City and the Pentagon and I got the feeling that if I were Bush, I’d want to go to war as well. Seeing those sites made me totally understand where Bush is coming from.”
As he speaks, he begins to sketch on a canvas with a pencil. Nearby, a Yamaha electric piano rests on the coffee table while his abstract oil paintings adorn the walls. Next to the piano, several pairs of his oversized square-framed glasses are scattered here and there. “I guess I have so many of the same kind because it’s a kind of an indulgence for me.”
A hwa-su, or hybrid of the Korean hwaga for artist and gasu for singer ― Cho, 59, is a well-known entertainer. Even though he has no formal title (he doesn’t carry a business card), over the years he has been in the news as a singer, talk show host, emcee, painter, writer and columnist.
He’s even an ordained minister, the result of his five years at a seminary in the United States.
Despite his small stature and plain features, Cho is an influential and charismatic figure in the culture and show business scene due to his multiple talents. His comments carry weight in the media and he is almost always included in major national events such as public celebrations.
“My parents gave me everything that I need to do what I do,” says Cho. “My father was a decadent freethinker who did not go to church, while my mother was a fanatical Christian. So I inherited both traits. That’s why I’m a staunch believer in DNA.”
And how did a singer with no professional art training become a painter whose works can bring $5,000 apiece?
It may have a lot to do with his reputation in the media world, but Cho believes the public appreciates his use of hwatu, the Asian playing cards, and other materials such as strings and woodwork in his works.
Nearly all of his paintings, it turns out, have Korean motifs. “All subjects of nature have already been used in paintings in the West and the East,” he says. “I wanted to create something distinctly Korean and very Cho Young-nam. Because that’s what art is about, creating new things.”
Cho gets up and fetches a small basket over with paint and brushes. Quite informal about his work space, he mixes paints with an oily pad of paper instead of a palette. As he sees it, “If I’m lucky the painting comes out well. I just sit and let things happen.”
That’s exactly how Cho Young-nam lives: by letting things just happen to him. “My life has been a series of unplanned steps that led me to be where I am,” he says. “I’ve been so blessed in my life that I think I may die one day by a lightning.”
Stepping out of his manager’s Volkswagen beetle in front of KBS studios in Yeouido, Cho Young-nam begins skating about the sidewalk on his sneakers, which come with tiny wheels on the soles. As he glides into the studios, security guards and TV officials greet him warmly by saying in broken English, “Awh~ how are you sir?” He skates into the dressing room for his reality show “Experience! The Scene of Life,” in which guest celebrities participate in real life jobs in factories and shops for a day and their earnings are given to charity.
The guests for the day, the pop group Click-B, the actress Kim Hae-jeong and the comedian Kim Sang-tae, stand up and greet him with bows. Cho smiles and returns their tidings. The show’s co-host, Kim Ji-seon, is late today, so Cho chats for a few minutes with guests.
He asks Ms. Kim, the actress, if she is still with her husband, to which she answers yes. He replies, “Tell him I said I approve of your choice... for now,” and they both laugh.
Someone hands Cho a script but he does not look at it. Switching to English, he says “I’ve been doing this for 10 years. It’s practically my show. I want to be as natural as possible.”
The co-host finally arrives, and Cho complains about her and actress Kim Hae-jeong’s revealing outfits. “I can’t do this show,” he wails. “The women are wearing clothes that are too low cut. I’m a single man, for Pete’s sake.”
As the show begins, Cho welcomes the audience to another episode with big gestures with his hands, then calls for the guest celebrities to come out. He jokes with them by making voice impersonations of President Roh and they clap heartily. When he makes a mistake, he puts his hand in his mouth and gives a peculiar look. At times, he pokes fun at his own physique by saying, “When I came out of my mother’s womb, my face was somehow deformed.”
“He is unmatched when it comes to witty improvisation,” says the show’s writer, Choi Yun-gyeong. “He may look like he’s about to says something shallow, but once he speaks, he knows exactly what needs to be said.”
As he glides out of the studios for lunch with his staffers, Cho talks about politics with his manager. The two discuss Cho’s close friend who is now the leader of the Millennium Democratic party.
Like it or not, Cho counts many big name politicians and celebrities among his circle of friends.
“It’s quite uncanny, you know. People I befriend by chance suddenly become big names after getting to know me. I knew the writer Jo Jeong-rae long before he became a literary giant in Korea.”
Even so, Cho detests being called a madangbal -- “having a big foot” in Korean -- calling it a degrading term. “It makes me sound like I go around trying to make myself known and to know others. It just all sorta happened to me.”
Cho’s life has never lacked in controversy. He made his professional debut at age 24 with the song “Delailah.” Two years later he was arrested and drafted to the armed forces, when he sang a politically sensitive song about the sorrows of the masses in front of then-President Park Chung Hee.
In 1973, a chance encounter with the American evangelist Billy Graham led Cho to study at Trinity College, a baptist seminary in Florida. “Before, I had been a functional Christian, but I thought, what the heck, this is a chance for me to really delve into Christianity.” After he earned his degree, he toured the nation and the world as a gospel singer and missionary.
But seven years in America did not make a holy man out of him. Instead, after what he calls “a critical point in my life,” Cho developed radical views of Christianity.
“I felt that Koreans had imported a religion that originated from the Middle East. I thought, ‘Why did we not have our own Jesus Christ, like Dangun [a mythical figure said to be the origin of ethnic Koreans] for instance?’”
Although he did not go out of his way to deny Jesus Christ, he says, “If I hadn’t gone to seminary, I would’ve just been a yaesujaengi” (a derogatory term for a Christian believer). He has written six philosophical books that have sold, he says, about 300,000 copies each.
He returned to Seoul in 1982 to become a singer again, first on the hotel dinner show circuit and golden oldies programs on television. His marriage to the actress Yun Yeo-jeong ended in an acrimonious divorce, after he was caught having an affair with a young woman.
“I was not much of a father to them,” he says about the two sons he fathered with Ms. Yun. “They were raised by their mother and they inherited her brains. If there’s anything I feel I have done wrongly in this world, it’s betraying my wife. But what use is it to regret now?”
Cho then lived with a young college student, Baek Eun-shil, for 10 years. The couple adopted a young girl before marrying in 1995. He says his adopted daughter taught him something important. “Before, I thought I was selfish. But now I realize I am able to love her unconditionally. I feel like I can give her everything.”
In 1998, Ms. Baek left him for another man but today the two are on amicable terms. In fact, he frequently visits Ms. Baek and her husband and young son.
“There is something so unusual in that arrangement by Korean standards but because he’s Cho Young-nam, people accept his behavior,” says his manager Gwon Cheol-ho.
Thanks to his homely, big-spectacled, familiar face, Cho has emceed many TV programs and hosts his own talk show on cable TV called “People that Cho Young-nam Met.” People either love or hate his frankness on television. Clothes designer Andre Kim calls him “a genius.”
Marketing manager, Hong Sang-ji, 31, says, “He’s really annoying. I hate the way he speaks, in an old fashioned style, and he’s obnoxious as well.”
One viewer, apparently annoyed by Cho’s constant gloating, wrote on his show’s Web site: “Get a life Cho Young-nam. Stop boasting about your past achievements.” As expected, that did not deter him. A few years ago, Cho began penning a column on famous people he knows or has met. The column became an instant hit.
“Writing my own column enabled me to possess what I term ‘cultural power,’” he says. As evidence of this, he mentions a small item he wrote on a movie that flopped at the box office. “The movie was later reassessed and did better long after it had gone from the theaters,” he says.
“I’ve been truly blessed,” he likes to repeat. “I am the happiest man in Korea.
“When I die I want to die quietly. I would hate it if people sang my hit songs at my funeral. That would be so sad.”
by Choi Jie-ho