Meet the BaesEveryone in the Korean entertainment scene knows Kim Mi-hwa. Starting her career as a comedienne in 1983, Ms. Kim is now a famed TV personality whose activity defies limitations. From emceeing to making people laugh, this Jill-of-all- trades seems to be a master of them as well. She simply does not stop; she’s even become a late-blooming college student, majoring in social welfare at Sung Kyun Kwan University. In September, Ms. Kim added one more line to her long resume: contributing writer for the Joong-Ang Ilbo, penning a feature titled “Kim Mi-hwa’s Date With a Star.” Writing profiles of her celebrity friends, Ms. Kim makes the most of her affable woman-next-door image and glib tongue; her stories are almost like chitchat.
Today, meet Ms. Kim’s celebrity friends Bae Chul-su and Bae Chil-su. Though their names are almost identical, they are two different people. Bae Chul-su is a living legend of Korean rock music; Bae Chil-su is an up-and-coming comedian who leaped to fame by impersonating, you guessed it, Bae Chul-su.
Bae Chil-su: Man of 99 voices (plus Bae Chul-su’s)
A few days ago, I was enjoying a walk on Sung Kyun Kwan University’s campus when I heard a familiar tune by good old Songgolmae. It was a student rock band, performing Songgolmae’s classics. More than 10 years after they broke up, the group seems hardly to have faded in the hearts of the fans.
Without Bae Chul-su, Songgolmae could not have existed at all. With Chul-su taking the initiative as singer and songwriter, the band produced a number of hits. His music had a style of its own, mixing Western and traditional Korean music. In 1990, however, he ended his 12-year performing career.
But Chul-su is still in love with music ― not on stage, but in a radio studio. For the last 13 years (and eight months), Chul-su has hosted “Bae Chul-su’s Music Camp” on MBC Radio every evening from 6 to 8 p.m. In his tiny studio, he looks happy enough, playing music and communicating with his fans on the computer.
The day I visited Chul-su on the air, he was immersed in reading the day’s opening note. “India is a country that I’ve never been to, but I want to go at least once. What makes India most attractive is the number of gods, allegedly as many as there are people. One of the gods, Krishna, is a dandy. With bluish skin, always playing the flute, Krishna has 16,000 wives and several thousand children. India, where a god lives who plays the flute and does nothing but love life ― I wish I could go there.”
And that was the first time that I smelled a kind of fragrance from him. We’ve been close friends since the early 1980s, but this was the first time I’d ever detected this scent, which was something like wild chrysanthemum. I almost fell for this guy ― though his pimple-marked skin bothered me. Chul-su tried to make the excuse that he is too young to get rid of the pimples.
Chul-su kept busy, talking to me while the music played, then going back on the air when the songs ended. “Okay, this was from the original soundtrack of ‘When Harry Met Sally.’ Requesters of the song are Yoon Tae-young and...” He tried to find more request postcards, but in vain, making me wonder how he was going to deal with this on-air crisis. “Well, I guess it’s me and Mr. Yoon,” he said. “Ha ha.”
Chul-su’s less-than-polished, easygoing style is now well-known, thanks to Bae Chil-su, a master impersonator. Chil-su has been mocking Chul-su everywhere, which has made both of them more famous. Asked what he thinks of Bae Chil-su, Chul-su said, “It’s fun. But these days, he seems to be interested more in impersonating other celebrities, like the gagman Choi Yang-rak or former president Kim Dae-jung. I guess it’s time to change his stage name ― maybe to Choi Ing-rak, or Kim Dae-jong.”
Musicians are sensitive characters, but Chul-su’s hearty laughter tells me that nothing can make him angry. He seems to have forgotten the hustle and bustle of the world; as he once sang, “I lived without knowing the world.” He’s quit smoking and drinking (except coffee), and broadcasting is now the one and only thing that gets him excited. “Nothing else interests me but going on-air,” he said. “I would even pay for it, if I had to ― that is how much I get into it.”
Music was once everything to Chul-su; now his radio show is. It’s no surprise that he married one of his producers. Chul-su looked happy. But would it be too much to ask for him to go crazy over music again? I miss his vocals, the brusque look on his face onstage and his guitar virtuosity. His guitar must sound different after all these years.
Bae Chil-su: Man of 99 voices (plus Bae Chul-su’s)
How many people would recognize Bae Chil-su’s real voice?
Chil-su, whose real name is Lee Hyung-min, rose to fame by impersonating the musician-turned-deejay Bae Chul-su, from whom he took his stage name. He cemented his celebrity by impersonating Kim Dae-jung on his Internet broadcast; with his Jeolla province accent, Chil-su sounded more real than the former president himself did. Now he is a successful comedian whose funny, sharp impersonations are all over radio and television.
Of course, the ability to do impersonations has become a quality any star-wannabe should have, but Chil-su is truly number one. As I recall, he just popped onto the entertainment scene out of nowhere. His wife (then his girlfriend) was responsible for his debut; she submitted an application in his name to a “Super Voice Talent Contest.” Because he didn’t want to waste the money she’d spent on the application fee, Chil-su took part in the contest. And as it happened, he won the grand prize.
He was happy just to have the prize money, but by chance, a radio station made him an offer. He wanted to have some fun, so he appeared on the show, which led to his becoming what he is today.
The reason he wasn’t desperate to become a star in broadcasting was that he was already a success. For four years, Chil-su had been running a gym, and doing quite well with it. “A gym actually gives you a good chance to make big profits,” Chil-su says. As a gym owner, Chil-su would ask his members for their birthdays, then give them a box of vitamins as a surpise gift. His pitch worked, with many people renewing their memberships.
That wasn’t all. With his own hands, Chil-su used to clean the gym, which measured about 400 square meters, until it was spotless. He didn’t delegate the job to employees, he says, because he knew that employees wouldn’t feel enough personal responsibility for a gym they didn’t own.
Though he was born into a wealthy family, he lost his mother when he was a child, and his father squandered the family fortune on gambling and drinking. After his father died too, his older brother and sister in Incheon became like parents to him.
Knowing what it was like to be poor to the bone, Chil-su once ran away with a bunch of friends to Cheonan, South Chungcheong province. Hungry and having nowhere to go, Chil-su and friends made a raid on the village’s ginseng field. After devouring the ginseng, they got caught by the police.
Chil-su’s brother and sister soon arrived, and gave him a very hard time. But Chil-su felt good about having a family to give him a hard time after he saw one of this friends, who had no sibilings to come get him, crying all alone. From then on, he decided he would be a good brother.
No wonder Chil-su remains true to his family as a husband and father. His wife, who is his biggest supporter, and his two-year-old daughter, Sol, make Chil-su happier than anything else.
I happened to see another side of Chil-su the other day when I was watching television. Asked to sing a song by Bae Chul-su, Chil-su got shy, which interested me. I called him and said, “So, there are times when Chil-su gets nervous, huh?” Chil-su said, “It was the first time I’ve ever been that nervous. I guess it’s a different thing, impersonating singing.”
When it comes to the spoken voice, however, Chil-su does a fine job; he has at least 100 celebrities down perfectly. I hope he continues to find new challenges, and that he gets his voice insured.
by Kim Mi-hwa