Celebrities easy target as scandal multiplies
“I was shocked and bewildered,” Oh said. “I didn’t imagine this would be a problem after all these years.”
Oh, 49, has enjoyed modest but steady popularity as an actress and radio D.J. since her debut in 1979. She was known as a graduate of Cheongju University, which was not true.
Oh audited classes there in 1979, but hadn’t been admitted as a regular student. After taking classes in applied arts history for three semesters, Oh took a test at MBC-TV to select TV actors and stopped auditing classes.
“I wrote on my resume that I was ‘studying at college,’ which was not entirely false,” Oh said.
She’s not the only one.
The revelations started last month with Shin Jeong-ah, the art professor with bogus degrees from U.S. universities, including Yale. Shin’s revelation triggered a number of similar disclosures, and many came from the entertainment industry.
Kim Jong-whee, a culture critic, said, “Who’s next? Who’s it today? These are the questions that we have nowadays.”
He said entertainment figures are vulnerable and easy targets of verification, especially by people on the Internet eager to take a famous person down. “I don’t think the entertainment scene is necessarily a hotbed of fake credentials,” Kim said.
A college diploma is not required for an actor or singer to succeed, but feel pressure to have one.
“Once celebrities achieve a certain level of success, they face this ceiling that comes from a Korean social atmosphere that demands a high-level academic background to succeed in all fields,” he said. “Then they surrender.”
Among those entertainers with false credentials is Yoon Suk-hwa, 51, a famed stage actress, who confessed on her Web site that she was never a student of the well-regarded Ewha Womans University.
Chang Mi-hee, 49, another veteran actress now working as a college professor, was found to have on her resume that she was Dongguk University graduate. The university said Chang was not on the school register.
In another revelation, Choi Su-jong, a star actor noted for his image of integrity, also caused ripples last week, as he was found to not have graduated from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, contradicting his resume. Choi reportedly passed the entrance examination but did not enroll for classes.
Whang Sang-min, a professor of psychology at Yonsei University, said even celebrities in Korea face nagging doubts that they might not succeed without a proper degree.
Noting that the entertainment industry allows opportunities for anyone with talent, Whang explained, “Once a person succeeds in the industry, he or she is constantly under stress to show something new to stay successful, which is a heavy pressure.”
He said some celebrities may feel forced to compromise themselves, which is why they claim high academic credentials.
“Now we all know that a doctoral degree does not guarantee wealth,” Whang said. “However, some 20 or 30 years ago, it was a different story. A good academic background was a positive shortcut to succeed in mainstream society, and the celebrities chose to fit themselves into that framework.”
Kim also noted that many of the hot celebrities are middle aged.
“The middle-aged celebrities come from a generation that looked down on their careers,” Kim said.
“They have an inferiority complex and they knew that there was a premium for a singer with, say, a Seoul National University diploma.”
This is why some middle-aged celebrities gave in to the seduction of fake credentials, he said, unlike the young generation of entertainers from the 1990s and onward.
Once people build up a false identity, it is “not so painful” for them to live a lie, Whang said. “They get used to the lies that they tell, and then it becomes neither confusing nor painful for them to go back and forth between their true and false selves,” he said. “It’s like being Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde naturally, day and night.”
Oh, meanwhile, said that she let her false credentials remain uncorrected because of “petty pride and self-esteem.”
“If you call me a liar, I have nothing to say,” she said. “I feel ashamed of the fact that I did not have the courage to correct the myth about my academic credentials,” Oh said.
She said she lived with a troubled conscience and has turned down offers to become a professor or to publish books.
“I did not have the confidence because I did not have the diploma, which is such an important factor in this society,” she said. “I should have known that an academic background does not matter at all.”
Lee Cheol-hwan, author of a book that sold a million copies, is familiar with the power and pressure to possess academic credentials in Korean society.
He confessed in a recent book of essays that he was falsely known as a graduate of prestigious Seoul National University when he was a star English teacher at a private institution. “I should have come clean sooner, but I was afraid that I would be an outcast in society,” he said. “It is undoubtedly true that lying is wrong, but the pressure from Korean society for a better academic background sometimes leads people to seduced into lying.”
In Korea, the pressure to look good, to keep up with the Joneses, to attend the right school, is deeply rooted.
Said Whang, the Yonsei University professor: “What is important in mainstream Korean society in many cases is not your talent but which school you went to.” He called it a “shallow” and “ignorant” aspect of Korean society.
Kim, the critic, said some of the fault is with the universities.
“For the last few decades, academic departments and colleges related to the entertainment business sprung up,” Kim said. “Those institutions needed famous celebrities as their professors to enhance their name value, and they cared little about academic credentials.”
Whang agreed: “For the last 10 to 15 years, many celebrities experienced a rapid change of status, as some of them were selected as culture ministers or professors.”
Whang noted, however, that the celebrities sometimes “failed to use the change as a chance to keep their identity and pride. Instead, they chose to fit into the framework and standards of the established mainstream society, which was defined by academic credentials,” he said.
Oh grew bitter as she discussed the emphasis on academic credentials in Korean society.
“We have decades-long experience on the stage and in television that even a Harvard graduate does not have,” Oh said. “So we don’t have a college diploma, which is just a piece of paper. Is it that big a deal?”
She remembers taking classes in photography, architecture and painting, which were “of no help” in her acting career.
“What good have I seen from taking classes at college? Simply nothing,” she said. “If society had tolerance for expertise of various roots, we could enjoy a freer and richer atmosphere.”
At least Oh survived the aftermath of her academic credential issue, as her producers at CBS radio decided to keep her.
Kim Sei-kwang, who has been working with Oh, said he has no plans to end her employment.
“I chose to work with her not because of her academic credentials but because of her talent as a radio D.J.,” Kim said.
“She has a career of almost three decades and she is one of the best.” Kim said Oh is also a “victim” of a Korean society that puts academic credentials as its highest priority.
“Of course, she cannot be free from criticism, but there is also a problem with the society that drives her to a corner,” he said. Kim said Oh offered to quit her job, but he stopped her. “She is not a criminal,” he said.
Said Oh: “If society wants me to quit, I will quit. But I just don’t think this is a good enough reason for me to resign. I did not covet fame and gain using the academic credentials.”
Whang, the psychology professor, pointed out that the pressure for academic credentials in Korean society is not an excuse for fabrication. “It is a clear fact that those celebrities lied,” Whang said. “There is no doubt that what they did was wrong.”
By Chun Su jin [firstname.lastname@example.org]