At 50, comedian Cho Hye-lyun is just getting started: An endless variety of interests, from Tae Bo to pottery to Latin

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At 50, comedian Cho Hye-lyun is just getting started: An endless variety of interests, from Tae Bo to pottery to Latin


Comedian Cho Hye-lyun is enjoying her second heyday these days thanks to her old workout video. [JOONGANG ILBO ]

To say Cho Hye-lyun has had a diverse career would be an understatement.

Despite having debuted in 1992, the entertainer is still one of only a few female comedians working in show business.

A controversial figure in the early 2000s, she was known for being willing to go to any length to get a laugh. But in the years since, the entertainer has become an iconic figure who now focuses more on inspiring people than making them laugh.

“It took six months for me to learn Latin,” the 50-year-old comedian said during a recent interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily.


Cho released a workout video, in which she introduces Tae Bo moves, in 2003. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

“I set a goal for myself when I turned 40. It was to be fluent in five foreign languages aside from Korean. I’ve learned quite a lot about Japanese and Chinese and I’m learning English now, but I haven’t settled down on other languages yet. If I keep studying, I think I can make my dream come true before I die.”

The challenges Cho sets for herself seem endless. She is currently in her third semester as she works toward a doctorate in theology.

“The more I study, I feel ignorant, so I keep adding more things on my list,” Cho said.

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, Cho is taking online lessons these days, but she remains strict with herself, regularly taking online classes every day as if she’s still going to school.

“I can’t be laid back because I have to finish writing my thesis within two years. My motto is ‘never give up,’” Cho said.

In addition to learning Latin and studying theology, Cho recently launched her own YouTube channel, called Maeun PT.

Maeun is an abbreviation of maeil undonghada, meaning to work out every day.

Through the channel, Cho introduces diverse moves from Tae Bo and boxing along with other home workout routines she has developed.

She also uses the channel to share other tips for studying English and preparing diet-friendly meals.

With an increasing number of people stuck at home during the coronavirus outbreak, Cho’s YouTube channel is being rediscovered, too.

With the YouTube channel, Cho said she wants to share how she’s growing old at the age of 50. She added that she wants to inspire other people.

“I shot my first [diet] video on Feb. 18 and unveiled my weight then. [Since then] I shed 3.5 kilograms [7.7 pounds] in a month.”

But it is not the first time for Cho to film a workout video.

“I shot my first [workout] video when model Lee So-ra’s video was all the rage. I thought to myself, ‘Can I challenge [her videos] with my average body?’ but it became successful,” Cho added.

Cho’s Tae Bo video was released in 2003.

“We’re expected to live until we turn 100 years old, so these are my suggestions to live a healthy life with me, even in our 60s and 70s.”

Cho is tied up with various tasks, but she still has many other things on her to-do list.

She’s crossed out getting a license for a patisserie, and she’s also learned how to make pottery. Cho began learning how to sing trot music and she plans to learn billiards sometime in the future.

“Once I start something, I tend to delve into it.”

In order to sing trot music, Cho went to a pansori expert, who teaches traditional narrative singing, and learned how to strengthen her voice.

“I decided to sing one of the songs from Kim Yon-ja, and now I’m quite satisfied with the way I sing. If I keep practicing, I think I can release an album.”

Cho says her drive to keep learning bears a strong resemblance to her parents.

Her mother began reading the Bible two years ago when she was 77, and she has read it 13 times during the past two years.

“My mother gave me this ability to learn languages, while my talent in acting came from my father. He passed away 15 years ago. He was so talented, but he couldn’t realize his dream because he was suffering from a chronic disease.

“Ever since I became an entertainer, he recorded all my TV shows on videotapes and kept re-watching them until they wore out. I used to think of him as financially incompetent, but now I feel so sorry for him. The last word of him was ‘I’m sorry.’”

Cho grew up in a lower-income family and it became a great motivator for her to succeed. She was a go-getter with clear goals in mind, but sometimes her ambition wasn’t enough.

Cho was on a roll until she moved to Japan in 2005.

Being fluent in Japanese, she used to appear on many Japanese TV shows as a guest. While she was introducing Korean culture to Japanese viewers, she exaggerated some Korean customs, creating an instant controversy. Cho was accused of disparaging her home country to become famous in Japan, causing her to lose fans. She tried to explain her comments, but said she still gets malicious comments directed toward her.

“Now I think there could be some people who don’t like me, [but] I think such comments are better than nothing,” Cho said. “I tried not to get carried away with [reacting to] those comments. Now I see people who are rooting for me. I feel grateful for them.”

Cho avoided television for a while as she went through divorce and remarriage, but after avoiding the limelight, her popularity has experienced a recent surge on YouTube.

A YouTube user created a video clip titled “Cho Hye-lyun and the Taebo’s Curse” by editing Cho’s Tae Bo workout video with the original sound track from action game “Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse.”

First uploaded onto YouTube in September 2018, the clip instantly went viral. It’s earned more than 5 million hits so far, and has become available with subtitles in 29 different languages.

“I was performing for a theatrical play last year and I spotted a little boy imitating my Tae Bo moves as he was watching me from the seats. I bit my lips tightly to keep from bursting into laughter. Looking at an elementary school student who recognized me [thanks to the Tae Bo workout video], I got the urge to launch my own channel, and now I have come this far.”

Cho is considered a comedian who explored uncharted territory for female comedians as she passionately pursued her career in the early 2000s.

But in recent years, she has focused more on appearing in theatrical plays and musicals.

Having majored in theater and film in college, Cho performed in many musicals, including “Shop on the Stage,” “I Love You, Mom,” (2019) “Menopause” (2018) and “Non Sense 2” (2017).

“I was once fretting over whether I lag behind others, but after going through this and that, I realized happiness doesn’t come from popularity. Like cherry blossoms and roses, we are all different. We have to live our own lives without comparing ourselves to other people,” Cho said.

“I feel sorry that my performance has been suspended due to the coronavirus. I can’t wait for the next time I get to meet the audience.”


조혜련 “100세 인생, 5개 국어는 해야죠…트로트도 도전”

“라틴어 공부 시작한지 6개월쯤 됐어요. 40대에 공언하길, 쉰살까지 한국어 빼고 5개 국어를 마스터하고 싶다 했는데, 일본어·중국어는 어느 정도 됐는데 영어는 하는 중이고 나머지 언어는 정하지도 못했네요, 꾸준히 하면 죽기 전에 5개 외국어 꿈 이룰 수 있겠죠.”

자타공인 ‘에너지짱’ 개그우먼 조혜련의 도전 한계는 어디일까. “공부할수록 모르는 게 많아서 해야 할 게 자꾸 는다”는 그는 요즘 신학 공부(박사과정 3학기)에 매진하고 있다. 신종 코로나바이러스 감염증(코로나19)으로 인해 비대면 온라인 강의 중이지만, 학교 다니듯 규칙적으로 자가 학습 중이다. “2년 안에 논문까지 쓰려면 늘어질 틈이 없어요. 일단 시작했으니 ‘포기는 없다’가 제 신조죠.”

얼마 전 개인 유튜브 채널도 시작했다. ‘매일 운동한다’는 의미로 ‘매운 PT’라고 이름 붙인 코너에선 태보·복싱을 포함해 자체적으로 개발한 홈트(홈트레이닝) 동작들을 선보이고 있다. 영어 리스닝 공부와 다이어트 식단도 소개한다. 코로나19로 ‘집콕’하는 이들이 늘면서 그의 채널도 다시금 주목받고 있다. “쉰살 조혜련의 ‘슬기로운 생활’을 리얼로 보여주는 게 목표”란다. 보는 이들이 ‘나도 할 수 있겠구나’ 자극이 되고 싶은 마음에서다.

“2월 18일 첫 영상 찍으며 몸무게(62.6kg)를 공개했는데 한 달 만에 3.5kg 뺐어요. 모델 이소라씨 비디오가 한참 인기였을 때 처음 다이어트 비디오를 찍었는데, 나 같은 평범한 몸매도 할 수 있을까 도전한 게 히트했지요. 100세 시대에 저와 함께 운동하며 60대, 70대에도 건강하고 자신감 있게 살자는 제안입니다.”

나아가 파티시에(제과·제빵사)와 도자기 만들기에도 도전했고 조만간 당구도 제대로 배워볼 거란다. 트로트 부르기는 이미 시작했다. “한번 하면 기본을 파 들어가는 천성” 때문에 두 달 전 판소리 전문가로부터 목청부터 다졌다. “스스로 정한 미션곡이 김연자의 ‘진정인가요’ 였는데 꽤 흡족한 수준이 됐어요. 계속 연습하며 좋은 곡 받으면 트로트 음반도 내 볼 수 있지 않을까요?”

끊임없이 배우고 도전하는 에너지는 부모로부터 물려받은 ‘끼’ 같다고 한다. 그의 어머니도 77세 8월부터 성경을 읽기 시작해 79세가 된 올 3월까지 총 13번을 통독했다. “언어를 파고드는 성격은 엄마를, 연기 잘하고 리액션 큰 것은 아버지를 닮은 듯하다”고 했다.

“15년 전 돌아가신 아버지가 예인 기질이 풍부하셨는데 지병으로 뜻을 못 이뤘거든요. 제가 연예인이 된 후 TV·라디오 프로를 비디오테이프로 떠서 닳도록 돌려보시곤 했는데…. 어렸을 때 아버지를 능력 없다고만 생각했던 게 죄스러워요. 오죽했으면 돌아가시면서 마지막 말이 ‘미안하다’였는지….”

‘가진 게 없어’ 서러운 시절이 특유의 로켓 추진력을 가능케 했지만, 시행착오도 많았다. 특히 2005년 이후 일본 방송에 진출해 과욕한 게 ‘한국 비하’ 논란으로 번졌던 건 지금도 아쉽고 속상한 대목. 해명에도 많은 팬이 돌아섰고 요즘도 종종 ‘악플’이 달린다.

“어느 순간 인정하기로 했어요. ‘나를 안 좋아할 수도 있다…’. 무플보다는 ‘이렇게 저렇게 해!’ 하는 것도 애정이라고 여기기로 했고요. 일희일비하지 않고 내 식대로 살다 보니 많이 해소됐고 응원한단 얘기도 많아져서 감사하게 생각하죠.”

이혼과 재혼 등 가정사 속에 활동이 뜸했던 그는 어느 날 유튜브 세상에 ‘강제소환’되면서 터닝포인트를 맞는다. 2003년에 찍었던 태보 다이어트 DVD에 어느 유튜버가 ‘샨테와 해적의 저주’라는 액션게임 OST를 합성해서 ‘조혜련과 태보의 저주’라는 일종의 패러디물을 만든 게 계기다. 동영상은 2018년 9월 첫선 이래 현재까지 누적 조회수 500만이 넘었고 각국 언어 자막이 200개 가까이 달릴 정도로 히트작이 됐다. 마치 영화 ‘타짜’의 배우 김응수가 “묻고 더블로 가”로 뒤늦게 스타덤을 누리듯, 조혜련과 해시태그(#) ‘태보해’가 새삼 ‘킬러 콘텐트’로 떠오른 것이다.

“지난해 대학로 연극 ‘사랑해 엄마’ 공연 중에, 객석을 가득 메운 초등학생들이 나를 보면서 태보 동작을 흉내 내는 거예요. 웃음이 터질까 봐 입술 꽉 물고 연기했죠. 날 몰랐을 초등학생들까지 아는 걸 보고, 나만의 채널을 해보고 싶다는 욕심이 생겼고 여기까지 왔네요.”

1992년 ‘KBS 대학 개그제’로 데뷔한 그는 특유의 에너지와 ‘골룸’ 분장 등 굴욕을 두려워하지 않는 열정으로 개그우먼의 영역을 확장해왔다. 이경실·정선희·옥주현·강수정 등과 출연한 KBS2 ‘여걸파이브’(2004~2005)는 요즘 전성기인 여성 예능의 원조 프로그램으로 불린다. 대학 전공(한양대 연극영화과)을 살려 꾸준히 해온 연극·뮤지컬도 최근에 더 열성이다. 뮤지컬 ‘넌센스 2’(2017), ‘메노포즈’(2018), 연극 ‘사랑해 엄마’(2019) ‘홈쇼핑 주식회사’(2020) 등에 출연했다.

“바쁘고 잘 나갈 땐 옆 사람이 잘 되면 내가 뒤처지는 것 같아 조바심 난 적도 있죠. 여러 힘든 일을 겪고 보니, 인기 있고 일 많은 게 행복의 전부가 아니더라고요. 벚꽃 있고 장미 있듯 각자의 삶을 살며 비교하지 않는 게 성숙한 삶 같아요. 코로나로 공연이 중단돼서 아쉬운데, 조만간 관객과 호흡할 무대도 기다립니다.”

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