Luxury, lies and life with a 'gold spoon'
Beauty YouTuber Song Ji-ah, also known as FreeZia, rocketed to international fame by appearing on Netflix’s hit dating show “Single’s Inferno.” However, Song has been facing intense backlash after dozens of luxury designer items she flaunted on the Netflix show and her social media were exposed as fake. She admitted she wore knock-off items and apologized last week.
Although she is still a star influencer with over 3.6 million Instagram followers and 1.9 million YouTube subscribers, Song seems to have fallen from grace as her image, which is based on a high-end luxury lifestyle, has taken a hit. The public and her fans say they feel deceived — but how so?
It seems unlikely that people are criticizing Song this harshly just because part of her luxury wardrobe turned out to be counterfeit, or because they’re genuinely worried she has violated the intellectual property of multibillion-dollar brands. Experts say there is something much deeper behind why Song’s fans feel “betrayed” by her fake designer controversy, and it’s an issue that goes far beyond Song.
In today’s culture, the fact that someone is wealthy is reason enough to become their fan.
Traditionally, stardom was earned via musical or theatrical talent. Those singers and movie stars would then go on to accumulate wealth through their achievements. But now, one can become famous by showing how rich they are and how much they splurge on their shopping sprees.
Song’s greatest claim to fame was her lavish lifestyle displayed on social media as well as her outspokenness. She was the embodiment of young and rich, a modifier idolized by many Korean youths. She was admired primarily for her extravagant life, as are many other luxury influencers.
It’s one thing to become a fan of a singer or actor because you enjoy their works. But why do people become fans of social media personalities whose content centers around their wealth?
“We have fantasies about the rich and want to be one of them,” said Lim Myung-ho, a psychology professor at Dankook University. “There’s something called the Panoplie Effect. When you buy the same item as someone, you can feel like you’re ‘on the same level’ as them. It’s a major reason why people buy luxury items. Even if it’s the smallest, cheapest item from the brand, the purchaser can feel like they’ve become one of those rich people who frequently shop at luxury stores.
“Even when you don’t own luxury goods at all, you can feel a similar effect by admiring someone rich and being part of their fandom. By belonging to that group, you feel like a friend of that rich person, albeit online, and can also feel rich yourself. Then you get a sense of superiority, although there’s no substance to it.”
Song is far from the only Korean YouTuber whose primary content is displaying wealth.
Notably, YouTubers Ham Yon-ji from the conglomerate family behind Korea’s food giant Ottogi and Cheeu who runs an online fashion mall are known for showing their luxury shopping sprees. Vice Chairman Chung Yong-jin of conglomerate group Shinsegae has also built a following on Instagram with his image of a wealthy yet down-to-earth businessman. Through content mainly revolving around their affluent lifestyles, they became famous and well-liked for being rich — similarly to how American heiress Paris Hilton and the Kardashian family are “famous for being famous.”
“Their luxurious lifestyles give viewers vicarious satisfaction,” said pop culture critic Kim Heon-sik. “People don’t watch those YouTubers’ content for some kind of talent they have. They shop luxury goods for viewers by proxy and earn profit by doing so. If someone known for their talent [like a singer] gets caught wearing fake designer, people wouldn’t really care. But if purchasing luxury items was how a YouTuber attracted viewers, and they turn out to be counterfeit, viewers have little reason to continue watching.”
Prof. Lim says this desire for vicarious satisfaction is what makes Song’s fans feel so betrayed.
“It’s wrong of her to have lied, but let’s take a look at where this much anger and resentment come from,” he said. “Song’s fans likely felt that by being part of her following, they too could belong to the ‘superior league’ that Song seemed to be in. But now that their sense of superiority has basically been debunked, her fans feel betrayed.”
Song did not only show off luxury goods, but also embodied an affluent lifestyle. One example is her large high-end apartment that has a view of the Han River, which flows through the center of Seoul. In Korea, homes that look down on the Han River symbolize wealth. Her apartment has become another point of contention as her agency confirmed that Song was a renter, not the owner, which took away from her wealthy image.
Although Song never openly said she was born with a “gold spoon” — Korean slang for those born into rich families — she has stated “My parents bought me everything I wanted [...] My father allowed me to do anything I wanted from when I was young because we could thankfully afford to.” In short, she has been selling the fantasy of being born with a gold spoon and making a profit from it.
“In any case, Song has been making a large amount of money through her luxurious image,” critic Kim said. “But her fame turned out to be thanks to many counterfeit designer items. Intellectual property [violation] is also a concern, but the larger reason is that she put luxury at the forefront of her lifestyle. So now her life has essentially become fake, unlike what she led people to believe about her. I think that’s why she’s being particularly lambasted.”
In this bizarre parasocial relationship, Song’s fans liked her for being wealthy and now feel betrayed that she may not be as rich as she suggested — she has broken their fantasy. But considering the fact she seemed wealthy was a big factor behind her popularity, sociology professor Song Jae-ryong of Kyung Hee University says she may have been following a rather effective strategy.
“Koreans criticize the social classes that inherit and monopolize wealth, but deep down inside they wish they were born with gold spoons too,” he said. “Perhaps Song grasped society’s duplicity toward wealth and targeted the side that idolizes wealth, and luxury goods were her weapon so to speak, but with a relatable personality. We don’t know what happens behind the scenes, but she knew how to produce herself effectively. That’s the video age for you.”
Prof. Song pointed out there still are a large group of people who condemn the glamorization of excessive spending.
“When something is difficult to achieve, like being rich, we either criticize it or seek it vicariously,” he continued. “Those who become fans of rich people and applaud their luxury shopping videos are seeking someone who can do what they can’t in real life. It’s especially easy to find that someone online.”
Another factor is that the nouveau riche are no longer looked down upon. Whether old money or new money, being rich has become a likable, almost virtuous trait.
“There used to be disdain toward the nouveau riche, but that’s no longer the case,” said Prof. Lim. “Money now equals social class, and people care less than in the past about how that money was made. So people want to be associated with the rich, even if it’s just being a fan online. Following rich people on social media gives the illusion of being acquainted with them and belonging to a similar social class.”
“In the 1970s to 90s during which Korea’s economy grew rapidly, many nouveau riche people came into being, mostly thanks to price hikes in real estate,” said Prof. Song. “Education was not as available back then, so there were rich people who had only graduated elementary school or never attended school at all. They were frowned upon because they really had nothing but money and lacked even basic knowledge.
“But nowadays, most Koreans graduate college or high school at the least. In fact, rich people are able to afford higher-quality education. Today’s nouveau riche also tend to owe their wealth to developing new technology or content, so they’re usually well-spoken and well-educated. As a result, rich people are now often perceived favorably just for being rich.”
There has been criticism and self-reflection among netizens about blindly following star influencers, dubbing it a “handmaiden mentality.” To “entrust one’s ego” has become an online buzzword, referring to those who compensate for their low self-esteem by becoming so emotionally invested in someone they worship, to the point of equating themselves with them. It is criticized as a form of escapism.
Nonetheless, critic Kim believes there won’t be any fewer videos that sell the image of a luxurious lifestyle in the near future.
“In today’s age of smartphones, we can see so many other people’s lives to compare ours to,” he said. “But the wealth gap is only growing wider, so many will look for some source of vicarious satisfaction.”
As long as the favorable perception of wealth itself remains strong, the trend of luxury influencers seems unlikely to go away any time soon.
BY HALEY YANG [email@example.com]