[BAEKSANG AND BEYOND] Kim Jong-kook awarded for transformation to YouTuber

Singer and YouTuber Kim Jong-kook, winner of the Best Male Entertainer award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards, poses for photos in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily in Sangam-dong, western Seoul. [BAEKSANG ARTS AWARDS ORGANIZING COMMITTEE]

The Baeksang Arts Awards is one of the most prestigious award ceremonies in Korea. Held by the JoongAng Group, it has honored excellence in film, television and theater in Korea since its inception in 1965. The 59th edition took place on April 28 in Incheon, with this year’s focus on works that received international acclaim thanks to online streaming platforms. In this interview series, the Korea JoongAng Daily sits down with Baeksang award recipients to talk more about their wins, careers and plans for the future.

A seemingly small change can have the biggest implications. One such example is the quiet, yet major transformation that took place at this year’s Baeksang Arts Awards — two out of the three trophies allocated to entertainment shows went to YouTubers.

“I think it’s really amazing that Baeksang is opening up to web content,” said Kim Jong-kook, a singer and actor who received the Best Male Entertainer Award at the awards. “It feels like the ceremony is trying to keep up with the times by taking a real interest in people’s choices and the content they watch.”

The same, seemingly insignificant change allowed Kim to make a career transformation from singer to YouTuber.

The 47-year-old singer, who began his career with pop trio Turbo in 1995, was given the award not for his frequent and applauded appearances on TV entertainment shows, but for “Gym Jong Kook,” the exercise-based comic YouTube channel he started in June 2021.

One of the most successful singers in the country during the early 2000s, he appeared in various entertainment shows mostly to promote his music with a quieter persona compared to his fellow celebrity co-stars. It wasn’t until 2005, when he became a regular on SBS' variety show “X Man,” that he showed off his sense of humor and began making a mark as an entertainer more than a singer.

With “Family Outing” (2008-2010) and “Running Man” (2010-), he established the masculine and straightforward muscle-mania image that he is well known for today, which also won him 2.88 million subscribers on his YouTube channel.

Singer and YouTuber Kim Jong-kook in his YouTube channel Gym Jong Kook [SCREEN CAPTURE]

On “Gym Jong Kook,” Kim invites fellow celebrities — ranging from girl groups Le Sserafim, aespa, and ITZY to footballer Lee Seung-woo, singer Jackson of boy band GOT7, actor Kim Young-kwang and many more — to work out together while having candid talks about their unique profession in the entertainment industry.

“Entertainment shows have completely changed me,” he said. “I didn’t use to be this person. There was a period at Turbo when I would appear on a show and literally say nothing other than ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ Entertainment shows have truly made me a different person.”

Kim sat down for an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily to discuss his big win at the Baeksang awards, his versatile career, and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Congratulations on your big win. How did you feel when your name was called out as the winner?

A. I really didn’t see it coming, because everyone was scaring me off beforehand saying things like, “Baeksang wins are not that easy to come by” and “It’s already achievement enough just to be nominated.” So I tried to keep my expectations to a minimum because it would be embarrassing if I prepared a whole speech and didn’t win — but I did!

I’ve been hoping that more people recognize the power of YouTube, and I think I should have mentioned this in my speech a little more. I think I was focused too much on the entertainment side. And I think I should have thanked my subscribers more, too.

What would you say if you could give your speech again then?

I posted something on my YouTube channel community afterward, thanking my fans passionately because I know that web content, like my YouTube channel, is greatly impacted by the viewers.

But of course, my channel is my own and I try to be as candid as I can. And because of that, I can sometimes come across as being “too free” or even half-hearted compared to how I come across on TV shows. I sincerely thank every viewer who viewed that as something positive.

I think I can share my own know-how in both working out and being a celebrity. I try to bring that as much as I can to my content, and I appreciate the fact that people enjoy the fruits of my work. You are the reason that I was given such an award. Thank you again.

A picture of the cast of SBS entertainment show “Running Man” (2010-) including singer Kim Jong-kook [SBS]

How did your transition from a singer to entertainer to YouTuber come about?

Having started my career as a singer in the 1990s, entertainment shows to me were a means of promoting my album. I never thought I would become an entertainer myself one day.

“X Man” was the beginning of everything, I think. The main MCs were people I had been well-acquainted with before and they helped me ease up in front of the camera. I naturally learned what kind of things to say in certain situations by watching Yu Jae-seok and Kang Ho-dong — two of the greatest MCs back then and even now.

After that came “Family Outing,” which was the transition really took place. I felt that I had done everything I could as a singer. So if I was going to be in entertainment shows, I knew that I really needed to establish a unique character and take initiative, not to promote my albums but for the sake of the shows themselves. Since then, I’ve changed so much.

How have you changed?

I really didn’t like to stand out or speak in front of people. In TV music programs, all the singers that participated that day stand on stage together at the end and congratulate the winner of the day. Even then, I would just quietly stand at the very back and disappear when everything was over. To be honest, I didn’t think it was “cool” to try to stand out in front of everyone.

I think I’m a completely different person now, not just on camera. The transition has changed the way I view the world.

Beforehand, I used to be very conservative. If I thought something was wrong, I would say “No” and never change my mind. But I don’t do that anymore. Well, I do it sometimes on TV, but just for fun. But I now try not to say “No” but “That could be right.” I try to think about why a certain person did something or why something happened the way it did.

I think I’ve become more considerate of others. I try not to say things that are harsh, either. I know it might just be because I’ve aged and I’ve spent a lot of time in society. But being on entertainment shows has taught me that what seems fine to me might not be to someone else.

Singer and YouTuber Kim Jong-kook gives a speech after winning the Best Male Entertainer award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards last April in Incheon. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

How do you come up with the content for your YouTube videos?

There would be no reason for people to watch anything that everyone else can make. So I try to do something unique to me.

I end up talking about fitness and working out a lot because I consider it a very important part of life. I don’t particularly intend to do it, but I end up doing so anyway. I sometimes promote my music on my channel, too.

I know a lot of people in the entertainment industry because I’ve been in it for so long. So I try to use what I can, but only so that the person featured in my videos doesn’t feel uncomfortable. Being a “player” in the industry means that I know what celebrities like and what kind of environment they feel most comfortable in.

Do you have any plans to stage a comeback as a singer too?

Yes, it's always on my mind. But I think I’ve done everything I can as a singer and I just hope people don’t forget that part of me.

In the past, I couldn’t release new music because I felt too pressured that the music had to do well. But I don’t feel that pressure as much anymore. There are songs that I’ve been given that I would like to record and release whenever I can. But even if I do release music, it won’t be because I want it to do well and climb up the music charts. I will just be grateful for the fact that I’ve been able to make music and have people that I like listen to it.

Being a singer means that so much is riding on the success of your song, but now I can work with music just because I want to. It feels like a dream to be able to do that. I’m actually in the middle of recording a new song and I have a few concerts in July as well. But I’m trying to keep it small so that I don’t have to worry about making a profit.