[BAEKSANG AND BEYOND] Lee Eun-ji's decade of effort pays off

Comedian Lee Eun-ji, winner of the Best Female Entertainer award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards' TV section, poses for photos after 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 few graceful tears are common among winners at award ceremonies. But comedian Lee Eun-ji’s emotional outburst after winning the Best Female Entertainer at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards last April didn’t just surprise the audience, but the winner herself.

Lee, a 31-year-old comedian, is one of Korea's most sought-after entertainers in 2023 not only on television but also on YouTube and other online streaming platforms. But it took her eight years of struggles in front of the camera before her breakthrough appearance on tvN entertainment program “Earth Arcade” in 2022 made her a household name.

“Everyone who wins an award says that they didn’t see it coming, but honestly didn’t think that I would get it,” Lee said. “To be frank, I thought that I had such a long way to go until I got an award. Yes, I was hoping that I would get a Baeksang, but may at the 65th ceremony? I know how long it took for my predecessors to get this so I automatically assumed that would be the case for me.”

Lee debuted in 2014 with tvN’s comedy skit show “Comedy Big League” (2011-present), a career shift after being a dance sports athlete during her teen years.

Korean comedians usually make their debut through “exams” at major TV stations that are held every year, where a batch of comedians are hired and debuted through the channels’ comedy shows, such as the tvN show or KBS’s “Gag Concert” (1999-2020). For Lee, it took her four years until she got a nod from tvN and another eight years until she landed a role as a regular on a major entertainment show.

Comedian Lee Eun-ji bursts into tears as she gives her speech after receiving the Best Female Entertainer Award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards last April. [SCREEN CAPTURE]
The thumbnail image of Lee Eun-ji receiving her Baeksang award posted on YouTube [SCREEN CAPTURE]

With “Earth Arcade,” she was able to show off her amicable yet candid and witty sense of humor that helped create a friendly vibe during the program's three-month run, which led her to major roles such as hosting “SNL Korea Reboot Season 3” in November 2022 and getting her own radio program on KBS Cool FM last April.

The years of hard work that finally paid off led to her outburst, which was used as the thumbnail image of her acceptance video on Baeksang's YouTube channel — to a lot of fans’ dismay.

“I actually really like that thumbnail,” she said. “It shows me as I am. I’m not trying to cry ‘prettily.’ Those are genuine tears and I think that’s actually why they’re so real. I’m just grateful to JTBC [the ceremony broadcaster] for marking a page in my 32 years of life.”

Lee sat down for an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily to discuss her big win at the Baeksang awards, her years of endurance, and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Tell us more about your tears of joy. Why did you cry so much during your speech?

A. When I was given the award, [comedian and presenter of the award] Lee Yong-jin whispered very quietly into my ear, “You did it!” And that triggered a whole crying spree for me. I was trying to pull myself together, but there were other actors crying with me and that made me cry all the more.

But I really like that I got to express myself like that. It’s truly who I am. I was especially grateful for the warmth that other people showed me. Truth be said, I can’t properly remember what I said during my speech because I was just so busy trying to pull myself together.

Comedian Lee Eun-ji bursts into tears as she gives her speech after receiving the Best Female Entertainer Award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards last April. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

You mentioned during your speech that you always regret what you say on a show right after. Do you really do that?

Every time I finish shooting a show, I think to myself, “Why on earth did I say that?” I was surprised to hear that other people also think that at their workplaces. I’ve had people message me and say, “You read my mind.”

A lot of comments online also said, “I always regret what I say at work. You’re the same as me, Eun-ji!” and it felt so fascinating. I think people feel it when their bosses wants to do something and you volunteer only to regret it the very same day.

Did you get to look back on your decade-long career?

Somewhere along the way, I stopped having expectations for myself. Even for this Baeksang award, people around me said that they thought I would get it but I always said, “No, it’s not me” — a little too much, I think.

It’s my 10th year in this industry and there have been so many moments where I wished something would happen but it didn’t. There was even a time when I thought I definitely got it, but I still didn’t. Things just really didn’t work out for me much and naturally, and sadly, led me to always think, “No, it’s not going to happen. Let’s not get my hopes up.”

With this Baeksang award, I was able to look forward to things again. Rather than always keeping my expectations low, I should start thinking, “It’s ok to get disappointed” or “I didn’t get it, so what?” I wish I could go back in time to the ceremony night. I didn’t get to enjoy it because I was so busy being worried. I wish I could go back and really take everything in.

Lee Eun-ji in tvN entertainment show ″Earth Arcade″ (2022) [TVN]

What was the hardest thing during that time?

I honestly thought that I was the funniest person in the world. My friends, my teachers — everyone has called me the funniest person ever since elementary school. But I kept failing the comedian test [at KBS] and that made me doubt myself. I kept asking myself, “Am I just not a funny person?” and that doubt built up inside me.

The first time I tried out was when I was 19 years old, so I didn’t care that much when didn’t get the job. The second time was alright, too. But the third time was when it started getting to me. My friends were getting jobs and making money and there I was doing nothing. I hadn’t planned for my life to be like this — failing wasn’t a part of the plan. I kept thinking that I must be so bad.

But now, tvN recruits new comedians with the slogan, “We’re looking for the next Lee Eun-ji.” It’s embarrassing but “Comedy Big League” really felt like fate. That’s when everything started.

What did this Baeksang award mean to you?

I think the Baeksang Arts Awards really chooses its winners that everyone, not just young people but viewers from all walks of life, really agree with. Everyone knows what it is, so to be recognized here has given me so much confidence. I’ve been on a lot of online entertainment shows so I didn’t think that older viewers would know me, but people in their 60s, 70s, and even older recognize me on the streets and that feels great.

What are some career concerns on your mind these days?

As an entertainer, I think I’m still hungry — hungry for something more, something big. I’m actually excited to see what kind of an entertainer I would become.

I’m 32 years old (in Korean age) and that once made me think, “I’m in my 30s? That’s so old!” But now, I know that I’m so young. I’m just a baby. I have so much energy, and I have so much to show and tell as an entertainer. I’m constantly thinking about how to show that, what kind of shows I should be on, and so on.

What are your goals as an entertainer?

My goals in the past used to be that I wanted to be on a specific show or follow in the footsteps of certain comedians. But now I know for sure: I want to be an entertainer that people want to work with and see a lot of.