[INTERVIEW] Familiar foreign faces start agency for a more diverse Korean entertainment scene
Twenty years ago, simply being a foreigner living in Korea was reason enough to get on Korean television.
Now in a more globalized society, non-Koreans looking for an opportunity in the country's entertainment industry need to work just as hard and stand out to land a role on television as they would in their home countries — and newly-founded entertainment agency Wave Entertainment can help, co-founders Tyler Rasch and Julian Quintart say.
“When I first went on TV, people would like me for saying things like, ‘I like kimchi, kimchi is so spicy,’” Quintart said, reminiscing back to 18 years ago when he first landed a role on a Korean television show.
“Producers would ask me to ‘Speak Korean funnier’ or with a stronger accent,” he said. “But with more programs providing an opportunity for people to share their different experiences, I think the way that Korean people view foreigners is changing, too. Now, people want us to be in a program because they want us, not just because we’re foreigners.”
Perhaps the two most well-known non-Koreans on local television, Rasch and Quintart made their mark as panelists on JTBC’s “Abnormal Summit” (2014-2017), a talk show featuring Korean residents of different nationalities talking about diverse topics of Korean society spanning across politics, economy and culture.
While Rasch became famous for his knowledge in all sorts of fields expressed flawlessly through his native-like Korean proficiency, Quintart gained popularity for his amiable yet opinionated manner that brought energy to the panel discussion. Both have been vocal about environmental issues in recent years, adding another cherry on top of their already unique characters in Korean entertainment, where celebrities tend to avoid issues that could be seen as either political or too strong.
Last February, having experienced the hurdles of the Korean broadcasting field as foreigners, the two joined forces to establish Wave Entertainment — the first entertainment agency founded by a non-Korean — with the aim of bringing a new wave of transparency and responsibility for artists in Korea.
Contrary to the conventional rules of Korean entertainment, where agencies filter out interview requests from the press or demand their stars take part in a show regardless of their opinion, all schedule requests are made through the official website and artists get to choose which they want to star in, and which they don’t.
The company currently has nine artists, including the two founders, who are all foreigners.
“Our goal is to bring transparency to the industry,” Rasch said. “We give the artists the right to choose which shows they want to go on and which they don’t. The artists themselves are the content, and giving them the power to choose their own career paths allows them to develop the areas they think are their strengths. Our goal is to give them the opportunity to grow.”
Rasch and Quintart sat down for an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily to talk more about their newly-founded company, joined by Nidhi Agrawal and Sarah Soo Kyung Henriet, two members who joined Wave Entertainment from the very beginning. The following are edited excerpts.
Q. Please explain in more detail how Wave Entertainment functions. How does transparency help the artists?
A. Quintart: In Korean entertainment, producers call the managers of a star to cast them on a show. More often than not, the agency makes the decision for you, and you don’t get access to the requests that have been given to you. Sometimes you’re forced to go on a show even when you don’t want to, and sometimes you’re not allowed to go on a show because it doesn’t pay enough, even if you want to go on anyway.
But with our system, all the artists instantly get the data shared with them, for what requests have been made in their name, what the show’s about, the pay and so on. If they want to go on a show but they can’t make the time or the pay needs a little negotiating, that’s where the manager comes into the picture — not the other way around.
This brings down the artists’ stress levels so much because then they get to choose what they want to do and also feel more of a sense of responsibility because it was their choice. We believe that the more power someone is given, the harder they try because they want to do it well. But we are in the very beginning stage, so we’re taking a lot of feedback from our friends and artists.
Agrawal: A great thing is that we can make our own decisions first, but also fall back on other members of the company who are more experienced than me. Having a healthy community definitely helps in that we don’t get jealous of each other but we can actually share some offers with other artists who we think would better suit the program.
There was near zero transparency in the other agencies I’ve been with. I’ve never been notified how much the producers pay the company, I just get my share and that’s it. There was little to no room for negotiation, but here we get to see the numbers clearly.
Korean agencies double as a management company, so stars are given both the support they need and the training to make sure they don’t make any mistakes on TV. Does Wave Entertainment provide such programs?
Rasch: All artists that are with us at Wave Entertainment are fully aware of the taboos of Korean television because they’ve been in this industry for some time. We don’t track our artists closely or interfere with their decisions, but we do provide a set of guidelines for the things that can happen on the scene.
Korean people tend to be very indirect when it comes to conducting businesses, so we inform our artists of ways of very politely rejecting a request or answering questions that could potentially be risky. We have them on our system with very specific examples numbered and laid out.
Do you believe that the Korean entertainment industry is opening up more to foreigners and changing its perspective?
Henriet: It’s changed a lot, but there are a lot of things that remain the same, especially because I’m a foreigner and a woman. The lookism in this society tells the story. Korean people so easily comment on how you look, which makes people uncomfortable not just abroad but here in Korea as well.
People still expect me to speak awkward Korean like a foreigner, when Korean is one of my two native languages from my parents — the other one being French — and I’m trying to show the exact opposite. We don’t eat baguettes every day in France, just like Korean people don’t eat kimchi jjigae [stew] every day. But these days, I softly point out that those are stereotypes and people understand.
Rasch: This isn’t just unique to Korea, but I think a market goes through a certain process of evolution when something new comes along where there hasn’t been much diversity in the past. At first people find it intriguing, as they did with foreigners in Korea. People found it intriguing to see a foreigner in Korea, that foreigner speaking Korean and eating kimchi and other spicy food — though spicy food hasn’t been around that long in Korea either.
We were a novelty to people, but that was it. We were foreigners but we were also aliens.
Then came along programs like ‘Abnormal Summit’ that showed we are humans who can share our views and hold deep discussions about different issues. People started labeling us not just as foreigners but according to our nationality, so they would say things like, ‘Are all Americans like that?’ and try to judge the whole country by just one person.
But now we’re at a stage where the market has definitely matured and people understand that foreigners are just one person from a larger community who are all different from each other. It’s not about where people are from but who they are and what they have to offer. That’s where the idea of a character comes in, and entertainers have to have that one special edge that makes them stand out from the rest. And that’s where we as the agency help our artists grow their strengths by giving them the power to pave their own ways and make their own decisions.
All of the constituents at Wave Entertainment are from outside of Korea. Do you intend to keep it that way?
Quintart: The only reason there are only foreigners here is because we are still at an early stage of settling down a system and we thought it would be easy to start with people that we know well and are close to. We would definitely like to work with new people that we think will be a good fit with our company.
But at the same time, we don’t think it’s just the more, the merrier when it comes to recruiting new people. There are agencies specializing in foreigners in Korea and they tend to sign with as many people as possible and give someone else their work if they want to grow someone and so on. We actually have an application form on our website, but if we reject someone it’s not because we don’t like them but because don’t want to bite off more than we can chew.
Do you have any tips for foreigners looking for a career in the Korean entertainment industry?
Rasch: I think I need to be really frank here. You need to speak Korean really well. You can’t just learn a little and think you’ll be fine. The market has matured here, and that means the constituents have to be mature, too. You can’t be moderately good at Korean — you have to be very good.
And just as is the case in any market, you have to have something to share with everyone else; something that’s only yours, an experience that no one else has had. If you want to land a job in Korean entertainment, you need to work just as hard as you would have in your home country.
Henriet: There would be different reasons for why different people would want to come to Korea. But upon arriving here, they might find that the reason they came here for really wasn’t what they thought it would be. You need the confidence to fight through, because it’s a tough society here. Everyone is tough and everything is fast. Sometime you feel attacked and someone might say something to hurt you, but you have to remember not to let that bring you down.
Agrawal: A lot of people ask me on LinkedIn or Instagram whether it’s really like how it’s depicted in K-pop or dramas. If you come here looking for that, no. You need a clear goal of what you want to do and your own story to tell so that you don’t just become one of the many. Seven years into my life in Korea, I’ve learned that it’s impossible for me to become a Korean. I will always be a foreigner and that will never change, even 10, 20 or 30 years later. So don’t try to give up who you are, and just try to fit in to the Korean society as who you are.
BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]