The Voice Heard ’Round the World
One year after his story of struggle and triumph touched millions, Choi Sung-bong is on his way to becoming a global star.
by CRYSTAL KIM
Choi Sung-bong didn’t know his own name until he was 14 years old. Now, everyone seems to know his name.
In the summer of 2011, Choi’s raw singing talent and heartbreaking past as a homeless orphan made international headlines. He made it to the finals of the talent competition Korea’s Got Talent and, although he placed second, he gained explosive popularity and was dubbed the “Korean Susan Boyle.” The video of his performance of “Nella Fantasia” and moving backstory on Korea’s Got Talent went viral, amassing tens of millions of views on YouTube. It has clocked more than 55 million clicks—and counting.
One year later, Choi Sung-bong took the American stage for the first time, performing at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles last month as part of an international concert dedicated to peace and unity.
“I felt the performance went really well. I’m so grateful to make my [U.S.] debut here,” Choi said in Korean. “I know that many Americans saw my video on YouTube, so I was glad when I saw them at the concert.”
Choi rounded out an ensemble of globally acclaimed musicians headlined by Iranian/Armenian American superstar Andy, known as the “Persian Elvis,” and also including international singer/songwriter Shani, as well as performers from Israel and Afghanistan. Together, they sang the ballad “We Hear Your Voice,” a song Shani wrote to promote hope and world unity.
Moments after the concert ended, Choi accompanied his fellow performers to the green room for interviews. Dressed in a crisp white shirt and sharp black suit, he displayed a calm and confidence that suggested the natural trappings of a professional classical singer.
His star status, of course, is a far cry from his early days at a Korean orphanage, where he was abandoned at age 3. The viral video of his life talks about how a young Choi was often beaten at his orphanage, causing him to run away to the red light district of Daejeon.
He lived in a container box on the streets or in public bathrooms for 10 years, trudging through bleak days and nights peddling gum and energy drinks.
Choi said when he heard opera music for the first time at a nightclub he worked at, it was the first time he felt hope. At that moment, it became his dream to become a singer.
Choi reportedly reached out to Park Jeong-so, a former opera singer, after doing some research in an Internet café. Park began training Choi and put him in contact with Child Fund Korea. The aspiring singer passed his elementary and junior high general educational development tests and entered an arts high school. Just a few years later, he would audition for Korea’s Got Talent, and his life would change forever.
He told KoreAm that he would soon be making his first trek to Africa as an Honorary Ambassador of Child Fund Korea, the very organization that enabled him to live in a government-subsidized apartment when he was a teenager. This month he will be in Spain to perform at YouFest, a festival that celebrates popular digital culture.
Choi’s life has changed since Korea’s Got Talent, but the humble singer said that he will never forget his dark past.
“I’m able to do things that I haven’t been able to do for 22 years right now. After I sang ‘Nella Fantasia’ and had great experiences, I had a reason to live,” said Choi. “But still, I will never forget [how] I never starved to death or froze to death or was beaten to death. I’m thankful to be alive.”
In the past year, Choi has appeared in countless television shows, lectures and concerts, even performing at Korea’s Blue House.
The 23-year-old also recently penned an autobiography, titled Just Live Without Conditions ’Cause You Live Only Once, describing his journey. Released this summer, the book skyrocketed to the top of the bestseller lists in Korea. Choi will also release an anticipated album later this year, fulfilling a longtime dream of his.
“But now, my dream is to have a girlfriend, although only the older women like me in Korea,” Choi said, laughing. “No, to be serious, it’s correct that I became famous at first because of my story rather than my singing. In the future, I want to reverse this.”
This article was published in the September 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the September issue, click the link below.