Kim Tae-Hee: South Korea's 'most beautiful woman' on shyness, beauty and guns
South Korean TV and movie star Kim Tae-Hee never thought she'd be so popular. Not for acting anyway.
Recently she has been lauded for her fine performances not only in her homeland, but across the waters in Japan where her popularity is rising fast. But without an acting background it's not been a smooth journey to the top, as she reveals in a rare English language interview.
"People expected me to be a superb actress on the spot," she says lamentably. "I had a lot of pressure and I couldn't enjoy it."
"When I first started I never wanted to be an actress, it just came to me after doing commercials that the public liked a lot," she continues. "I gained more confidence as I grasped the artistry of it, and I've become increasingly greedy in wanting to know more about it so now it's something that I want to continue."
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Here come the girls
Kim is visiting Japan as the TV drama "Iris" -- in which she stars -- is enjoying impressive ratings on local channel TBS, where it is on at prime time. Japanese culture is going through a second "Korean boom," in which Korea's leading entertainment shows and talent are resonating with Japanese fans often more than local stars.
The first wave came in 2004 when "Winter Sonata" actor Bae Yong-Joon (commonly known as 'Yon-sama' in Japan) led the way, proving to be so popular that then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi joked, "Yon-sama is more popular than me."
Korean boy bands like Tohoshinki (TVXQ in their native South Korea) topped the charts soon after.
In 2010 though, it's all about the women. Korean girl groups like 4Minute, 2NE1 and Girls Generation are coming over in swarms.
And now it's the turn of Korea's "most beautiful woman," as declared by the nation's media.
Kim is the epitome of courtesy and graciousness as she handles several dozen interviews with local media over three days, giving her barely any time to explore the city.
Though able to speak English with a near-native accent, she occasionally swaps to Korean to build her confidence before returning to English. "These days I only get the chance to speak English when I'm on vacation," she says.
Kim originally majored in fashion design, graduating from Seoul National University. "I've always loved drawing and being creative, and while there I enjoyed it very much, but I honestly didn't think I had enough natural talent to pursue a professional career in fashion design," she says.
"Currently being an actress, I realize this is also a very artistic and creative genre of work, and even though I never dreamt of ever becoming an actress, in retrospect I think my childhood dream to be creative has ended up coming true."
Kim began her career in entertainment as a model. From there she found herself in roles in TV commercials, which brought her to Japan early on in her career. "I was probably 21 when I first came and still now, I am impressed by people's kindness here. I didn't used to get recognized much here compared to in Seoul but with the success of 'Iris,' that's changing."
Kim's big break as an actress came with "Stairway To Heaven," a TV series that ran from 2003 to 2004, in which she played Han Yoori, step sister to the main character in a family drama.
Despite this, she came in for lots of criticism for her acting skills over the years.
"I've never thought I could act in front of people because I'm so shy and reserved. I had a really hard time believing in myself to actually be able to work as an actress," she explains.
"I think today I am able to enjoy my life as actress and now I love my job. I had some experiences, good and bad, that helped me to become better at what I do."
Becoming a spy
In Iris, Kim plays a spy, Choi Seung-hee, in an espionage drama that also features a heavy dosage of romance. This means she not only has to train hard to be realistically cold-blooded and physically strong, but she also has to convey her emotional side.
"I'm a huge fan of the show '24,' so I always wanted to be a part of a project like this and I saw the potential of 'Iris.' I also wanted to do it because the character has a lot of attractive qualities, so I was able to show her cute, loving character and also her seriousness, charisma and intensity."
Kim admits that the most awkward part of the role was getting used to walking around with a gun in her hands. "I'm no longer that scared of a gun's firing sound, which in reality is extremely loud."
She also admitted to the punishing physical demands of the role. "Originally I was pretty athletic but since I've been acting, I haven't been able to keep up with exercise. When I got home and tried to sleep in a position that doesn't hurt the many bruises I got, it hurt in every single position I was in," she says.
There is every potential that Kim will now find herself on Japan's shores more frequently thanks to "Iris" and she's thankful that other Korean actors have laid the groundwork for her.
"Because of the actors who have made their name here in recent years, including (co-star) Jung Joon-Ho, it's made it easier for me and I'm grateful for that. It doesn't even feel like a foreign country because people in Japan and Korea know so much about each other these days, so it's more like a natural transition."
With an enormous entourage of interested parties in tow during her stay, she prepares for her next interview with a change of outfit, ensuring maximum impact, perhaps one of the secrets as to why she has been dubbed "Korea's most beautiful woman," including in a survey by TV station KBS.
"At first I was surprised and embarrassed, I felt uncomfortable about that," she says. "But now I want to keep that title for as long as possible!"