Happy Boxing Day, readers, and welcome to the last Seoulbeats Exchange for this year! And what better way to finish off 2012 than with the guy every girl would want to take home to meet the parents: Lee Seung-gi.

I’ve been well acquainted with Lee for some time before I discovered K-pop, but not as much by name as by the half unbuttoned salmon shirt he wore, smiling from his poster stuck on the window of a convenience store I walked past almost daily. Fast forward multiple months, and suddenly he’s an actor, the main protagonist of My Girlfriend is a Gumiho. I then started spotting him on variety shows, namely Strong Heart and 2 Days 1 Night, with the icing on the cake being his performance at the 2011 SBS Gayo Daejun. Many actors dabble in singing for OSTs and the like, but that Lee Seung-gi had an established career as a recording artist astounded, and greatly impressed, me.

Lee Seung-gi has his hands in all sorts of pies, the freshest being his new album Return. The current K-pop climate I know favours idol groups, but Lee was able to pick up music show awards with almost careless ease; everybody seems to love him, including Young-ji and Bethany, who answer my questions today:

1. How did you first encounter Lee Seung-gi?

Young-Ji: I don’t remember exactly when I first encountered Korea’s top prince, but I do remember how quickly Lee Seung-gi rose to fame with his debut song, “Because you are my girl.” This hit song cause all the noonas to go wild for him and won him numerous awards. And during his first months of promotion, learning that the song was written by Psy — a pretty popular producer, singer at the time and now — and that he was also discovered and mentored by Lee Sun-hee, a veteran singer in the industry, also piqued my interest in him. Finally, it didn’t hurt that he had the looks and the talent to back him up.

Bethany: I’m pretty sure I first encountered Lee Seung-gi watching Shining Inheritance for the first time. I saw some of his performances before during Gayo Daejuns, but I never paid much attention to him until I encountered spoiled-brat Seung-gi. Shining Inheritance had your typical K-drama plotline, but Seung-gi was great as Hwan. His pouts and tantrums had me laughing and rolling my eyes at the same time. I looked up his Wikipedia article and was quite impressed that he was actually studying at a university and earning a degree despite all his idol activities such as emceeing, acting, and recording. His variety prowess also impressed me quite a bit, and after finishing my research on him, I was fully sold.

2. What is Lee Seung-gi’s appeal to you? And everyone else, while were at it: he’s ridiculously popular.

Young-Ji: To be honest, I think his popularity is a bit inflated, but kudos to him for being able to maintain such a squeaky clean image (which also won him ridiculous amount of CF deals), while experimenting with acting and MCing. I wouldn’t call Lee Seung-gi the best actor out there, but he does a decent job. It’s good enough that nobody would criticize him for poor acting but not good enough for him to become Korea’s top actor. And the same goes for MCing. And I think this is both a blessing and a curse at the same time. Because he’s good enough in other areas, he’s unable to focus on his core career – which is singing. I understand why he’s branching out — heck, all idols are trying to branch out. If anything, Lee Seung-gi serves as one of the best examples, but as a fan, I want him to put more focus and emphasis on singing so that I can enjoy his sweet voice more frequently.

Bethany: I’m actually partial to his acting. He impressed me in King 2 Hearts this spring once again as a spoiled brat turned savvy monarch, and I’m sure any fan of the drama will agree with me on the fact that his surprising chemistry with Ha Ji-won really made the show at some times. But not only is he a good actor, I like the fact that he excels at other aspects of being an idol. Overall, he just has a good boy feel to him that I can’t explain.

3a. Lee Seung-gi is involved in many parts of the entertainment industry: singing, acting and variety; but at which do you think he truly excels?

Young-Ji: Like my previously answer – singing!

Bethany: Acting, definitely, like I mentioned above (well in my mind anyways). However I think he really enjoys all aspects — probably why he’s great at all of them. During his live performances, he always looks like he’s having fun (esp. that one performance featuring Yoona). On variety shows, he’s goofy, cheeky, and just hilarious. His ability to transfer into drama characters on-screen (he even adds a touch of humor to them sometimes!) is what he really excels at.

3b. Which would be most likely to sustain him in future years? Or can he continue to stay active in multiple streams?

Young-Ji: As we all know, the potential revenue stream for ballad singers is rather modest, so in a way, he has to branch out to stay relevant in the face paced space that we call K-pop.

Bethany: I think he’ll stay active in both music and acting, definitely. Variety, I’m not so sure — Korea’s taste for variety changes too frequently for me to be sure about that. His music style is one that is sustainable because it’s not quite sugary K-pop, but pop enough for fan-girls to like. Acting, well, successful actors come in all ages, right?

Lee Seung-gi is pretty much the over-acheiver of Hallyu. As Bethany mentioned, he holds a bachelor degree in international trade from Dongguk University — and is now enrolled in a post-graduate program in media at the same university. That anyone in Hallyu is able to receive an undergraduate degree while active is a big deal in itself, but going for a masters? I’ve always had a soft spot for Lee, but this piece of news really impressed me. No wonder companies are lining up for CF deals with him — he’s such a golden boy.

The opportunity to debut as a soloist balladeer rather than as an idol has definitely benefited Lee, in that he has more time available to spend on other pursuits. As Young-Ji pointed out, diversification is the name of the game in Korean entertainment in order to stay marketable, and Lee has been successful in that. He has a natural sense of comedic timing which has served him well in both dramas and variety. In a variety scene where MCs’ merrymaking can sometimes border on offensive, Lee had managed to avoid such pitfalls.

However, Lee Seung-gi left his regular K-variety stints earlier this year in order to focus on his singing, and just this month won his first triple crown on Mnet M! Countdown. He will also return to acting in 2013 with The Gu Family Book. Considering his studies, leaving variety, which would have required a long-term commitment, was a wise choice; whether he returns to it in the future remains to be seen, though his popularity means he would be quite the catch for any show.

In acting, Lee always plays a type, that of the spoilt brat turned good. Of course, Lee is able to play the spoilt stage so well, with a touch of comedy, that one can’t help but already be in love with him even before his transformation into a responsible man. Nowhere is that transformation more dramatic in King 2 Hearts, and I feel that drama is the peak for the archetype Lee plays. Of course, his popularity means that Lee can continue on in these kinds of roles (much like Shin Min-ah), but it would still be great to see him branch out a bit, play against type every once in a while; perhaps not a villain, but his MVs place in a variety of scenarios and it would be great to see Lee do the same on a larger scale.

This could be a no-go, though, because Lee Seung-gi, while good at what he does, does not derive his fame from acting, variety or singing itself, though the latter did help him break into the industry in spectacular fashion; he finds his fame in being the extremely likeable guy that could do all these things and not suck at them. As such, Lee’s career in its current state is driven by persona rather than content, or even skill; as such, anything that could possibly jeopardise Lee’s image may very well be avoided.

What are your thoughts on Lee Seung-gi? Which piece of work by him do you love most? And would you like to see him take on a different kind of acting role? Leave your comments below!

(Hook Entertainment, Korea.com, MBC, SBS, SPN, Xports News)