Hwang In-sun is a force to be reckoned with. The personality that won over fans of popular survivor show Produce 101 comes out full force when one gets to talk to her face to face. She appears, to my outsider’s perspective, much younger than her “Hwang Imo” nickname. Her wit and her unapologetic self-confidence definitely speak to someone with great experience in an industry that can at times be quite frustrating. However, her fire and brightness suggest someone who envisions a limitless future full of possibilities.
When I first walk up to the table in the small cafe outside of Hakdong Station, I’m naturally intimidated. After all, my interviews have all been with Korean artists around my age or younger. While In-sun and I are certainly in the same range, she carries herself like vintage glamour: all class and exuberance — Dorothy Dandridge or Audrey Hepburn. It’s much to take in if you’ve rarely been around it. However, as we begin to talk, it’s clear she doesn’t put on airs. She’s simply Hwang In-sun, a woman who embraces life and everyone she meets with humor, grace, and incredible kindness.
“I’m not very sure if you all are aware of me,” she says, “but I used to come on shows such as Produce 101, and on that show I was loved by many fans by being called ‘Hwang Imo’ — ‘Auntie Hwang.’ And after that show I’m still currently continuing my career as a singer.”
Unlike many of her juniors, Hwang In-sun’s early interest in music takes a more practical bent.
“During my college years, I majored in contemporary dancing. When I started my college years as a dancer, I started getting interest in other areas of art, such as music and drawing as well.” She takes a moment to collect her thoughts before she continues. “I was very interested in composing music as well. So that’s why I started my career as a singer and also a dancer. During my senior year I actually composed one dance music, and that probably contributed a lot to starting my career as a singer.”
Because much of what interested her in music was its connection to dance, it was natural to wonder what artists really piqued her interest, made her want to branch out and explore the craft.
“Every time I compose my music or every time I start making an album, the person that gives me the most influence always differs from time to time. Since currently I’m continuing my career as a ballad genre singer, nowadays I’m heavily influenced by the ballad diva in Korea Baek Ji-young.” It’s easy to sort of see the influence. Baek Ji-young is a legend in her own right, someone whose immeasurable class seeps into her music. In-sun has that same sense of drama in her own music. “Since I’m interested in various areas of art, one of them is musical. There’s a very famous musical actress named Choi Jung-won. She is always giving me heavy influence towards my music. I have her as a role model.”
It’s no surprise she’s also interested in starring in musicals herself. What does take me somewhat aback is the first musical that comes to mind when I ask which one she wants to star in.
”Lion King!” she says with honest enthusiasm. I don’t expect the answer, but as The Lion King is making its way to Korea this month, it’s actually apropos. She asks where I’m from. My hometown is outside of Chicago, and at that she brightens even more! “Oh, Chicago! One of my favorites! ‘All that Jazz’!”
This passion for musicals extends to the inspiration for her own music
“Since I majored in contemporary dancing in college, and since the musical is a masterpiece of various arts that are combined all together, I am interested in dancing as well regardless of the time period. Also I am very interested in various musicals of different countries as well. I think those are the areas that give me influence outside of music.”
This is when our conversation starts in earnest. The greatest delight for anyone who gets to interview an artist is tapping into what gives them the most joy. Hwang In-sun is no exception. While jovial throughout our chat, something noticeably shifts when we begin to talk about her dance history. We get into a conversation about her favorite choreographers.
“DV8 from Britain,” she says almost instantly. As with many artists forced to choose only a few of their greatest inspirations, it takes her a moment to think of more. “Give me some time,” she says with a bit of a chuckle. “The name’s on the tip of my tongue.” After about a minute, she gets there, eyes wide and voice full of awe. “Ultima Vez!” The pseudonym of choreographer Wim Vandekeybus. “His choreography is no joke.” She releases a deep sigh, slumping back in her chair as if just his name weighs on her soul. When she has a moment to catch her breath, she laughs from the memory of his intensity. After seeing some of his work, I don’t blame her.
“The reason why I like him is because when I look at the Korean arts, arts that are currently being conducted in Korea, I perceive that it’s sort of divided into its separate arts. If music exists, it only can exist by music, and if dancing exists, it can only exist by dancing. But the reason I like him is because his arts are sort of integrated into one. In Korea, if the arts become integrated it will become a musical. But instead his art is sort of independent of musical, and it exists as its own.
“He’s amazing,” she says, all reverence in her tone. “Although it’s classified as contemporary, it actually involves a lot of acting, a lot of music. So when I see his art, it feels like I’m watching a cinema film. It’s sort of a dance film.”
With her deep love of the arts, and especially the melding of crafts, it’s no surprise that she also creates her own choreography. Perhaps the most incredible thing about her, however, is her desire to pass on her knowledge to those starlets just making their way on the scene.
“Currently in my company, there are many students who are preparing for debut next year for a K-pop idol group,” she reveals. “I think it will be better if I choreograph my dance for them and teach them how to dance and make them famous behind [the scenes]. Help them prepare their dancing and influence them so that they can be influenced by my music and have my music genre or style in their music.
“I’m doing a part-time professorship at Daeduk University (in Daejeon). I continued my career as a dance teacher even before I started my career as a musician. Since I am very interested and I have passion towards dancing, I don’t want to lose that. So that’s why I’m currently teaching the students at college. Rather than giving them my choreography or teaching them the exact dance movements, I would like to see how they dance, and then after that I would like to give some consultation towards their dancing.”
Her experience and her fierce dedication to the arts is truly endearing. She reminds me of Debbie Allen, one of my all-time favorite dancer/choreographers. She too has a passion for teaching younger generations, for passing on her love of physical expression. At the suggestion that she open her own academy, In-sun simply laughs that infectious laugh of hers and says, “Probably in Chicago, I guess. Not in Korea.”
Our conversation continues to revolve around her love of the arts. That being said, as someone who’s put herself in the ever-changing idol industry, there have to be moments when she feels limited. Just how much of herself does she put in her own music?
After some moments of reflection, she says, “Though it’s a very difficult question to answer, I think I’m sort of very radical when I’m composing my songs. Being radical means that when I decide which genre to present, when I contemplate and consider the crowd to love my songs, then I will compose accordingly so that it will be a universal story so that many people can actually be moved when they listen. But if I want to compose a special song, a unique song I will base it on my personal stories.
“I don’t really have any songs or music genres that I hate or anything,” she continues. “I love all kinds of music regardless of the time period and also regardless of the main listener’s age. I’m also interested in folk songs. So I believe all kinds of music are very valuable, and I try my best to not limit myself to certain genres.”
I know there are people who are afraid to experiment. It’s refreshing to hear that there are artists brave enough to try something different from what they know. Another observation: Hwang In-sun is fearless. However, even in that bravado, it must be difficult at times to be so dedicated to the arts yet beholden to fickle audiences.
“Since I started studying the arts until the master’s degree, I believe I have enough knowledge towards the pure arts as well, and I am very concerned about my performances, as in [my] results. So I’m very concerned about how ordinary people might perceive my art, my performance because I’m always very interested in the pure arts. But to satisfy those ordinary people I will have to integrate my pure arts philosophy towards my results so that it [can satisfy] the ordinary people. And I think that job is the most challenging to me.”
“You mean, trying to make people understand where you’re coming from?” I ask.
“Yes,” she answers earnestly. “Besides,” she continues, “contemporary dancing is not really popularized in Korea. It’s only acknowledged or recognized by a few people. So I think that’s the most challenging: to satisfy the ordinary people to like my music and dancing.”
The frustration must run deep. “I’m frustrated all the time,” she says, then cackles. “I’m very angry right now.” Hwang In-sun is certainly the most hilarious person I’ve interviewed. She wears her sense of humor as openly as every other aspect of her personality. It’s a treat to be able to just full-out belly laugh with her. After we calm down a bit, she adds, “I think it’s kind of my assignment or homework, I guess. So that if I continue my career, sooner or later people will start knowing about me.” Even as I compliment her optimism, she says with a snide giggle, “I’m rather close to pessimistic.”
However, veiled behind that sense of humor there’s a deep truth. So if she had to go back, knowing what she knows now, what advice would she give her younger self advice?
“Why didn’t you just continue your life as a dancer?” she says with another howl. At this point I’ve fallen so in love with her laugh. It’s inviting, much like sharing a drink with a close friend. “Why did you start your career as a musician?” she continues. “Since I’ve started my career as a musician, I realized this is not an easy way. But there was a very easy way called being a dancer.
“I started dancing when I was six with ballet, and I continued all the way up to the contemporary dance master’s degree. So there was an easy way to choose: after getting a master’s I could just continue my career as a dancer. Then I just wanted to become a singer and musician, so I started to take the hard way. If I were to give advice to my younger self, I would probably ask once more, ‘Do you really want to do this?’”
The fact remains she did choose this path, and she does continue to create music. Oddly enough, there seems to be quite a few people unaware of the fact that she’s been at this for some time now. She’s been in the business actively since 2011. With the popularity of Produce 101, she’s released several singles in the past couple years, including her most recent “Deadclock.” She has an album currently in the works.
“I’m always working on it,” she says. “I’m very frequently making an album. But the problem is not many people are aware of my albums, so people always tend to say, ‘Oh it’s the debut album of Hwang In-sun!’ all the time when I release my albums. But recently an album has been out since late August, and currently I’m preparing my next album to be released in November. I will continue releasing my albums until everyone in Korea acknowledges my works.”
“You should name the album NOT My Debut Album!” I suggest With her delicious sense of humor, she thinks that’s absolutely hilarious.
“Nice!” She looks back at her manager and says, “Okay, let’s name the album that.” After more laughter, she continues, “I’ll probably name my November album as Not My Debut Album. So let’s schedule the next interview for November. I’ll go to Chicago.”
So now that we have established she’s not a debut, I wonder what it is she wants fans to know about her style and what they can expect from her musically.
“I believe that I am a very unique singer, and my songs are also very unique,” she says. “I want people to acknowledge my voice and my colors of music. I want to just highlight the uniqueness of my results.”
As far as what we can expect from her album: “I don’t know,” she says quickly, another laugh chasing the sentiment. “I haven’t decided yet. My personality is very different, very ambivalent and volatile, so I don’t know which personality will show up when I prepare my album. I think that’s why my life is so fun. I think what makes life very interesting and fun is the unexpectedness.”
When I explain the unexpectedness of my trip to Korea, we talk about my impressions of the country, then if I like Korean music. When I mention DBSK as my first exposure to Korean music, she absolutely lights up. ”Oh! I used to be a fan,” she says. Then, “Youngwoon Jaejoong.” Yet again we devolve into laughter, me almost fainting hearing Jaejoong’s name in real time.
Our time together slowly comes to an end. It’s fitting that I ask her about her future.
“I want people to know about my music and dancing, of course. But what I want people to know more is about my personality. I’m a very positive person, and I’m always very challenging. I like new challenges, so I want people to look at me at my positivity and also my welcoming challenge mindset. I want people to take me as their role model.”
We part on these final thoughts, “I would just give a request to readers: Although I’ll try very hard within the boundaries of the arts I can handle, I want you guys to look at my career and look at what I do and how I try and how I put my efforts and just make a good impression.”
Hwang In-sun is without a doubt one of the most engaging, interesting people I’ve had the honor to speak to. I was at once humbled and elated in her presence. She’s incredibly open, quick to laugh, and fearlessly honest. But one can’t help but feel a sense of reverence. She has the air of someone who’s incredibly sure of herself, who’s unafraid to speak her mind but does so with classic Hollywood charm. It was a pleasure to take a deeper look at what makes the now legendary “Hwang Imo” such an enigmatic figure.