Need Fake Friends For Your Wedding? In S. Korea, You Can Hire Them

Need Fake Friends For Your Wedding? In S. Korea, You Can Hire Them

9:57am Aug 05, 2015
A stage production or a Korean wedding? It can be hard to tell.
A stage production or a Korean wedding? It can be hard to tell.
Elise Hu / NPR
  • A stage production or a Korean wedding? It can be hard to tell.

    A stage production or a Korean wedding? It can be hard to tell.

    Elise Hu / NPR

  • Kim Seyeon is a college student and a professional role player. She's attended about 70 weddings in the past 18 months, as a hired fake guest.

    Kim Seyeon is a college student and a professional role player. She's attended about 70 weddings in the past 18 months, as a hired fake guest.

    Elise Hu / NPR

Weddings and baby showers are real-life milestones to spend with your actual loved ones. True, but in South Korea, a cottage industry exists to help real people find fake friends to fill seats at such life rituals.

At a recent wedding in June, Kim Seyeon showed up as a guest even though she is a total stranger to the bride and groom. She makes about $20 per wedding she attends as a pretend friend.

"When it's the peak wedding season in Korea, sometimes I do two or three acts a day, every weekend," Kim says.

As a role player, she's part of an agency that casts her to attend weddings all over the country. At this wedding, at least 30 of the guests are getting paid to fill the seats.

"It's fun. A lot of the times [couples] need these guests because they want to save face," Kim says. "They're conscious of what others think, and they need more friends. So the brides are very thankful for my presence."

Rent Venues, Why Not Guests?

Kim Seyeon is a college student and a professional role player. She's attended about 70 weddings in the past 18 months, as a hired fake guest.

Kim Seyeon is a college student and a professional role player. She's attended about 70 weddings in the past 18 months, as a hired fake guest.

Elise Hu/NPR

At this particular ceremony, neither the bride — who hired Kim — nor the groom — who doesn't even know there are fake guests at his wedding, noticed an NPR reporter in the crowd.

I suppose you could call it wedding crashing, but I just blended right in with the other unfamiliar faces. The logic in South Korea is this: You can rent chairs and venues for weddings — why not guests?

"Wedding guest rentals started in the late 1990s, and in the early 2000s, broader role-playing rentals began," says Lee Hyun-su. He runs a South Korean casting agency called Role Rental 1-1-9.

He keeps a database of 20,000 actors, ages 21 to 70, whom he places to work in real-life situations. We're talking fake bosses, fake parents, fake mistresses. Lee has cast them all.

"This year we've seen increases in the other types of rental requests [like] renting family members, boyfriends, girlfriends, lovers or office employees. There have also been times when people hire fake spouses to get a loan from the bank," Lee says.

'Pretending To Do Well'

While it may seem strange to have actors in what are supposed to be real-life rituals, performance artist Maria Yoon — a Korean-American — "gets it" after experimenting with the artifice of weddings with an art project a few years ago.

She staged 50 different wedding ceremonies to play on the idea that all weddings have a performance aspect to them. She just fears that the Koreans are taking the dishonesty too far.

"Koreans have this nunchi," Yoon explains. Nunchi describes a type of interpersonal understanding of yourself versus your peers.

"If you have a fancy car, it has to [be] a fancier car than your neighbor, so you can tell them how much money you make," she says. "As I get older, life is too short for you to make your neighbors happy. You just have to be happy yourself."

To dig deeper, look no farther than a recent book called Korea: The Impossible Country. In it, author Daniel Tudor writes of South Korea's hyper-competitive society and its obsession with image:

"The wave of competition unleashed in South Korea since the economic take-off in the 1960s has brought about a crucial change. Now, according to Hwang Sang-min, a professor of psychology at Yonsei University, Koreans feel impelled to achieve an image of perfection rather than mere respectability and to be seen as doing not just well but better than others. A kind of 'face inflation' has taken place. ... People construct about themselves the public image of a perfect person and then somehow they must live up to it. A word that has great currency in Korea today is jalnancheok, or 'pretending to do well.' "

Pomp And Pretense

Back at the wedding, it's clear the need to impress keeps the guest rental business going strong. The whole event feels more like a cruise ship production than what Americans might be used to.

There are musical numbers. There are skits. There's even a solo sung by the wedding emcee, who is a different guy than the officiant. Somewhere in all this song and dance, a couple got married.

The pomp and pretending may seem strange for first-timers, but our agency role player? She's a Korean wedding veteran, sitting quietly in the back, with a blank expression on her face.

"I had fun, but it's not the type of wedding that I want," Kim says.

Our actress has a her real-life wedding coming up, with her actual fiancee. When I asked her whether she'll hire some fake guests for her wedding, she says no.

"I don't even think I'll have a wedding in this country," she says.

Here, a wedding can be a lot more than just a celebration of love. It can be the most elaborate of stage productions.


HaeRyun Kang contributed to this story. To follow behind-the-scenes reporting in East Asia, check out our Tumblr, Elise Goes East.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Weddings, baby showers - real milestones; moments you want to share with your loved ones, right? Well, you would think so. In South Korea, there is a whole industry that helps people find fake friends to fill seats at their weddings and other life rituals. Here's our real correspondent Elise Hu.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: The flowers, the dress, the crowd of happy faces - this is a summer wedding in South Korea. Only the faces in this crowd include Kim Seyeon, who is a total stranger to the bride and groom. She's making about $20 just to be here.

KIM SEYEON: (Through interpreter) When it's the peak wedding season in South Korea, sometimes I do two or three acts a day every weekend.

HU: She calls weddings acts because Kim Seyeon is a role player. She's part of an agency that casts her to attend weddings all over the country. At this wedding, at least 30 of the guests are getting paid to fill the seats.

SEYEON: (Through interpreter) It's fun. A lot of the times, they'll need these guests because they want to save face. They are conscious of what others think, and they need more friends. So the brides are usually very thankful for my presence.

HU: Neither the bride, who hired Kim, or the groom, who doesn't even know there are fake guests at his wedding, noticed an NPR reporter in the crowd. I just blended right in with the other unfamiliar faces. The logic in South Korea is this - you can rent chairs and venues for weddings, why not guests?

LEE HYUN-SU: (Through interpreter) Wedding guest rentals started in the late 1990s, and in the early 2000s, broader role-playing rentals began.

HU: Lee Hyun-su runs the agency called Role Rental 1-1-9. He keeps a database of about 20,000 actors who he places to work in real-life situations. We're talking fake bosses, fake parents, fake mistresses. Lee has cast them all.

HYUN-SU: (Through interpreter) Well, this year, we've seen increases in other types of rental requests, renting family members, boyfriends, girlfriends, lovers or office employees. There have also been times when people hire fake spouses to get a loan from the bank.

HU: While it may seem strange to have actors in what are supposed to be real-life situations...

MARIA YOON: I get it. I see where they're coming from.

HU: Performance artist Maria Yoon, a Korean-American, experimented with the artifice of weddings with an art project a few years ago. She staged 50 different wedding ceremonies to play on the idea that all weddings have a performance aspect to them. She just fears the Koreans are taking the dishonesty too far.

YOON: Koreans have this nunchi. If you have a fancy car then your car has to be better than your next door neighbor to tell them how much money you make. You know, as I get older, life is too short for you to make your neighbors happy. You just have to be happy yourself.

HU: Back at the wedding we're attending, it's clear the need to impress keeps the guest rental business going strong. This huge wedding feels more like a cruise ship production than what Americans might be used to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEASONS OF LOVE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.

HU: There are musical numbers. There are skits. There's even a solo sung by the wedding emcee, who is a different guy than the officiant. Somewhere in all this song and dance, a couple got married.

(APPLAUSE)

HU: The pomp and pretending may seem strange for first timers, but our agency role player, she's a Korean wedding veteran, sitting quietly in the back with a blank expression on her face.

Did you enjoy it?

SEYEON: (Through interpreter) I had fun, but it's not the type of wedding that I want.

HU: Our actress has her real-life wedding coming up with an actual fiance. So I had to ask...

Are you going to have fake guests at your wedding?

SEYEON: (Through interpreter) No, I don't think so. I don't even think I'll have a wedding in this country.

HU: A country where a wedding can be a lot more than a celebration of love. It can be the most elaborate of productions.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

HU: Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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