Sam Hammington, the most famous foreigner on Korean TV Dec 29, 2014 3:23:35 GMT
Post by IceCat on Dec 29, 2014 3:23:35 GMT
Sam Hammington; also shown in character (L in 2nd photo) on the MBC reality show Real Men
Who'd have guessed that the Dashan of South Korea would be an overweight Aussie starring in a reality show in which celebrities experience what it's like in the Korean Army? For 37 year old Sam Hammington a career in show biz was hardly a given, despite practically growing up on the set of the iconic Australian soap opera Neighbours where his single mother was the long time casting director. He graduated from college with bachelors in both business and Korean studies, the latter a curious choice for someone who up to that point hadn't yet met a Korean; he figured that language ability would look good on his CV. It was while he was continuing his studies in Seoul that he first broke into the limelight, and it was also where he met the woman who is now his wife and business partner.
Korea opportunity for Aussie entertainer Sam Hammington
December 20, 2014
Asia Pacific Editor
WHO is the most familiar Australian star in South Korea? Miranda Kerr, Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman are all very popular. But one man eclipses them all: Sam Hammington.
The 37-year-old’s face is on buses and almost every Korean knows him by his first name alone.
He began his career as a comedian playing the fall guy — the foreigner who does funny things including, funniest of all, speaking Korean. But now he has taken on a rare role for an outsider in Asia. Through his appearance on a reality television series titled Real Men, he has become a Korean everyman, embodying virtues to which the country’s 50 million citizens aspire: an even temperament, perseverance, good humour, focus, team spirit and, of course, patriotism.
He also symbolises a newly emerging cultural feature of modern South Korea. As the extrovert nation and the most wired country in the world becomes a spender as much as a saver, and is thus more relaxed about life, it has developing a capacity to laugh at itself (or at least to smile).
Perhaps most famously, singer Psy encapsulated this with his breezy personality and his hokey song Gangnam Style, which parodied Seoul’s most trendy and expensive new suburb.
But also encapsulating it, in his own way, is Hammington.
While fame and fortune in South Korea may be a surprising twist, a career on the small screen was entirely predictable for the Australian. His mother, Jan Russ — for more than 20 years casting director and associate producer for Neighbours — met his father in New Zealand when she was touring in a musical.
“When I was three she brought me to Melbourne, and as far as I’m concerned I’m Melbourne through and through,” he says in an interview in Seoul.
He went to primary school in Glen Iris, then to Camberwell High, the same school as Kylie and Dannii Minogue. His mother, meanwhile, shifted her career from performance to TV production with Neighbours and, as fortune would have it, she gave Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan their breakout roles.
“My parents divorced when I was young, so I was raised by my mum alone and spent a lot of time in TV studio offices,” he says. “At opening nights of musicals, or after-parties, or end-of-year parties I would be her official date. I was often around people in the industry.”
Hammington landed a smattering of roles as a child on shows such as All the Rivers Run, Neighbours and The Flying Doctors. He had an agent and took some acting classes, but saw the pursuit of further education as a safer bet.
“Having a mother in the industry for so long, who saw actors daily and said they usually only worked 60 to 70 per cent of the time — I thought I’d need rocks in my head to want to do that,” he says. He took a double degree at Melbourne’s Swinburne University, a bachelor of business and a bachelor in Korean studies — a curious choice for someone who admits to growing up without having met a Korean or knowing where the country was.
“I thought if I was in that position, probably most of the (Australian) population was in the same boat, and if I learned to speak a bit and put it on my resume, I would stand out from the crowd,” he says. “I was looking at it from the perspective of advancing my career, not out of passion or interest. I didn’t think of actually coming here at all.”
He went to South Korea for the first time in his second year at university but had to leave swiftly after contracting hepatitis B.
“I was in quite a dire situation, and if my mum had her way, I would probably never have come back. But I had spent money and time on my Korean education, and when you fall off you need to get back on,” he says. “As soon as I was healthy again, I came back, staying with friends and taking in the lifestyle until I graduated.”
His girlfriend at the time, Jung Yumi, now his wife, naturally played a big role. She didn’t speak English, nor did her friends. “I had fun and improved my understanding of Korean. There’s a whole drinking culture, which I got into early on, though that didn’t help provide the best outlook for my career.”
He says as a 20-something Australian he began to realise how privileged he’d been when he started living in a nation that faces an existential threat from North Korea, just 50km from Seoul.
“That taught me to mature, and to appreciate the country (Korea) itself, with its history of thousands of years,” he says.
Other cultural differences also came into focus for him. “Korean people are extremely hardworking,” he says. “And it’s more of a communal society. Happiness comes with the unit, whether it’s school, workplace or army.
Aside from staying for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, Hammington says Korea didn’t factor into any long-term plans. He worked for a time as a marketing manager for a construction company but soon began dabbling again in TV. However, it was a struggle to pay the rent, and the roles did not provide much of a challenge. “I did lots of historical re-enactments, like the JFK assassination,” he says. “In one I was the priest at an exorcism and in another Winston Churchill.”
All this changed when Hammington became friendly with some young Korean comedians and went to see their live-sketch comedy show. “They asked for a volunteer from the audience. Being the kind of guy I am, I put my hand up, and they thought it would be a laugh to get me up on stage. We did get a few laughs.”
He quickly found that comedy in this culturally conservative country had limits, with sexual innuendo or sending up public figures essentially taboo.
“You could never do politicians, or imitate a singer or actor,” he says. “You couldn’t do anything related to North Korea and get away with it. That’s changed a bit since then, but the heart of such shows remains wordplay and slapstick — the Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin.”
In the audience that night were writers from South Korea’s most popular comedy program, a show that regularly attracted 20 per cent of the viewing audience, and they liked what they saw.
“When they called me to ask me to be on that show, I said I’d love to,” he says. “But they record the show live in front of up to 1500 people — the first time was one of the scariest moments in my life.”
It wasn’t long before the program began advertising Hammington as “the first foreign comedian in Korea”.
“Being funny in one language is one thing, in another language and culture is a whole other game — it’s a continual learning process,” he says. “Koreans have a very different sense of humour. I was never sure of my timing, but comedians who had worked on the show for a long time told me it worked. You live or die by that in comedy, so I guess I got lucky.”
At other times he found it harder to hit the mark. “Sometimes we would sit down and I would suggest something and [the writers] would respond, ‘Hey, what’s funny about that?’ ”
He eventually moved on to co-host a drivetime show at an English-language radio station. But the lure of TV again proved too strong.
In February last year, he appeared on a Korean talk show called Radio Star. After the episode featuring Hammington went to air, it went viral on the internet, becoming one of the most searched topics in the country.
He received an offer from a producer for another Korean network, who was working on a new reality TV show, Real Men, named after a Korean army song. The premise was that Hammington would join the military — as all young Koreans are required to do for up to two years — along with a half-dozen Korean entertainers. He eagerly accepted.
“After the first show went to air, it was all over the internet again. ‘Where has this guy come from?’ [people were asking]. I felt like a fish out of water, but Koreans thought I was the funniest thing ever: an overweight white guy bumbling his way through the Korean military.
“I have abseiled out of helicopters, blown up a mine, thrown live grenades, fired live ammunition from a machinegun [and] slept in barracks, eating with the regular soldiers — no creature comforts for me. We’ve been given access to places even the average Korean does not go — I’m the first Aussie to patrol the Demilitarised Zone.”
Real Men is filmed once a month for a week, which yields four episodes’ worth of material. Screening on one of the big three TV stations at 6pm on Sunday evenings, it has made Hammington a big star; he has won an industry award for best new talent in light entertainment, becoming the first non-Korean to do so.
“I have also filmed commercials for 10 different products in the first 10 months of the show,” he says. “My life has gone through a 180-degree turn — in recognition and opportunities and, of course, earnings.”
He believes part of the secret of his success is not merely saying what he thinks Korean viewers want to hear. “I became known as the guy who asks questions all the time — mostly, Koreans don’t do that.
“I say that I ask so many questions so I don’t repeat my mistakes, that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. But Koreans are taught not to question the authority of a teacher or doctor or lawyer, and especially anyone in the army.”
Viewers with family members or friends in the army have told him they previously had little idea what went on.
“They say thank you for asking those questions on our behalf,” he says.
Hammington says he hopes to break down some barriers, with many Koreans familiar only with foreigners who are military personnel or English teachers.
“When I first came here 12 years ago, people would look at me and then look away; they wouldn’t know how to deal with me,” he says. “Now I have women coming up and saying they wish they had a son-in-law like me.
“People say they would trust me with their children. If anything, now it’s the expats I get the hate mail from. I do things in the show and make mistakes, there’s a bit of bumbling about. They say, ‘Sam makes us all look bad.’ Hey, that’s life.”
Last year Hammington married his long-time girlfriend Yuni in two ceremonies. The first was a sponsored event in Seoul with about 600 invited guests, akin to a traditional Korean royal wedding, with Hammington in an emperor’s outfit, carried into the ceremony on a carriage on a litter. The second was a white wedding in Australia.
“It was meant to be private but unfortunately became very public,” he says.
Hammington now has two careers: reality shows and cameos in films. He also writes, and develops ideas through his management company, “trying to diversify all the time”.
Fame in South Korea is a significantly more intense experience than in Australia. “Fans send expensive gifts — such as computers. They turn up to every single performance. But I still like to go out and do my own thing, being an Aussie.
“I’m expected to be a spokesman for the country, and not having lived there for 12 years it’s a bit hard,” he says.
But Bill Paterson, the Australian ambassador in Seoul, says that every time Hammington has been asked to help promote Australia, he has jumped at the chance.
“I love being the most famous Aussie here,” Hammington says.