Even just a couple of years ago, it would have been unheard-of for 10- and 20-something social media users to shrug off a video of a young man shouting out “Mama!” in a quirky, high-pitched voice.
With the meteoric rise of TikTok, WonJeong, whose real name is Seo Won-jeong, is definitely in the opportune limelight as a creator. Over the last two years, the 26-year-old has become the nation’s No. 2 TikTok creator boasting more than 50 million followers, right next to K-pop phenomenon BTS, and one of the most sought-after figures in the entertainment business scene.
He was the honorary ambassador for the 58th Daejong International Film Awards, becoming the first nonindustry figure to have taken the role at the major film award ceremony. He’s also published an autobiography titled “My 15 Seconds” to share a behind-the-scenes look at his life as a mega TikTok creator. It took Seo only two years to stardom, but it was not an overnight success for him.
“Frankly speaking, it was like playing a level-up game watching the number of my followers go up each time I posted a video. Back then, I was all holed up in my own room. All I did was creating videos, analyzing the contents and harshly training myself every day,” said Seo during a recent interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul at the headquarters of Soon Ent., the nation’s largest TikTok creator agency to which he is affiliated.
“It wasn’t until early this year that I started connecting with other creators and noticed the spotlight around me. Earlier this year, I had traveled to the Philippines and that was the moment I actually realized my global popularity. A group of children were tagging along wherever I went.”
Having grown up in the southeastern city of Daegu, Seo presented himself as a clever young boy brimming with wide-eyed excitement. Before venturing into TikTok, he excelled in mathematics and science in elementary school, pivoted to becoming a professional boxer in middle school, then delved into music production and majored in sound engineering in college.
Often he’d fronted opposition from his parents, but he managed to talk them through by bringing home trophies and top grades. As soon as he received permission from his parents, he immediately moved out and went straight up to Seoul to achieve his dream as a creator. Somewhat of a perfectionist, Seo also describes himself a realist with a clear sense of self at the time.
“Looking back, I think I’ve always wanted to prove myself. It was all about making the best out of the given 24 hours. I just had to do everything right. Now I'm more at ease with TikTok, but I had to completely sever myself from the world to fully immerse into this new platform,” he said, explaining that one of the reasons behind writing the book was to share this not-so-rosy, down-to-earth success story.
He might have leaned a bit more into his TikTok-star persona with a fully packed celebrity schedule, but just a few steps away from the camera, Seo said he was just like any other 20-somethings craving for freedom and fun. He still lives with his long-time college friends with whom he’s moved up from his hometown, as part of efforts to keep his private life intact.
“You know, my life remains the same, but so many things surrounding me have changed. I still remember the first time I uploaded my first video, for which I used the duet function. It immediately hit several hundred thousand views, and the second video racked up a million views. But ironically, I felt isolated at the same time because the comments were all written in English by global users. It was like, ‘Who are all these people? I don't even know their faces,’" said Seo sharing of his initial mixed feelings toward gaining global fandom.
Seo struck a chord with global TikTok users. Thanks to his surging global popularity, the TikTok star is fully booked with big name events next year; he has been invited to luxury brand Hugo Boss’ fashion show in Milan in February, a World Influencers & Bloggers event in Monaco in March and to the coveted Cannes Film Festival in May.
Still dealing with the whirlwind of changes, Seo didn’t shy away from sharing the struggles he was going through.
“I wasn’t somebody who could dance and pose in front of a camera. It took me a lot of effort to be able to do that. And to be honest, I think I was more outgoing before I started TikTok," he said. "As a creator, I think I work 24 hours. Sometimes I overthink and stress myself out, and I still feel awkward with all these talk and spotlights around me. I’m just trying to be myself as much as possible.”
Nevertheless, the ever-evolving spirit was not lost on Seo. He still has a lot he wants to achieve within TikTok and outside of it.
“As platforms may not be eternal, I thought I needed something of my own. So I’m planning to launch a new game which uses my own brand sometime next year. It’s already in the process of development. Me and my company will keep cooking up something new,” he said, stressing once again, “but most importantly, I will continue communicating with my fans as a TikToker.”