At some point in Shin Jeong-ah’s charade, she became delusional. She has deluded herself into believing that she really does have a Yale Ph.D., regardless of what Yale says. It was much easier for Ms. Shin to actually believe her own lies than to go on pretending that her public persona was not a big, fat lie. If not delusional, then she’s a congenital liar.
Ms. Shin’s delusional world brings to mind Blanche DuBois, the ageing Southern belle in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and Norma Desmond, the washed-up silent-film star in “Sunset Boulevard.” Both fictional women lost their grip on reality and inhabited a world of make-believe. And both women’s sad denouement was confinement in a mental institution.
Now that Shin’s make-believe world, built around her bogus Yale degree, has collapsed like a house of cards, she may suffer the same fate as Blanche and Norma. There’s no telling how well she will hold up to public scrutiny, especially with the media shadowing her every move and baying outside her officetel. Even her paternity is grist for the rumor mill. And then there are those fake nude photos, a little poetic justice for her fake persona.
Before becoming an intern at the Kumho Museum, Shin knew that a Yale degree would gain her entree into the exclusive society that funds art galleries and museums, where Korea’s richest put their money and where one’s educational pedigree is everything.
When John F. Kennedy was awarded an honorary Yale degree, the great wit famously said, “Now I have the best of both worlds, a Yale degree and a Harvard education.” That is, Yale is about blood and Harvard is about brains.
Kumho eventually got wise to its intern’s charade, dismissing her quietly. Nonetheless, Shin’s networking and bogus Ph.D. worked like a charm. She got the curator job at Sungkok Art Museum, where she probably met Byeon Yang-kyoon, Yale alum and the kind of guy the wily Shin could use. Here was an influential older man with connections to the Blue House, someone who could help further her career in the exclusive art world she coveted. With Byeon behind her, the sky was the limit.
Shin became a rising star in the Korean art world, putting on successful shows at the Sungkok before being named co-director of the Gwangju Biennale, no small accomplishment for a 35-year-old woman in Korea. There must have been times, though, when she worried about being found out. Perhaps she sat before a mirror and said, “Of course, I’m a Yale Ph.D. I really am. I am”! Not to worry. Byeon was behind her.
I wonder how long it took Byeon to figure out that Shin was a phony. Seemingly, her charade was an open secret among Seoul’s tiny Yale community; so Byeon must have known early on. We’ve seen it all before: the powerful older man smitten by an ambitious younger woman. It’s a soap-opera cliche that lends credence to there’s no fool like and old fool.
Yale can’t be too pleased with the negative press coming from Korea. It was bad enough that Kim Seung-youn’s son, a Yale student, triggered the Hanwha debacle, which was reported in the international press including Time. Now we have a Yale alum aiding and abetting Shin in her Ph.D. charade, the academic equivalent of treason. Byeon betrayed Yale. How dare he?
Hollywood is a very forgiving community. It even forgave Roman Polanski, the Academy Award-winning director of “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown,” who still faces statutory rape charges -- stemming from an encounter with a 13-year-old girl in 1969 -- should he return to the U.S.A. Yet there are two things the community does not forgive: bloody murder, a la O.J. Simpson, and lying about Yale. A certain movie producer, a man on the way up c. 1990, lied about being a Yale man. Despite his proven success at the box-office, once his lie was exposed he became a social pariah and his Hollywood career ended. Thou shalt not lie about Yale.
By all accounts, Prof. Shin was a competent teacher. Her Dongguk Univ. Art History students thought her knowledgeable and were impressed by her point lectures conducted in English. They found her charming, and liked her sense of style. She was always fashionably dress and nicely coiffed. But they also found Shin to be aloof, someone difficult to get to know. They thought the 35-year-old single woman was too guarded about her private life; something she never talked about, as if she had something to hide. Indeed, Prof. Shin had everything to hide.
The exclusive world of art galleries and museums, where works of art costing huge sums of money change hands, has been roiled by the scandal. The Sungkok, funded by the Ssangyoung Group, is under investigation for illegal sales and for a stash of cash. This world has been the preserve of the very richest, where Chaebol families have been investing fortunes while most Koreans were investing in apartments and the nouveau riche were investing in BMWs and Mercedes. But as Korea’s wealth grew, a new breed of investors with deep pockets moved away from real estate and the stock market and into art, causing the art market to boom.
The nouveau riche are insecure by their very nature. The women are secure only when wearing brand names. This is why Prada, Gucci, Dior and other famous couture names have opened shops and profited by catering to the tastes of affluent Seoulites. Money is no object with these women, when they get what they are after; i.e., brand names that give them status and therefore confidence.
I was in a famous San Francisco art gallery in July and struck up a conversation with the owner, who had recently sold three Chagals to a Seoul gallery prior to its grand opening. Well, there are few modern artists safer to invest in than Chagal. The Seoul gallery didn’t mind paying top dollar because it was getting an acknowledged modern master, a top brand name.
A woman like Shin thrives in that type of environment, advising insecure collectors who are new to the art market. Shin was a Yale Ph.D., wasn’t she? The clueless would blindly follow her advice. And they did.
Shin strikes me as the modern equivalent of the courtesan, a mistress who gained entree into European courts on the arm of an older man, advancing herself by her wiles and sexual favors. Despite their dubious status, some of these courtesans became socialites. They supported the arts and were fixtures at the opera and in the art salons of Europe.
Trying to separate fact from fiction is virtually impossible. Was Shin an accomplished curator, or an accomplished courtesan? Was she really capable of staging art shows that were successful on their own merit, or was she simply the creation of Byeong’s patronage? The latter is more plausible. Shin’s modus operandi was cultivating older artists -- “She never forgot a birthday” -- while pointedly avoiding her own generation’s artists and curators. And for good reason, for they wouldn’t have been so easily fooled.
Shin and Byeong is a pathetic couple: the old fool and the wily fox who thought she could fool all of the people all of the time. Now they are entangled in a web of deception and stuck with each other.
<저작권자 © 동국포스트, 무단 전재 및 재배포 금지>