Known as the Madonna of Korea, Uhm Jung Hwa earned that monicker over the years as one of the most important and influential female singers in K-pop. Her style, charisma, and talent helped to make her a role model for many of today's female stars and a pioneer in the way women performed and expressed themselves on stage. Her legacy doesn't just end with music as she is now also an acclaimed actress both on the big and small screens, making her a formidable triple threat. However, it was her prowess on the music stage that earned her the spotlight and adoration of K-pop fans around the world.
Just the Beginning
Uhm Jung Hwa began her music career in 1993 releasing her first album 'Sorrowful Secrets'. The title track of the album, "Eyes", was written by famed Korean rock musician Shin Hye Chul and was also included in the soundtrack of the movie she was also starring at the time, 'On a Windy Day, We Must Go to Apujeong'. Her character in the movie was that of a femme fatale and that concept also translated into the overall look and feel for her performance of the song. While the album didn't receive the greatest of reviews, the sexy image she portrayed was a polar opposite to the innocent, cute image that many female singers were pushing at the time. This helped her to find her own place in the music industry and fans took notice. Also, if you look carefully, you'll see that the back dancer with Uhm Jung Hwa is none other than Koyote's Kim Jong Min who famously made his debut on her dance crew.
After a few years off to work on her acting career, Uhm Jung Hwa made her return to the music stage in 1996 with her second album 'Uhm Jung Hwa 2". The title single "Sad Expectations" was a pop dance hit that continued her image as a sexy siren. Although the song was popular, it failed to reach the expectations that were set. However, the song from the album that did gain traction with fans was the polar opposite of what she had been performing. "A Love Only Heaven Will Permit" was totally different from the sexy image she had cultivated with her first album. The ballad written by well-known producer Kim Hyung Suk was the perfect vehicle to showcase another, more gentle side of the singer and the fans agreed making it her first true wave in the music industry.
Rise to Fame
Riding that wave of popularity, Uhm Jung Hwa released her third album in 1997. If the second album was the initial wave, the third album was a storm surge. Teaming with producer Joo Young Hoon (with whom she would forge a fruitful partnership), the title song "Betrayal of the Rose" would be her biggest hit to date and her first song to reach number 1 on the music charts, staying there for multiple weeks. The song would encapsulate what would be her signature dance sound and was the beginning of her ascent as a true performer and entertainer. This song launched her into that rarified superstar air and turned her into one of the most popular singers in Korea. She followed up her title single with the ballad "Regret" and another dance track "Love Triangle" which reinforced her range as a singer.
1997 also saw the singer featured on another number 1 song, but it wouldn't be from her own album. Through her friendship with rapper turned producer Yang Hyun Suk, Uhm Jung Hwa was a featured singer on the debut album of the group Jinusean and their runaway hit, "Tell Me". The combined success of "Tell Me" and her own album cemented her as the new "It" girl of K-pop.
In 1998, Uhm Jung Hwa released her fourth album 'Invitation'. If the third album was a storm surge, then the fourth album was a tsunami. 'Invitation' became one of the best selling albums if the year and one of the best selling albums for a female singer. The title track "Poison" was an enormous hit, reaching number 1 and one of her most recognizable songs. The upbeat dance track also began her transformation not just a singer but as an icon of fashion, shedding her famously long locks and willing to take risks in her overall performance. The popularity of the song certainly wasn't hurt by the appearance of then fashion model Cha Seung Won (Dokko Jin for you K-drama fans) in the music video, helping to launch his career.
Uhm Jung Hwa enlisted the help of another famous producer for her follow up single, collaborating with J.Y. Park for song "Invitation". The song was classically JYP as it emphasized a slow groove and accentuated the singer's sex appeal. The song was a hit generating massive buzz from fans about the subject of the lyrics. The music video was also a hot topic with scenes depicting the singer with her bare back receiving a massage, something that had never been shown in K-pop before. The third single "Finding the Hidden Picture" was a much more light, up tempo song released in the winter of that year.
At this point in her career, Uhm Jung Hwa's popularity was undeniable. She was one of the most famous entertainers in Korea and with all due respect to the many who have worn this crown; the Queen of K-pop.
Uhm Jung Hwa released her fifth album in 1999, '005.1999.06' which became her bestselling album. If the fourth album was a tsunami, then this album was a full on hurricane. The single "I Don't Know" is arguably her most famous song and is definitely included on the list of coolest (or craziest) fashion styles for any song in K-pop history. Wearing the now infamous water filled headphones; the diva unleashed the equally famous dance to a techno, cyber inspired dance track which was en vogue at the time. The song also reached the top spot on the music charts reinforcing her position of dominance. The other well-known single from the album, "Festival", was another in a long list of consecutive hits and was more of a traditional pop dance track with a happy-go-lucky vibe, getting away from the techno sound.
Over the next two years, the diva would release three more studio albums, 'Queen of Charisma' in 2000 and 'Flower' in 2001. The singles from these albums, "Escape", "Crack", and, "Everyone Go Away" would all become popular songs although not reaching the same level of galactic success as her previous works.
After a three year break from the music scene, Uhm Jung Hwa made her return in 2004 with her eighth album 'Self Control'. The two disc album was a change from the pop music she had been known for and veered into the realm of electronic and house music. She began working with new producers and artists to master and perfect this sound. While the singer was critically praised for taking risks and for the quality of her work, by and large, this type of music found a smaller yet enthused audience than her previous works. She continued to follow this path of music into her ninth album, 'Prestige', released in 2005. Diving even deeper into this genre of music, she was critically acclaimed for her efforts, even earning an award from the Korea Music Awards.
The Comeback Kid
As Uhm Jung Hwa took some time off from singing to refocus on her acting career, she began preparations for her musical comeback by turning once again to her friend Yang Hyun Suk of YG Entertainment. In 2008, she returned with and all new EP 'D.I.S.C.O' collaborating with many of YG's biggest stars. The most popular of these collaborations was the title single of the same name with Big Bang member T.O.P. The song was produced by YG's main producer Teddy and Stony Skunk member and frequent YG producer Kush. The song brought the K-pop diva back to her pop roots and gained huge attention for not only working with a single member of Big Bang but another version of the song featured the other rapper of the group, G-Dragon.
Uhm Jung Hwa is an icon. She broke down barriers for female singers to be assertive, confident, and sexy. She was different from the passive, timid characters that were the norm when she first debuted in 1993. Lee Hyori, Baek Ji Young, 2NE1, and others all have her to thank for their ability to freely express themselves and not be afraid to show the world who they are.
She is a fighter. In October of 2010, a tumor was found during a routine exam and she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Thankfully, she was able to receive surgery and recover successfully from the scare.
Uhm Jung Hwa is a true entertainer. Receiving twenty eight awards in music, film, and fashion over a sixteen year span, she is recognized by her peers, the industry, and fans alike as one of the finest performers of her generation. They also call her the Chameleon; able to change her style while taking chances, reinventing herself to stay one step ahead of the curve and always going down new paths. It makes you wonder what she'll do next.