Korean singer Choi Sung-bong, who sprung to fame after placing second on Korea’s Got Talent, has died by suicide, Seoul police said Wednesday. He was 33.
Choi was found dead by police at his home in the Yeoksam-dong district in southern Seoul at 9:41 a.m. Tuesday, according to South Korea wire service Yonthap, which was the first to report the news.
Choi had an underprivileged upbringing and dropped out of music school because he couldn’t afford the tuition fees. After spending years supporting himself as a day laborer, his big break came in 2011 when he landed a spot on Korea’s Got Talent, broadcast by tvN. Choi’s operatic performance of Ennio Morricone’s “Nella Fantasia” wowed the show’s judges and he advanced to the finals, eventually coming in second place by just 280 votes. The YouTube clip of his performance on the show went viral and was viewed over 21 million times, with K-pop stars like BoA and Jung-Hwa Um promoting it on social media. Choi got an even bigger boost when Justin Bieber praised him on his Facebook page, writing, “This is awesome. Never say never, and good luck to this kid. Great story.” International media outlets at the time hailed Choi as Korea’s version of the Susan Boyle story.
Choi scored a record deal with Korean label Bong Bong Company and later published a bestselling memoir about his journey from an impoverished youth to internet fame. But his career took a turn towards infamy in 2021 after he launched a public fundraising campaign saying he was fighting multiple forms of cancer and needed money for treatment. The episode was later revealed to be a hoax.
Yonhap reports that Seoul police concluded Choi killed himself because of the circumstances at his home at the time his body was discovered — and because of a note he uploaded to his YouTube channel earlier in the week.
“I sincerely apologize to all who suffered from my foolish mistake,” the note said, adding that Choi had returned all of the donations he received under false pretenses.
South Korea’s entertainment industry has been plagued by a succession of deaths of young performers in recent years, causing growing concern about the mental health stresses experienced by artists in the country. In 2019, K-pop star Sulli, 25, was found dead in her home after experiencing a wave of cyberbullying. Just weeks later, Goo Hara, 28, another K-pop star, was found dead in her home. Both cases were ruled suicides. K-drama actresses, Jung Chae-yull and Song Yoo-jung, both 26, also passed away suddenly in recent years, but their agencies did not disclose the cause of their deaths.
In October 2021, the South Korean government introduced a plan to improve the mental health support available to local celebrities. But the high-profile deaths have continued. Haesoo, a 29-year-old K-pop signer, died by reported suicide just earlier this month.
If you or anyone you know in the U.S. is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources. In other territories, please call your local suicide hotline.