Park Seo-yeon eats for a living. And, boy, does she eat.
On a Sunday evening last month, I watched her gobble up $300 worth of prime beef, alongside an armful of grilled zucchini, mushroom, pepper, eggplant and pumpkin. Her second course: six fresh, blue crabs piled on a mound of greens and bathed in a clear broth. For dessert: pudding.
Also watching the 32-year-old consume copious quantities of food that night: several thousand fans. Park, who goes by the nickname ‘The Diva,’ is one of South Korea’s top culinary bloggers. Nearly every day, she prepares and eats her outsized evening meal in her home studio, live-broadcasting for up to four hours at a time. “I try to look pretty, eat pretty, and eat a lot of delicious food,” she says.
The Diva’s show is part cooking program, part virtual community. Fans tune in to see what she cooks (it varies, but it is always a lot) and how she eats it (with relish). They also send recipes, and ask her questions. (‘How do you eat so much?’) As a sign of appreciation, they send "balloons," a digital currency that can be converted to cash. She says she now makes about $9000 per month.
Park is at the leading edge of South Korea's burgeoning meok-bang, or 'broadcast eating' fad. There are thousands of hosts, although she is currently the most popular in the category. Two things are driving the trend, she says: an obsession with food, eating and dieting, and the loneliness of urban life.
The Diva's show is a sensory feast. You can hear the meat sizzle and the mustard squirt. After cutting a particularly juicy piece of steak, Park spears it with her fork and holds it before the camera, turning it just slightly until it glistens in the light. She takes a bite. "Juicy," she says, between chews. "It just melts away in my mouth."
The Diva's meals are mostly multi-course, multi-hour affairs featuring abnormally large portions. That's part of the appeal. A lot of her fans are young people, particularly young women, who face tremendous pressure to stay thin. "A lot of my fans are on a diet," she says. "Watching me eat gives them a vicarious thrill."
The tone is sensual, but not overtly sexual. Park is the first to admit that her looks are part of the appeal. Although she insists she does not purge or diet, she says she spends about 1.5 hours a day doing her makeup and hair, and strives to both "eat pretty" and look good. The day TIME met her, camera in-tow, she went to the butcher's shop in spike heels.
But the show is, quite literally, family friendly. After several years of broadcasting solo, Park made her parents regular guests. They drive to her home several nights a week to help her grocery shop, prepare food, and interact with the audience. "We tell the fans they should eat with their parents," says her dad, Park Il-lyun, 64. "Now I have my own fans too."
For some viewers the broadcast is a nightly ritual, a virtual re-enactment of a family meal. The number of one-person households in South Korea expected to jump from 25.3% in 2012 to 32.7% in 2030, the fastest rate among rich-world countries, according Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. "Many people are eating alone," Park says. "My show makes them feel like they are eating with a friend."
The Diva's fans, like real-life friends and family, are full of questions and advice. "Do you have a boyfriend?" they ask. "How do you manage to stay so slim?," "Where do you buy your makeup?," "What brand of oil do you use?" After watching her prepare and eat an outrageous amount of beef, one fan wrote-in with some health advice: "Eating too much meat is bad for your kidneys."
Certainly, the lifestyle takes its toll. Park's success in the virtual world has changed her real life. She makes more money than she did at her office job, sure, but she spends most of her time alone, prepping, shopping and broadcasting. It is tough to make dinner plans, or meet a life partner (which she says she would like to do), when you have a standing date with three or four thousand online voyeurs.
But she works hard to downplay the difficulty, to make it all look easy. Park is the woman who eats as much as she pleases, but doesn't gain a pound, the dinner companion who never tires of your company. She is selling the same thing that television shows have been peddling for years: fantasy. And audiences eat it up.
—with reporting by Stephen Kim / Incheon, South Korea