These days, it’s easier than ever to check out popular music, films and entertainment from other countries, but while there’s the odd crossover (think Psy or the “Macarena”), most cultures have celebrities who remain unknown to the rest of us. Here’s a quick look at 10 huge (and occasionally baffling) superstars you’ve probably never heard of:
1. Korea: Kang Ho-Dong
Kang Ho-Dong is kind of an unholy hybrid of George Lopez, Ryan Seacrest and Triple H. A talk show host, game show M.C. and former professional ssireum fighter (a type of traditional Korean wrestling), Kang was at one point presenting three of the top five shows on Korean television, with each program showcasing his trademark humorless, dead-eyed howl of fake laughter. Knee-Drop Guru featured him dressed in medieval-era clothes and grilling other stars with penetrating questions like, “What makes your new film so enjoyable?” and “How do you stay looking so young?” And on Star King, Kang wildly thrusts his groin and sometimes wears drag.
2. India: Rajinikanth
Perhaps the world’s most nondescript sex symbol, Rajinikanth is a south Indian actor who is literally worshipped by Tamils. Shrines to him sit inside fans’ homes alongside statues of Ganesh and pictures of the Virgin Mary, and hundreds of thousands of people line the streets whenever he visits their communities. Known for classic portrayals of villains, as well as some pretty limber dance routines, “Rajni” has won six Tamil Nadu Film Awards for Best Actor. Tamils — often politically sidelined in modern India and Sri Lanka — take enormous pride in the fact he acts in their language, despite him not actually being Tamil. (Born in Bangalore, Rajni’s career took off when he learnt the language after taking advice from a director.)
3. Nigeria: Terry G
Terry G is Nigeria’s biggest rap star, producing a blend of autotune and traditional gahu rhythm. Terry’s frank lyrics about sex, crime and corruption have proven controversial in socially conservative Nigeria; in 2010, he went on the run for several months after admitting to smoking marijuana. He’s also spoken about the difficulty of making money when pirate versions of his albums are available on every street corner.
4. Finland: Matti Nykänen
Matti Nykänen was one of the best ski-jumpers of all time. Since dominating the sport in the 1980s, the mulleted athlete has struggled to find focus. Alongside a successful singing career, he’s remained fiercely competitive post retirement: He attempted to kill a friend in 2004 after losing a finger-pulling competition. Married four times, he also racked up numerous assault charges against all four wives — even stabbing one. But stabbing isn’t just a love-thing with Matti: In 2006, he knifed a man in a pizza parlor. Critical opinion on his musical oeuvre is divided, but my favorite work is his 1993 sophomore album Samurai. Between stabbings and albums, Nykänen has written nine books. He’s also been presenting a cooking show since 2009 — because why not?
5. Ireland: Gay Byrne
Gay Byrne is the Irish Republic’s original TV host, the ur-form from which all Celtic talk show presenters have sprung forth. Uncle Gay — or Gaybo — is a reminder of a simpler time, of an Ireland locked into the Catholic Church’s deathgrip, a time when a velvety purr and snow-white hair were all that were needed to make a man a star. Hugely popular with older viewers, Byrne began hosting his Late Late Show in approximately 1837 (it’s still running, though he retired from it in 1999) and remains a regular fixture on Irish radio and television.
6. Angola: C4 Pedro
C4 Pedro looks like a dude who would sell you fake weed while you’re on holiday. He has a name like children’s bathroom disinfectant and a voice like a tentative angel. Singing kizomba zouk (a super-smooth fusion of R&B and folk rhythms), he’s Angola’s biggest music star. His song “Bo Tem Mel” is a legit bedroom jam, but despite his sexy lyrics, he’s a responsible loverman: He married his girlfriend in 2011 after revealing that his mother wouldn’t let her in the house until he put a ring on it.
7. Mongolia: Gee
Gee is a Mongolian hip-hop phenomenon. Openly disdainful of rivals on the Ulan Baator pop circuit, he’s about as far away from the tepid pop-rap swamping the West as it’s possible to be. The bad news? He’s linked with the country’s growing right-wing ethnic Mongolian nationalist movement. Also, I wouldn’t say it to his face, but I don’t really like any of his songs.
8. Philippines: Aiza Seguerra
Aiza is an Filipino actress and singer-songwriter who shot to fame in 1987 after winning a national kids’ singing competition at four years old. (These competitions are big news in the Philippines: There are children who make a living singing in them up and down the country.) Omnipresent on TV, her breakthrough hit “Padating ng Panahon” is pretty syrupy, but she deserves props for being an out-and-proud lesbian in a Catholic country that still has some pretty hostile attitudes towards homosexuality.
9. United Kingdom: Dale Winton
Dale Winton is a … TV presenter? I’m really not sure. He’s been a kind of cultural shorthand in the U.K. since at least the mid ‘90s, a byword for orange skin and engaging mediocrity. You won’t find an English person who doesn’t know who he is despite the fact that he hasn’t been seen on TV for at least a decade. He used to present the National Lottery (maybe?) and oversee a midday game show called Supermarket Sweep. He looks kind of like a teddy bear who’s been dipped in wood lacquer.
10. Russia: Alsou
Alsou is a Tatar singer who doesn’t seem to be able to sing. The daughter of a Russian oil oligarch (How many ruthless billionaires can one country breed?), she came in second in the 2000 Eurovision Song Contest, a super-camp event that makes Glee look like a Lars Von Trier film. She’s behind the two top-selling singles in Russian history. They’re both very poor songs, unfortunately.
Patrick Kilkelly writes about culture, travel and music. A Ph.D. candidate at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, he reads more about 19th century Korean grain tax reform than is healthy.
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