(ATTN: UPDATES headline, lead, throughout with Web rumors)
SEOUL, Oct. 2 (Yonhap) -- The death of South Korean actress Choi Jin-sil, whose cheerful demeanor and versatile talents made her a household name, dealt a painful blow to the nation on Thursday, with malignant online rumors blamed for her suicide.
Choi, 40, was found dead by her family in her southern Seoul home early in the morning with one end of an elastic band around her neck and the other end tied to a shower stall. Choi had been the target of malicious rumors circulating on the Internet blaming her for the recent suicide of another famous actor, police said.
Given the weight of Choi's presence as a fixture on prime-time television dramas, her apparent suicide came as a brutal shock to fans and colleagues. Internet rumors have already been blamed for the deaths of several other female celebrities.
"She said she was upset by the rumors. I told her not to fret over them, and that she has faced (similar rumors) before. They will be forgotten in time," said Jeong Joon-ho, who co-starred with Choi in her last drama series, "The Last Scandal of My Life."
Word has been circulating via online portals that Choi had lent a large sum of money to actor Ahn Jae-hwan, 37, who committed suicide in early September. Ahn, the husband of popular comedian Jung Sun-hee, a close friend of Choi, was believed be under pressure from loan sharks to pay his debts.
Two weeks ago, Choi sought a police probe into the source of the stories, calling them groundless. A securities company employee was arrested this week on allegations of spreading rumors that Choi lent 2.5 billion won (US$2 million) to Ahn.
"She suffered a lot from the loan rumors," said Seo Sang-wook, chief of Choi's promotion agency SBM Entertainment. The previous day, the actress came to a studio to shoot a commercial, but the shoot was canceled halfway through because Choi said she didn't feel well, her colleagues said.
A slew of celebrity suicides have gripped the nation in recent years, often driven by anonymous bloggers posting rumors surrounding their private lives.
Popular singer and sex symbol Yuni took her own life last year after rumors spread that she had undergone plastic surgery. Barely a month later, Jeong Da-bin, the star of the hit romantic comedy "Cat on the Roof" committed suicide, leaving a note behind that read, "I'm confused and I feel like I'm going to die...I have lost my identity."
Movie actress Lee Eun-joo, who played a tormented heroine in the film "Scarlet Letter," which was snubbed by critics, also killed herself in 2005.
"There could be a variety of factors that drove Choi to her death," said Hong Jin-pyo, a psychiatrist at Asan Medical Center in Seoul. "She might have suffered tremendous stress, with every move she made drawing public attention."
The latest celebrity suicide has also sparked fears over possible copycat suicides.
Following the death of Ahn, who took his own life by inhaling toxic gas from burning briquettes inside his car, at least three other people in their 30s took their own lives in the same manner. Experts fear the shock of Choi's death will be particularly poignant, given her top-rated career spanning two decades. The so-called Werther effect, named after the protagonist in Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther," could spread among celebrities as well, as stars are said to be more vulnerable to malicious rumors, experts note.
"For ordinary individuals, if a celebrity they know encounters problems and commits suicide, they come to think that they are incapable of solving their own problems and make the same decision," said Min Seong-gil, a psychiatrist at Yonsei University's Severance Hospital.
The National Statistical Office says there were 12,174 suicides last year, representing 5 percent of all deaths, a 14 percent jump from a year earlier. The figure is one of the highest in the world when measured against Korea's population of 48 million, it said.
Since her debut in 1988, Choi swiftly climbed the career ladder, clinching main roles in soap operas, movies and commercials as well as winning numerous awards. Her enduring popularity in the fleeting entertainment industry earned her the nickname "The People's Star."
But her life took a tumultuous turn when her outwardly impeccable marriage to pro baseball player Cho Sung-min ended in an ugly divorce in 2004. The actress had reportedly taken medication for depression since.
Choi is survived by two children.
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