Jennifer Chung accompanied on guitar by engineering undergrad Johnny Yang
UCI’s Jennifer Chung records her latest YouTube video, accompanied on guitar by engineering undergrad Johnny Yang. She’s also currently auditioning for the TV show “Glee.” Kerrin Piche Serna / University Communications

What do you do when “American Idol” says, “You’re just not what we’re looking for”? Many would be crushed and perhaps give up on their dreams. But not Jennifer Chung, third-year drama student at UC Irvine. She’s forging her own path to success.

Born in Korea, Chung grew up in the Bay Area. In 2007, after her high school graduation, Chung moved away, and her old friends missed her voice. So she fired up her laptop and webcam, belted out a song and posted her first video on YouTube.

By the end of the summer, she had 200 YouTube subscribers, which shocked her: “I didn’t even know 200 people!” Three years later, that number has ballooned to 112,000 — more than Mariah Carey, Leona Lewis or Alicia Keys, all of whose songs she’s covered. Some of Chung’s videos boast millions of views, and she’s among YouTube’s top 100 “most subscribed” musicians.

“Auditioning for ‘American Idol’ was a good experience,” Chung reflects, “but my success on YouTube shows there are many different ways to reach people.”

She’s finding success elsewhere too. MTV recently profiled her, and she just won a contest for emerging artists sponsored by Subway Fresh Buzz/MTV Iggy. The prize? Her video profile lit up the lunch hour in New York’s Times Square.

Chung’s appeal doesn’t lie in flashiness or fantasy. “My videos are simple and to the point,” the 20-year-old says. “People feel like they can relate to me.”

That’s apparent. Chung receives a flood of fan comments and requests — all of which she reads — from around the world. One of the most memorable was from a woman who said Chung’s song “You Won” eased her heartache when her husband left.

“For my song to comfort another person — that moved me,” says Chung. “It showed music is a universal language. It doesn’t discriminate and can help heal.”

She connected to music at an early age. Her father was a pop singer in Korea, her mother a dance instructor. Chung loved to sing and started performing at 9. “There was constantly music in the house,” she says. “It’s always been in my life.”

But her parents’ divorce caused Chung to grow up quickly. She helped raise her younger brother, Joseph, and assisted her mother — often translating between Korean and English. She looks back fondly on that time as formative.

Chung chose to attend UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts after visiting the campus. “I felt so at home. Irvine has something special,” she says. “I also thought music would be here.” She has studied with professors like Dennis Castellano, drama senior lecturer and head of music theater, who says: “I’ve known Jennifer for a couple of years and have always been impressed by her warm personality and beautiful voice.”

“I can understand the attraction to her videos,” he adds, “as she is able to make an intimate connection through the camera. Her heart shines through.”

Chung’s diligence and time-management skills will allow her to graduate a year early this spring. Then she’s off to study language and culture in France for the summer. After that, she’ll return to Southern California and look for a job.

Still unsigned, Chung says, “I hope to get a record deal. It doesn’t have to be a big record label. I want someone who believes in me and cares for my well-being — not just the money.

“I want to try being an independent artist and create something completely my own. I’ve met so many other musicians who have done it. More and more, I think it’s the way to go.”

And, as her experience with “American Idol” shows, Chung is determined to succeed.

“A career in the arts is very risky,” she says. “People don’t think it’s practical. But I don’t think it’s practical to do something you don’t love.

“If you’re really passionate about something, go for it.”