Korean pop, or more widely known as Kpop, has been taking over the world for the past decade or so. Whether you love it or hate it, you’ve got to admit that you know at least one Kpop song that got stuck in your head for a few days after first hearing it. Known for their catchy music and synchronised moves, the Korean music industry is also often likened to a factory churning out Kpop idol groups by the bulks every year. This Rojak Daily
writer has been following the scene for a long, long time and even she admits that she has lost count of the number of idol groups there are at the moment.
Due to the global success of big artists like Big Bang, Girls Generation, EXO and more, millions of teenagers idolise these personalities and dream of following after their footsteps. Multitudes of aspiring youngsters try their luck by auditioning at well-known entertainment agencies such as YG Entertainment, SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and etc, on a weekly basis just to get their shot at fame. However, being a Kpop idol is more than just having good looks and amazing talent. We break down the blood, sweat and tears that it could possibly take for one to become a successful Kpop star.
Koreans are all about hard work. Lee Moon Won
, a culture critic once said, “Koreans spend the same effort on everything, whether it is college entrance exams or an office job.” After passing the auditions and successfully getting into an agency, one would sign a contract with the company and officially become a trainee. However, there are hundreds of other trainees competing for a limited chance to make their debut, so you can only imagine the amount of pressure and hard work it takes.
You have to take singing, dancing, acting, and even language classes to become a ‘global star’. Most of these trainees are still in school. So you have to think about juggling student life and trainee life. For those who are students, their daily schedules could start as early as 5am and end as late as 1am the next day. These companies have something called a ‘monthly evaluation’ to, well, evaluate the trainees’ progress and performance at the end of each month. Hence trainees would have to rehearse twice as hard whenever monthly evaluations are close to avoid having their dreams crushed.
Here, we’re not just talking about a three to six-month training period. Depending on the company and contract signed, it could last anytime between five to 10 years! Since you are obligated to sign a contract before beginning your training, it could be very costly for you to quit before your contract ends because during this time, the agency usually bears the costs of vocal coaches, choreographers, stylists, make-up artists, accommodation, living expenses, and staff salaries. If you choose to quit, you may have to pay a large sum back to the company.
The worst part is you’ll never know if you’ll ever get the chance to debut. Some entertainment companies may decide to kick you out if they find that you’re no longer fit to become a star. Even if you do end up debuting, it could take years! Jo Kwon from 2AM had to train for eight years before officially debuting as an idol group member.
MNET (Korea’s version of MTV) General Manager Shin Hyung Kwan
said, “It takes time to see who has hidden talents. It’s one thing to pick some person and say you’re going to make them a star, but you have to see if they get along with each other and in society at large. If you are not careful, the whole thing can be spoiled. Westerners do not understand. The performers could get into an accident, some kind of trouble.” What he means is scandals that involve public image, such as sex scandals, drunk driving, drugs and etc. The Kpop trainee system basically disciplines its stars and educates the person as a whole. So if you think that your school homework is tough, think again.
Good looks are extremely important to a Korean celebrity. Besides some idols undergoing the infamous plastic surgeries and cosmetic enhancements, many, if not all of them, must follow strict diet plans and limit their food intakes in order to maintain a certain weight, especially before a performance. During the monthly trainee evaluations, some companies would even record your weight and body fat percentage to monitor your diet progress!
As a result, most female idols often appear underweight. Nine Muses is an idol group who is known to follow a ‘paper cup diet’. This unusual plan basically requires you to fill a small disposable cup with any food – of course it has to be healthy – to maintain a very controlled food proportion and keep you in shape. We already feel hungry on their behalf just thinking about it.
Soyou from SISTAR once confessed that she took the worst dieting plan to lose 8kg within a month. She completely restricted her carb and salt intake, and only ate four quail eggs with no yolk, low-fat milk, and salad without dressing every day. She even felt bad when she was offered to eat some watermelon because she feared that it would ruin her diet. Her fellow group member, Dasom, also revealed that she underwent a ‘one-food diet’ to lose 10kg in three weeks, and her one food was cucumber.
How does one survive on cucumbers alone?!
Some idols not only have to lose weight but also maintain the current weight, which can be tough because of the intense dancing and exercise they do for hours on end every day.
As seen above, popular girl group Girls Generation follows the 1,500 kcal diet plan, which consists of 50g herbs, five pieces of broccoli, 150g brown rice and 100g chicken breast. No wonder they can maintain that slim figure.
Besides practising singing, dancing, recording songs, and producing albums, Kpop idols also have to think about marketing and promoting their work, which means MORE work for them in terms of public appearances. Some idol groups’ schedules are packed to the brim – filming commercials, attending photoshoots, appearing on variety shows, and showing up at special events, just to make a name in the industry. Variety shows are a great way for celebrities to get their faces known by the public and turn into household names because the Koreans LOVE tuning in to their favourite variety programmes. So getting a spot in a popular variety show like Running Man
, Weekly Idol
or Infinity Challenge
would be a big deal.
But busy schedules could mean risk of exhaustion and other health problems. There have been numerous cases where idol stars had fainted on stage in the middle of a performance and had to be rushed to the hospital. G-Dragon, leader of the world-famous Big Bang, once hyperventilated on stage after performing 10 songs in a row at one of the group’s concerts. Then there's Dongho from U-Kiss, who decided to quit the entertainment industry due to health issues.
The Korean entertainment industry is notorious for their ‘slave contracts’. We previously mentioned that some of these contracts could last up to 10 years. Several years ago, SM Entertainment, one of the largest entertainment labels in the country behind Girls Generation, Super Junior and EXO, made international headlines for legal issues pertaining their artists’ contractual agreements.
Former Super Junior Han Geng had sued the company in 2009 for allegedly forcing him to do things against his wishes and denying him sick leaves when he was suffering from gastritis and kidney problems. In the same year, former members of TVXQ also sued the agency, claiming that their income was distributed unfairly even after working to their physical limits, operating on just less than four hours of sleep every night. In 2012, Kris from EXO-M also filed a lawsuit for contract annulation. “The company has treated me like a machine part or as an object of control rather than presenting a vision as an entertainer,” he said.
Following these unfair contracts, the Korean Free Trade Commission introduced standardised contracts, which allow contracts between an agency and artist to last as long as only seven years. However, some idols continue to endure unfair treatment by their management agencies and are forced to pay outrageous penalties should they decide to terminate their contracts and leave the company.
The Korean music industry is so saturated as agencies continuously produce idol groups several times a year. So it is only natural that the weaker ones who fail to stand out would end up disbanding due to the intense competition. The industry takes pride in its weekly music programmes, where idol groups and songs are ranked by album sales, digital sales and audience votes. The idol who takes the number one spot every week is highly regarded and would see their credibility and popularity increase tremendously. However, due to the large number of artists competing every week, not all groups get a chance to perform at these music shows. Sometimes, the agencies would have to resort to paying the broadcast station to buy airtime for their artists.
If you don’t get a spot, you won’t go on TV. If you don’t go on TV, nobody knows you. If nobody knows you, nobody knows your songs. And if nobody knows your songs… you get the idea.
There is also a myth circulating within the Kpop industry saying that idol groups would only last no longer than five to seven years without undergoing a member-change or worse, disbandment. Since the early days of Kpop, many groups have fallen victim to this curse largely due to the period of their contracts as well as strong competition. Sometimes, idol group members would end up pursuing different careers, such as continuing as solo artists, turning to acting, or becoming a TV host instead.
Some popular groups that have been affected by this ‘curse’ in recent years include 4minute, BEAST, TVXQ, KARA, f(x), 2NE1, and most recently, Wonder Girls. However, there are also other groups who have withstood this curse, namely Big Bang, who just celebrated their 10th anniversary since debut. But one of the group members, TOP, will be enlisting in military services next month and he will be gone from the entertainment scene for two years. Who knows what’s gonna happen then? We’ll just have to wait to find out.
Public image pressure
Public image is very important in the eyes of the Koreans and all it takes is one scandal to ruin your entire career. 2NE1’s Park Bom broke the news in 2014 for allegedly attempting to smuggle drugs into the country. Although her party had explained that the drugs were actually medical prescriptions from the United States, where she lived previously, the public did not take this case lightly and Park Bom ended up with depression. She was also immediately removed from a variety show, Roommates
, shortly after the scandal. Following that, she was no longer seen active in the entertainment scene, and it eventually led to the shocking announcement of 2NE1’s disbandment late last year.
Lack of privacy is no surprise when you become a Kpop idol, or any celebrity for that matter, because you’re constantly in the public eye. But in Korea, it's a whole other level. Besides the regular fangirls and fanboys, you also have a group of fans known as ‘sasaeng
fans’ or ‘private fans’. This group usually consists of females aged between 13 and 22 with extremely unhealthy levels of idol obsession.
We’re not just talking about fans who are willing to queue for days just to get tickets to an upcoming concert or spend the night at airports just to catch a glimpse of their idol who will be travelling overseas. We’re talking extreme fans who follow their idols 24/7, install cameras in their idols’ homes, hack into mobile phones to stalk who their idols are calling or texting (yes, they can actually do that), crash private family functions, and the list goes on. There have also been cases where these fans had broken into the idol’s homes or hotel rooms and snuck in lingerie!
fans are known to be highly territorial and would even attack other fans who dare to get close to or make physical contact with their idol. In the most extreme cases, some sasaeng
fans would pretty much devote their entire lives to stalking their idols, quitting school and even resorting to prostitution in order to afford special taxi services to follow their idols!
You can find out more about sasaeng
fans in the following videos:
Now that you have a better idea of what it could possibly take to become a Kpop idol, maybe we should all take a moment to put aside any stereotype about Kpop and appreciate the artists for a change. At the end of the day, they are just trying to make a living by doing what they love... but at greater costs.