JOANNE PANG WRITES — It used to be the case that becoming a singer or an actress was a chance of a lifetime: you either got it or you didn’t, and then you moved on; but with K-pop on the rise, every boy and girl in South Korea wants to become an idol via the hundreds of entertainment agencies, ideally the avaricious top-tier agencies.  With today’s level of “mass production,” these agencies churn out boy and girl groups, pushing out groups of different concepts according to changing trends that drive turnover.

But is becoming a K-pop idol really dreamy? On October 15, 2019, former girl-group member of f(x), Sulli, was found dead in her house due to suicide resulting from a considerable history of depression, anxiety and other underlying mental health issues.

Alas, Sulli is not alone. f(x) is a girl-group promoted by the company S.M. Entertainment, one of the “Big 3” agencies that produces top artists. In May, one of Sulli’s best friends in the industry, former KARA girl-group member, Goo Hara, attempted suicide. On December 18, 2017, Sulli’s fellow label-mate, Jonghyun of SHINee, also died of suicide.

What does this say about the K-pop industry? How do these cases reflect the expectations and behavior of the Korean public?

Do idols have a life?

While sitting in front of your computer, being an idol might seem cool. But sitting in front of the computer sets you apart—far apart—from any K-pop star.  You have free time to relax. You aren’t under the watchful public’s eye.  No one would recognize you on the streets.

“It feels nice to be among this peace, this countryside away from the big city.”

“Wherever I go, someone would recognize me, so it was really nice to have a getaway trip where no one knew who I was.”

These are just two of the many K-pop idols’ confessions on TV. With the ever-presence of “sasaeng” (stalker fans), K-pop idols have absolutely no privacy. They are stalked in hotel lobbies, find cameras hidden in their hotel rooms and even find underwear stolen from their dormitories, then sold on eBay. Their plane seats are leaked by flight staff that earn money from sales to desperate fans who then hop on the same flight.

Their entire life and history are dug up: drinking underage, that person they might have once bullied or been bullied by  in high school, their high school photos for all to peruse looking for facial alterations from plastic surgery.  This level of psychotic pursuit seems to be greater, even,  than that which  the hottest of Hollywood idols must endure.

Do idols get to date?

American pop artist Ariana Grande has had how many relationships now? None of us are sure; every other song is about loving a current boyfriend or her hating her ex. This takes on a whole new dimension in the K-pop world. There, if you date a fellow idol, for example, the world around you will crumble as fans -– claiming wishful ownership of their favorites -– become extremely fault-finding, as well as aggressive, on the internet.

Sulli dated Chorizo, an artist ten years older than she is. How did Koreans on social media react? “You shouldn’t be dating a man ten years older!” (It was all her fault, of course). She was labelled “slut” and “whore”.

So how do you become a K-pop star? What does it take?

Idols begin training at a very young age; younger every year, it seems. Some even debut by age 15. Imagine: in the daytime, school; after school until midnight: dance, vocal lessons, speech lessons, modeling practice. You have no time for friends. And at the end of the day, there is no guarantee that you will debut.

What’s more, you are put on a strict diet – sometimes only water for days, or diets with small measures of protein and vegetables – because you can’t gain any fat!  And if you appear even slightly out of shape, you know what comes next: the netizens.

Once you debut, surprise! The training doesn’t stop. It in fact continues, until fame starts to wane after your group saturates the market. Only then might you get more freedom, and that’s only if your group is successful. At the peak of success, you might be allowed just two hours of sleeping (if any); you have to keep practicing your dance, your singing or rapping; you keep appearing at photoshoots and interviews, reality or variety television shows, and every time an idol group releases a full studio album or an extended play, you do three music show recordings per week, for one to two months.

With globalization expanding, you also have to do international tours. Chinese idols who may be multi-talented–that is, they are part of a K-pop group while also on the rise in the Chinese entertainment industry–fly back and forth multiple times a week between China and South Korea.

What happens to an idol’s mental health?

No wonder, then, the trend among many K-pop idols is to suffer mental health consequences, such as anxiety or depression. Being in the spotlight means that people will invade your social life. Company policies prohibit dating. Your everyday interactions are fodder for internet trolls. If you are slightly unenthusiastic, act immaturely, stand up for some Western cultural trend (not widely approved in South Korea) or appear to be slightly chubby, you are condemned. Harsh comments will be posted all over Korean blogsites: even things like “go die.”

This extends far beyond the criticisms leveled at Western superstars. Why? South Korea, neighboring China, autonomous region Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan are all in East Asia. In important respects, these societies are extremely conservative and restrictive. Mental health treatment is shunned. The philosophy that prevails: your mental problem is your own fault, and you shouldn’t tell anyone. If you do, your public will reject you and stop listening to you. You are alone.

Do we want to see these things happen to K-pop idols? Is all this rigidity and puppet-like perfection necessary, or even fair?

LMU sophomore Joanne Pang has her own fav K-pop group: EXO, and she has been a fan (non-sasaeng) since its 2012 debut. 

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