IBy Nadine Kam I
In my last post, I wrote about JYP Entertainment coming to town to audition Japanese speaking girls for a K-pop band created for the Japan market on Aug. 8. (Registration deadline Aug. 1)
A few weeks later I was in dance class when a mother and daughter walked in because the teenage daughter wanted to audition and with no dance training, wanted to learn how to dance for a professional audition in a month. Ah, to be young and naive.
Well, at first you might think, “That’s absurd, nobody can learn to dance in a month.” But the reality is that K-pop group members are often cast for looks first, then trained boot camp style to get up to par. Unlike many dance forms, K-pop dance doesn’t really require formal dance training to start. It helps but the industry has a whole battery of trainers who will whip anyone with the stamina, willpower and work ethic into shape.
So, a lack of dance skill is not an insurmountable weakness. You just need to show potential. In fact, for this particular audition, it could even be better starting from scratch because there’s a TV show involved, with the premise of taking raw material, some starting with talent but mixed in with skill-less rubes, one of whom may surprise us and become a global superstar. Everyone loves a Cinderella story right? And K-pop is full of them. The more dramatic, the better.
But here’s the problem. I could already see this girl is not K-pop material because she is a demure weakling who showed up for one class and never showed up again. To make it in K-pop a person needs a body, will and mind of steel or the industry will break you.
At that moment I realized that most parents are clueless about what the industry is about. If they pay any attention to K-pop at all, it’s because their children are obsessed with it and all they see is the glitz and glam of cute, colorfully dressed boys and girls singing perky PG-rated songs of first love and wistful dreams, and think there can’t be anything troubling with this picture. Wrong-o.
Parents who think this way will be shocked to know they are sending their children into a war zone and putting him on her in a lot of danger, physically and mentally. In South Korea it’s done because a lot of the kids grow up in small rural towns and all their parents’ hopes and dreams ride on their success. That’s why when they fail they cry, often not for themselves, but for letting their families down. But in this country we have child labor laws that don’t allow for the kind of abuse allowed in South Korea.
I’m not here to dash anyone’s dreams but I’m just delivering a reality check if your child is intent on auditioning. These are 10 reasons why you may not want your child to be involved in K-pop.
1. The industry breaks people.
The specter of suicides in the Korean entertainment industry is real. South Korea overall has the highest suicide rate in Asia, beating Japan, with 26.9 suicides per 100,000 people. Let’s not forget that I arrived at K-pop because of Kim Jonghyun’s suicide in December 2017. Celebrity casualties have been numerous over the years and the pace never seems to slow down. This May, former Kara star Goo Hara tried to kill herself, and on June 29 popular actress Jeon Mi Seon hanged herself in a hotel room.
The industry preys on the weak because agencies need to assert total control over their trainees and they do not want to take in people who are uppity, unruly, disobedient or strong-willed. It’s the meek who can be molded any way they choose, who obey every order and are fine with having no say in the direction of their careers.
This is just one of the causes of depression among Korean stars. As you will see, there are many more.
2. Starvation is a logical method of weight loss.
Girl group members often talk about being on a paper cup diet, that is, all the food they can fit into a small paper cup is what they are allowed to eat in one day. To make it more tangible, one trainee said she was allowed only 300 calories a day, a lot less than the 1,600 to 2,000 calories a typical teenage girl needs to stay healthy.
To give you more perspective, a whole mango is about 270 calories. If you ate the two crackers with a thin slice of salami on each, plus a soft drink, you would come close to your day’s limit. Eating this way, even three meals of 300 calories would seem difficult to maintain.
I’ve also read about boy trainees being allotted one rice roll a day, that is, the equivalent of a plain musubi. A 7Eleven Spam musubi has 253 calories, so these boys, also dividing a can of soda six ways, are also consuming fewer than 300 calories, while on their feet dancing for hours.
One of the idols said he was ecstatic if they happened to get a rice roll with a bit of fish in it, and complained that he lingered in practice one day and by the time he showed up to eat, someone else had eaten his rice roll so he starved for the day. The stories about going without food for a day or two are common. And BTS’s Jimin famously ate nothing for 10 days during his trainee period, when he was desperate to shed his baby fat.
If you are not rail thin (and few Americans meet Korean standards of thinness) you will be given even less food than other members and the Knetz, or Korean Internet trolls, will be merciless in their insults and demands for you to quit the group.
3. Not everyone is K-pop beautiful, but plastic surgery assures you will meet the high standard.
Fitting into this appearance-driven society is a must in a nation where even “normal” job applicants must submit a photo with their resumes. If you don’t look good, you don’t get hired. This is why South Korea is one of the plastic surgery capitals of the world.
The Korean industry has a rigid standard of beauty that departs from the Western mantra that “everyone is beautiful in his/her own way.” In Korea, your unique personality and physical quirks will not make you beautiful. They want a western nose combined with eyes at just the right slant, lush lips and a sharp V-line chin for both girls and boys. Oh, and a clear, milky complexion helps.
So surgery is not a personal option. It is mandatory if the company deems it necessary and contracts often include a clause that says you will agree to plastic surgery or you will be dismissed.
4. There’s reason the contract you sign is called a slave contract.
K-pop contracts generally have a seven-year term. This is down from 10 years because of governmental reforms after concern over fairness of these so-called slave contracts. During this long term, you are beholden to all the company’s demands over both your professional and personal lives as you will see further on.
5. All that glitters is an illusion.
Even if you successfully reach the end of your term, you could leave the company in debt. That is because you will pay for everything. If you’re lucky to make a successful debut, you can consider yourself very lucky if you clear $12,000 a year. And yes, I did say successful. Out of 100 groups that debut annually, maybe one or two become successful enough to profit.
Mega successes like EXO (worth about $7 million each) and BTS (worth about $8 million each) are rare, and even over several years they still do not make the kind of money that a western star like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift can make in a matter of months.
That is because the industry does not work the same way as in America where the artist might pay 10 percent to an agent.
In South Korea the agency owns the artist, but makes the artist foot the bill for training, room and board, stylists, recording, travel expenses and more. When you see BTS flying on a private jet, that expense is coming out of their individual pockets.
I was really shocked when I first saw SHINee’s Key coloring his hair in his bathroom sink because, he revealed, his Big Three company SM Entertainment charged him for stylist services. You would think it would be in the company’s best interest to have these stars look their best, but making $$$ is more important. Key said he even begged them to do it once for free because of the frequency of his hair needs, but it was a no-go.
On “Treasure Box,” YG founder Yang Hyun Suk said the company spends 100 million won (nearly $100,000) per trainee annually. It’s not out of the kindness of his heart but represents an investment in talent that needs to be paid back somehow.
A 50-50 split between artist and agency is generous; depending on revenue source i.e. concert, merchandise or recording. Different companies have different terms, but at the worst, the split could be 80-20 in favor of the company, after net. If a lot of expenses were involved in staging a concert, group members may not profit at all.
The company exacts a high price because of the burden of trainees who never make it and are therefore unlikely to be able to pay back the cost of their training. And this is not because of a lack of talent either. They may not debut simply because they never fit into any of the company’s concepts and simply aged out at 20.
6. You will have no time to rest.
Yes, you will be caught up in a whirlwind of activity that may be exciting in the beginning but you will quickly find it is a carnival ride you can’t exit.
If you find it hard to get motivated for school or work or exercise, this is not for you because you’ll be working or practicing 11 to 16 hours a day, at minimum. The truly motivated will put in an additional four hours of practice on their own. And what do you do if you see your trainee competition practicing and getting ahead of you in building their skill set? You keep practicing too.
Sleep deprivation is also a factor leading to depression. Jonghyun said that he got no more than two hours of sleep nightly for a decade, and this is fairly common because of late-night schedules and early morning wake-up calls. This is because, in addition to practice, idols have to put in time filming Vlive segments and making appearances on variety shows to keep building their fanbase.
And, after all that practice you might think that they would treat their tired bodies to a massage. But, no. Remember the company doesn’t pay for any extraneous services and on one episode of “Celebrity Brothers,” BTS’s Kim Taehyung revealed while getting a massage, that it was only his second professional massage since starting his idol journey three years prior. Once again, I was shocked. I only dance about 3 to 4 hours a week and I need a massage at least once a week because of it. I can’t imagine how much pain they must be in during on a regular basis.
7. Say goodbye to dating.
Idols must be wholesome, clean-cut, virginal and available. You can’t be that if you have a boyfriend or girlfriend.
Contracts often have no-dating clauses because the major pretense of idoldom is that you are the boyfriend or girlfriend of each fan because that is what they want to believe.
That is why most of the stars decline from being photographed with people on the street. The last thing they need is for such a photo to get out on the Internet with some false relationship claim. Any time any male idol appears with a girl in a photo, whether sister, stylist, dance coach, the claws come out and comments typically read, “Who’s that girl? I hate her.”
Once the fans and companies find out, the relationships are typically terminated.
8. You will be cut off from family and friends.
Trainees are often forbidden to participate in social media and their cell phones are taken away, so your world will revolve only around the company.
Even if you do get to keep your cell phone, it will be subject to frequent inspections to make sure you are not getting text messages from any love interest.
Because of this isolation, many K-pop stars talk about loneliness and depression. Outside friends and families are powerless to help because they receive no information.
Some stars have said that family members have been turned away when trying to visit on their birthdays. Just before SHINee’s 10th anniversary, Taemin said that he hadn’t spent any Christmas with his family in a decade because of his busy schedule, and the holidays are a prime time for performance showcases. He left his family at 11 for a life on stage.
9. You will cry every day.
I never knew of Jonghyun before he committed suicide. When I went back to watch his old videos, I couldn’t help but notice that he cried a lot. At that time I had no idea how the industry worked so I wondered why they all cry a lot.
I was starting to think these idol wannabes are such wimps coz if I have a goal I will work to achieve it without complaint. But after watching my first survival show, “Treasure Box,” I realized that if I were in their shoes I would probably be crying every day too because of the brutal criticisms from the trainers and managers.
The trainees are subject to monthly evaluations in front of everyone, so everyone can see your strengths and weaknesses, and can listen in on the criticism. At this time all trainees are ranked from top to bottom and if you are anywhere below top three that can seriously mess with your self-esteem. You are not immune from humiliation even if you’re ranked No. 1 or improving daily because the whole staff knows someone younger and/or more talented than you can walk into the door at any time.
While in the United States we measure people on the basis of accomplishment, in South Korea they judge people in terms of how much they are lacking, breaking it down into percentages.
10. You can’t date but your company might pimp you out if they can profit from it.
The rumor is that many of the celebrities who have committed suicide were pimped out by their agencies in the interest of furthering their careers.
The most infamous incident was the case of Jang Ja-Yeon in 2009. She left behind a letter claiming that her agent had regularly beaten her and forced her to have sex with a string of VIPs, including directors, media executives and CEOs in order to get jobs. The case was ignored, then reopened earlier this year following the Seungri Burning Sun scandal, before being dismissed again likely because of the high profile of those she had named.
Even if not forced into prostitution, companies can often send trainees and idols, both male and female, out as dates or escorts to entertain the rich and powerful. How far does this go in South Korea society? One blogger recently called out the rich on this matter after being propositioned by a chaebol daughter who offered him $20,000 for one night together.
So that’s it for now. Hope this has been illuminating as to why fans of K-pop respect the idols so much for all they are able to endure.