A Hawaii native’s journey into K-pop

By Nadine Kam I

It’s not every day that you’ll find a K-pop star willing to talk about their experiences in the cutthroat industry, but that’s what happened when Rebekah Kim, Bekah of After School, gave a talk on “My Journey into K-pop” at the University of Hawaii on March 28.

During her talk, she inspired audience members with her message of being willing to take chances to achieve one’s goals, starting her talk with gifts from Korean beauty company Aritaum for a handful of people willing to share their personal goal.

By the end of her talk, some fans were in tears, while others—awestruck—struggled to move their feet to approach the star, who lingered to pose for selfies.

Bekah graciously posed for selfies with guests following her talk at the University of Hawaii, From top: Titus Y.H. Chong, myself, Bekah, Michelle Chun, Sarah Replogle.

The event was sponsored by the Asian Studies Program and the Center for Korean Studies School of Pacific and Asian Studies. The Hawaii native recounted the jubilation of being recruited in 2008 for After School’s original lineup, to her abrupt exit three years later for health reasons. After School’s concept had been cynically created to deal with the arrival and departure of members, chalked up to the school girls’ “graduation.”

There’s still excitement in Kim’s voice as she talks about the early days, that became more reflective and somber as reality kicked in, the loneliness, the lack of sleep, the criticism, the harsh antis, that we have come to associate with K-pop.

Kim’s journey started with being scouted while at a Korean church volleyball game. Members of Pledis Entertainment had been in town hosting auditions at the Ilikai Hotel. At the game, Kim was invited to the auditions.

She said that she was fine with showcasing her dancing skills, but had never sang in front of people. Upon hearing that she should be prepared to sing two songs, her first response was that she wasn’t going to do it.

“I was scared,” she said. Her sister suggested singing a couple of contemporary Christian songs within her comfort zone, and she was invited to a second audition for the company’s boss, who flew in to Honolulu a few days later. Until that point, she was unaware of their thoughts or plans, but as she was about to leave, he told her, “See you in Korea.” A pinch me moment.

She was 16, a student at Moanalua High School accustomed to hanging out in the parking lot of Wendy’s, Salt Lake, not the glitz and glam of K-pop stages, although being of Korean ancestry, she was familiar with the music, and a fan of H.O.T. and S.E.S.

Her training in those early days was casual, 8-hour days taking place during school breaks when she was able to travel to South Korea. While she was attending school in Hawaii, the company hired instructors to work with her.

After School with Rebekah Kim at lower right.

The real training began the following year when she graduated and moved to Korea. At that time, she only had six months to prepare for the group’s debut. In a sense, it was a good thing because it spared her much of the anguish others go through. Many trainees spend three to five-plus years of training without knowing whether they will ever debut. Her schedule at this point was 12-hour days of practicing singing and dancing.

In the beginning, she said, “It didn’t faze me. Every day felt like fun.”

The magazine shoots, the fashion shoots, red carpet events, was everything many girls dream of, seemingly, the perfect celebrity life. After School did well after officially debuting in January 2009. In April that year, the group won the “Rookie of the Month” award at the Cyworld Digital Music Awards. One of After School’s biggest hits, “Because of You,” was released in November that year, and became both a commercial and critical success, winning a “triple crown” on SBS Inkigayo.

But with fame and success came scrutiny, and Kim found herself criticized for her weight, saying, “I tried so hard,” to be like her reed-thin bandmates.

In light of her unlikely journey from Hawaii high schooler to the glitz and glam of K-pop, Rebekah Kim now encourages others to pursue their dreams. — Nadine Kam photo

Criticism was compounded by loneliness to the point that her manager suggested that she “get a boyfriend,” which shocked her, given the K-pop industry’s notorious slave contracts that often include no-dating clauses to keep the members marketable, playing into fan’s hopeful, romantic fantasies. She said that foreigners in K-pop are given more leeway than the Korean members.

She exited the group in 2011 to pursue interests in art and fashion, and still keeps in touch with her former bandmates. After School has been inactive since 2015 while members also pursue separate careers in music, acting and modeling.