Blinded by Stardom: The Inner Turmoil Behind Becoming a K-pop Idol
April 27, 2023
Art/Photo by Westley Kim
Glowing with dazzling performance outfits, snappy choreography, and brilliant stage lights, the shining star power of K-pop has swept across the globe, becoming one of the foremost entertainment industries, generating over a billion dollars in estimated revenue from exporting goods alone. With catchy choruses, sharp dance moves, and flawless formula of attractive faces adorned with the latest fashion, it’s no surprise that Korean popular music (K-pop), and its ability to blend a diverse variety of music with dance, has become a worldwide sensation. However, looking past the multi-million sales of albums and streams reveals the frightening truth; behind the mask of stardom lies a brutal world of cutthroat competition and selectiveness, beginning as soon as one is accepted as an idol trainee, and remaining prevalent through the years leading up until their debut. Which, in fact, is not guaranteed, regardless of how much time one can spend training.
From the start, the long road to becoming an idol is one of uncertainty. Even if one is accepted into an entertainment company after a series of highly selective auditions – which pit thousands of mostly teenage contestants against each other, with a 700:1 average odds of getting in – a grueling series of monthly evaluations, rigorous training, and sleepless nights lie ahead of them. In a past interview with Vogue Australia, main vocalist of K-pop group Blackpink Roseanne Park (better known by her stage name Rosé) opened up about the intensity of the pressure trainees were put under to debut, with no other foreseeable route for the future if they fell short. “There [were] 12 other girls who had been training day and night for about five years. And I had just gotten there,” she stated. Later, she described her training period lasting over four years – the shortest out of any of her fellow members of Blackpink.
With that being said, hundreds of trainees never even debut to begin with. In a BBC article written by former trainee Elaine Chong, she described the dead end many former trainees hit when their company never debuted them, usually terminating their contract around adult age. “So many trainees get dropped at 18, or finish their contracts when they’re 21 and feel lost,” she wrote. Additionally, the rigorous training they had been put through allotted no time for side jobs or getting even a high school degree. “They gave up everything to try to be a K-pop idol, but that’s ended and they find themselves with no qualifications,” Chong added. Without any financial or credential security to fall back on, many trainees can become destitute.
Their situations can go from bad to worse. The awful prospect of trainee debt (repaying the money your chosen entertainment company had spent on training, feeding, and housing you) hangs over the head of many potential idols, thereby adding the pressure to debut at all costs – even if it’s at the risk of their own wellbeing. With a twelve-hour daily training schedule, little time is left for personal self-care, spending time with friends and family, or maintaining a healthy sleep schedule. In addition, many trainees exceed this daily regimen to practice into the long hours of night in an attempt to hone their skills for a chance at debuting.
Skillsets aren’t the only thing trainees are expected to develop, however. The image of “perfection” among K-pop idols – physically and mentally – leads to an unhealthy obsession with the “ideal weight” and South Korea’s fastidious concepts of beauty – many of which hold a double standard. “It’s really sad how there are such unattainable beauty standards in Korea,” KCC President Bethany Shim (12) lamented. Tragically, in order to obtain the “ideal weight”, idols often subject themselves to unhealthy measures such as severe dieting and overexertion. According to International Business Times, main dancer of best-selling K-pop girl group Twice, Hirai Momo, divulged that JYP Entertainment ordered her to lose seven kilograms in a single week before her debut- equivalent to a whopping 15.4 pounds by imperial measurements. Though this goal was insurmountably difficult and highly unfeasible, the prospect of debut just out of reach pushed her to take extreme measures in the name of making it, consuming nothing but a sole cube of ice each day while pursuing a round-the-clock exercise regimen. Even the mere thought of rest was no comfort; Hirai feared going to sleep without waking up, trapped in a vicious cycle of constant training, lack of rest and lack of substance to continue. However, Shim believed that this harmful mania could be improved by “changing the mindsets of fans to be more open and accepting of different bodies” within the harsh parameters of the K-pop industry.
In addition, homesickness is a regular occurrence for idols. In the Netflix documentary Blackpink: Light Up the Sky, fellow Blackpink member Kim Jisoo described rarely seeing her parents more than once a week during her time as a recruit. Though Kim is a Korean native, many foreign idols can go for years on end without seeing their families in person. The isolation wasn’t only physical — a number of companies such as SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment enforce severe restrictions on cell phones and communication outside the company. Kpop fan Noah Johnson (10) commented that imposing such a harsh regulation only worsened the pain of loneliness idols and trainees alike felt. “They should be able to contact their own families, because that’s where your home is,” he stated firmly.
While corruption within companies is a problem we shouldn’t look past, it’s not to say the future of the k-pop industry is desolate. Johnson explained he still held the hope that “there are people and idols who genuinely love their jobs, and they try their best to move the industry in the right direction.”
Age demographics for trainees usually fall around teenage to early adult years (legal adult age in Korea is 19), with some entering entertainment companies as early as 10 years old. At this time, support from family and friends is needed more than ever, and isolation from such a young age can stunt both social behavior and emotional wellbeing. If idols lack support from such an early age, how will the rest of their mental wellbeing fare for the rest of their lives?
The struggle with crippling depression for idols is a real one; though the unyielding social disgrace surrounding the perceived embarrassment of poor mental health is nearly unbreakable, appalling cases of suicide have demanded entertainment companies’ attention. On December 18, 2017, main vocalist Kim Jonghyun of legendary K-pop boy group Shinee took his own life by carbon monoxide poisoning. According to Kim, no one could truly recognize him for himself under the mask of a worldwide famous singer. In his suicide note, Kim described how his perpetual loneliness ate at him until he could no longer continue living: “I wanted someone to notice [my suffering], but no one knew. Of course, they wouldn’t. They never met me before.”
Though the glitzy star power of luxury items, gorgeous faces and a massive social media following can seem blinding at times, it shouldn’t obscure us from seeing to the truth: the illusion of stardom masks a host of existent problems without much hope of a breakthrough in a never-ending loop of competition. Shim admitted,“There needs to be change within the industry but it’s so hard when most companies primarily focus on the money that idols are making.”