Trigger Warning: This article addresses topics of dehumanization, human rights violations, sexism, depression, and suicide.
We often witness idols dancing on stage with radiant smiles, seemingly carefree. After all, it’s their professional duty to bring joy and captivate the audience with their performances. However, behind those smiling faces lies a different story – one often concealed from the public eye. The backstage scenes aren’t always as glamorous as the front stage, and there are numerous untold tales concerning music labels, artists, and fan clubs. These narratives are carefully kept hidden to maintain the idol’s beloved image and prevent disappointment among their fans.
Stripped Identities: Beyond Themselves “It’s like the company sees artists as puppets,” a sentiment that resonates often in the K-Pop fanbase. This feeling arises from the fact that idols frequently find themselves under the strict guidance of their management agencies, with every aspect of their lives meticulously controlled. From their personalities, gestures, and clothing choices, down to their hairstyles and appearance, it’s widely understood that idols must follow the directions of their agency, leaving limited room for their own choices. These terms are often spelled out in contracts long before their debut.
Way or Ho Min-sun, a former member of Crayon Pop known for the viral hit “Bar Bar Bar,” has shifted from the spotlight to a legendary status. She’s now running a YouTube channel named ‘웨이랜드 WayLand,’ where she candidly reflects on her time as a rookie idol under Chrome Entertainment. Way discloses that strict rules were in place, like not eating sweets and having to tie 5-kilogram sandbags to each leg for a lighter dance feel. Shockingly, trainees couldn’t use phones or venture outside without permission. She recalls: “One day, my father came to the company, but they turned him away. The rules were so strict that we couldn’t even meet our own families. So, there’s no need to ask about dating.”
In 2020, during the “CBS This Morning” show, former f(x) member Amber Liu from SM Entertainment, one of South Korea’s top 3 entertainment companies, revealed that as a trainee, it was quite easy to have one’s training contract canceled. Simply not meeting the specified weight criteria could lead to the company rejecting them. If she wanted to step onto the stage, she had to conform to everything the company dictated – from appearance to speech and thoughts.
Amidst a wave of departures, Jessica Jung, a former member of Girls’ Generation who ventured after her personal aspirations, penned a book called “Shine.” The story revolves around a 17-year-old girl’s aspiration to become an idol, heavily drawing from Jessica’s own experiences. Beyond just depicting the journey to a dream, the book delves into the trials that trainees and idols face. Instances like phone restrictions, a ban on social media use, and stringent diet control are explored. Jessica also emphasizes that these regulations persist and might not evolve.
This could be attributed to the expectations from agencies and some fan clubs that idols must maintain a constantly appealing image and comport themselves appropriately at all times. This makes it challenging for idols to lead independent lives, as long as they are viewed as 'products' in an entertainment industry constructed to cater to preconceived notions.
Aside from paparazzi, another concerning group for idols is the sasaeng fans, a term derived from “sasaenghwal,” translating to “privacy.” The term pertains to a cluster of fans who intrude upon the artists’ personal space. This intrusion can take various forms, such as fansites or even fan club members who possess backstage passes and follow artists to capture photographs at different events.
On many occasions, the unsettling displays of affection from Saesang fans have ignited anger within artists. You might have come across news stories about these fans sneaking into idols’ rooms, disguising themselves to access restrooms, or even resorting to writing letters in their own menstrual blood. In some cases, this harassment escalates to physical harm. A particularly disturbing incident involved Shim Changmin, a member of TVXQ. He’s often trailed by Saesang fans in taxis, and on one occasion, he was relentlessly followed by around 150 taxis. Reaching a breaking point, he stepped out of his vehicle to confront them. Dissatisfied with his reprimand, the Saesang fans slammed a car window onto Changmin’s hand, causing him to bleed.
It's not just the invasive sasaeng fans that artists have to worry about; there’s another group known as “anti-fans” or those who openly despise the artists themselves, and they’re just as concerning. The reason for this unease is that this hatred often goes beyond mere emotions and can escalate into more aggressive behaviors. In a recent incident, EXO’s Chen (Kim Jong-dae) faced death threats through the group’s official account on the Lysn app. He has endured continuous harassment and derogatory comments from anti-fans ever since he disclosed his relationship and family life outside of the entertainment world. Interestingly, his role as a father and husband hasn’t impacted his position as an idol, yet he’s still targeted by bias and even faced organized efforts by this group to demand his departure from the group, despite already having a second child.
It is truly heartbreaking to witness the profound and detrimental effects that cyberbullying can have on an individual’s mental and emotional health. The impact becomes even more distressing when hurtful messages are etched as an indelible digital footprint, accessible to anyone. This invasion of privacy coupled with the enduring evidence compounds the reasons why certain idols find themselves grappling with psychological anguish.
Amidst this backdrop, the industry suffered an immense shock with the untimely demise of two beloved figures, Sulli – a former member of the iconic band f(x) – and her best friend, Goo Hara, who once graced KARA’s lineup. Tragically, their passing occurred within a mere month of each other, sending ripples of grief throughout the entire entertainment sphere.
Both of them endured substantial scrutiny on social media platforms, with regard to their dating behavior and lifestyle choices. Sulli, in particular, faced a tremendous amount of animosity for her relationships and her boldness in being herself, including her choice to not conform to conventional attire norms, such as opting not to wear a bra. Additionally, she was even accused of using drugs during the filming of the movie “Real,” and intimate scenes from the same film were circulated widely on the internet, sparking diverse and often harsh discussions.
In the midst of this, netizens relentlessly cast judgment on her, labeling her as “promiscuous.” Interestingly, this criticism starkly contrasts with how male actors in similar scenes are treated, despite both scenarios revolving around nothing more than the distinction of gender.
Hara, too, was subjected to an overwhelming tide of negativity. In the year before her passing, she faced threats from a former boyfriend who threatened to release intimate videos if their relationship ended. What’s worse, she endured physical abuse, but the situation took an even darker turn. She was vilified despite being the victim. In the eyes of certain conservative groups, women who engage in “disgraceful” sexual acts should not be allowed to thrive in the entertainment industry. While there were certainly empathetic voices, the cutting remarks inflicted deep wounds that could never truly heal.
“It's only after you’re gone that people from all around the world choose to love you” - Sulli
Their actions might have inadvertently prompted a considerable number of individuals to advocate against cyberbullying on the digital frontier. Despite arising from a solemn situation, we can aspire that such distressing experiences are not repeated for anyone going forward.
Navigating the Divide: Freedom and Coercion in the Idol Industry
What happened to Sulli and Hara shed light on a well-acknowledged truth: the firm grip of patriarchy in South Korea persists throughout societal strata. Escaping the clutches of sexual objectification remains a formidable task for female idols, as they must adeptly navigate the minefield of online commentary and the dynamics within the industry itself.
During an episode of “Star Show 360,” SISTAR members Hyolyn, Soyou, Bora, and Dasom, offered some guidance to their junior actress, Kim So-hye. They actually cautioned her about being careful around men, particularly during her early days as a rookie idol. They pointed out that senior male idols wouldn’t simply back off and not all senior idols had honorable intentions. They even recommended that she steer clear of dating them, suggesting that staying at home was the wisest choice. Leeteuk from Super Junior, who was also part of the show, nodded in agreement.
Adding to the chorus of voices questioning the K-Pop industry is Seo Herin, a former trainee under SM Entertainment who later moved to the UK to live with her sister. Some speculate that she left due to unclear debut prospects. However, her late 2018 social media posts shifted assumptions. Herin unequivocally rejects supporting “a system promoting gender discrimination, body shaming, and mental manipulation.” She's firm about not returning to the industry, a choice solidified during her time on “Idol School.”
The highlighted example is merely a glimpse into the experiences of K-Pop idols. Countless untold stories remain beneath their smiles, and the outcome of these narratives remains uncertain. Solutions for these issues are also unclear.
However, something each of us can do, as individuals, is foster an awareness of the consequences stemming from our own actions. Before sharing an opinion online, it’s important to take into account the potential impact it could have on others and how it might circle back and affect us in return.