Trigger Warning: mentions of assault, sexual exploitation, abuse, and suicide.
Disclaimer: I am not Korean, this is based on other people’s experiences and research online.
The Kpop industry has been flourishing for the past few years, but what new fans don’t know — is that there’s a long, mind-breaking process in becoming an idol. The K-entertainment industry’s dependent on their controlled relationships with fans, also known as “stans”. The idol in training’s goal for and to stardom, is carried throughout their youth and teenage years, alongside grueling training. These young, hopeful individuals go through an audition, sometimes more than once, and if they luckily pass, they need to be willing to do everything else (such as act, model, etc), as much as singing and dancing. However, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows since some idols have taken advantage of that fame and used it for harm.
A number of companies take advantage of their passions, and feed on these aspirations to gain profits. As a result, it digs these young impressionable individuals into thinking they need to be perceived as “perfection” in the music industry, minus the basic human rights. They leave behind their former lives training, without the guarantee of debut. During this, they suffer long bouts of mental and physical abuse, which has influenced a few Kpop artists to commit suicide or leave behind the dream they have worked on for so long.
A former trainee from a well-known company shared her experiences, where she faced acts of bullying and verbal harassment. She said: “The agency is famous for having trainees who’ve been with them for a long time… They were already in the debut class so the company loved them and protected them… [she] was promptly kicked out of the company after the debut class was completed and a group was formed.” Ultimately, these young trainees are bred from competitive environments and are pitted against each other from the beginning. Nonetheless, trainees who make it to debut still need to maintain unrealistic beauty expectations — presenting themselves as products of harsh discipline and capitalizing the life of labour and over exertion.
Expectations After Debut
Once the trainee has met their full potential, their company will place them in a group, debut them as a solo artist, or even put them on a Kpop survival show for only a chance to debut. Furthermore, for female groups, it’s not unusual to adopt the stereotypes of the male-gaze—such as the flirty schoolgirl, or the doe-eyed ingénue playing a role — most of the “sexual nature” of Western artists similar to Rihanna or Cardi B could be cause for scandal in the Korean entertainment industry. An ideal idol would have unblemished skin, a perfect lean figure, abstain from drugs, and any sort of public misbehavior that could make the company look inadequate.
As most East Asian countries are conservative, it is natural for them to avoid associating themselves with anything that’s a “negative influence”. What the music loses in edge, it more than gains in marketability. Young teenagers, or children as young as 11 years old, sign away their lives only to be put under the control and supervision of the kpop label throughout their careers. These idols, most of the time, have no opinion or input in the creative aspects of their music, concepts, or performances. Every decision is made by the company, and this is worrisome because it further confirms the idea of these kids as possessions.
Scandals and Deaths
- One of the biggest sex scandals in the industry was when Seungri, a member of Big Bang, was implicated in a spy cam/sexual abuse scandal which allegedly took place at Burning Sun, the nightclub he founded. Seungri had shared explicit videos of women in a private group chat back in March 2019. The case resulted in 5 and 6 year prison sentences for him and the other idols involved, all due to their roles in gang raping drunk, unconscious women.
- Another case was Kim Jonghyun, former member of SHINee, who battled depression for a long time. He was one of the few idols who criticized the K-entertainment industry and admitted to having troubles with his mental health. Tragically, the pressures of fame on top of feeling inferior in the industry, caused him to commit suicide in 2017.
- In 2019, Sulli, Goo Hara, and Cha In-Ha, all passed away within three months. Though the reasons behind some of these deaths are unclear, it followed a disastrous pattern that went back to the lack of protection they had and the stigma against mental health. Both Sulli and Goo also underwent abuse and cyberbullying online because of their appearance and beliefs. Sulli’s was repeatedly harassed about her love life and her support in the no-bra movement in the weeks leading up to her suicide.
Although most labels no longer put their idols and trainees under slave contracts, it’s more common now that idols deal with a lot of hate from fans, or make mistakes and the company doesn’t allow them to apologize for it. It’s because holding the title of celebrity or “idol” comes with the expectation that the group and fans must be first priority. Additionally, despite most Kpop songs being about relationships, desire, or even breakups, Kpop labels and some fans often discourage dating. What most companies and fans fail to understand, is that they don’t, and shouldn’t have rights to control or dictate the paths idols are going in—nor should they have opinions on choices they make.
I am a huge fan of Kpop and have been for years. When I was younger, I was blinded by the way their lives were romanticized. But the time came where I could finally look at the industry for what it is: shameless perpetrators of severe mental illness, starvation and exploitation. These idols are constantly afflicted by unattainable demands for perfection. They are molded to be monitored and looked at in the way society wants; and rejection of that image evokes an endless bombardment of media attacks. Kpop labels in the past, and even now, view their idols as commodities. But they aren’t tools, they are human beings who deserve to feel and be human.