Behind the K-pop Scenes: Part 2

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By: Jason Yu

From: The Green Tea Graffiti

For these two young ladies, they have been performing all-day long.  With dark circles around their eyes, a tiring slump and exhausted faces, it became quickly apparent that these two have not gotten much rest.  In fact, their appearance on the popular music show, Music Bank, is their third showing today.  Most Korean pop (K-pop) singers do only one performance a day, yet these two starlets were hard at work promoting their new single, Ma Boy.

The two girls of Sistar19Hyorin and Bora, always knew the rigors of the K-pop industry.  Perhaps after their third performance of Ma Boy, the fans also got a glimpse.  The two ladies of Sistar’s subgroup were clearly off key.

Commentators and fans alike noted that throughout the song, Hyorin’s voice cracked.  Missed notes, forced pitches and shorter verses filled the air in its place.  What was once a beautiful, powerful voice turned into a hoarse, dry croak instead.

“Hyorin and Bora really need to sleep and rest,” one Korean fan noted after the performance.

“Hyorin-unni must feel really sick right now,” chimed another female fan.

“Why are they doing three shows in a row,” a third fan expressed.

Only after their performance, did the two singers get their rest.  After all, they sure deserved it.

Welcome to the “Behind the K-pop Scenes” series.  In part 2, we’ll be exploring what it’s like to be a K-pop star.  As exciting and thrilling as it is to be a K-pop celeb, there are also aspects that the fans don’t see.  We’ll examine the truths and not-so pretty details of being a Korean singing celebrity.  Let’s go behind the scenes and see what really is going on backstage.

Going Incognito

Large hoodies, black hats, black shades, and a big jacket.  These are just some of the accessories K-pop stars use to avoid both the media and the general public when going out.  Using various nearby covers and moving around quietly, these celebs sure have interesting way of navigating throughout Korea.  For these singers, the simple task of walking in towns has soon become difficult.

If the Japanese ninja was the pinnacle of stealth and not being detected, the modern K-pop star could be the 21st century’s version of the famed assassin.  Only in this case, his job is not to assassinate, but to go unnoticed to meet friends.

The question begs: why do Korean celebrities go out of their way to go unnoticed?  Imagine hundreds or even thousands of screaming fans that may not want to leave you alone. This dilemma is further magnified when the little free time away from training, concerts, and traveling is spent on doing your best impersonation of James Bond or Metal Gear Solid.  If you feel it’s a bit tiring after awhile, you’re one step closer to understanding the life of a star.

One of the aspects of being a K-pop star is nearly everyone is a fan.  Fans naturally follow and take pictures of their favorite singers.  As anyone could imagine, this makes living a normal life hard for the singers.  Technology doesn’t help either.  With technology becoming sleeker each year, any person can turn their iPhone into a camera or camcorder with a flip of a switch.

Thus, the saying “you are now being watched” certainly becomes so applicable for K-pop artistes.  Imagine these scenarios: when they are about to dig into that waffle, when they are about to enter a building or when they are talking to their friends, potential photos may be taken and  these pictures are then soon quickly uploaded to a blog, Youtube or online bulletin board and circulating around with either questions, assumptions or captions.

From Big Bang and 2PM to T-ara and 4Minute, all of them have had to go incognito at some time to meet their friends.  Many of these singers do not frequent the popular coffee places and restaurants too often so they do not run the risk of blowing their cover. Rather, they go to hole-in-the-wall eateries, mom and pop restaurants and hidden locales to meet friends.

Performing in front of thousands of fans in concert was hard enough.  Avoiding these same fans to live a normal life makes K-popping perhaps even more difficult or challenging.


The K-pop Diet

Dinner is about to be served.  As your appetite whets after a hard day of vocal training and dancing, dinner finally comes.  On your plate are four carrots, some broccoli, a banana, and a chicken breast.  This “feast” is not exactly your idea of a well-earned meal, especially after working your butt off 12 hours straight.

Unless you’re Girls Generation, that is.


Girls Generation’s Yuri and her trainer show off her regimen.

Many of us would shudder at the thought of a diet, much less one that was as strict as Girls Generation.  Pizza, burgers, cookies, burritos, and other high-caloric foods are common in peoples’ eating habits.  There’s nothing wrong with liking those delicacies, as they sure do taste good.  The “Gee” girls like these same foods too, but unlike most people, they have a strict trainer and company – SM Entertainment – watching over them.  For these K-pop stars, the savory taste of that burger or sweet bite into that chocolate chip cookie will have to wait.

As anyone can imagine, Girls Generation works incredibly hard to stay in shape.  When the nine ladies are not training or singing, they’re at the gym working out.  You didn’t think their beautiful faces, nice legs, and a great S-line figure (S-line is Korean slang for a nice, woman’s body) would just drop out of nowhere, did you?  Ever since Girls Generation exploded on the Korean music scene in 2009 with “Gee”, everyone wanted to know how they got such pretty figures.

According to their gym instructor, Kim Ji-hoon, the starlets consume about 1,500 kCal a day.  A healthy assortment of fruits, vegetables, brown rice, and chicken breast are included in their daily diets.  If the movie 300 set the tone for guys to suddenly work out to attain the golden six-pack, thank Kim Ji-hoon and Girls Generation for the girl version.  To many Korean females, it is the most famous diet and known as the female Spartan diet.

Kim states, “When they have concerts or are due to make important TV appearances, the members have to follow this dietary regime, but otherwise they love snacks and eat well.”

Contrast Girls Generation’s Spartan-like diet to fellow female group T-ara.    Known as the “neat diet”, T-ara’s exercise regimen is much more relaxed.  Rather than become gym rats, the seven girls “eat happy while being active.”  In other words, they eat a lot and make sure to exercise often to burn their caloric intake.

Such examples are: taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking longer distances instead of taking a car or subway, and standing up while doing the laundry manually.

Boram is believed to have lost 20kg (42 lbs.) just by doing jump rope and the hula hoop… a lot.  “Everyday, [I] put more effort to skip [on the jump rope] 3,000 times or so; do like you are dying soon,” she says.

Many netizens applaud T-ara’s approach to staying healthy.  To them, T-ara’s “neat diet” is seen as normal, practical, and healthier than depriving yourself from 95% of all food choices.  While the ladies of T-ara also have self-restraint in eating too much junk food, they hold themselves accountable by exercising any excess food later on.

Yet, sometimes even T-ara has their food weaknesses on lazy days.  “Today, I had a temptation to eat lots of pizza, but I have to get ready to fit into summer clothes,” bemoaned Hyo-min.

Such is the life of a K-pop idol.  Eating healthy and exercising to look good.


The Ugly Side of Contracts

To many K-pop stars, the contract is the last thing on their mind.  Once they sign their initial contract, they concentrate on their careers.  KARA was no exception.  All they could think about is their upcoming debut in Japan.

When KARA finally debuted in Japan in August 2010 with their butt-shaking song, “Mister”, the Japanese became instantly addicted.  Sales instantly went through the roof.  Japanese boys and girls couldn’t get enough of the five girls-turn-ladies.  Adults were mimicking their dance moves.  The Japanese music shows were often inviting the five ladies for interviews.  They were invited to the prestigious 62nd Kōhaku Uta Gassen show.  And crazy enough, the girls soon got their own Midnight TV drama, Urakara.

Yet, for all their success in neighboring Japan, a real-life drama was brewing back home in Korea.  And unlike the Korean dramas, it looked like there would be no happy ending or cure for cancer in sight.

On January 19th, 2011, KARA’s lawyer announced they would be splitting up from their agency, DSP Media immediately.  This also meant KARA breaking up as well.  The fight between the KARA members and DSP Media came down to their contract.  KARA felt they were being seriously misled.

Here is what their lawyer said, from the Korean news network, Star Today (translated and paraphrased):

“KARA wants to terminate the existing contract from their current agency, DSP Media.   They have tried to make it work with DSP Media, but are tired of doing so.  They have been withheld pay, been forced to use profanity, and sign unwanted Japanese contracts.  For them, this is simply unfair.  The mental and harsh suffering that these girls went through cannot be expressed in words.  They have held their frustration for a long time and are only now speaking about it publicly.

Trust is very important and we feel it is not there.  The current relationship between KARA and DSP Media has come to a point of no return.

For these reasons, we think the best course of action is to withdraw from the agency.”

This news instantly threw the Korean music industry on full tilt.  One of Korea’s modern, most successful female bands could be no longer in a matter of weeks.

Four of the five members (Goo Hara, Han Seung-yeon, Nicole Jung, and Kang Ji-young) and their moms stood by the above accusations.  Only Park Gyu-ri stood on the sidelines, while her other four members proceeded with the lawsuit.

DSP, in turn, denied these claims.  They said they paid the group 300,000,000 ₩ (about $300,000 USD) and treated the girls fairly.  For their part, DSP wanted a quick resolution and reunite the group back together.  After all, it would be foolish to break up something as successful as KARA.

Although the process took three months, on April 28th, 2011, the dispute was resolved.  KARA dropped the lawsuit and released their album, Step, months later.

Yet, the damage has been done.  It will take time to heal from the very public contract dispute.  Unneeded words were said, trust on both sides was shattered, and a solution just between the two of them could not be done.  The dotted lines K-pop stars sign on their contract may be the most important thing in their K-pop careers.

While KARA dodged a potential breakup, the next group did not.



For the popular ballad group, JYJ, they can relate only too well to KARA’s earlier predicament.  Known for being part of the mega-popular group, DBSK, their success had no bounds.  As the spiritual successor to the popular and talented K-pop group, Shinhwa, they carried on their legacy quite well.

They both topped Korean and Japanese music charts consistently, earning platinum awards and setting best seller milestones each year.  From 2003 to 2010, they were known as “Kings of the Hallyu Wave” for good reason.  They were that dominant during their eight year time span.

Yet, in 2009, three members of the group: Jae-joong, Yu-chun, and Jun-su, decided to challenge their existing contract with SM Entertainment.  They felt the contract they signed when they first debuted was outdated and unfair.  Since they became incredibly successful and were chained by their outdated contract, they wanted to renegotiate.

SM Entertainment, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, has adhered to a 10-year contract policy for all newcomers.  While 10 years is definitely a long time, SM Entertainment felt it was mutually beneficial for both parties.  New singers can get stability, paid room and board, an education, and can live out their dreams as K-pop singers.  The SM company, in turn, locks up key talent for a long period of time.

In October 2009, a Seoul judge ruled in favor of the three former DBSK members over SM Entertainment.  The judge stated that, like the three boys presented, SM’s contract was grossly unfair and unjust according to the Korean labor laws.  After the ruling, DBSK, as the original five-person group, was no more.  Jae-joong, Yu-chun, and Jun-su would form a new group called JYJ, while Yun-ho and Chang-min would retain the DBSK name as a duo.

Appearing under a new label, C-JeS Entertainment, JYJ quickly rebounded.  Since they were known from their talents from their old-DBSK days, they became one of Korea’s most successful and profitable groups in 2010.  Their charitable work and positions as Goodwill ambassadors of the United Nations agency UNAIDS were applauded.  They are also quite popular in Japan, as they performed concerts in Japan seven months after their Tōhoku earthquake in October 2011.

Yet, what would have happened if the three members of JYJ and SM Entertainment worked out a compromise in 2009?  Imagine if a new contract was agreed upon.  Perhaps, they would have remained the most popular Korean boy band group today.

As Yun-ho from the current DBSK reminisces on an episode of the Korean variety show, Golden Fishery, back in 2011:

At a young age we were very successful and everyone got caught up in the fame and popularity and that is probably why we have got to this point now, and it hurts my heart deeply.  It’s regrettable when Chang-min and I heard the news.

As the throngs of DBSK and JYJ fans can attest, they would echo Yun-ho’s sediments: “It is regrettable indeed.”

The contract: it’s both a necessity and a curse in business.  As JYJ and DBSK experienced, the K-pop world is no exception…

Stay tuned for part 3 of Behind the K-pop Scenes.  We’ll explore the K-pop world even further, the Hallyu Wave, and K-pop’s quirky trends.


Guest Poster’s Bio:

Jason Yu (aka “Jangta”) works as a Korean media member in Seoul, Korea.  For more of his writing, check out his website on Asian pop culture and Kpop, Green Tea Graffiti.


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