David Volodzko wrote in Global Post: “ Thousands of Korean children dream of becoming household names, often putting up with punishing schedules in the hope of one day making it big in the music industry.” A 2016 “survey of pre-teens showed that 21 percent of respondents wanted to be K-pop stars when they grow up, the most popular career choice.” [Source: David Volodzko, Global Post, April 25, 2016]

Aja Romano wrote in Vox: “The cloistered life of a K-pop star is coveted by thousands of South Korean teens and preteens — so much so that walk-in auditions to scout kids for the studio programs are frequently held in South Korea and New York.” [Source: Aja Romano, Vox, February 26, 2018]

John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “The agencies recruit twelve-to-nineteen-year-olds from around the world, through both open auditions and a network of scouts. In addition to singing and dancing, the idols study acting and foreign languages — Japanese, Chinese, and English. They also receive media coaching and are readied for the intense scrutiny they will receive on the Internet from the “netizens” of Korea, the most wired country on earth. (“Netizens Love Seohyun’s Aegyo Mark” declared a recent headline from the K-pop Web site Soompi, regarding the small beauty dot to the left of the singer’s eye.) Unless you’re the Jonas Brothers or Taylor Swift, public drunkenness, brawling, and serial misbehavior can often enhance an artist’s reputation in the American pop scene; in Korea, a rumored sex tape or a positive test for marijuana can derail a career. On average, only one in ten trainees makes it all the way to a début. [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]

What does it take to make it? A dancer and part-time choreographer who has attended more than a dozen auditions in Canada and Korea, told CBC. "I thought that first you would get in if you were very skilled and talented.… Most of the time, they have set traits they want in terms of looks. They already know what they want in terms of height, how someone styles themselves." [Source: Jessica Wong, CBC News, February 24, 2018]

Korean Idols

AJ Willingham wrote in CNN: “K-pop stars are called 'idols' because of the intense fandoms they inspire. It may seem like hyperbole, but the term "idol" is pretty accurate when it comes to the passion and devotion K-pop artists command, and you'll often hear the term thrown around for a group as a whole and its individual members. It's long been a convention of boy band fanatics to have a favorite member, and in K-pop circles, fans call their favorite member their "bias." [Source: AJ Willingham, CNN, April 14, 2019]

“All messages of authenticity aside, the reality is K-pop acts don't typically start out as a bunch of people futzing around with guitars in their parents' garage. The groups are usually specifically put together by large Korean entertainment companies, and hopeful members train for years to perfect their dancing and singing skills.

“It's an extremely demanding, expensive and often alienating process, and auditions for groups are highly competitive. Once a hopeful becomes an idol, they are expected to maintain a squeaky-clean and non-controversial presence to minimize any risk to their carefully created images. So even though aspiring idols may end up with untold riches, fame and admiration, it all comes at a great risk and a steep price.

“In addition to being amazing dancers and capable singers, K-pop artists must also be ethereally, invariably attractive. After all, being an idol isn't just about being a skilled performer, it's also about being a easily marketable sex symbol. Perfect skin, slim bodies, stunning hair and a cutting edge fashion sense are absolutely critical to the idol formula.

“It's not just about physical attractiveness, either. Every aspect of the K-pop genre, from pastel hairstyles to red carpet fashion to stunning music videos and album art, is presented with a rich and meticulously curated visual aesthetic. In a way, K-pop is as much art for the eyes as it is for the ears, and while this is a huge draw for fans, it can also be a discouraging reminder of the manufactured image the genre often favors.

K-Pop Prep Schools

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, a large number of schools opened up that catered to the desire of kids to become K-Pop stars. In addition existing crams schools began offering dancing and singing classes that addressed the same desire. Reporting from Suwon, outside of Seoul, John Power wrote in Mashable: Move is “one of numerous private academies for young Koreans who dream of entering the country’s wildly competitive pop industry. At Move, located about 35 km outside of Seoul, budding idols can choose among dozens of singing and dance classes held each week. Just as their K-pop heroes constantly cycle through various “concepts” to stay fresh, students can opt among styles such as hiphop, urban and zumba. For several evenings of classes each week, a three-month semester costs about US$1,000. [Source: John Power, Mashable, February 29, 2016]

Students range from as young as 6 to well into their teens. For the young hopefuls, the biggest draw is the chance to shine at one of the regular auditions the school organizes with the major entertainment agencies. Talent scouts from firms such as S.M. and YG visit regularly in search of potential candidates for their intensive trainee programs. Before their debut, K-pop performers undergo several years of grueling training with their management company, often living in dormitories with other trainees.

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: Even though there is no official tally on the number of schools teaching children and teenagers to become pop entertainers, industry officials all agree that it is on the rise. Even traditional private music and dance schools — more accustomed to teaching Bach and ballet — have switched their curriculums to get with the pop plan. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 9, 2013]

“They are responding to a growing demand. In a survey by the Korea Institute for Vocational Education and Training late last year, entertainers, along with teachers and doctors, were the most popular choices for future jobs among primary, middle and high school students — a far cry from a more traditional era, when entertainment was considered an inferior profession and its practitioners belittled with the derogatory nickname “tantara.” Now, in college, pop music is one of the most coveted majors, where it’s “practical music.” “Eleven years ago, when I first started this school, parents thought only teenage delinquents came here,” said Yang Sun-kyu, head of Def Dance Skool, in the Gangnam district. “Parents’ attitudes have changed.”

“With the motto “cultivating the next generation of K-pop artists,” the Def Dance Skool trains 1,000 students, up from about 400 in 2006. Fees vary but usually run about US$135 a month for two or three evenings a week. That’s about the same price that some traditional cram schools, known as hagwon, charge for their academic programs. Almost half of the students at Def Dance Skool are trying to break into one of South Korea’s top K-pop agencies, which recruit and train young talent to put them into girl or boy bands.”

Kids at K-Pop Prep Schools

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “Kim Chae-young attends cram school five evenings a week, toiling deep into the night. But unlike most young South Koreans who spend hours at special schools to polish their English and math, she studies slide steps and bubbly lyrics. “I want to become a K-pop icon, one like Psy,” said Chae-young, 13, referring to the Korean rapper of the viral video “Gangnam Style.” “All these hours I spend here are my investment for that dream.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 9, 2013]

“For the past four years, she has practiced her hip-hop moves at the Def Dance Skool in Seoul, which is just one such school among thousands in South Korea. On a recent evening, Chae-young and other sweating teenagers bobbed and stomped, practicing their hip-hop moves in front of wall mirrors, as instructors clapped and shouted. Later, in an upstairs recording room, she practiced Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” over and over, as her teacher gently admonished her. “In my days, studying hard was everything, but now we see there are other options for our children,” said Lee Byeong-hwa, a 48-year-old homemaker whose 11-year-old daughter, Kim En-jae, dreams of a career as a K-pop star.

John Power wrote in Mashable:“After Jeun So-jung closes her books at the end of the school day in notoriously hard-studying South Korea, she soon finds herself back in a classroom. Except at this school, the 14 year old doesn’t practice English or maths. Instead, her curriculum consists of lots of singing and dancing — the skills she’ll need for her dream career as a K-pop star. “I like performers who are strong dancers. I want to join a girl group like Girlfriend,” the middle schooler told Mashable, name checking a girlish six-piece that debuted just last year. “I want to dance.”. [Source: John Power, Mashable, February 29, 2016]

“Jeun is among the more than 500 students at Move For the teen, following her dream is a serious business. When on school break, she trains for up to 12 hours a day between classes at the academy and practice at home. “My parents said I should earn good money and you can’t do that dancing, but since I really want to do it, they’ve recommended I try,” she said.

Auditions for a K-Pop Job

Auditions are the make-or-break link to a job in the K-Pop business. Sometimes they are held at offices or gyms and kids just show up. Other times there are American-Idol-like audition processes, contests and television or YouTube broadcasts. “The first time I did an audition, I was so nervous. But I have gotten used to it now, so it’s OK,” 13-year-old Chu Dan-bi, who has had several unsuccessful tryouts, told Mashable. For those who fail to impress, there is unlikely to even be the consolation of useful feedback. “They don’t say whether you did good or bad, they just watch,” said Jeun. [Source: John Power, Mashable, February 29, 2016 //\]

Jessica Wong wrote in CBC News: These auditions — in which organizers may, for instance, plow through more than 600 applicants in five hours — can be intense and demoralizing. "We were all really packed tightly in the room," Steven Chau, centre, a dancer and aspiring K-pop idol, said of one audition, "and the judges sometimes didn't even look at you — they would be staring at their phone.… After 30 seconds of playing the music, they would just stop and say 'Thanks. You can leave.'" Out of the thousands trying out annually, only a handful are typically chosen to sign with a K-pop company. [Source: Jessica Wong, CBC News, February 24, 2018]

John Power wrote in Mashable. “For all their sweat and passion, the chances of success are slim for the aspiring idols. At most, a few dozen new acts debut each year. Even many of those accepted as trainees never make the stage at all. So far, no one has ever graduated from Move into the industry. These stark odds do little to deter the students, who seem confident that their efforts will pay off with enough auditions and practice. “All the students are the same,” said Suk Chae-eun, who is 16. “They do a lot of auditions and practice a lot!” //\

No one seems like they could even consider giving up. For when she makes it, Jeun has already figured her image out. “I want to have a strong and tomboyish image, because I like that style. I am not good at being feminine, so I think I’d do androgynous well,” she said, laughing.

The Move school mentioned is part of Move Entertainment which is, according to AFP, a relative minnow in an industry dominated by three groups — SM, YG and JYP — who each employ a small army of producers, choreographers and stylists. The hunt for talent is extremely competitive and the agencies start recruiting kids as young as 13. Monthly tests are held to evaluate progress and determine who will earn a slot in a band — a winnowing-out process that most K-Pop artists have gone through in one way or another. "It's a survival tournament where only the winners move onward," the manager of an up-and-coming group told AFP. [Source: Jung Ha-Won, AFP, August 3, 2014]

K-Pop Training

Being selected in an audition is only the first hurdle to overcome on the road to becoming a K-Pop performer. There is an incredible amounts of training. Most idols train for years in singing, dancing, acting and learning Asian languages before they are even allowed to debut their first song. Mike Suh, head of strategy and global business at entertainment conglomerate CJ E&M, told CNN idols go through a long training period "so that they immediately attract fans when they first appear." [Source: Jane Sit, CNN, December 11, 2013]

Jessica Wong wrote in CBC News: Once under contract, trainees famously undergo K-pop boot camp. They assemble in a dormitory, with reduced communication with family and friends. Add in extreme diet regimes and gruelling training schedules strictly monitored by management companies. [Source: Jessica Wong, CBC News, February 24, 2018]

Aja Romano wrote in Vox: ““Through highly competitive auditions, starting around ages 10 to 12, music studios induct talented children into the K-pop regimen. The children attend special schools where they take specialized singing and dancing lessons; they learn how to moderate their public behavior and prepare for life as a pop star; they spend hours in daily rehearsals and perform in weekend music shows as well as special group performances. Through these performances, lucky kids can gain fan followings before they even officially “debut.” And when they’re old enough, if they’re really one of the lucky few, the studios will place them into an idol group or even, occasionally, launch them as a solo artist. [Source: Aja Romano, Vox, February 26, 2018]

“Once an idol group has been trained to perfection, the studios generate pop songs for them, market them, put them on TV, send them on tour, and determine when they’ll next make their “comeback” — a term that usually signals a band’s latest album release, generally accompanied by huge fanfare, special TV appearances, and a totally new thematic concept. Because of the control they exert over their artists, South Korean music studios are directly responsible for shaping the global image of K-pop as a genre. But the industry is notoriously exploitative, and studio life is grueling to the point that it can easily cross over to abusive; performers are regularly signed to long-term contracts, known as “slave contracts,” when they are still children, which closely dictate their private behavior, dating life, and public conduct.

Hideo Shinada of Nikkei Entertainment wrote: :YG usually trains new performers for more than five years before their debut. Subjects include singing, dancing and foreign languages, such as English, Chinese and Japanese. The training period at SM is three to five years. "The cost of training new artists is like research and development costs for manufacturers," said SM Entertainment CEO Kim Young-min. "To keep on producing hits, finding newcomers who have the potential for global success is more important than managing artists who've made their breakthroughs." [Source: Hideo Shinada, Nikkei Entertainment, January 8, 2015]

SM and YG attract tens of thousands of audition applicants in China, the U.S., Japan and elsewhere. South Korean talent agencies have multifaceted business models that cover all aspects of the entertainment business, from finding new talent, to training and managing them, to producing music, videos, advertisements and concerts. Overseas strategies are also in place for new artists from the time they make their debut. To ensure swift and smooth overseas operations, the agencies team up with local partners to meet the tastes and demands of each country or region. Another factor behind South Korean pop music's global success is collaboration with famous U.S. music producers like Teddy Riley, who worked with Michael Jackson.

K-Pop Boot Camp

In 2011, Singaporeans Ferlyn Wong and Elaine Yuki Wong won an audition contest with 3,000 contestants and were selected to be in a K-Pop group with three Korean girls and have parts in a Korean drama starring Korean teen idol Kim Junsu. Alan Chan, CEO of Alpha, the agency that recruited them, said the girls could earn about US$1 million a year if they were successful. Full-contract artists usually sign on for five years with the company. Charlene Chua & Jeanmarie Tan wrote in The New Paper: “It sounds like a fantasy come true. But when Ferlyn and Elaine fly to Korea to undergo Alpha's K-pop "boot camp" and start their new careers, it will spell the end of life as they know it. [Source: Charlene Chua & Jeanmarie Tan, The New Paper via AsiaOne, June 13, 2011]

“The Alpha Korean staff's list of what-to-dos and what-not-to-dos reads more like a girl's nightmare. It's strictly no boyfriends, no mobile phones and no unsupervised trips - even to the toilet. When in public, the girls can't ever take off their sunglasses lest their tired peepers are caught on camera. They must speak only Korean and respond to their Korean stage names. They will address their Korean management as their family - the men they will call "appa" (father in Korean) and women "umma" (mother in Korean).

“For most of their 14-hour days, the use of make-up is prohibited as the Koreans require a bare-faced, natural look. After 7pm, there will be no eating or drinking - even a single drop of water won't be allowed. At meal times, they will both be given the same food to eat. Five hours of gym, dance, vocal and Korean language lessons are compulsory daily. There will be no fraternising with other K-pop stars or anyone outside their "family".

“And they're not allowed to go anywhere without their Korean manager, who used to manage popular K-pop girl group Girls' Generation. This includes all leisure activities like going to the movies and shopping at the mall. On their rest day, they will have to spend bonding time with their "family", be it at the beach, bowling or watching fireworks. Even in Singapore, where they will return once every three months for a week, a local staff member will take over the watch.

“Flout the rules? A warning will be issued. And getting caught more than once means a possible termination of their five-year contract. If any band member should want out during the six-months training period, they will be fined US$20,000. If someone quits the group after the training period, the penalty sum will be discussed between her and management. Food and lodging is free for the training period only. Group members will be paid every three months, a sum dependent on how much they made during that period.”

“Ferlyn, 19, told The New Paper: "We didn't think it was going to be so tough. During dance training, we were asked to put our arms up in a certain position. Once we lower them a little, we'll get shouted at. Elaine pulled the muscle on her inner thigh while doing a split and couldn't move it for some time but we still had to push through the training." Added Elaine, 22: "We knew that to be K-pop stars, there were sacrifices to be made. We really want this. And even though the Korean management is very strict with us, they are fiercely protective of us and treat us really well."

“The girls said their families were "very supportive" of their decision to be in a K-pop band - despite knowing of all the restrictions. Said Ferlyn's mother, Ms Rosy Ng Siew Whee, 48, a housewife: "I believe it won't be a problem for my daughter and these restrictions are good for her. "I'm so proud of my daughter. She must make it big." Alpha Entertainment CEO, Mr Chan, said: "What rules the girls follow are what members of K-pop bands have to go through in Korea."It's the Korean culture to be very protective of their charges. The girls are there to be trainees with the eventual goal to become stars, so they shouldn't have any distractions. "It's very competitive in Korea. Our training system is the same as (SM Entertainment's)."

Discovered-on-the- Street K-Pop Story

Some K-Pop trainees are recruited on the street for their looks alone. Joseph L. Flatley wrote in The Verge: “Marg Lee is a Los Angeles-based attorney. As a child she and her sister were in a band called T.T.Ma ("Taste The Maximum" or "To The Maximum"). Her experience as a professional pop singer is interesting in that it demonstrates how big the industry is in Korea, and how quickly the large entertainment companies shuffle through its performers. Born and raised in a small town outside of Dallas, Lee’s family moved to Korea when she was in the eighth grade. It was soon after arriving that she was approached on the street in the neighborhood of Apgujeong (where Psy’s "Gangnam Style" video was shot] by a talent agent. [Source: Joseph L. Flatley, The Verge, October 18, 2012]

"The next day," Lee says, "I gave the card to my mom and I explained what happened, and my mom thought we should call him." Soon, the whole family was at a karaoke joint, where Lee and her sister auditioned for a place in a pop group the agency was putting together. "I can’t really sing that well," she admits, "but I guess they still wanted me in the band because I can speak English and they liked my look." Both sisters were asked to join, and soon after that auditions were held to fill the three other positions in the group.

“After a year of dance, rap, and singing lessons, the group’s debut album, In The Sea (1999) was released. "Over the course of our career, we did interviews, radio shows, game shows, music shows, concerts, festivals, all that stuff. We toured Shanghai, we filmed our music video in Thailand." The experience was like that of an eccentric after-school job for the young student. "I’m actually glad that I was really young when I did it," she says, "the entertainment industry can be really corrupt... [but] because I was so young, everyone in the industry looked out for me."After two years, when her contract was up, Lee left the business to concentrate on school work and the SAT’s.

Audition Shows and Superstar K: South Korea’s American Idol

Aja Romano wrote in Vox: ““In addition to studio auditions, a wave of new TV audition shows have sprung up in the past few years, giving unknowns a chance to be discovered and build a fan base. Often called idol shows or survival shows, these audition shows are comparable to American Idol and X-Factor. Competitors on these shows can make it big on their own or be grouped up — like the recently debuted group JBJ (short for the fan-dubbed moniker “Just Be Joyful”), consisting of boys who competed in the talent show Produce 101 Season 2 last year and then got put in a temporary group after fans started making composite Instagram photos of them all together. The band only has a seven-month contract; enjoy it while it lasts! [Source: Aja Romano, Vox, February 26, 2018]

"Superstar K," is South Korea’s biggest singing competition. According to the Paris Review, 2.08 million Koreans — an astounding 4 percent of the entire population — tried out for "Superstar K" in 2012.

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “On a recent day, Ms. Lee and En-jae sat with thousands of people at an indoor stadium in Incheon, west of Seoul. Nearly all of them were in their teens or 20s, and each was wearing a number. They were among two million contestants vying to appear on Season 5 of “Superstar K,” the country’s answer to “American Idol.” Besides South Korea, auditions were held in the United States and Canada. It’s one of several K-pop star-spotting television shows that have become magnets for would-be performers like En-jae. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 9, 2013]

“Hugging a guitar, En-jae watched intently as applicants lined up in front of 25 white rectangular tents on the stadium floor. Eventually, the group was pared to just 100 individual and group acts for the three-month “Superstar K” competition. The weekly broadcast on the Mnet cable channel began on Friday.

“For Woo Ji-won, an 18-year-old high school senior, it’s her third year in a row trying to pass the audition. “My classmates are cramming for college entrance exams,” she said. “But I go to a K-pop school seven evenings a week. After coming home past 10, I study K-pop video on YouTube for hours.”

Auditions for K-Pop Stars in the U.S.

Jason Song wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “CALL it "Korean American Idol." Soo-Man Lee's search for the next big Korean star brings him to Los Angeles to watch young performers flip their hair, swivel their hips and do their best Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake impressions, almost entirely in English. "The language doesn't matter. We can teach them that," Lee said. "What we need is people who understand American culture. That is what will make them stars in Asia." Lee's view may seem counterintuitive, but it appears to work. For the past several years, Lee's company — he's president of Seoul-based S.M. Entertainment — has held open-call auditions in 11 North American cities, including Los Angeles and Garden Grove, for performers who can sing, act or model their way to stardom in Asia. So far, he's discovered almost half a dozen U.S.-born entertainers who have become celebrities in Korea, feeding that country's demand for stars. [Source: Jason Song, Los Angeles Times, January 1, 2007]

“The lines for a recent S.M. audition snaked out the door of an office building on Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown and into the indoor golf driving range next door. S.M. volunteers shouted to maintain order among teenagers practicing their dance moves or warming up their voices while puzzled middle-aged men carrying golf clubs cut their way through. Many of the contestants were fans of "K-pop." ...Mexican Irish Bryanna Sandoval drove from Norco for the auditions. (S.M. executives ask that contestants be Asian, although not necessarily Korean.) "I just like the music so much I thought, why not give it a try?" said Sandoval, who estimated that a quarter of her iPod was dedicated to Korean songs, even though she doesn't speak the language. Sandoval, however, did not get a tryout.

“Standing several spots in back of Sandoval was Katherine Ko, an 18-year-old from La Canada Flintridge, who dances in a group with several of her friends. When asked about their favorite singers, the girls quickly rattled off American pop staples like Beyonce and Missy Elliott, and showed off dance moves influenced by hip-hop rather than Asian style. “Ko, an aspiring actress, said she came to the tryouts because opportunities for Asian Americans are limited in America. Sally Oh felt the same way. The 20-year-old Cypress College student wasn't aware of the auditions until her mother saw an ad for them on Korean television and urged her daughter to sign up. Oh's favorite singers are Toni Braxton and Mariah Carey, and she only occasionally listens to Korean pop.

“Lee and other S.M. executives who had flown in from Korea for a second set of tryouts, held a week later at a park on Olympic Boulevard in Koreatown, sat in a row in front of the stage, "American Idol" style. Thousands of viewers came from a nearby street fair to watch. Oh, dressed in a long black evening gown, belted out Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing" before thanking the crowd in Korean and walking offstage with the poise of a polished performer. But backstage, Oh let her emotions show. She ignored the hamburgers and hot dogs volunteers were grilling and watched the other performers, her hand clasped across her mouth, before she began analyzing her performance with some friends.

“When the winners were finally announced, Oh finished out of the top five. She was disappointed but called it a good learning experience. Since she was unsure if she wanted to go to Korea anyway, she said, perhaps it was for the best. It turned out that Lee saw enough of Oh and several other performers to ask them back for yet another audition.

K-Pop Trainees

After signing a contract with entertainment companies such as SM Entertainment trainees undergo a brutal training regimen in the “idol farm system.” Professor Lee Dong-yeon, who teaches cultural theory at the Korean National University, told South China Morning Post: “Pop idol trainees often follow an arduous daily schedule that includes two hours of exercise, four hours of dance and choreography classes, two hours of vocal training, followed by three hours of language studies.” [Source: Paulina Cachero,Yahoo Lifestyle, October 15, 2019]

K-pop artist, songwriter, and YouTuber Grazy Grace told Maria Sherman of Cosmopolitan about the hardlife of a K-Pop trainee. Sherman wrote: “Trainees can start as young as 11 years old. Many cram into rooms (in Grace’s case, with eight other people), sleeping on bunk beds or the floor. Living away from family and friends, typically in Seoul, they’re forced to work 12-hour days or longer, memorizing lyrics and dance moves, practicing until they don’t make a mistake. All for free. [Source: Maria Sherman, Cosmopolitan, March 10, 2020]

““Payment” comes in the form of a room and dance and voice lessons…and sometimes nose jobs and double-eyelid lifts so aspiring stars can look the part. “It was my dream to become a singer,” says Grace, who went through training in hopes of being chosen for a girl group. “Until I realized how bad it was mentally. I developed insomnia. I couldn’t sleep for six months straight. I started to feel anxiety but didn’t even know what an anxiety attack was. I didn’t want to share my feelings because I didn’t want to get cut from the company. I thought if I looked too depressed, I’d be let go.”

So she dealt with verbal attacks whenever her voice cracked. She kept quiet through weekly weight checks. Girls like Grace weren’t allowed to gain even one-quarter of one pound, she says. (In 2018, Momo, a singer in the K-pop group Twice, posted on the social media platform Vlive that she was only eating one ice cube a day until she dropped more than 15 pounds.)

“You kind of lose who you are,” says Grace. And that’s not by accident. Some trainees’ rooms are monitored by closed-circuit cameras, and cell phones are frequently checked by managers. Social media posts, too, must often be approved, every single selfie scrutinized before posting. (Part of this is to make sure there’s no interaction with a trainee of the opposite sex. Romantic relationships could result in termination — even actual K-pop Idols, as those who “make it” are called, are often contractually barred from dating for the first few years of their career in order to appear available.) And once you’re in, you’re in. Some trainees sign contracts that stipulate that if they quit, they have to pay back everything the program invested in them. Depending on the company, that can be tens of thousands of dollars. Most won’t though. Grace didn’t. After three years of strenuous, unpaid work, the company let her go.

Life of Prospective K-Pop Talent

Ferlyn Wong and Elaine Yuki Wong were picked from a mass audition in 2010 to join three Korean girls to form a group that debut in South Korea in March 2012. Elaine, 23, says: 'I didn't expect it to be so tough.” But because their debut was only months away she said the intensive training was s necessary. “We have to be at our best.” she said [Source: Jocelyn Lee, The Straits Times, June 20, 2011]

Jocelyn Lee wrote in The Straits Times: “This has been their regime five days a week, with weekends off:
Get up at 7am. Eat breakfast consisting of a few low-fat biscuits and lettuce.
Go for 2 1/2-hour gym session.
Swim for two hours.
Lunch, well, no lunch actually. Must count those calories.
Snacks (if the girls complain of hunger) - a banana or a few low-fat biscuits.
Dance class after lunch, for up to four hours.
Dinner - boiled chicken breast and salad.
Finish dinner by 7pm. After that, they are not allowed to eat or drink anything; apparently drinking will make them look bloated in the morning.
After dinner, vocal, acting and Korean language lessons.
10pm, free time. The girls are given back their mobile phones, which their Korean manager keeps during the day so they cannot use them.
They can use the Internet to communicate with their family and friends but it is no more personal Facebook and blog accounts for them.

“No boyfriends are permitted, either. Luckily, both girls say that they are single at the moment. And no make-up - the girls are supposed to have a minimal, natural look. Other orders: When out with their managers, they have to wear sunglasses which they must not remove in public, even when indoors. Add to that new look, new identities: They have to use Korean stage names, with Elaine's being Yuki and Ferlyn's, Gieun.

“The local duo are being handled by Korean minders who are well-known in the industry and have managed big Korean names such as Girls' Generation, Rain and Dong Bang Shin Ki. The training they are undergoing is similar to what those big names went through to crack the big time and make millions of dollars. After they debut, they will be paid once every three months - a net sum and any profits they earn. With about five to 10 Korean rookie groups debuting every year, competition is stiff. Some bands such as five-member male group Beast made a strong impression when they emerged, but there are others who toil for years before making it - and some fizzle out altogether.

“They are even prepared to undergo plastic surgery, common among Korean pop stars. Ferlyn wants to have double eyelids, while Elaine has thought about enhancing her nose. However, Elaine, who before being selected for K-pop camp was earning her own money from modelling and blogging, says: 'We asked our minders in Korea and they told us that we look fine and do not need to go for plastic surgery. So, we are not thinking about that issue anymore.' The duo were wary about one aspect of the Korean entertainment industry: the casting couch, where rising stars have to perform sexual favours in return for landing roles in shows. But their Korean minders have assured them that no such thing will happen as they will keep tabs on them all the time, even when they go to the restroom.

“Ferlyn's parents are unfazed by the K-pop boot camp. Her mother, housewife Rosy Ng, 48, says: 'What the girls have gone through so far has been quite reasonable. The company has invested a lot in them, so they need to work hard for the company. I am not worried about Ferlyn. I want her to follow her dreams and make it big.'”

Hungry, Modified and Exhausted K-Pop Trainees

Elaine told the Straits Times: 'I get hungry very easily and I would complain once every two to three hours. Luckily, my minders give me a banana or a few low-fat biscuits when I complain.' Ferlyn says: 'It is very tough, but it is something that previous female stars have gone through before. They survived and are fine now, so I am not worried that it would affect my health or anything like that.' The 19-year-old has been ordered by her minder to lose 3kg during the two weeks she is back here. If not she will 'die' when she returns to Korea, she says with a laugh. Ferlyn, who weighed 52kg before she went to Korea, says: 'I have only soup these days when I am in Singapore: tofu soup, seafood soup, seaweed soup, fish soup. I feel hungry sometimes, which is why I try to have more small meals a day. It works though, I have already lost 2kg in a week.' [Source: Jocelyn Lee, The Straits Times, June 20, 2011]

Paulina Cachero wrote in Yahoo Lifestyle:“Stella Kim, a trainee who was on track join South Korean girl group Girl’s Generation, recalled being forced to go on a scale in front of other trainees and developing an eating disorder as a result. “They would make us stand in line and go on the scale,” Kim shared with the Asian-American publication, NextShark. “They would call out what your weight is in front of everyone. If your weight had not gone down from the week prior, you would get bashed on.” At one point, the 5-foot-7 former aspiring K-pop star weighed only 90 pounds. [Source: Paulina Cachero,Yahoo Lifestyle, October 15, 2019]

““In the Korean entertainment industry, beauty is often associated with physical appearance,” Kim added. “Beauty is often an exaggeration of femininity or masculinity… All extremely distorted views that are unfortunately set by socio-cultural standards in a high-pressure, fast-paced society.”

Many “K-pop trainees” are students, who are juggling as many as 13 hours of training at the label along with their academic studies. These individuals are then evaluated on their singing, dancing, and even weight loss on a weekly or monthly basis. Trainees will spend anywhere from two to 10 years in these rigorous programs — but even then you’re not guaranteed a spot in a coveted K-pop group. “You have to put in all these crazy hours and hard work. The person that works harder to be more fit and dance harder to look more presentable will fair better,” says Jeff Benjamin, a K-pop music columnist who has written for Billboard and the New York Times, adding that plastic surgery is also often encouraged for K-pop star hopefuls. “It’s more vigorous than what we’re used to in the West... If you don’t make these groups, you have to start all over.”

Big Dreams, Quick Careers and the World Opened Up By K-Pop Audition Success

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: Hong Dae-kwang, who ranked No. 4 at the “Superstar K” tournament” in 2012 “ told the New York Times that he agreed with the criticism that K-Pop was full of cookie cutter performers. “They all sing, dance and perform well, like well-made machines,” he said. “Still, Mr. Hong, 28, acknowledged that the K-pop boom helped to change his life. Before he starred in the competition, he shared a cheap one-room apartment with a friend and was delivering pizza and performing on the streets for a living. Now, he is a regular guest on a local radio show, lives in a three-room apartment and has his own agent. “K-pop opened the door of opportunities for people like me,” said Mr. Hong, whose debut album briefly topped digital song downloads here in April. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 9, 2013]

John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “The groups are put together by the heads of the agencies, according to an alchemy of individual and collective qualities. “The members of a group shouldn’t be completely alike and indistinguishable,” Melody Kim, a community manager at Soompi, told me, “but they should be complementary enough so that together they form a really great, cohesive whole.” [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]

"K-Pop is scary!" Ellen Kim, a dancer and choreographer based in Los Angeles. Told The Verge. "If I was an artist in Korea, I'd be nervous. The pace of the popularity of the music is quick. You got one song that can last for a week, and that's it... that's really scary. You put so much work into one song, but yet it's going to get old quick. Korean people want something new every week, and I think that's the hardest pressure, probably. To come up with something catchy all the time, a hit all the time, and you've got tons of artists and the lifespan of one song is so short. It's pretty hard." [Source: Joseph L. Flatley, The Verge, October 18, 2012]

On the winner of an audition contest in Singapore, Charlene Chua & Jeanmarie Tan wrote in The New Paper: “Alfred said he's willing to quit school immediately to pursue his dreams. Alpha Entertainment, which chose Alfred during auditions in 2010, has urged him to ask for a two-year deferment as it is still willing to sign him on for that period of time. Alfred will join four Korean guys in Korea to form a five-member boy band. His request to have his military service duty deferred was rejected. "I was disappointed as not everyone gets such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I've always wanted to be a performer. [Source: Source: Charlene Chua & Jeanmarie Tan, The New Paper via AsiaOne, June 13, 2011]

“He said his mum had joked about asking him to give up his Singapore citizenship to become a Korean in order to realise his dream. Alfred said he will be requesting deferment from national service again next week and he is keeping his fingers crossed that it will be approved. He will be flying with the girls to Korea at the end of this month to get his own sneak peek at what it's like to be a K-pop star. Said Alfred: "I don't see the point of me becoming a Korean because if I don't succeed there, I won't be able to return to Singapore. "I actually prefer going into the K-pop industry as a Singaporean and coming back and making everyone proud."

Group Struggles to Make It in K-Pop

Reporting from Seoul, Jung Ha-Won of AFP wrote:“"Time to get up girls!" The call comes at 6:00 am as it does every morning, pulling Ray from her bunk bed at the start of another 16-hour day in search of stardom. Ray and the five other young women sharing a small Seoul apartment make up the K-pop band "Billion" — which at times can feel like the number of miles they are from achieving their goal. K-pop glamour has conquered much of Asia and beyond, but for every headlining boy and girl band, there are many more like "Billion" struggling for a break on the margins of South Korea's best-known cultural export. And that means gruelling days packed with travelling, training, rehearsing, grooming and performing under the watchful eyes of record label minders who push an almost military-like dawn-to-dusk regimen. [Source: Jung Ha-Won, AFP, August 3, 2014]

“The sacrifice is substantial. Holidays are rare, and most live with other band mates in dorm-like apartments provided by their agencies, who decide when they wake up, what they do, when and what they eat and when they go to bed. "It's really not what it looks like on TV. You have to work incredibly hard just to make a debut," said Ray. "We're extremely lucky to have made it this far," the 23-year-old rapper told AFP. "This far" means a debut album released in March, nearly two years after the group was formed.

Billion's lead manager Park In-Seo told AFP: "Launching a pop band is a large investment. You have to look after that." Costs vary, but different agencies questioned by AFP said launching a band — from its creation to a debut album — required an outlay of anywhere between US$500,000 and one million dollars. More time is devoted to dance practice than anything else — reflecting the importance placed on immaculately-synchronised choreography. Hour after draining hour, the Billion girls are taken through the same steps to lock in each minor detail from every hip swivel to finger twirl. "I know it so well, my body moves by itself once this song plays," said Seul-Gi, referring to "Dancing Alone" — the main track from their album.

“Each of the band members are also encouraged to develop a quirky, "special" skill that they can show off during interviews, such as impersonating various celebrities. Ray's surprising speciality is animal noises, which the management seems slightly ambivalent about. "Sometimes they say it's funny and I can try it on air, sometimes they don't," she said.

Daily Life of Struggling K-Pop Group

Reporting from Seoul, Jung Ha-Won of AFP wrote:“Even on a day without a booking, they wake up at six, work out for several hours and spend the rest of the day rehearsing dance steps and honing singing skills, with a 10 pm lights-out considered an early night. "They usually go to bed after midnight, so you can see why they are a bit groggy in the morning," explained Lee Hyo-Jin, as she moved from bed to bed, gently but firmly enforcing the wake-up call. Lee, 31, is one of a trio of managers running Billion's career and scheduling the daily lives of its members. [Source: Jung Ha-Won, AFP, August 3, 2014]

“The band share two spartan bedrooms — each with a bunk bed and a third mattress on the floor. There's a makeup cabinet and not much else. A piece of paper pinned to the wall carries the hand-written message: "We'll make it! We'll be the best! We'll never get tired!" There is little time for relationships and none of the six has a current boyfriend, while several say they haven't dated for years. The only break is given for South Korea's two main holidays, the Lunar New Year and the Chuseok harvest festival, when they can visit their families.

“"The band literally is my second family," said Song-Yi, 22, a music major who took time out of college to join "Billion". "I miss my real family a lot but try to contain that feeling, because I need to focus on this right now," she said. Fellow member Seul-Gi, 19, was just a high school junior when she was picked up by the agency.

“Lee is a key figure in the life of the band members: a manager who is also a dorm matron, confidante, minder and peace-keeper. She is responsible for keeping everyone on a strict diet of twice-daily meals — consisting mainly of vegetables and fruits, along with small strips of chicken breast. Looks are everything in the K-pop world — for girl- and boy-bands — and a set of scales squats permanently in the living room of the "Billion" apartment. "It's difficult, because I really like food. But it's necessary," says lead singer Betty, who sometimes stays awake at night sharing fantasies of favourite foods with her two roommates. Betty, 21, is 1.6 meters (5ft 2in) tall and weighs 45 kilograms (99 pounds).

Struggling K-Pop Group’s Struggle to Make It

Jung Ha-Won of AFP wrote: “Billion had hoped the March release of their album would earn them a TV break, but barely a month later South Korea was rocked by the Sewol ferry disaster that killed 300 people — most of them schoolchildren. The tragedy plunged the entire country into mourning, resulting in the mass cancellation of concerts and entertainment shows. [Source: Jung Ha-Won, AFP, August 3, 2014]

“But they keep plugging the album at every opportunity, including a low-profile regional qualifier for the 2014 Miss Korea contest at a shopping mall outside Seoul. Held on a small outdoor stage, in torrential rain, in front of a few dozen damp spectators and with a dodgy sound system, the event was a stern test of the band's ambition and commitment. But it was one they rose to without complaint, bouncing onto the stage after an uncomfortable three-hour wait under umbrellas.

“The performance lasted 10 minutes and was greeted with scattered applause before the band climbed into their minivan for the drive back to Seoul. The next day will see them perform at a corporate picnic. It can be a thankless life at times, but Billion stick to their punishing regimen and seem genuinely content with their choice. "Even if we don't make it, it's worth a try," said Ray.

Poor K-Pop Stars

Maria Sherman wrote in Cosmopolitan: “For those fortunate enough to reach Idol status, things don’t get better. Sometimes, they get worse, for little more than the illusion of being rich and famous. Because while K-pop concerts sell out in minutes, some artists can’t even afford to buy a friend a last-row ticket to their own shows. When Lee Lang won Best Folk Song at the 2017 Korean Music Awards, she used her speech to auction off her trophy to pay rent. There was laughter and then an uncomfortable silence in the room — until someone piped up and bought it for US$422. [Source: Maria Sherman, Cosmopolitan, March 10, 2020]

““K-pop musicians don’t enjoy much wealth,” says Lie. Instead, their predatory contracts, which can outlast their careers, allow for very little compensation. That’s because most artists aren’t really viewed as artists at all but as assets.

“While profiteering off pop stars is hardly a new thing (see: Lou Pearlman, the notoriously exploitative manager of the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC), it’s especially intense in K-pop. “Companies are trying to maximize profits in a short amount of time,” says K-pop expert Hye Jin Lee, PhD, a clinical assistant professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “The career life span of an Idol is very short.” Few make it to 30.

“For women, the problems compound. While female stars aren’t usually allowed to be in a relationship, that doesn’t stop managers from selling sexualized personas of them to fans. Once, a male investor even tried to broker a deal to take Grace to “dinner” for US$30,000. It never went through, and Grace only found out about it when a mentor told her more than a year later. “Maybe it happened all the time behind my back,” she says. Others in the industry have been pressured into prostitution — one CEO was sentenced to prison for his role in pimping out artists.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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