Final October, Okay-pop singer Goo Hara took to Instagram and fully broke down. She was mourning the lack of fellow Okay-pop star Sulli, a former member of the wildly fashionable lady group f(x). Sulli had died by suicide, discovered the day earlier than by her supervisor, no be aware left behind.

In her livestream, Hara’s tear-stained face was swollen with grief. She didn’t touch upon the circumstances surrounding Sulli’s loss of life—as a substitute, for 3 minutes, she spoke as if she have been saying goodbye to her finest good friend. Her “sister.” She apologized that she must miss the funeral as a result of, as a member of the group Kara, she was caught overseas for work.


Hundreds of followers watched Hara’s ache unfold in actual time. They left broken-heart emoji within the feedback and requested if she was okay. “I’ll stay twice extra diligently,” Hara mentioned. “Expensive followers, I might be effective. Don’t fear about me.”

Slightly over a month later, Hara, too, would take her personal life.

The factor about Okay-pop is that whereas different music may make you are feeling moody or mad at your ex or over all of it, Okay-pop makes you are feeling good.

The sticky, upbeat songs by no means get unstuck out of your mind, and also you don’t need them to. Artists are each memes and icons, placing on the sorts of performances that require all caps to explain. Spectacular for a category of music that’s new(ish): It actually took off in 2012 across the time Psy’s hit “Gangnam Fashion” went viral. Right this moment, it’s a multibillion-dollar enterprise. Boy band BTS brings in $3.6 billion to South Korea’s financial system yearly all by themselves.

And that’s simply at house. The world over, stadium-size exhibits routinely promote out. When BTS added a last-minute cease in New York Metropolis to its 2019 tour, tickets have been gone in lower than 20 minutes. Stars usually seem on morning exhibits, late-night TV, and pink carpets proselytizing Okay-pop’s peppy, polished fame. It’s what they’re requested and allowed to do.

What they’re not allowed to do is reveal the usually poisonous, manipulative, and inhumane circumstances behind the scenes that push some performers to extremes. “Okay-pop’s historical past is a historical past of cover-ups,” says John Lie, writer of Okay-Pop: Standard Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Financial Innovation in South Korea. “Exploitation is without doubt one of the worst abuses.”


Exposing the trade’s insidious issues has been subsequent to unattainable, largely as a result of the perpetrators are the singers’ personal bosses. “What makes Okay-pop completely different—and extra exploitative in some methods—is that artists are workers,” explains Lie. Omnipotent leisure firms dictate their each public (and typically non-public) transfer. Actually, stars are sometimes sure by ironclad contracts that forestall them from talking out.

I’d know. I reached out to dozens of individuals in Okay-pop and I used to be regularly ignored, ghosted, or strung alongside. This story nearly didn’t occur. Till one artist lastly agreed to talk to me.

“Many artists don’t need to speak as a result of they get threatened—they’re afraid of being blacklisted from the trade and really feel powerless in comparison with the businesses,” Okay-pop artist, songwriter, and YouTuber Grazy Grace solely tells Cosmo. “However it was necessary for me to talk actually in order that others don’t make the identical errors I did.”


All of it begins within the dorms. In contrast to right here, the place getting a music government’s consideration generally is a stroke of luck, there’s actually just one funnel into the world of Okay-pop: taking part in typically years-long coaching packages run by leisure firms whose aim is to mass-produce punch-cut pop stars like an meeting line, exporting the better-than-perfect ones onto the stage.

Trainees can begin as younger as 11 years outdated. Many cram into rooms (in Grace’s case, with eight different folks), sleeping on bunk beds or the ground. Residing away from household and associates, usually in Seoul, they’re pressured to work 12-hour days or longer, memorizing lyrics and dance strikes, working towards till they don’t make a mistake. All without cost. “Fee” comes within the type of a room and dance and voice classes…and typically nostril jobs and double-eyelid lifts so aspiring stars can look the half.


“It was my dream to turn out to be a singer,” says Grace, who went by coaching in hopes of being chosen for a woman group. “Till I noticed how dangerous it was mentally. I developed insomnia. I couldn’t sleep for six months straight. I began to really feel anxiousness however didn’t even know what an anxiousness assault was. I didn’t need to share my emotions as a result of I didn’t need to get minimize from the corporate. I assumed if I appeared too depressed, I’d be let go.”

So she handled verbal assaults every time her voice cracked. She saved quiet by weekly weight checks. Ladies like Grace weren’t allowed to realize even one-quarter of 1 pound, she says. (In 2018, Momo, a singer within the Okay-pop group Twice, posted on the social media platform Vlive that she was solely consuming one ice dice a day till she dropped greater than
15 kilos.)


“You form of lose who you’re,” says Grace. And that’s not accidentally. Some trainees’ rooms are monitored by closed-circuit cameras, and cell telephones are continuously checked by managers. Social media posts, too, should typically be permitted, each single selfie scrutinized earlier than posting. (A part of that is to ensure there’s no interplay with a trainee of the other intercourse. Romantic relationships may end in termination—even precise Okay-pop Idols, as those that “make it” are known as, are sometimes contractually barred from courting for the primary few years of their profession with a purpose to seem accessible.)

And when you’re in, you’re in. Some trainees signal contracts that stipulate that in the event that they stop, they must pay again every little thing this system invested in them. Relying on the corporate, that may be tens of 1000’s of {dollars}.

Most gained’t although. Grace didn’t. After three years of strenuous, unpaid work, the corporate let her go.


For these lucky sufficient to succeed in Idol standing, issues don’t get higher. Generally, they worsen, for little greater than the phantasm of being wealthy and well-known. As a result of whereas Okay-pop concert events promote out in minutes, some artists can’t even afford to purchase a good friend a last-row ticket to their very own exhibits. When Lee Lang gained Finest Folks Track on the 2017 Korean Music Awards, she used her speech to public sale off her trophy to pay hire. There was laughter after which an uncomfortable silence within the room—till somebody piped up and purchased it for $422.

“Okay-pop musicians don’t get pleasure from a lot wealth,” says Lie. As an alternative, their predatory contracts, which might outlast their careers, enable for little or no compensation. That’s as a result of most artists aren’t actually considered as artists in any respect however as property.

Whereas profiteering off pop stars is hardly a brand new factor (see: Lou Pearlman, the notoriously exploitative supervisor of the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC), it’s particularly intense in Okay-pop. “Corporations are attempting to maximise earnings in a brief period of time,” says Okay-pop knowledgeable Hye Jin Lee, PhD, a scientific assistant professor at USC’s Annenberg College for Communication and Journalism. “The profession life span of an Idol may be very brief.” Few make it to 30.


For ladies, the issues compound. Whereas feminine stars aren’t normally allowed to be in a relationship, that doesn’t cease managers from promoting sexualized personas of them to followers. As soon as, a male investor even tried to dealer a deal to take Grace to “dinner” for $30,000.


It by no means went by, and Grace solely discovered about it when a mentor advised her greater than a 12 months later. “Perhaps it occurred on a regular basis behind my again,” she says. Others within the trade have been pressured into prostitution—one CEO was sentenced to jail for his function in pimping out artists.

Add all of it up—the grasping, grabby conduct of these on the high; the nonstop pressures; the regular abuses to physique and soul—and it’s clear that the deaths of stars like Hara and Sulli aren’t simply unhappy tragedies however dire warnings.

Many Okay-pop stars have reached all-time low with regards to their psychological well being, and so they need assistance. But in an image-obsessed trade, in a rustic the place speaking about psychological well being is taboo, few are prone to get it.

Take Kim Jong-hyun, a singer within the fashionable Okay-pop boy band SHINee. In 2017, he took his personal life, forsaking a be aware suggesting that the pressures of the trade contributed to a despair he couldn’t overcome.

Concerning the future: Some would-be Idols are beginning to forge their very own profession paths by social media, giving them the chance to step over abusive programs and put music out on their phrases. “It’s simpler to be unbiased now than it was earlier than,” says Grace, who, over the previous three years, has slowly constructed an viewers of greater than 200,000 subscribers on YouTube. “You see it extra: folks breaking out from their outdated firms and making it on their very own.”

And whereas speaking about psychological well being has lengthy been thought of off model, an increasing number of stars are beginning to do it anyway. Like Okay-pop artist Taeyeon of Ladies’ Technology, who opened as much as followers on Instagram about how she’d been taking antidepressants, and BTS rappers Suga and RM, who usually use their platforms to speak about points like despair and anxiousness.

“As extra Okay-pop artists get vocal about their points, the businesses will begin realizing that they should do one thing,” says Lie. Provides Ju Oak Kim, PhD, former media guide on the Korea Society: “Dramatic adjustments won’t occur in a brief interval, however there might be adjustments.”

Right here’s one: BTS was just lately given break day for an prolonged trip—for the primary time in six years.

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