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The foundations of K-pop music as we know it today were laid in the late '80s, when
the South Korean government loosened censorship laws in an effort to modernize, but the Korean
music wave didn't start making a splash on global shores until the 2010s, thanks in no
small part to YouTube.
According to a 2017 Bloomberg report, the worldwide K-pop industry is worth almost $5
billion, but this fame comes at a cost.
It might be all shiny and happy on the surface, but K-pop has a disturbing dark side that
artists are only now starting to expose.
Brace yourself as we take a closer look at the underbelly of this entertainment industry.
The slave contracts
If you're familiar with K-pop, chances are you've heard the term "slave contract."
Managers profiting from the talent and hard work of their artists is by no means a strictly
Korean phenomenon, but it's here that the exploitation of aspiring stars appears to
be at its most blatant.
Former JJCC member Prince Mak claims that the notorious slave contract is not only real,
it's widespread.
He said on his radio show, The Prince Mak Hour:
"Slave contracts are a long time.
Normal contracts are from 7 years to 15 years."
Prince Mak noted this means that a star who debuts at age 25 with a 15 year contract will
still be in a K-pop group when they're 40.
Even worse, according to Prince Mak, is that the contracts don't start right way.
"Your years in your contract actually start from when you debut.
So you could be training from when you're ten years, but that doesn't count."
Boot camp hell
When Spin magazine's David Bevan visited the headquarters of YG Entertainment in 2012,
the music journalist was impressed with the postmodern complex, boutique cafeteria, plush
recording studios, and on-site gym manned by a famous Korean fitness guru.
However, this was all in stark contrast to the building in which the company's 30-or-so
boot campers were actually living at the time.
According to Bevan:
"You would never guess that this is where they live [...] a squat, red-brick apartment
building whose only distinguishing mark is the grimy noodle shop tucked into its ground
Cramped living conditions and strict schedules aren't the only hardships that some K-pop
trainees are subjected to.
Ferlyn Wong, former member of female idol quintet Skarf, claimed in an interview with
The New Paper that her manager would subject her to "verbal abuse" during boot camp, telling
her that
"[She was] too opinionated […] [and would] never succeed in anything she does."
What do the parents of these young performers think of all this?
Well, many moms and dads may be at the mercy of the agencies, too.
Wong added:
"My manager told my mum off, saying she should have taught her daughter better and that her
daughter is not living the way a proper human being should."
Money woes
You could argue that all of this sacrifice is worth it when the reward is fame and fortune,
but in truth, K-pop stars rarely get the latter.
According to former JJCC member Prince Mak:
"The company usually gets 90 percent and the artist gets 10 percent.
If you're lucky then company gets 80 percent and the artist gets 20 percent.
And that's per group, Mak said, so if you're in a five-member act, you'll personally only
see only 2 percent of the cash.
From that 2 percent, the idol also has to repay the money the agency spent training
them at boot camp, and the debt just keeps growing
Worked to exhaustion
After graduating boot camp, the hours don't get any less grueling.
Being a K-pop idol is a full-time job and then some, with groups reportedly expected
to be on the clock all day, every day.
Prince Mak weighed in on the workday on his radio show.
"You could be working 20 hours, or even a whole day.
I've worked 20 hour shifts.
I'm shooting a reality or variety TV show and they went on for 20 hours.
With shifts that long, when do the stars sleep?
Not very often, for one.
"Every day we average about three to four hours sleep, apart from that it's all training
or work."
Plastic surgery pressures
Surgery is reportedly rife in K-pop, and artists will often allude to its prevalence in their
music, whether that be to subtly poke fun at it, like in Psy's "New Face," or brazenly
embrace it, like in Six Bomb's "Becoming Prettier."
It's not uncommon for idols to discuss their enhancements during interviews, but what doesn't
happen very often is an idol admitting that they were pushed into it.
But Shindong, from boy group Super Junior, did just that, saying in an interview:
"One day, the president of our agency suggested I should have double eyelid surgery because
I have an unpleasant look in my eyes, so I decided to follow his suggestion."
Solo artist Hwang Chi Yeul has also admitted to getting work done at the request of his
management, telling an interviewer:
"I didn't really have thoughts of plastic surgery, but before debut my management company
said that we should do it, so I agreed."
Strict diets
South Korean society puts a lot of emphasis on physical beauty, meaning that the more
attractive you are, the better your chances of making it in K-pop.
For idols, this means maintaining a strict diet.
According to Prince Mak:
"Our diet is always controlled.
Obviously I can't eat fried chicken every day."
The former JJCC member claims that he knew of a female idol group whose members would
be disciplined by their agency for not sticking to their prescribed weight.
Mak said:
"Could be a dance, could be running, could be no-eating.
So they'll get punished if they go over their weight, and they usually check once a week."
K-pop idols' extreme diets may also lead to eating disorders.
Artists JinE of girl group Oh My Girl, and solo singer IU have both opened up about suffering
from anorexia and bulimia, respectively, though neither girl has directly attributed their
disorder to the their jobs.
The problem
Kim Jong-hyun, the frontman of popular K-pop act SHINee, took his own life in December
In an apparent goodbye note shared by a friend, the artist spoke about the intense pressures
of life as a music idol.
"If you ask why people die, they would probably say it's because they're exhausted."
Jonghyun said in his note, translated by Metro, which was posted to Instagram by friend and
fellow idol Nine9.
The note said:
"I suffered and agonized about it [but] I never learned how to turn this pain into happiness."
The young star's note went on to say he felt
"[He was] not meant to lead a life in the public eye."
The intense media vacuum that K-pop stars get sucked into may put them at an increased
risk for ending their lives.
In 2007, solo artist U;Nee hanged herself in her home just before the release of her
third album.
In 2010, singer Choi Jin-young took his own life just 18 months after the loss of his
actress sister Choi Jin-sil.
And in 2015, Ahn So Jin was found unresponsive after being dropped by her agency.
Dangerous fans
Most idols use social media to interact with their fans around the clock.
When they leave the safety of private property, however, those interactions can quickly become
Members of Big Bang and Super Junior have been involved in multi-car pile ups as a result
of being chased by fans.
Kim Heechul from Super Junior even closed his Twitter account as a result.
If you're not safe on the roads, you're at least safe when you're performing, right?
Girls' Generation's Taeyeon found this out the hard way when a strange man got onstage
during a live performance and tried to abduct her in front of everyone.
With training centers popping up everywhere from Sydney to New York City, the ever-ambitious
K-pop industry has flung its doors open to foreign talent.
Many idols speak multiple languages and are often required to perform in different languages,
with Japan proving a particularly lucrative market.
This means that foreigners entering the industry need to brush up on their language skills
fast, especially when it comes to Korean.
Chinese-Australian artist Prince Mak said:
"Korea is actually very foreign-friendly, but in the industry, it's not very foreign
Mak isn't the only mixed-heritage idol to experience difficulties.
Some artists claim they've been racially discriminated against.
British-Korean singer Shannon was trolled after she performed the Korean national anthem
at a baseball game.
She said on the South Korean variety show My Neighbour, Charles:
"My mother is Korean, and it shouldn't matter, because I have Korean blood in me.
But they kept calling me a foreigner.
They wrote negative comments about me."
Chinese native Fei, of girl group Miss A, had a similar experience with haters.
She explained on the show:
"When I first came to Korea, someone asked me if I only take a shower once a week.
I was taken aback.
I said, 'I shower everyday.
Do you think Chinese people don't take showers?'
The person seriously thought that.
I was surprised."
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Dark And Disturbing Things You Never Knew About K-Pop

760 Folder Collection
Angel Hsu published on November 25, 2019
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