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As a teen, all Kim Ji-hun knew was dancing, singing, and rapping. He did that almost every day for a year, rehearsing alongside boys who would later become members of K-pop group BTS.
“I would be lying if I said that I didn’t envy them. But I’m not jealous of their money or their fame. It’s just that they get to stay together. I’m jealous of that,” Kim, now 27 and working as an intern at a government office, told VICE. “I just regret that I can’t be there with them.”
Since they debuted in 2013, BTS has taken the world by storm. The group has broken multiple world records, have lent their voices to United Nations events, and won big at prestigious music award shows. Before all that though, all seven members were trainees, just like Kim.
It’s been a decade since Kim was a BTS trainee.
In his teenage years, Kim developed a keen passion for breakdancing. It led to an audition with Big Hit Entertainment (now HYBE), a relatively unknown company that would later produce BTS, now the most well-known K-pop boy band in the world.
Kim Ji-hun with another former trainee. Photo: VICE
He remembers how shabby the building looked when he auditioned in 2011, but that didn’t matter to him. As soon as he was offered a trainee deal, he packed his things and moved to Seoul from his hometown of Wonju, a city about 100 kilometers away.
He recalls how, on his first day, BTS rapper Suga helped him move his luggage into the dormitory. There, he met the rest of the trainees, including the other boys who, two years later, would debut as BTS.
“I realized this was a nice place with nice people. I wasn’t worried anymore. I just thought that I needed to do well,” said Kim.
He was deep into K-pop as a kid; Rain and Seven were some of his favorite artists.
“Back then, I really liked male solo artists. It was so cool. In particular, their dance moves were so cool,” he said. “They became my role models.”
During his trainee days, Kim was exposed to more styles of dancing, and had to undergo training in singing and rapping in preparation for the upcoming group. Besides getting scolded frequently because his singing wasn’t up to par, Kim also remembers being in awe of his fellow trainees.
“I thought they were just these amazing, talented people, and I was a little ashamed of my skills,” he said.
Kim Ji-hun today. Photo: VICE
All this pressure came to a head during the monthly evaluations, a review session where trainees showcased what they’d been working on in front of a panel of judges. Despite having grown up loving the spotlight, Kim knew that these performances were different. They were make-or-break for an aspiring K-pop star like him.
“I was thinking, ‘I cannot make a mistake. I have to become successful. I have to do well.’ And this psychological pressure was massive. I went up on stage smiling, and then I suddenly froze,” he said of his first monthly evaluation. “That was the first time I cried after becoming a trainee.”
The cutthroat competition in the K-pop industry is no secret. Armed with Hallyuwood dreams, the path to stardom is paved with hard work and immense mental stress. Sometimes, this can be too much for young trainees to bear, even those who grew up loving K-pop.
Kim didn’t realize it then, but as the year wore on, he was slowly descending into a slump. And no matter how hard he tried, rehearsing every day, even at the crack of dawn, he didn’t seem to be getting better quickly enough.
“I used to think that hard work pays off, but there were things that couldn’t be achieved through hard work,” he said. At one point, he even felt left out because he thought he was the worst trainee there.
“I used to think that hard work pays off, but there were things that couldn’t be achieved through hard work.”
So when Kim found out that he was being dropped from the team, he wasn't angry or shocked. Mostly, he was disappointed that he would no longer be hanging out with boys he had become best friends with.
“I was sad that I could no longer be in a team with these friends. I blamed myself for not making it to the team,” Kim said. “RM and J-Hope were there and they couldn’t look at my face. The only thing they could say was ‘Are you OK?’ I wasn’t all right, but what could I say?”
“I said I was fine.”
A photo of BTS member Jimin. Photo: VICE
When Kim’s mother found out that he got cut from the group, she called him, crying. Still in high school at the time, Kim was soon going to be an adult but without a trade, after a career in K-pop didn’t pan out. The future looked terrifyingly uncertain.
“A person needs hope and dreams to live, but I lost everything,” he said. “And that’s when I first learned about failure and how scary it is.”
Even after Kim left his K-pop dreams behind at the dormitory in Seoul, the dejection he experienced as a trainee continued to haunt him for years. “I was living in depression and remorse up to my 20s, always thinking that I wouldn’t make it, I couldn’t do it,” he said.
Having spent years piecing his shattered self-confidence back together, Kim is now ready to try again. His interest in entertainment has persisted, something he now channels into YouTube, where he’s known as Bitoon.
Kim Ji-hun now runs a YouTube channel. Photo: VICE
But despite the obstacles he has had to overcome during and after his trainee days, Kim still looks back on that phase of his life with much fondness. He especially misses the camaraderie between boys who shared the common dream of planting their feet on the K-pop scene.
“My biggest goal is to throw a massive party with the people from my trainee days. All of them. Because it was the happiest memory of my life,” Kim said. “I miss those times.”
With reporting from Keith Keunhyung Park.
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