To Many Young Thais, BLACKPINK’s Lisa Is More Than an Idol

VICE spoke to Lisa’s former teacher and young Thai fans about what the K-pop star means to them, in time for her solo debut “Lalisa.”
September 10, 2021, 4:04am
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BLACKPINK’s Lisa. Photo: Courtesy of YG Entertainment

Her face is plastered on billboards in Thailand. Videos of her dance moves are on repeat on  phones across the region. And her first solo album is highly anticipated by fans around the world. 

Lisa is the only non-Korean member of K-pop girl group BLACKPINK, and now, many young people from her home country Thailand are beaming with pride and excitement over her single album Lalisa, which drops today. 

“I’m really excited. I’ve been waiting for all of their solo albums for quite some time now,” high school student Chanyakarn Wongbenjarat told VICE with a hearty chuckle. “I think Lisa is now able to put something out that represents herself and how she wants to maybe send a message to her fans with her music.” 

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Lisa is the third member of the four-piece girl group to release a solo project. In a press conference ahead of the album’s release today, Lisa said that she asked the producer to add a “Thai feel” to the single “Lalisa.”

The official teaser for the song’s music video dropped Tuesday and got over 13 million views within a day. Meanwhile, the album Lalisa has racked up more than 800,000 pre-orders, YG Entertainment said in a press release today.

Fan Geena Henry, a university student in Bangkok, believes the pop star’s success is a testament to her hard work and perseverance. 

“It’s rare that an ordinary Thai person can be that big of a star on an international level. I like her because that is not because of luck. It’s because of her potential,” she said. 

“It’s rare that an ordinary Thai person can be that big of a star on an international level. I like her because that is not because of luck. It’s because of her potential.”

It’s a sentiment shared by those who admire Lisa as an idol today and those who knew her before the spotlight. 

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“Lalisa” is Lisa’s solo debut. ​Photo: Courtesy of YG Entertainment

By now, the story of how Lisa became a K-pop star is known to the world, told and retold by countless media outlets as well as the Netflix documentary BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky. Lalisa Manoban was born in Buriram, a province in Thailand’s Northeastern region, but her family later moved to the capital, Bangkok where she grew up. 

“Before she left for Korea, she came to me for advice about whether or not she should go,” Ratchadaporn Ruengrit, a teacher who said she knew Lisa from elementary school up until she left for South Korea in 2011, told VICE. “She has always been determined and responsible, ever since she was a child. And since she managed to achieve all this, I told her she should go.”

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Now, the 24-year-old is a rapper, singer, and dancer for BLACKPINK, one of the most popular girl groups in the world. As part of the band, she is a Billboard charting artist, has performed at Coachella, and has collaborated with singers like Selena Gomez, Dua Lipa, and Lady Gaga. 

But before she became Lisa, her nickname was “Pock Pack,” Ratchadaporn said with a nostalgic giggle. The teacher, who taught at both Lisa’s elementary and secondary schools, remembers the singer as a playful, generous, and cheerful child who enjoyed participating in activities. 

“Whenever there were performances or competitions, she would always join all of them, inside and outside of the school… She loved helping people out, like the teachers. She has always been a leader. She has always had that star quality,” Ratchadaporn recalled. 

“She has always been a leader. She has always had that star quality.”

Lisa successfully auditioned to join the K-pop company YG Entertainment in 2010. The next year, she moved to South Korea to begin her formal training, which lasted five years. When BLACKPINK debuted in August 2016, Lisa was the first non-ethnic Korean to debut under the agency.

After she first moved to South Korea, Lisa still came to visit the school occasionally whenever she flew home, Ratchadaporn said. After the group blew up, however, they lost contact. As the idol’s life became less private, Ratchadaporn could only keep up with her former student through the news and media. 

“I wish I could tell her that the determination and perseverance she had ever since she was a child really paid off. I wish her to continue to find success doing what she loves,” she said. “Please don’t forget Thailand and us Thai people. But she won’t forget. Given the opportunity, she’ll always connect with her family and childhood friends.”

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Ratchadaporn said Lisa or, to her, Pock Pack, continues to inspire students at the school. 

“She’s an inspiration to so many of the younger kids, especially now that children really love to dance and stuff,” she said.  

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Lisa is an inspiration to many young Thais who want to pursue music. ​Photo: Courtesy of YG Entertainment

K-pop is very popular in Southeast Asia. According to Twitter, Thailand was the third-highest in the world for the most number of K-pop-related tweets from July 2020 to June 2021, higher than South Korea which was ranked fourth. This has been the case for years, way before K-pop became popular in the West, yet idols from the region are still few and far between. With Lisa’s success, many young Thais now see her as a role model in different ways.

“It’s a common thing in Asian cultures to be more reserved... to have this sort of clean angel-like image. And then when I look at Lisa, I just see a very strong, confident, girl,” Thai-German college student Stephany Hoffman told VICE. “Every time she performs, or when she’s in front of the camera, she’s always so calm and confident. She’s so sure of herself.”  

Ben Davies, a recent high school graduate from Bangkok, agrees. 

“And to see Lisa start from the bottom and reach new heights really shows we’re all capable of pushing ourselves,” he said. “It’s an inspiration not only to those who want to be in the same position as her but those who are inspired by the achievements that she was able to overcome.” 

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As an aspiring K-pop star, Ben said that seeing a non-Korean member in a K-pop group makes him believe that he can break into the industry through dedication, time, and hard work. 

“Just because the genre is called K-pop, doesn’t mean it’s exclusively for Korean people,” he said. “It’s becoming more of an international genre and industry. I feel like people should recognize how much potential this industry has because there’s so much that has been brewing.” 

“Just because the genre is called K-pop, doesn’t mean it’s exclusively for Korean people.”

Some wish Lisa would use her popularity to engage in serious conversations about the political turmoil in Thailand, which began early last year. Pro-democracy supporters insisted that celebrities ought to be more vocal and support the youth-led political movement. But Ben said that while he understands the call for influential people to become more politically active, he also sees the risk in speaking out. 

In Thailand, anti-government statements can result in criminal charges. The Korean music industry is also known to be very strict in the way their artists are portrayed and represent themselves. 

“I’d say if she is ready to do it she’ll do it. If she’s not, we have to respect her decision,” Ben said. 

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Chanyakarn, the high school student, also remains proud of the image she believes Lisa is portraying of Thai youths to the world. 

“Having traveled from Thailand to South Korea at such a young age and having to go through that training period and being able to debut, I think she has really represented Thai people to be strong,” she said. “I think it teaches us to also be strong.” 

Nonlapan “Pun” Umpuch, a Bangkok-based singer and songwriter from the duo LUSS, observed that many young Thai artists also admire Lisa. 

“As someone who works in the music industry, I see so many young Thais look up to Lisa as their inspiration and idol. They admire her courage, perseverance, and hard work,” she said. “It’s already hard for a Korean artist to make it in the South Korean music scene, let alone a foreigner, like her.”

“I followed all the members’ solo releases and I’m always anticipating what the style is going to be. I expect this time, Lisa will also release something unique and different from what we usually get from BLACKPINK.” 

Follow Teirra Kamolvattanavith on Twitter.