Shin Seung-ho posing for a portait.
Shin Seung-ho photographed by Chanhee Kim

Chasing Fame the K-Pop Way

Teens around the world are dreaming of becoming K-pop idols, even as former trainees share their experiences of overwork.
Therese Reyes
San Juan, PH
Junhyup Kwon
Seoul, KR
March 29, 2021, 11:55am

This is part of a special series, The Future of Fame Is the Fan, which dissects how celebrity became so slippery. It’s also in the latest VICE magazine. Subscribe here.

Ahn Ga-young left home at 16. She packed her bags, said goodbye to her hometown Daegu, and headed for Seoul. It was all part of the plan; she would move to the city to attend an arts high school, learn hip-hop and jazz, take dance classes under an entertainment company, and line up for auditions. All to become the next K-pop idol. She’d dreamed of debuting as a K-pop artist, like the popular members of the girl group Girls’ Generation, and dancing onstage with the boy band SHINee. Ahn believed she’d make it.

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“I was famous for my dancing back in middle school. That gave me confidence to dream of becoming a K-pop star,” Ahn said. “I was a big fan of Taemin, a member of SHINee, and Hyoyeon from Girls’ Generation, because they showed that K-pop idols can also have excellent dance skills. I built up my dreams little by little looking up to them.”

She ended up in an arts high school, where many of today’s K-pop stars also studied. Within months of her move, she was signed to be an idol trainee, but inching closer to her goal only made success feel more elusive. Now 23, she’s a choreographer and dance teacher—the start of a new career, but an end to her childhood dream.

K-pop was a big deal when Ahn was growing up in South Korea, but now it’s a worldwide phenomenon and a multibillion-dollar industry.

In 2020, BTS became the first K-pop act to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and to get a major Grammy nomination. They are top trending topics on Twitter virtually every day, along with other K-pop groups like fellow boy band EXO and girl groups BLACKPINK and TWICE. Fans of these groups have mobilized to raise millions of dollars for causes like Black Lives Matter and to take down a police snitching app by flooding it with memes. But in the shadows of these mega groups are hundreds of others that don’t make it past introductory videos, and thousands of young people sweating it out just to debut in the industry.

Idol groups, like BTS and BLACKPINK, are built by agencies—entertainment companies that have internal talent departments—through a “trainee system,” wherein aspiring performers are signed on a rolling basis, not to set recording or TV deals, but to years of coaching that could—maybe, eventually—lead to a career in showbiz. This model is a big part of K-pop’s success. It turns good singers and dancers into great ones and packages them as solo or group artists who are at once relatable and aspirational.

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For the industry, it’s carved out a bottomless well of talent that agencies can tap for the next big thing. For the audience, it has set up a unique situation, where fame is seen as something anyone can achieve, as long as they work hard. More groups lead to more fans who go on to dream of becoming idols themselves. And as K-pop’s popularity spreads, its trainee system and brand of celebrity are spreading too, despite a reckoning within the very model that built it.

A selfie of Ahn Ga-young.

Photo courtesy of Ahn Ga-young

Training to become a K-pop star is grueling; simply working hard often doesn’t cut it. Aspiring idols are trained extensively in vocals, dance, acting, musical instruments, and even foreign languages, for an average of two years and four months before debut, according to a 2019 report by the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA), a governmental body that oversees and coordinates the promotion of the Korean content industry. Others train for much longer, some for over eight years.

Girls, more so than boys, are expected to meet high beauty standards. Plastic surgery is almost a given, and strict diets are expected. Ahn recalled an entertainment company telling her that, at only a bit over five feet in height, she could only debut if she brought her weight down to 85 pounds. She and her fellow trainees were weighed before training every day and were not allowed to end the work day if they didn’t lose weight by the evening.

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“I had to live with constipation medicine. I took about 12 pills per day to lose weight. I also learned how to vomit by myself. I threw up to drain body water and waste,” Ahn recalled.

However, for her, the hardest part of the trainee life was not the rigorous classes or the restrictive diet: It was the mental stress caused by the endless competition and failed attempts at stardom. The process is different from company to company, but according to Ahn, trainees are usually pitted against each other to encourage constant self-improvement. It was motivating at first, but she said it eventually became too much for her.

“There was no one who took care of me mentally in the companies. Going on a diet and getting physical training were something that I could deal with. But mental stress was not,” she said. “I felt too bad when I looked at friends who were jealous of one another. I was mad at myself for unconsciously feeling jealous, too. It was hard to put up with the emotions.”

Ahn would spend about six years training to become the next K-pop star, moving to six different agencies just to make it happen. She was never picked to debut with a band, unlike her icons from Girls’ Generation, and last year she finally decided to cut short her hopes for fame.

“They have to be prepared to take the risk of suffering from depression during the training sessions and going through countless competitions.” That’s the hard truth she dishes out to her teenage dance students who want to become K-pop stars. “I try to tell it as it is because I don’t want to be like those people who gave me false hope.”

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South Korean girls and boys start auditioning for trainee programs in their early teens and continue to do so well into their 20s. The KOCCA said that in 2020 there were 1,671 people training to become actors, singers, and models in South Korea, but unofficial reports have much higher figures, estimating that there are millions in formal agency contracts as well as more informal training. Meanwhile, only a few hundred actually debut each year.

And simply debuting doesn’t guarantee fame. But given how many grow up watching K-pop stars in the media and enroll in arts high schools like the one Ahn attended, you’d be hard-pressed to find a student who doesn’t want to be a celebrity.

Shin Seung-ho, 27, also attended an arts high school and ended up training under two well-known entertainment companies for nearly four years. Like Ahn, he was signed at 16 years old, and would skip school for K-pop training.

“I went to my agency at noon to get trained for vocals, dance, guitar, piano, acting, English, and Japanese, and only ended at 10 p.m.,” he said. “I usually only went to school when there were events and exams.”

He didn’t stay in a dorm with other trainees, as is the norm, but lived in a place five minutes away.

Each K-pop band has a concept, a big idea. There are the “girls next door” like the group TWICE, and the “jimseung-dol,” or “beast-like idol,” like the masculine boy band 2PM. Trainees who want to be part of a group are molded to fit a certain image. When they’re starting out, idols are told what to wear, what to sing, and how to act.

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“What I hated most was pretending to be cute. Back then, boy groups with cute concepts were very popular in South Korea,” Shin recalled. “Even though I respect K-pop groups, I really didn’t like so-called idols’ music and didn’t want to sacrifice myself to fit into it.”

Shin said he quit his agency after they offered him a part in a group and would not train him as a soloist, which he said was not what he signed up for.

“Korean idols look very cool if you just look at BTS, but unpopular idols look very pathetic. Unpopular groups usually are abandoned by their companies after releasing several albums. Then they find it hard to do even a part-time job since their faces are already known by the public,” Shin said.

He’s now a vocal coach, models on the side, and releases songs independently. But he still dreams of the limelight.

“Korean idols look very cool if you just look at BTS, but unpopular idols look very pathetic. Unpopular groups usually are abandoned by their companies after releasing several albums. Then they find it hard to do even a part-time job since their faces are already known by the public.”

“I would like to be more famous than I am now so that I can do what I love and make money at the same time,” Shin said. “I have many famous friends who already debuted. I think I’m a bit envious of the attention that they get. I would appreciate it if someone recognized me.”

It’s the opposite for Ahn, who said she has put her K-pop aspirations behind her.

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“I started pursuing my dreams of debuting at a young age, but realized that chasing dreams is not always the right answer. Now I just want to do my best in a given situation and enjoy small pleasures in daily life, with friends and family who support me,” Ahn said. “I don’t have regrets of leaving the industry at all. I should have dated more, I should have hung out with friends and explored the outside world. That’s what I regret.”

K-Pop group BGYO preforming in a parking garage.

BGYO photo courtesy of Nelson Ocampo and Miko Cestina

Rigorous training, impossible beauty standards, and systematic sexism are not limited to the K-pop industry; they’re common in celebrity culture around the world. In many cases, South Korea has actually been a pioneer in professionalizing creative industries. In turn, K-pop has increasingly been under scrutiny as reports of idol suicides rise, leaving the music industry and fans to reckon with a culture of overwork and toxic fanservice. Many former trainees in South Korea have also come forward online to share their experiences—both positive and negative. Now teens in other parts of the world are dreaming of becoming idols, too.

Southeast Asia was one of the first regions to ride hallyu, the Korean Wave. In 2020, South Korea was only third in the list of countries with the most K-pop-related tweets; at the top was Indonesia, followed by Thailand, with the Philippines at number four. Now all three countries are forming their own idol groups, and adopting the K-pop trainee model, with hopes of making it big internationally.

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Before debuting in January, the five-member Filipino boy band BGYO trained for two years under ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ largest media company. They lived under one roof, visiting family on weekends. That was until the pandemic forced a lockdown period last March that lasted nine months. Stuck indoors, they trained every day, first through online sessions, then with a coach who could safely visit their dorm. They reunited with loved ones only at Christmas, and even then, they sent videos to their coaches regularly to show that they weren’t slacking off on their dancing, singing, and workouts.

In a country where every village holds talent contests, and beauty pageants are a national sport, competition to become a celebrity is tough. Just a few weeks after BGYO dropped its first single, another boy band, ALAMAT, debuted. Then there’s SB19, the first Southeast Asian act to enter the top ten of Billboard’s Social 50 Chart year-end list. They’re all part of the new “P-pop” movement, the Philippines’ answer to K-pop.

Mylene Quintana-Mallari, head of ABS-CBN’s Star Hunt Academy, said that more than 250 people auditioned to be part of their first boy band and girl group. Of those, only two made it as members of BGYO; the three others were scouted separately.

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“It’s hard to handpick boys for this kind of group,” Mallari said. “I think there’s not a lot of boys who are willing to take on the challenge.”

But Akira, Gelo, JL, Mikki, and Nate—the five members of BGYO—all still dream of stardom.

“When we world tour, I hope there’s not one seat empty and that they can all sing every lyric of the song,” said Nate, 17, the youngest in the group of mostly 19-year-olds. Nate grew up in Chicago and has been dancing since he was six, even performing in a Justin Bieber concert in 2016; he was posting dance covers on Instagram when his mom introduced him to K-pop and made him perform EXO’s “Growl.”

He moved to the Philippines permanently in 2019 to pursue performing full-time. “I was like, wow, I want to be an idol. I wanted to be a good performer like them,” he said.

His bandmates have equally lofty goals. Mikki imagines fans chanting their name in stadium concerts; JL wants to land on Billboard charts; Gelo wants to be “iconic”; and Akira? He wants to “save lives through music.”

Before all that, though, they know they need to put in the work. Akira is a college freshman and recalled finishing a presentation and research paper for class just hours before a big variety show performance. “During a photo shoot, I was taking my midterm exams,” he said.

The boys all go to school remotely and juggle this with dance practice, vocal training, and lessons on vlogging, acting, and modeling. The K-pop influence runs through them all.

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“Primarily, it was really the training and the discipline of K-pop that we wanted,” Mallari said. “That’s why we also had to enlist Korean trainers to be on board, because we really wanted to learn how they do it.”

She highlighted the strict schedules and precise protocols, long training periods and “self-practice”; it takes around three to four weeks to master one routine, and the boys are expected to practice on their own, outside official training sessions.

In the Philippines, celebrities don’t usually train before debuting. They’re thrust into the lime-light after appearing on a reality show and are expected to learn acting and singing while simultaneously appearing in movies and TV shows. Upending this model and experimenting with K-pop strategies was a risk.

“It’s a very big investment in terms of time, money, and effort,” Mallari said. Essentially, the companies had to expend resources to develop the band before they could even start appearing on shows, selling records, performing in concerts—or making money.

Then there’s the image. BGYO’s first single, “The Light,” is in English and Filipino, the country’s two official languages. Their outfits in the music video were inspired by the Philippine islands. But K-pop’s influence is impossible to ignore. They wear multicolored trench coats and Gucci belts, dangling earrings and pearl necklaces. There’s synchronized choreography and dance breaks. Singing is mixed with rap.

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Filipinos are known entertainers. Many work as musicians in Japan and Hong Kong, or post song and dance covers on YouTube. But only a few have made it big internationally.

“We don’t want to perpetuate the impression that Filipinos are only good as cover artists or copy-cats. So, eventually, we really want to set this group apart—influenced by K-pop, but not a K-pop wannabe,” Mallari said. “That will always be something that will haunt a group like this.”

K-pop’s success is undeniable, and now entertainment industries around the world are trying to play catch-up. But Mallari said they’ve also consciously avoided the more problematic elements of the K-pop industry. It’s too early to tell what the Philippines’ trainee system will be like, but at least for the moment, and in the case of BGYO, members are not under strict diets. And they meet with life coaches for counseling.

“It was a very conscious decision to give mental health importance,” Mallari said. “When we first ventured into this, we had to do our own research... [and we found out that] there’s a lot of, you know, incidences of suicide. And that was really glaring for us.”

Before the pandemic, the boys would have “creative breaks” to watch movies, go to concerts, shop, and eat out. They also went home to their families every weekend.

“This is to ensure they still have some semblance of balance in their lives,” Mallari said. “As we went into long-term training, we acknowledged the fact that we are pulling them out of their comfort zones and their families at a very young age.”

Family is a huge part of what keeps all of BGYO’s members going.

“I want to help my family,” JL said. “I want to send my sister to school and have my dad come home from [working] abroad.”

But they also know that even with the long hours of training and months away from family, their dreams of sold out concerts, chanting fans, and international influence could just as easily elude them. After all, even in the land of K-pop, only a few make it. More often than not, trainees have the same fate as Ahn and Shin, or the hundreds who debut and eventually fade away.

But they’re willing to go through it all anyway.

“I think for everyone, it’s better to try than not try to reach for your dreams,” Mikki said. “And if we don’t reach them, it means it’s really not for us,” added Gelo.

“If I didn’t get to do the world tour,” Nate said, “I’ll still be happy that we were able to just be BGYO.”

Follow Therese Reyes and Junhyup Kwon on Twitter.