Born Stephanie Young Hwang and affectionately known to fans as Fany, DdilFany (clumsy Fany), and Pink Monster (her favourite), Tiffany radiates an infectious passion for life and an inspiring work ethic. Three years after her mother’s death, Tiffany moved to Korea from California at the age of 15 to pursue a singing career against her father’s wishes (he came around eventually). She underwent the notoriously intense SM Entertainment trainee process for about three and a half years with no family in the country, and beginner Korean skills that she recalls being teased about. Her struggles only spurred her to work harder - she studied Korean intensively, proved to her father that she could succeed as a musician, and above all, she’s become “a daughter [her mother] can truly be proud of”.
With Girls’ Generation, Tiffany enjoyed a decade of unparalleled success as a member of arguably the most influential K-pop girl group. The group catapulted to success with their hit song “Gee” and went on to boast 16 Number One singles, 1.8 billion YouTube views, and millions of album sales across their 15 releases. When Girls' Generation overtook the likes of Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and One Direction to win the Youtube Music Awards Video of the Year for "I Got A Boy" in 2013, they created shockwaves among Twitter stans and helped push K-pop further into the mainstream. In 2016, Tiffany dropped her solo debut EP I Just Wanna Dance which topped several iTunes charts and was followed up by the single "Heartbreak Hotel" featuring Simon Dominic. She featured on Far East Movement's lively electronic track "Don't Speak" in the same year. Two months after Girls’ Generation celebrated their 10th anniversary, Tiffany opted out of renewing her contract with SM Entertainment along with members Seohyun and Sooyoung. Since then, she’s been working on her music and studying acting in LA.
Member departures are seemingly inevitable in K-pop, but the past few years have been earth-shattering for longtime fans of the genre. Even as K-pop gains international popularity, heavyweights like Girls’ Generation, BIGBANG, Wonder Girls, 2NE1, EXO, Sistar, and several others have either disbanded or had members depart (both permanently and temporarily). For Tiffany, parting ways with SM Entertainment last fall doesn’t signal the end of her ties to the group - she’s hinted at a possible reunion, and she is still close with her groupmates.
Tiffany’s new single “Over My Skin”, produced by Khwezi and Kev Nish of Far East Movement and co-written with the latter and Rachel West, signals a new beginning for the artist as she sheds the safe cocoon of K-pop stardom to blossom as a solo butterfly. Inspired after attending a Justin Timberlake concert, Tiffany’s American debut showcases her powerhouse vocals atop slinky brass instrumentals, and the songstress is straightforward about demanding love, respect, and pleasure from her lover. Her unapologetic attitude echoes Girls’ Generation’s values of female empowerment, but the lyrics are sexier than anything she would have released with her past label (Girls’ Generation are renowned for their pure, innocent image). The track is a confident ode to female desire; the crescendoing pre-chorus chants “woman, woman, woman, woman, woman wants you bad,” and Tiffany asserts “there’s nothing wrong with being bad.”
Noisey: You’ve mentioned “Over My Skin” is about owning your sexuality and self-empowerment. I feel like in contrast to Western pop music, within k-pop there’s more of the “innocent” kind of image and idols often act “shy” when talking about sex. Tell me about this cultural difference, and do you feel more free in this regard?
Tiffany: I think it’s an age thing. Girls’ Generation has been about girls and just being 17 at 17, or 21 at 21, or 25 and being 25 and having mojitos and lemon soju [Laughs]. I remember watching 13 Going on 30 when I was younger… I remember really loving Carrie Bradshaw and Sex in the City and all the ladies and characters and the relationships in that, and I understand that now. It is my age and time I guess to talk about it. I’m also back home, so it translates better when I’m saying it in English. I don’t wanna get on certain issues when I’m representing the group if certain people aren’t ready to talk about it or accept it, and I completely understand.
What made you choose this concept for your debut track?
I was really going into the crafting of the sound... I wanted to take what I loved about K-pop and what I loved about pop music. I was fortunate enough to direct the TTS project and [I wanted] that live band sound added with the Britney, Pharrell, Justin Timberlake, Timberland era which has that minimal base. I pitched my vocals down an octave so it sounds kind of like a rap. As different as it may seem, I’m so glad the fans are recognizing “hey, I think it reminds me of ‘Twinkle’!” I was like, “a grown-up ‘Twinkle’”! I love it because when they heard “Holler” or “Adrenaline” they’re like this is like, the older mature “Twinkle” and now there’s a much more mature Tiffany sound.
You brought up your muses a lot in your PAPER interview. What's your process like when you're interpreting your inspo’s sounds into your own unique voice?
I think everybody gravitates towards the artist that they want to be like or find the thing that they relate to. In terms of tone and range, I love how unique Madonna’s tone was and Britney’s tone was. There was so much sass and attitude… and I think I’ve listened to music long enough to re-interpret it in my own way but knowing all the amazing little techniques that they have. It gets really technical! [Laughs]
I noticed the production of this song has a theatrical feel to it. Were you aiming for a kind of Broadway sound?
I have always been heavily influenced by these live band sounds - now listening to it, it almost reminds me of the live instruments in “Lady Marmalade” which everyone knows I’m a huge fan of. It’s all surprisingly there as undertones.
Your track is dropping on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. What does celebrating Pride month and your queer fans mean to you?
Wow, yeah, that is absolutely amazing. I had the chance to write for the Billboard love letter for Pride and I put so much time and thought into it because I’ve been so inspired by the LGBTQ community. Especially because being Korean-American and living between and working in so many different countries and cultures, and starting so young, and obviously everyone knows my newfound love and obsession with Ru Paul. It’s inspired me so much because it is about continuously finding love and beauty and strength even in the harshest or craziest conditions in life.
It’s so amazing that the stars are aligning—[choreographer] Yanis Marshall was here for Pride, and Vogue was doing a piece on him for Pride and I’ve been a superfan of his work for a long time. I’ve just been so fortunate to be inspired by some of the greatest artists in the community, and I hope that I can be the same for them because it’s so energizing, it’s so hopeful, and there’s so much love that everybody needs to see and feel from this month and everyday from this community.
Have the girls [from your group] all heard your song? How did they react?
Not all of them - they haven’t heard the full song. They’re all very curious. Only Sooyoung has heard the full song and kind of knows the rollout to it 'cause she was here when I made it… they were like, “this is cool 'cause this is one thing we don’t know”!
Are you the type of person that likes to let people around you see what you’re working on in progress, or do you hide it and release it once it’s ready?
I’m very introverted when it comes to the creative process. I wanna make sure that I am solid with what I want to talk about and share before I have other people start commenting, because I do care deeply about when somebody does give me advice. But during this process the fans picked it up—they’re like “yeah, she’s really to herself when she’s creating. She’s always away, and then she comes back.” And I was like “hey, they knew me before I even knew that about myself.” Now, I’ve surpassed my 10,000 plus hours and my 10 years as an artist to trust myself that the fans have trusted me along all this time and seen me grow and experiment and fall flat on my face [laughs]. Right now is the time I’m coming out with something new, and they’ll love it as much as they’ve loved everything else about me.
Are you planning on doing fan meetings and touring?
I’ve always done first a party fan meeting, and it was traditional that I always did a cover or let them year my first songwriting experiments there… I never wanna miss out on the chance to meet my fans wherever it is in the world, and I would love to travel to places that I haven’t gone before to say hello, like Toronto! [laughs]
When you started your career with Girls’ Generation, did you envision yourself eventually pursuing a solo career?
Yeah absolutely, growing up in the US I got to watch Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child and Justin Timberlake and NSYNC and ultimately Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 so there’s always that togetherness but also individuality that develops throughout that process. When I was younger I was like “man, why are these people so amazing!” But over time, I realized they’ve been waiting and really putting their hours into what their individuality is and it ultimately resulted into these amazing solo artists. I’m thankful that I have been with the best of the best. My bandmates are amazing.
I think your fans have been really understanding. It’s still Girls’ Generation, but you guys are doing your own things and exploring yourselves and they’re all excited for the stuff you’re working on.
We’ve had 10 years. We really stuck by each other’s side and have done solo projects and tried to all keep that together. We’ve done an amazing job, and we’ve built that trust with each other and the fans. It really is over time, like who knows, [maybe] we’ll all come back together. Justin Timberlake had that VMA performance with NSYNC, and Beyoncé had the Superbowl and Coachella as well. Over time you get to see that they are your family and they are your friends, and they’ll always be there. Those are things that are just proven over time, and thank god we’ve had a long time to prove that! [laughs] The label is the label, but our group is our group and I think the girls that stayed are gonna keep it stronger and be able to grow individually and bring it back together in a bigger way.
Girls’ Generation forever.
Girls’ Generation forever!! I’m so glad that they love that... it’s kind of become the tagline.
As a member of one of the most iconic K-pop girl groups, what are your thoughts on the up-and-coming generation of girl groups?
I love how fierce and amazing they are, and the production, and their videos, and the performances—it’s amazing to watch, it’s just so fun, it’s gorgeous, it’s visually and musically amazing.
Can you tell us anything about your debut album?
I am just getting started. I have been working on music for a bit, but this one is really going to start shaping and hyper-focusing on what it is the album is going to say. I’ve always been a huge pop/R&B fan; I hope it brings back everything that I love about pop music. I’m open to working with everybody and anybody. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with so many producers and writers right now that I can’t wait to share in the future. That cover video that was shot at Babyface’s studio—I mean come on, it’s Babyface!
Will your album be in just English, or will there be Korean on it as well?
Right now it’s just English, but if I do get the chance I would love to—I have some of the best lyricists in my band, and I would love for them to write too.
How’s it been working with [your new agency] Paradigm ? What made you choose them?
It’s been amazing. We are working on cooler things that I can’t talk about yet, but so far so good, super cool. It’s amazing that they heard the music and they were like, “we love it, we love what you wanna do, we love what you come from and what you wanna be.”
I’ve always read about how within K-pop, a lot of idols are overworked or they get exhausted—did you ever have problems with that? And now, do you feel more relaxed or that you’re able to take more time for yourself when you need it?
Yeah, I think everything happens for a reason. There are times when you’re pushed into work or a situation, and in the end it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you. I’m so glad that that time where I felt like I needed more time or I wanted rest really did create that discipline and responsibility in me in how I approach my work. Now, I’m at this time where I’m fortunate enough to take my time and space and decide when I want to do something.
I had no idea this is such a big deal in your fanbase, but your fans really wanna know if you prefer the Lion Heart version or the I Got a Boy version of “Talk Talk.”
[pause] Wait, the I Got a Boy version or Lion Heart version of “Talk Talk”?! I’ve never even seen that! Oh my god, okay I got time. I’ve got my computer right in front of me, and I would love to see that right now. I don’t know if you know—“Talk Talk” was one of my favourite songs, I performed it solo for my solo concert back in 2016. So, that is one of my favourite songs.
It’s so funny because Lion Heart won the poll , and some of them were like “If she votes for _I Got a Boy_**, we don’t know a Tiffany.”** Yeah I don’t know, at this point they’re like “we know her, but we don’t know her” and I’m like, “well I’m bringin it.” Okay, I’m opening it up—this is really really cool, I’ve never done an interview this way, this is super cool. ["Talk Talk (말해봐)” plays] Oh, it’s this “Talk Talk”! I was thinking of “TALK” on the last album … ohh because there’s two “Talk Talk”s. Of course it’s the “Lion Heart” version! I had a lot of input on that Lion Heart album. That’s why there’s a lot of 90s R&B throwback type of pop R&B songs on that and this is one of my favourite songs on that album.
K-pop aside, Asian-American music is on the come up in a big way with labels like 88rising and AOMG making moves worldwide. What differences are you facing as you debut in the US versus in Korea?
88rising is amazing, AOMG is amazing, and K-pop is amazing, and there really is a presence in the industry in music right now because of all the amazing Asian-American music that is going on. I think K-pop is such a huge pop form, and where it is right now is making it even cooler for me to come back home and say “hey I’m from here, but I’m from K-pop” and in the end, pop is pop, music is music. That’s the beauty of it; there is no language and there is no barriers to it.
I noticed you favourited something about Silk getting her own movie - would you be interested in this role or another Marvel character?
Absolutely, I am a huge Marvel comic universe fan. Growing up with my brother and my cousin who is like, the ultimate Marvel fan, I was blessed enough to really know all the comics and the characters and do my homework... she’s Korean-American, I am a huge Spiderman fan, and I would just love to even be able to audition and say hello to everybody on that side of town just to say “hi, I’m back home, I live here now, I don’t have to worry about scheduling things in Korea!” The story, I think especially after Black Panther, is so amazing to watch everybody embrace cultures and diversity and I think it’d be amazing. Of course it would be a dream role, but I am just so proud that there is gonna be a Korean-American female superhero and I just wanted everybody to know so I was like “I’m gonna like this so everybody knows!”
In your IG story , you mentioned you overcome a tough period of your life thanks to "uplifting divas [you] grew up listening to that helped with the healing." How do you feel knowing that you, not only through your music but also by being yourself, have had the same positive impact on thousands of fans' lives?
It’s such a gift. It’s something I treasure and cherish the most. I wanted to do this for that especially. Trying to carry on this as a solo artist and trying to come even close to what the Girls’ Generation legacy is, is inspiring and I hope that it can continue on for more amazing times for all the girls actually and all the girl bands and boys that are inspired by Girls’ Generation.
Diyana is on Twitter.