This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.
There’s a phrase K-pop artists tell their fans all the time. I hear it whenever I attend a press conference, no fail. “I'm going to put on my best show,” they say.
It sounds like a boilerplate answer but in the South Korean entertainment industry, it is a solemn promise. “Best” means never missing a beat when they dance and reaching all the high notes when they sing. For female artists, it also means fulfilling a fantasy: to be pure like a virgin and pretty like a doll.
The expectations don’t end when they step down from the stage. They must live up to it 24/7, or else risk the devotion of their fans. This “fans first” attitude, coupled with the long standing misogyny in South Korea’s patriarchal society, takes a toll on young female celebrities, as seen in the recent deaths of K-pop stars Goo Hara and Sulli.
Hara, 28, was found dead in her home in Seoul after reportedly ending her life last week. About six weeks before that, her friend, Sulli, 25, died under similar circumstances. Both were very popular and well-loved, until their “best” image was shattered.
Pure Like a Virgin
In 2011, Hara was photographed with her then-boyfriend K-pop star Yong Jun-hyung. They were just holding hands and walking through the park, but the photos were controversial for the mere fact that Hara was seen alone with another male celebrity. Her boyfriend emerged from the controversy relatively unscathed, but Hara was bombarded with rumours, vicious comments of jealousy, and blows to her reputation.
Things escalated last year , after Hara sued her ex-boyfriend, hairdresser Choi Jong-bum, for allegedly threatening to circulate their sex video. The public painted her out to be a troublemaker. In August, Choi was found guilty of physical assault and threatening behaviour, but not of illicit filming. Hara died about three months after.
Sulli was also a victim of misogynistic rumours. After her dating life was exposed in 2013, the public started treating her in a different way. Sexual rumours and attacks started to spread. It didn’t help that she was dating rapper Choiza, who was 14 years older than her and whose stage name alludes to a big penis.
She was also ridiculed for her beliefs. A feminist, Sulli openly supported the no bra movement and the law that legalised abortion in South Korea, which was passed in April. For this, she was sexually harassed online, with netizens mocking her breasts and calling her an attention seeker.
Therein lies the problem. Male celebrities who date are seen as handsome and talented, but women who do the same are called promiscuous.
Shinhwa member Kim Dong-wan put it succinctly: “(Female celebrities) are required to be sexy but aren’t supposed to have sex.”
Pretty Like a Doll
There’s also the matter of their appearance. Beauty standards are very high in South Korea, where people’s facial features are often evaluated and judged. According to a 2015 survey by Gallup Korea, 31 percent of Korean women in their 20s undergo plastic surgery. The pressure multiplies when you’re a female celebrity.
“There is a clear image of what a female singer should be in K-pop. What people care about is the appearance,” singer Lim Kim told me during an interview in October.
She described the culture as “a small box that prioritises being a good-looking performer above all else.”
Both Hara and Sulli were locked up in this box.
The two had spoken out about the pressure to live up to expectations. In April, Hara was accused of undergoing plastic surgery, which is still frowned upon. She explained that she underwent eye surgery for medical reasons and appealed to the public to “look at her warmly,” but the mocking continued. Sulli, on the other hand, said in a TV show in October that the “practice of judging a person’s appearance ought to be changed.”
While male celebrities are expected to look good too, the pressure is higher for the women. Even small changes in an artist’s appearance are blown out of proportion. Whenever they release a new album, fans and the media judge their makeup, hairstyle, fashion, and face. It’s almost a routine. They are insulted if they don’t meet beauty standards, but criticised for getting plastic surgery.
K-pop stars may have millions of admirers from around the world but sometimes, it is these very same people that bring them down. I hope Hara and Sulli’s deaths move us to become supporters and not mere fans, and finally change our definition of what is “best.”
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Junhyup Kwon is an editor at VICE Korea.