Korean Wave (Hallyu): Arduous journey of K-pop idols

Korean Wave (Hallyu): Arduous journey of K-pop idols

Driven by their aspirations, K-pop idols forsake education, undertake tough training, undergo multiple cosmetic surgeries

By Sumeyye Dilara Dincer

ANKARA (AA) – In recent years, in the world of K-pop culture that has established its own niche, becoming a star involves a long, tiring, strict, and somewhat "inhuman" period as a trainee.

The third feature of a 4-part investigative series by Anadolu on the "Korean Wave" (Hallyu) focuses on the training period and challenges faced by K-pop idols, gathering information and expert opinions on the subject.

Life as a K-pop idol, especially in Asia where many young people aspire to be idols, is not easy and under humane conditions.

Achieving fame at a young age brings along a stressful life, according to Professor Samuel Richards from Pennsylvania State University in the US.

Richards mentioned that children who dedicate themselves to this path around the ages of 12-13 receive training solely to become idols and have no life outside of that.

- Devoting lives to becoming ‘idols’

Entertainment companies located primarily in South Korea receive thousands of applications from all around the world.

Some aspiring candidates for idol status forsake their education, avoid contact with their families, and undertake tough "idol" training, chasing their dreams.

After applying, candidates chosen in the preliminary rounds by the companies are treated not as individuals, but as mere numbers.

Once basic skills like singing, dancing, or reading are evaluated, they undergo training as "trainees."

S.M. Entertainment, South Korea's largest entertainment company, is known for its founder Lee Soo-man's strict "trainee" system developed in the 1990s.

In this system, candidates sign stringent contracts with the companies and step into this seemingly glamorous world.

Professor John Lie from the University of California said in an interview with Anadolu that most trainee candidates are young individuals who don't want to go to university.

"Usually they are not among the majority of South Korean youths who seek to attend university. As one of the most prestigious (if not all that well paid) occupations available to non-university graduates, parents often opt to enroll youths in one of the K-pop training institutes,” he said.

- Living under strict rules

Under the terms of many entertainment companies' contracts, trainees in their initial years have no right to say anything and are obligated to follow strict rules.

Leaving their dorms without permission or working outside the contract terms is prohibited. They are even asked to suppress their emotions and are discouraged from forming emotional bonds with others. In addition, telephone usage is limited within specified timeframes.

BTS, a K-pop group that holds 16 world records, has the most viewed video on YouTube within 24 hours and reached number one on the US Artist 100 chart. It still faces certain restrictions.

Only individuals between the ages of 12 and 25 can participate in the training program, and women are required to weigh under 50 kilograms (110 pounds) while men must weigh under 75 kilograms (165 pounds).

Alptekin Keskin, a sociologist who works in the field of K-Culture, emphasized the size of the audience that K-Culture products appeal to.

Regarding the trainee program, Keskin noted that standardized beauty and behavior training should be provided.

Those selected undergo years of training, staying in dormitories away from their families in a camp-like environment.

Keskin highlighted the strict rules that idol candidates are trained under.

"We can't really talk about humanity during the training process. It's hard to say that humanity exists in this tableau we've depicted," he said.

- 'Extreme global competition'

"We are talking about a country at the peak of extreme global competition and hyper-capitalism. We are talking about a country where those who don't work or don't put in more than their fair share of effort have no place in the system,” he further added.

Keskin also mentioned that the K-pop industry being viewed as a product of an excessively competitive society is part of a larger process that starts with families and continues in society.

Despite the tough training process criticized by some fans, the interest in these groups remains unchanged.

An individual's beauty, and talent in singing, dancing, or acting determines their position in future groups.

Prof. Lie stated that candidates practice for hours during their training period, adding that entertainment companies choose the best individuals after five to 10 years of training.

Ok Young-Ju, deputy chief of Digital Music at CJ ENM, the production company behind the award-winning film "Parasite," said: “The duration of the contract is quite different, so I can't tell you specifically. And we usually call him the intern. When you go through the training and debut as a singer, we make a contract and move on. Contracts are different for each company, so talking about them specifically is unclear to me.”

Ok emphasized that the training process varies for each individual, comparing it to the training process for athletes and other professionals.

Groups are divided into male and female, with mixed-gender groups being generally less preferred due to South Korean cultural factors.

Lie pointed out that dividing groups into male and female caters to fans. He explains that female fans are encouraged to show interest in male idol groups and vice versa.

- Sleeping on mats instead of beds

Successful trainees are rewarded with their own bed in a 3-4 person room. Those with average performance might have to sleep on mats in the dance studio.

Groups can live in their own homes only if they are highly successful.

In addition to this, candidates can be subjected to harsh criticism from their trainers, and some might be forced to live on a meager diet in order to remain thin.

During the training process that covers music, dance, foreign languages, rhetoric, and etiquette, candidates become consumed by the question "How can I become better?"

Trainees sacrifice sleep and even skip dance rehearsals when they're sick. Only the best survive in this “hunger game-like system,” and some candidates can't adapt and give up.

There's no guarantee of passing this uncertain training period. Some candidates who sign contracts at the beginning might get substantial compensation if they decide to leave.

"Because you're an artist, you have to sing, repeat, and dance, so in the training process you do everything you need to become an artist," said Ok.

According to Ok, when it comes to K-pop, trainees not only stand out with their talents but also with their morals.

- ‘K-pop transformation’

To become an idol, physical characteristics have to conform to the idealized image set by entertainment companies and society. Both men and women are expected to meet the same standardized criteria.

If these features are lacking, individuals are subjected to operations to fit the "K-pop transformation."

In South Korea, just as having a "small face" is a fundamental beauty standard, K-pop idols are also subjected to "reasonable criteria." Other physical criteria for K-pop idols include "double eyelids," a "V-shaped" jawline, a small and thin nose, straight eyebrows, and large eyes.

Young people aspiring to be idols are expected to have these traits or undergo surgical procedures to fit this model.

In the 20th century, countries under socialist rule forced a uniform human model by controlling clothing and lifestyles to enforce uniformity. In the 21st century, with the spread of K-pop, South Korea has begun to standardize not only clothing or lifestyles but minds and bodies.

Keskin explained that K-pop groups have "universal clean" attributes, including kindness, gentility, politeness, and a unique appearance.

"In addition to dance, music, and singing training, they can receive support from personal managers whenever they need it. We provide not only training but also (mental) health services,” said Ok from CJ ENM, one of the leading agencies in the sector.

- ‘Retirement’ in 30s

Ok noted that contract durations vary based on the company and the candidates, and he can't provide specific information.

Chasing their dreams, K-pop idols who abandon their education, dedicate themselves and undergo numerous aesthetic surgeries, enjoy fame for an average of 10 years.

As idols age and their beauty is perceived to fade, they gradually withdraw from the market and make way for new trainees.

Some who "retire" in their 30s start to participate in variety shows as hosts or guests or try to earn money by establishing their own brands.

*Writing by Esra Tekin in Istanbul

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