Overshadowed by Fame: The Dark Side of K-Pop

K-pop, one of the fastest-growing aspects of the Korean Wave, and its idols have taken over the world’s music, fashion, and film industry. A K-pop idol is a musical artist based in South Korea dedicated to creating music and sharing their talents with a primarily Western and Asian audience. Over the past several years, these idols have graced the covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar as influential individuals. However, a side often overshadowed by glam and fame is the ever-present threat of their careers at stake.

TWICE for Harper’s Bazaar in 2020

It is widely known that K-pop stars train, often for several years, from a young age, prioritizing their dream of performing over education, health, and even their family. Aspiring teenagers can audition to be a trainee, with the very few selected by entertainment companies rigorously trained with limited contact with the outside world. But the struggle does not stop there. There is always constant competition among the trainees. Individuals work to be the best of the best and debut as an idol. One would think this is where the pressure stops, and they finally get to live out their dream of performing.

Dozens of K-pop groups debut in a single year, with companies and fans pitting these groups at each other’s throats for the sake of their favorite being the best. An artist can fall from their throne of fame due to a single mistake, consisting of just one of the many ways idols face pressure within the industry and their fanbase.

Entertainment giants invest thousands into perfecting the talents of their idols or ‘manufacturing,’ as some might say. Naturally, this places immense pressure on the stars. They are forced to endure mental, physical, and emotional stress so these companies can live for another day. Emotional manipulation was not seen as an uncommon thing by industry insiders. Being given the title of an idol has its weight. It means they “must be ideal, perfect people and performers at all times even in their personal lives,” stated K-pop columnist Jeff Benjamin.

Moreover, not only do idols face massive amounts of critique on their performances, dancing and singing skills, and even their personality, beauty standards take the pressure a step further. South Korea is widely known as the plastic surgery capital of the world, with one Korean website, SeoulCosmeticSurgery.com, saying that “getting plastic surgery in Korea is as normal as teens getting their driver’s license in the States.” With Korean fans and entertainment companies pushing the ideal Korean body standards onto idols, they often resort to living dangerous lifestyles and making questionable health decisions.

In the past, Momo of TWICE, the famous South Korean girl group, once admitted to having followed a diet plan that consisted of only ice cubes to lose several kilograms so she could appear on a show. Numerous idols have displayed their risky diets and workouts to stay thin— one of the pillars of the Korean beauty standard— almost proudly, illustrating the common desire for many individuals to fit the standards. This kind of pressure comes from oneself and the world beyond them.

Moonbin of ASTRO (Left) & Sulli (Right)

With unrealistically high expectations for idols to have a picture-perfect image, some idols have succumbed to the pressure. Most significantly, Sulli, a former member of girl group f(x). In 2019, Sulli was found dead in her home, with her cause of death ruled as possible suicide. However, before her death, Sulli openly spoke about many sensitive topics in South Korea, like mental health issues and women’s rights. Idols, especially female stars, are expected to be obedient, and being open about such topics was considered outrageous at the time, to a similar degree to this day. She was cyberbullied and even admitted to having mental health issues. Posthumously called a trailblazer, Sulli’s legacy remains in the minds of K-pop fans.

More recently, in April of 2023, Moonbin of the popular boy band ASTRO was found dead in his apartment, also believed to have committed suicide. However, a striking difference between Moonbin and Sulli before their deaths is that while it was known Sulli was frequently cyberbullied, fans did not know anything was wrong with Moonbin until he had already passed away. Clips of the idol’s last concert went viral as he was seen interacting with his fans and performing happily. Until the very last moment, Moonbin was forced to seem perfect, though he was struggling, resulting in his death being a shock to the K-pop industry.

His passing attracted much attention as even non-fans of ASTRO criticized the hidden pressures that K-pop idols face, wanting to lessen their burdens. Fans’ anguish is present and demands changes in the system, but there has been no sign of radical change as those who want change are far outnumbered by super fans who continually watch idols, really public figures, under a microscope.

As the K-pop industry produces music, artists, and content for millions of individuals to enjoy, the manipulation and exploitation of people’s dreams are quickly forgotten by fans that get swept up in the excitement of it all. But the pressures and injustices to these idols remain even after years of companies and CEOs being ridiculed for their actions. The dark side of K-pop seems dark and endless as fans and idols themselves wait for the change in the tide.

Works Cited

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Mathew, Ilin. “Twice Member Momo Reveals How She Lost 7 Kg in 10 Days.” TWICE Member Momo Shares Secret Diet Plan That Helped Her Lose 7 Kg, 29 Jan. 2020, www.ibtimes.sg/twice-member-momo-shares-secret-diet-plan-that-helped-her-lose-7-kg-38483. Accessed 12 June 2023.

Tan, Yvette, and Wonsang Kim. “Sulli: The Woman Who Rebelled against the K-Pop World.” Sulli: The Woman Who Rebelled against the K-Pop World, 18 Oct. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-50051575. Accessed 12 June 2023.

The Effects of Korean Beauty Standards on Korean Pop Idols. www.kauai.hawaii.edu/sites/www.kauai.hawaii.edu/files/pdf/events/CreativeWritingContest_pdf/Tugade_EffectsKoreanBeautyStandards.pdf. Accessed 12 June 2023.

Wang , Fan, and Yuna Ku. “Moonbin: Star’s Death Renews Scrutiny on Pressures of K-Pop.” Moonbin: Star’s Death Renews Scrutiny on Pressures of K-Pop Published, 20 Apr. 2023, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-65339082. Accessed 12 June 2023.

Wong, Jessica. “Analysis | the Punishing Pressures behind K-Pop Perfection | CBC News.” The Punishing Pressures behind K-Pop Perfection, 24 Feb. 2018, www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/kpop-hard-life-1.4545627. Accessed 12 June 2023.