If you've watched any K-pop videos, you probably thought the bright and shiny Korean pop star lifestyle portrayed a perfect world of bubblegum, rainbows, beauty, and whimsy. Unfortunately, the candy-colored sheen coats a sinister underbelly with ugly truths about K-pop. From a young age, these bright and peppy performers essentially enter an uncaring, exploitative entertainment harem in the K-pop industry.
Any faction of the entertainment world is bound to have its secrets; sometimes these are dark yet open secrets overlooked because of convenience or greed. However, what's going on in the K-pop industry isn't hidden: Children who grew up in the industry as manufactured pop products have exposed the mental and physical abuse they suffered through their careers.
From what K-pop trainees endure at the start of their "boot camps" to the suicide attempts, racism, and sexual and physical assaults, the truth about K-pop stars and their industry is anything but glamorous.
In the 1940s Hollywood executives were notorious for having a substantial amount of control over their movie stars. Actors were under multiyear and multifilm contracts; they dealt with abuse, stringent rules, and relative ownership at the hands of the studios. Modern K-pop groups experience a similar system, where three major management companies dominate the industry: YG, SM, and JYP.
Members of Korean idol groups have little freedom over their personal lives. As a manufactured entity meant for "selling dreams," they must uphold their employer's image at all times. In many cases, this includes not dating or doing anything too seemingly "independent" in the realm of politics. Consider the case of Taiwanese K-pop idol Chou Tzuyu, who waved a Taiwanese flag during a televised performance, then had to apologize for it publicly.
When a K-pop performer agrees to a contract, it's not only for a record deal; they basically sign their life away to a permanent commitment. An agency trains future stars, many of whom are in adolescence, in a range of performance arts - such as acting, vocals, and dance - for 10 to 15 years before the stars appear in any public act.
Although the agency has a supposed commitment to training their performers in a type of "boot camp," industry leaders often take advantage of their trainees. The agencies make these contracts last for over a decade at times, so if an idol chooses to back out, they need to pay a hefty fee.
These contracts open the door for the agencies to virtually turn the trainees into slaves. Korean laws allow agencies with "touring artists" to work their "employees" as much as they want, even if it means keeping them from sleeping, as in the case of 2AM idol Jo Kwon.
Plastic surgery is far more common in Korea than the United States. Whereas 1 in 20 women in the US may undergo plastic surgery at some point, the statistics for Korean women claim 1 in 5 chooses to go under the knife.
With plastic surgery being more culturally accepted and often promoted, the standards of beauty have changed, and many teens also desire plastic surgery. Many agencies force idols to undergo surgery - sometimes multiple times - to achieve a "perfect" look and uphold their aspirational aesthetic.
Most stars do not openly discuss their plastic surgery, in part to maintain their idol image, but their physical changes are usually apparent, especially around their eyes, lips, and noses. The average viewer might not notice the differences at first glance, but a plastic surgeon can spot them immediately. As one writer posited:
This seems to be a universal truth, and no other industry exploits this as much as the entertainment industry; banking off the sexual appeal of their "products" and distorting to a consuming public what beauty is.
In Korea, this method of sexual appeal thrives. In fact, it's the only method in which the "music geniuses" behind the small handful of Korean music labels can think of to market their talent.
It's difficult for K-pop singers to break their contracts. In some cases, it's nearly impossible because of the substantial penalties and fines. If a music agency doesn't want to cut ties with an idol yet, they're reportedly not above blackmailing the person to compel them to stay. Managers were even known to film their idols' sexual activities and use the footage against them.
K-pop idol Baek Ji-young's manager filmed her having sex and brought out the footage when she wanted to change contracts. She thought he was bluffing until he put the video on the internet. She tried to sue him, but he fled to the United States, where authorities apprehended him for statutory rape. She claimed her career was nearly ruined by the incident and took years off before returning to the music scene.
Fortunately, in 2017 a movement emerged to end the "slave contracts," giving stars more autonomy over their health and well-being.