Singer Sulli's death prompts questions about pressures of K-pop fame

The meteoric rise of South Korean bands like BTS and BlackPink can be attributed to a signature K-Pop formula of intoxicating melodies, synchronized dance routines, meticulously-crafted appearances, and a group of attractive South Korean entertainers rigorously trained to sing in perfect harmony. But behind the veneer of the carefully constructed image of these K-pop band sensations is a culture of extreme pressure, hyper-scrutiny, and unaddressed mental health problems.

The recent death of 25-year-old Korean pop star Sulli has once again raised concerns about the unbearably high pressures of K-pop fame. The former member of the Korean girl group f(x) was found dead in her Seongnam, South Korea, home on Monday in what police say appears to be suicide. Sulli openly discussed the cyberbullying she faced for being outspoken about social issues in conservative South Korea and revealed her struggles with mental health in a recent interview, saying that she had been "lying to everyone by pretending to be happy."

However, Sulli is not the only Korean idol battling mental health issues — reports have cited a growing crisis in the K-pop industry. In 2017, Kim Jong-hyun, a former member of popular boy band SHINee, took his own life and left a note behind describing his crippling depression, writing that "the life of fame was not for me.”

However, the culture of silence around mental health extends to South Korean society at large. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, South Korea has consistently had one of the highest suicide rates among developed countries, prompting its government to take steps to tackle the issue.

Euny Hong, the Korean-American author of The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World with Pop Culture, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the increasing pressures of being a K-pop star from their record labels and the public, combined with the stigmas around mental illness in South Korea, will continue to drive its idols over the edge.

“Koreans have only had internationally known stars for a few decades, so they are even less equipped to deal with this kind of thing,” Hong tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “That, and the taboo against seeking psychiatric care, all but guarantees that these kinds of tragedies will keep happening unless there is a fundamental societal change.”

Training a Korean pop “idol”

As K-pop expert and music journalist Jeff Benjamin put it, “No one just shows up to the K-pop scene.” The synchronized choreography and perfect harmony fans see on stage from their favorite Korean pop stars is the product of years of grueling training.

“They’re called K-pop idol and that’s an important word when thinking about this industry,” Benjamin tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “This idea that they’re supposed to be ideal and perfect — that’s the reason they train so rigorously and intensely before they debut.”

Korean performers are discovered through massive global auditions, similar to that of “American Idol,” or are recruited on the street for their looks alone. After signing a contract with entertainment companies like SM Entertainment (Sulli’s talent agency), then they undergo a notoriously brutal training that professor Lee Dong-yeon, who teaches cultural theory at the Korean National University, told South China Morning Post is known as the “idol farm system.”

“Pop idol trainees often follow an arduous daily schedule that includes two hours of exercise, four hours of dance and choreography classes, two hours of vocal training, followed by three hours of language studies,” South China Morning Post reported.

Stella Kim, a trainee who was on track join South Korean girl group Girls Generation, recalled being forced to go on a scale in front of other trainees and developing an eating disorder as a result. “They would make us stand in line and go on the scale,” Kim shared with the Asian-American publication, NextShark. “They would call out what your weight is in front of everyone. If your weight had not gone down from the week prior, you would get bashed on.” At one point, the 5-foot-7 former aspiring K-pop star weighed only 90 pounds.

“In the Korean entertainment industry, beauty is often associated with physical appearance,” Kim added. “Beauty is often an exaggeration of femininity or masculinity… All extremely distorted views that are unfortunately set by socio-cultural standards in a high-pressure, fast-paced society.”

Many “K-pop trainees” are students, who are juggling as many as 13 hours of training at the label along with their academic studies. These individuals are then evaluated on their singing, dancing, and even weight loss on a weekly or monthly basis. Trainees will spend anywhere from two to 10 years in these rigorous programs — but even then you’re not guaranteed a spot in a coveted K-pop group.

“You have to put in all these crazy hours and hard work. The person that works harder to be more fit and dance harder to look more presentable will fair better,” says Benjamin, adding that plastic surgery is also often encouraged for K-pop star hopefuls. “It’s more vigorous than what we’re used to in the West... If you don’t make these groups, you have to start all over.”

Mental health in the K-pop industry

Once a trainee is picked to debut with a Korean pop group, everything from their hair, clothes and makeup to their public image is meticulously constructed and controlled by their talent agency — and the responsibility of maintaining this appearance is critical to their group. “To keep that look and image and vision of the group intact, they are dressed by coordinators and stylists,” Benjamin explains. “In the East, it’s a very Confucian ideal that the family or the group comes first.”

However, with the rise of social media and increasingly obsessive superfans known as “sasaeng fans,” admiration for K-pop idols has spiraled to sometimes creepy, and even criminal, behavior: One fan broke into the home of a K-pop idol to take a photo, South China Morning Post reported. Hong says that this scrutiny from their fans adds to the already intense pressure they face from their record labels.

“Sulli's presumed suicide just goes to show that, despite the more 'humane' treatment of K-pop stars, the pressures seem not to have abated,” Hong tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I think this suggests that the pressure on these stars doesn't come 100 percent from the record labels, as was previously assumed. I'm not aware of any culture that knows how to deal with its stars on a human level, whether they're at the top of their game or past their peak.”

Kyung Hyun Kim, a UC Irvine professor and expert on Korean popular culture says that he’s surprised that there “aren’t more cases of depressions, drug abuse, and self-destruction reported in K-pop today” — but that is likely due to the stigma around mental health and seeking psychiatric help.

“Imagine Michael Jackson who obviously came into show biz at the age of three and then tried to stay normal for the next five decades, and then multiply that number by about fifty thousand, and you got a very sick industry called K-pop. The meticulously perfected choreography, killer schedules, and constant demand from their fans do make these idols go insane,” Kim tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Sulli started at age six or seven and then tried to stay normal for the past 20 years—with each and every step of her way monitored and vigilantly followed by her fans and anti-fans.”

Sulli reportedly received a lot of negative backlash online for being outspoken and taking control of her body image. She recently appeared on a Korean show called “The Night of Hate Comments” to talk about the cyberbullying she faced. “In Korea, people are upset about why people were so cruel to her and ranged from... comments [that would be] considered sexual harassment to hating this star and all the negativity that seemed to be surrounding her from the online community,” says Benjamin.

However, fans are hopeful for a change in the K-pop industry with more stars opening up about their mental health struggles. In response to the suicide of SHINee member Jong-hyun, BTS member Suga said that “everyone is suffering and lonely” and that he hoped their country could create an environment “where we can ask for help, and say things are hard when they're hard, and say that we miss someone when we miss them," E!News reported. Meanwhile, BTS member RM told Billboard that he hoped the South Korean government would take more steps to address the mental health of their generation.

Some talent agencies have recognized the rising mental health crisis in the K-pop world and are working to address it. Korean entertainment agencies, including Starship Entertainment and Fantagio Entertainment, have begun to provide more mental health resources and suicide prevention training, according to Benjamin.

“These artists are taking the time to open up about these issues and reduce the stigmas about mental health,” says Benjamin. “This issue is bigger than one celebrity. As K-pop grows its international footprint, these things that are considered the standard way of doing things will change if places like America, where there’s an open culture about mental health, have more eyes on it.”

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