No one ever said being an Korean idol was easy. Starting from predebut, trainees endure endless hours of choreography and vocal training (and sometimes even language and personality training), and pressure from others to succeed. Dieting is almost inevitable, and while some companies grant their trainees the right to date, there is barely any time to, what with studies on top of everything. But all this pales in comparison to the anxiety that probably every trainee has felt when they let the reality that debut is not for everyone sink in. Even after all the hardships, what could remain are wasted youths and dead dreams.
Or, on the other hand, you made it. Congratulations on surmounting the first hurdle. Your bank account isn’t in the red anymore and you got your own Wiki page now. But that also means there is more expected of you. Idols seldom escape the diet treatment, and looks will always remain a factor. What’s new are the demanding schedules and fans, some of them sasaengs who take their passions to an extreme. All idols have their fair share of sob stories to tell, but some really take the cake. Whether it’s coming from humble beginnings or a dysfunctional family or just a stroke of sheer rotten luck, these are the fighters who truly deserve their place now.
Girl’s Day’s Sojin
Growing up in the countryside where residents admonished those who wanted to become a celebrity, Girl’s Day’s leader Sojin ran away from home when she was 20-years-old in order to pursue her dreams. The idol’s parents were against her wanting to become an idol as well, which was also exacerbated after they were victims to a ghost company who promised to train the starlet but ended up scamming them for 2 million won. With nothing but her bags and a note she left in her father’s shoe explaining her decision, she set off to Seoul where she stayed at a friend’s dorm. In order to support herself and her aspirations, Sojin was forced to take up various and often arduous jobs, with everything from being a phone consultant to a server at a pub to factory worker. Ultimately, the Girl’s Day member was able to enroll herself into an academy to learn singing and dancing professionally and join Dream Tea Entertainment, her present label.
Super Junior’s Kyuhyun
Super Junior just would not be Super Junior without their evil maknae (youngest member) Cho Kyuhyun, but that’s the reality that almost happened back in 2007. After a near-fatal car accident, which also involved fellow members Leeteuk, Shindong, and Eunhyuk, and two managers, Kyuhyun was rushed to the hospital where he spent four days in a coma and six days in the ICU. As the member who sustained the most damages with a fractured hip, pneumothorax from broken ribs, and facial bruises and scratches, he had a slim 20 percent chance to live. And, as if the odds were not already against him, his career as a singer almost came to an abrupt halt as well when doctors proposed an operation in which they make an incision in his neck in order to save his damaged lung. Needless to say, the doctors looked for another alternative after his father adamantly refused the procedure. Fans only have Papa Cho to thank for all the ballad songs that Kyuhyun continues to bless us with with his warm voice.
Royal Pirates’ James
In a similar vein, Korean American pop band Royal Pirates almost lost their talented bassist James Lee after a freak accident involving a steel door and glass walls. The member was out eating at a restaurant when he opened the door and the infrastructure fell on him. Lee lost consciousness and needed an eight-hour surgery to reconnect his wrist. Although Lee was also offered the use of prosthetics due to the intense pain from nerve damage if he did not sever the wrist completely, he turned it down. Prosthetics do not provide the same fine motor skills as the human body does, and if he could not continue his career as a musician, then it was futile. Unfortunately, even following his surgery it became clear that James would still be unable to play the bass that he has been playing for over a decade. For many people, this would result in them claiming disability insurance as they would no longer be able to do their job and make money. To learn about “what is disability insurance?“, people could always read online to see how it would help. Luckily, James was able to regain some income when he learned to play the keyboard. Since the injury, Lee has taken up keyboards, which he played for their November comeback for “Run Away.”
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Super Junior’s Leeteuk
Everyone has their reasons of why they want to pursue the idol life, but Super Junior‘s leader Leeteuk‘s is probably one of the most moving. Before his five years as a trainee, his misfortune started when he was a child. Raised in an unhealthy family under poor conditions, his parents frequently fought and his father often physically disciplined the singer. Leeteuk harbored many resentments and fear towards his father, which only hardened his resolve to become successful. By pursuing happiness, he hoped to change his situation. And as the face of one of South Korea’s most popular boy groups, among other things, he did exactly just that. Unfortunately, Leeteuk’s father committed murder-suicide while taking care of Leeteuk’s grandparents in 2014, causing the idol much anguish but he has been able to show a happy face for his fans.
It’s hard to believe that such a pretty face once toiled away at various odd jobs. But JYJ‘s Jaejoong life has been filled with anguish. After being adopted and raised without knowing he wasn’t his family’s biological child, and confirming it with a DNA test from somewhere like Health Street (https://www.health-street.net/location/springfield-ma-dna-testing/), Jaejoong moved to Seoul by himself at the young age of 16 in order to take part in the SM Entertainment auditions, but as it became apparent life in Seoul was not going to be easy. In order to make ends meet, he became a movie extra – playing the role of a Chinese Red in “Taegukki” – and sold chewing gum in restaurants to pay off his 150,000 KRW rent. Other ways he would cut back included walking instead of taking public transport and eating the leftovers at the restaurant he waited at. With the wages he earned, he first and foremost paid for his training lessons before setting some aside for basic needs. A great exemplar of how someone took their dreams into their own hands, Jaejoong definitely earned his fame.
2NE1’s Sandara Park
Sandara Park‘s dark past is well known, yet it doesn’t make it any less depressing. Before she rose to fame in Korea as a 2NE1 member, the idol was already well-known in the Philippines after finishing second in the reality-based talent show “Star Circle Quest.” After some years, however, her popularity waned, and when it did, her father stole their family money and left for another woman. Since she was the eldest of her siblings, Dara became the breadwinner of her family, paying for the education of her brother (formerly a member of MBLAQ) and sister and providing food for everyone. She even bailed her father out of jail in 2007 after he failed to pay back P390,000 to a businessman. Despite her father’s betrayal, Dara proves that she still has a heart of gold. Perhaps her good karma might have something to do with how successful she is today.
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Girls’ Generation’s Tiffany
Much like many idols, Girls’ Generation’s Tiffany‘s father was against his daughter’s childhood dream of becoming a singer. That didn’t stop the young 15-year-old from hopping on the next plane to Korea when she passed the 2004 SM Auditions in Los Angeles, though. Since she became independent so early in her life, she resorted to teaching English in order to support herself. Moreover, growing up in the States, her Korean was not as polished as native speakers, so she also had the additional task of practicing the language. Of course, her efforts paid off in the end. Upon debut, she chose the stage name Tiffany – her real birth name is Stephanie – because that’s the name her mother preferred for her. For much of her early career, she sidestepped questions about her family back home in America until in late 2009 when she revealed that her mother had actually already passed two years before she became a trainee. Taking that into perspective, along with the fact that she did not have much of a support system other than the other members and their family while she was alone in Korea, it only makes Tiffany all the more admirable.
If there is one thing everyone must know about iKON’s Bobby, it’s that he is as filial as it gets. Counter to the bad boy façade that he puts on stage, he is actually a momma’s boy at heart. Following elementary and middle school, the rapper arrived at Korea alone after passing a YG audition in the States. He did not know much people while he was there and missed his family back home, so naturally, he spent his days communicating with his mother online. In the past, through his lyrics and his variety show appearances, he has expressed how important his mother is to him and how he swore he will come back for her despite their economical situation. Everyone must have known of his circumstance, including his company who requested that all the earnings from his win on the South Korean rap competition show “Show Me the Money 3” be given to him without any deductions from agency fees so he could support his family. With the 100 million KRW from his win, he was able to move his family from their home in Virginia to their new abode in Seoul last year. For the first time in five years, Bobby and his family were finally reunited.
Actor and former MBLAQ member Lee Joon came from very humble beginnings in order to get to where he is now. Due to his poor family background, the Seoul Art High School student was unable to go on his school trips and was only able to afford one dancing outfit and a single pair of worn out dancing shoes, which often smelled from not drying properly from the night before. Ashamed, his situation only fueled him to work harder. The idol went into high school at the lowest of his class, but by the time he graduated, he placed second in his school. He even got accepted into one of the best art schools in Korea, the Korea National University of Arts, which prompted his friends who once out casted him to view him in a new light.
Born to an American mother and a Korean father, Seventeen’s Vernon struggled with racial discrimination not only while he lived in the States, but also in South Korea. In 2008, when the rapper was only 10 years old, he sat down to record a video about how he has been alienated, being called a “halfer” in the United States, and being stared at for his Western features in Korea. But even at such a young age, Vernon was able to show his maturity, ending on the note that people should give others more respect and should not judge others based on their appearances. Besides his personal hardships, his group as a whole has also endured a lot, who finally debuted last year after an expected debut in 2013 and after losing several members during their four years of preparations.
2AM’s Jo Kwon
As one of the longest-serving trainees in the K-pop industry, 2AM’s Jokwon has done enough time to have a term coined after him, “the Jo Kwon Effect,” which credits success to a successful driving force. The idol, who chased after his dream of becoming a singer in order to help his less-than-well-off family succeed, overcame 2,567 days, or eight years, of being a trainee. With a debut that was perpetually being postponed, he admitted to feeling embarrassed when others would ask him when he was going to debut and lying about his debut date. Jo Kwon, who spent his entire adolescence training for an uncertain debut, also confessed that his teen years were full of pain, slumps, and depression. Fortunately, his endeavors were not all for naught, as 2AM finally made their debut in 2008 with Jo as their leader.
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