Idol trainee

Idol trainee DEFAULT

Korean idol

Type of South Korean musical celebrity

An idol (Korean: 아이돌; RR: Aidol), in fandom culture in South Korea, refers to a celebrity working in the field of K-pop, either as a member of a group or as a solo act. K-pop idols are characterized by the highly manufactured star system that they are produced by and debuted under, as well as their tendency to represent a hybridized convergence of visuals, music, fashion, and dance.[1] They usually work for a mainstream entertainment agency and have undergone extensive training in dance, vocals, and foreign language. Idols maintain a carefully curated public image and social media presence, and dedicate significant time and resources to building relationships with fans through concerts and meetups.[2][3][4]

Trainee system[edit]

Inspired by the heyday of MTV in the United States, Lee Soo-man set his sights on laying the foundation for the modern Korean pop music industry. He witnessed New Kids on the Block became very popular in Korea in the 1990s, and how Korean teenagers were crazy about them.The K-pop trainee system was popularised by Lee Soo-man, the founder of S.M. Entertainment, as part of a concept labelled cultural technology.[5][6][7] Hundreds of candidates each day attend the global auditions held by Korean entertainment agencies to perform for the chance of becoming a trainee.[8]

The trainee process lasts for an indefinite period of time, ranging from months to years, and usually involves vocal, dance, and language[9][10] classes taken while living together with other trainees, who sometimes attend school at the same time, although some trainees drop out of school to focus on their careers.[11][12]

Once a trainee enters the system, they are regulated in multiple aspects including personal life to body conditions and visual appearances. The survival, and training and regulation take precedence over natural talent in the production of Korean idols.[1] The system requires trainees to maintain a "wholesome image" while remaining "private about their lives and thoughts".[13]

Big Bangmember, solo singer-songwriter, rapper and producer G-Dragonis one of the highest-earning Korean idols in the South Korean entertainment industry.

Former trainees have reported that they were required to go through plastic surgeries, such as a Blepharoplasty or a Rhinoplasty, in order to adhere to the acceptable Korean beauty standards. Further criticism towards the trainee system arose regarding the companies' harsh weight restrictions, which often caused trainees to pass out from exhaustion or dehydration in an attempt to reach the required weight for their desired program. [14][15]

The investment on a potential trainee could be expensive. In 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that the cost of training one member of Girls' Generation under S.M. Entertainment was US$3 million.[16]

Personal image[edit]

When trainees are finally chosen to debut in new groups, they will face a new setting of personalities created by the company to cater the entertainment market. Each member of an idol group has his or her own character to play and therefore an important part of their job duties is to maintain that temperament in any kind of exposure they may get. One way to build personal image of idol groups is through social media services with contents taken care by the company to make sure the consistency of these personal characteristics.[17]

Relationship with fans[edit]

The relationship between Korean idols and their fans can be characterized as "parasocial kin", which means for fans to create a familial connection with their idols rather than just being a "look-from-afar" fan. In some cases, within and outside of fandoms, fans also create familial connections with other fans through similar interests or just to make friends. These interactions can be initiated by the fans, the company, or the idols themselves, where they would most likely still have to go through their company to be approved. Some projects or activities, created by fans for the idols, must also be approved by the venue or the idols’ company to minimize any harm to the idols and fan-participants. Interactions and fan connections can be seen through events like fan meetings, also known as artist engagements, concerts or fansites, and artist cafés. An annual event known as KCon is also a place for fans and artists to interact. The nature of this "parasocial kin" relationship can also be seen in the proactive participation of Korean idol fans in production of idol groups. Even before debut, some trainees would already have their own fans. This leads to the "kinship" starting out early, and building that up is very important for the idol as an artist and the fan as a supporter. Once debuted, fans grow alongside their idols and idol-fan relationships become deeper. If anything happens, fans have their own unique ways to show their attitude and opinion on issues concerning "unfair" actions of management companies. Under this situation, fans often appear to be protecting idols from company mistreatment due to the familial connection built between both sides.[17]

Working conditions[edit]

See also: Slave contract

Several Korean idol groups and solo artists have resented the contracts issued to them by their management companies, claiming that the decade-long contracts are "too long, too restrictive, and gave them almost none of the profits from their success". A director of South Korean entertainment agency DSP Media stated that the company does share profit with the performers, but often little is left over after paying costs.[18] Korean entertainment companies such as S.M Entertainment have been called "factories"[19] for their unique method of mass-producing stars. Members of groups are frequently retired and replaced with fresh trainees when their age or musical inclinations begin to pose a problem.[20]TVXQ charged S.M. Entertainment for unreasonable terms in their contracts with the company in 2009.[21]


Entertainment companies in Korea use a boot-camp system in grooming their idols. In the case of S.M. Entertainment, the company receives 300,000 applicants in nine countries every year.[22] They possess training facilities in the Gangnam district of Seoul, where recruits then train for years in anticipation of their debut. SM was called the first company to market "bands as brands", and commodify not just the artists' product, but the artists themselves. Such techniques have resulted in mass recognition abroad and helped to spark the Korean Wave, which benefits entertainment companies by broadening their audience.[22] As domestic fandom is not generally enough to produce the profits that these corporations and their players require, branding and marketing of the artist/group has become central to industry profits and thus a defining feature of the genre today.[18]

Reported earnings[edit]

According to the South Korean National Tax Service, the average annual earnings for a Korean idol in 2013 were KR₩46.74 million (US$42,000). This was almost double the 2010 figure of KR₩26.97 million (US$25,275), a rise attributable to the global spread of Hallyu in recent years.[23]


The Korean Wave has led to a global rise in interest in Korean idols, along with other aspects of Korean culture including Korean films and K-dramas being exported to other parts of the globe.[24]


There have been criticisms on the sexual objectification of female and male idols across the industry. The problem is exacerbated due to the higher rigidity of gender norms in contemporary Korean society.[25] Korean censorship practices regarding nudity and obscenity may have further reinforced this objectification.

Korean idols also frequently wear revealing clothes and dance provocatively in music videos as part of the companies' effort to market idols in multiple ways.[26] In some cases, these efforts have resulted in censorship; for example, "Miniskirt" by AOA was deemed sexually inappropriate to public TV shows and programs and was unable to be aired until the group modified their outfits and choreography.[27]

This sexualization has also led to a notion of conformity in idol acceptance. Idols that do not perform in a sexually appealing way to their targeted demographic have been harassed; for example, Amber Liu has received criticism for her androgynous appearance and disregard for gender norms.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ abElfving-Hwang, Joanna (2018-03-05), "K-pop idols, artificial beauty and affective fan relationships in South Korea", Routledge Handbook of Celebrity Studies, Routledge, pp. 190–201, doi:10.4324/9781315776774-12, ISBN 
  2. ^Caramanica, Jon (2011-10-24). "Korean Pop Machine, Running on Innocence and Hair Gel". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 17 February 2015. Retrieved 7 September 2012.
  3. ^Seabrook, John. "Cultural technology and the making of K-pop". The New Yorker. Archived from the original on 25 October 2012. Retrieved 30 October 2012.
  4. ^Sun, Jung (2010). K-Pop Idol Boy Bands and Manufactured Versatile Masculinity: Making Chogukjeok Boys. Hong Kong University Press. doi:10.5790/hongkong/9789888028672.001.0001. ISBN .
  5. ^"케이팝을 움직이는 손, '대형 기획사'" [The big player that moves K-pop, a Big entertainment company]. pressian Professor Lee Dong-yeon. 2012-02-01.
  6. ^Seabrook, John (2012-10-08). "Factory Girls". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Archived from the original on 2019-07-24. Retrieved 2016-04-17.
  7. ^"한국 최초 연습생 출신 가수 김완선 보아가 벤치마킹.(in korean)". chosunilbo. 2016-04-05.
  8. ^"K-Pop Boot Camp". ABC News. Archived from the original on 29 October 2012. Retrieved 30 October 2012.
  9. ^"In any language, JYP spells success on the global stage". Joong Ang Daily. Archived from the original on 17 September 2012. Retrieved 30 October 2012.
  10. ^Leung, Sarah. "Catching the K-Pop Wave: Globality in the Production, Distribution, and Consumption of South Korean Popular Music". Vassar College. Archived from the original on 17 October 2012. Retrieved 30 October 2012.
  11. ^Woo, Jaeyeon. "Journey to K-Pop Star, 'I Am.'". Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on 23 June 2012. Retrieved 30 October 2012.
  12. ^"The Price of Fame in South Korea". Toonari Post. Archived from the original on 3 September 2012. Retrieved 31 August 2012.
  13. ^"The woman who defied the world of K-pop". BBC News. 2019-10-18. Retrieved 2020-05-03.
  14. ^"'I trained as a K-pop idol - here's why I quit'". BBC News. 2020-02-13. Retrieved 2020-05-03.
  15. ^Marx, Patricia. "The World Capital of Plastic Surgery". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2020-05-03.
  16. ^Yang, Jeff. "Can Girls' Generation Break Through in America?". WSJ. Archived from the original on 2016-03-04. Retrieved 2016-04-17.
  17. ^ abElfving-Hwang, Joanna. "K-pop Idols, Artificial Beauty and Affective Fan Relationships in South Korea." in Routledge Handbook of Celebrity Studies, edited by Anthony Elliott. London: Routledge, 2018.
  18. ^ abWilliamson, Lucy (2011-06-15). "The dark side of South Korean pop". BBC News. Archived from the original on 2018-05-30. Retrieved 2018-05-12.
  19. ^Seabrook, John (2012-10-01). "Factory Girls". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Archived from the original on 2018-05-09. Retrieved 2018-05-12.
  20. ^"Seoul Trained: Inside Korea's Pop Factory". Spin. 2012-03-26. Archived from the original on 2018-05-13. Retrieved 2018-05-12.
  21. ^Lee, Dong-Yeun. "Who's Afraid of Korean Idols?" In Made in Korea: Studies in Popular Music, edited by Hyunjoon Shin, Seung-Ah Lee. London: Routledge, 2016.
  22. ^ abStaff, Forbes. "Korea's S.M. Entertainment: The Company That Created K-Pop". Forbes. Archived from the original on 2016-04-21. Retrieved 2018-05-12.
  23. ^Jeff Benjamin (January 19, 2015). "K-Pop Star Earnings Swell in Recent Years". Billboard. Archived from the original on 30 June 2015. Retrieved 27 June 2015.
  24. ^"South Korea's K-pop takes off in the west". Financial Times. Retrieved 7 September 2012.
  25. ^Alvare, H. M. (2009). Communion or Suspicion: Which Way for Woman and Man? Ave Maria Law Review, 8(1), Fall 2009, George Mason Law & Economics Research Paper No. 10-47.
  26. ^Lie, John (2015). K-Pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea. Oakland, CA: University of California Press. pp. 10–12. ISBN .
  27. ^Lee, Azalea. "Unfit for Broadcast: The Censorship of K-pop Girl Groups". The University of British Columbia. Asia Pacific Memo. Retrieved 1 April 2020.
  28. ^Whipple, Kelsey. "Amber Liu: An Androgynous K-pop Star". LA Weekly. LA Weekly. Retrieved 1 April 2020.

process of becoming a kpop idol, produce 101, jyp auditionSource: Mnet, JYP AUDITION Facebook

Has watching a K-pop idol's performance ever made you dream of becoming an idol?

Or have you ever wondered what these idols went through to become the stars they are now?

Today, we'll take a look behind the glamour of successful idols to explore the hard work and struggles they had to go through to make their dreams come true. Let's get started!

Aspiring Idols

process of becoming a kpop idol, produce 101Source: Mnet

Currently, it is estimated that there are about a million aspiring idols in Korea.

According to a survey of elementary, middle and high school students conducted by Maeil Economy in 2018, about 70 percent of the students answered they wanted to become celebrities.

This shows that being an idol who puts on amazing performances to good music with great choreography and receives so much love from fans is an admired profession. So, what kind of steps do you really have to go through to become an idol?

Becoming An Idol Trainee

process of becoming a kpop idol, trainees dancingSource: ET News

In order to become an idol, you have to be an idol trainee who has a contract with an agency.

Debuting without being an idol trainee is something that doesn't happen in the Korean K-pop industry. What are the paths to becoming an idol trainee?

1. Street Casting

process of becoming a kpop idol, trainee

Street casting is literally being cast on the street. Each agency has a rookie development team that finds and fosters new talent. Casting staff in this rookie development team scouts and casts people on the streets.

They approach someone to cast them if their appearance matches the image of the idol group they are planning.

Just because you've been offered a position through street casting doesn't mean you can become an idol trainee right away. The contract is written after going through a very basic audition and camera test process.

2. Agency Audition

process of becoming a kpop idol, global audition announcement big hit

Many K-pop agencies conduct various auditions to recruit new talent. There can be periodic auditions that agencies announce, ongoing recruitment auditions, and national or global audition tours.

There are auditions just for joining the company, and there are auditions especially for choosing members for a new idol group to be launched. This is the case for the global audition that Hybe announced in order to launch a girl group in October this year.

Therefore, it is difficult to get all the audition information for all agencies. You should check the audition announcement page of the agency you want to enter or check the audition announcements posted in online communities of aspiring celebrities.

In this article, we'll introduce you to some of the periodic/ongoing auditions of the main agencies!

HYBE - Online Audition

process of becoming a kpop idol, HYBE

Currently, HYBE is conducting an ongoing online audition. Anyone born after 2003 can apply for the singer, actor, or model categories.

Submit an application form and a video attachment showing off your talent on HYBE's audition site to complete your application. Only successful candidates will be notified individually within two weeks.

YG - Online Audition

process of becoming a kpop idol, YG audition

YG is conducting an ongoing audition for vocal, rap, and dance fields until December 31, 2030. There are no restrictions on gender, nationality, or age. However, you can only apply once to this audition.

You can apply online, and within two to four weeks, you will be notified individually and then have a second on-site audition.

SM - Online Audition

process of becoming a kpop idol, SM Entertainment

SM is always holding email or online auditions. You can send a variety of materials to express yourself, such as a video file of a song, dance, or acting, a recording file of a song or rap, or front-facing and full body photos.

SM - Saturday Open Audition

process of becoming a kpop idol, SM Saturday audition

The Saturday open audition has a long history and is iconic. This audition, which has been held at SM for about 20 years, was held every Saturday at the SM headquarters, or SM COEX Artium.

So many people who dreamed of becoming celebrities lined up in front of SM every Saturday.

There are only 7 SM idols who debuted through this Saturday open audition. They are Heechul of Super Junior, Yoona of Girls' Generation, Taemin of SHINee, Seulgi of Red Velvet, Haechan and Jungwoo of NCT, and Giselle of Aespa.

Recently, due to the Coronavirus, they are conducting the Saturday open audition through Zoom.

JYP - Online Audition

process of becoming a kpop idol, JYP Entertainment audition

JYP is currently conducting online auditions for vocal, dance, rap, acting and modeling through JYP's official website.

There are no restrictions on age, gender, or nationality, and you can apply online anytime.

JYP - Monthly Audition

process of becoming a kpop idol, JYP Monthly auditionSource: JYP AUDITION Facebook

JYP has an on-site audition on the first and third Sundays of every month at JYP's office building. You go to the audition center and apply for an audition in one of the vocal, rap, dance, acting, or model categories.

Those between 12 and 25 years old in Korean age can participate, and there are no other restrictions on gender, educational background, or nationality.

It's temporarily suspended due to Coronavirus, so why don't you try it after the Coronavirus situation gets better?

3. Connection Through Academy

process of becoming a kpop idol, stretching at academySource: Stage 631

You can also enter an agency through an academy that prepares you to be an idol. They focus on dance and vocal training. Some agencies run their own academies.

Curriculum varies slightly between academies, but they usually cost about 400,000 won to 600,000 won a month (approx. 300 to 500 USD). Surprisingly, you can debut through these idol academies.

If the academy is closely connected to the agency, they recommend talented students to the agency. Or, the agency can contact the academy after watching the student evaluation videos uploaded by the academy.

Also, in the case of large academies, agency representatives can visit the academy to hold auditions. The competition rate is lower at these private auditions held in the academy, so chances of become a trainee are a little higher.

Idol Trainee

process of becoming a kpop idol, trainee dancing in practice roomSource: Korea Herald

Getting through the fierce competition and finally becoming an idol trainee through street casting, auditions, or academies is only the beginning. It takes months, at most, years of rigorous training to debut.

To become a perfect idol, you take classes in various fields, such as dancing, singing, acting, media training, foreign language, personality, etc. 

The trainees are never asked to pay the training costs. The expenses incurred by the trainee throughout training are settled with the profits earned after the trainee's debut. 

process of becoming a kpop idol, trainee, media trainingSource: PD Note

As a warning, if an agency asks a trainee to pay for training, it's highly likely the agency is actually fake. IU says she lost quite a lot of money because she was fooled by these scammers a few times before her debut.

Even now, fake agencies that are not officially registered often take advantage of aspiring idols. So, if the entertainment company you're supposed to sign a contract with asks for money, run away! 

process of becoming a kpop idol, trainee interviewSource: PD Note

Also, there are many fraudulent agencies that try to connect trainees who dream of becoming girl group members to 'sponsors' (people who buy their time). This is because they are pretty like celebrities but not famous, so they are less likely to cause a problem.

The trainees can be exposed to sexual harassment and even prostitution. Trainees are lied to that that they will make their debut if they accept this sponsorship offer. That's how they manipulate them with their dreams of becoming an idol.

In these situations, the trainee should definitely break the contract and leave the agency. In the past, if the exclusive contract with the trainee was broken, the trainee was asked to pay a penalty of 100 to 150 million won (approx. 85,000 to 128,000 USD).

However, as of 2017, the Fair Trade Commission has reviewed trainee contracts of Korean entertainment agencies and stopped these unfair transactions. 

process of becoming a kpop idol, mnet produce 101Source: Mnet 

If you've joined a good agency that's not a scam, it will train you consistently and sincerely.

They have a monthly evaluation to see your progress. These evaluations accumulate to determine whether the trainee can debut or not.

Idol audition programs, such as the Produce series, Idol School, and Girl's Planet, show a condensed version of this long training system.

process of becoming a kpop idol, trainee dance practiceSource: JoongAng Daily

As you've probably already seen in audition programs, it's not just effort or skills that let a trainee debut. Of course, it takes a lot of effort, but just because they work hard doesn't mean they will succeed.

Even if they practice really hard for almost 10 years, they might not debut if you don't fit the image of the idol group that your agency is trying to launch.

Then, when they reach their early to mid-20s, they give up on becoming an idol. Most idols make their debut in their late teens to early 20s, so after that age, they realize that they can't become idols. 

process of becoming a kpop idol, mblaq thunder interviewSource: PD Note

However, many people who have spent most of their lives preparing to be an idol can't find other jobs easily. From a young age, they went to the agency's practice room rather than going to school, so there are few options for them.

MBLAQ member Thunder started his career as a trainee at 17 and debuted at 19 years old and said in an interview that he didn't even know how to buy things online and transfer money between accounts.

Idol trainees and idols often miss out on learning how to do things that ordinary people regularly do. That's why preparing to be an idol is risky.


process of becoming a kpop idol, sm rookiesSource: SM Rookies

If the agency decides to launch a new idol group, the debut group will be formed. It has to fit the image of the planned idol group, and the members have to be at a certain skill level.

Also, the members should have good chemistry. In other words, skills are skills, but luck is very important too. Even if you get the chance to debut, very few succeed afterwards. 

process of becoming a kpop idol, concert finaleSource: Busan Daily

For example, according to the Korean idol music critic webzine "Idology", there are a total of 60 new idol groups made up of 324 members who debuted in 2015. But among them, there are only a few idols that we know and are still active.

There is probably less than 0.01% chance of becoming a trainee, entering the debut group after the training period, getting to debut, and becoming successful afterwards. That's why being a successful idol is less likely than winning the lottery. 

process of becoming a kpop idol, produce 101

Working to become an idol like this is like running a race without a finish. The idols we love and adore threw themselves into this hopeless race, and were part of the minority that were able to make it to the end.

But if you really want to be a K-pop idol, you can risk everything and challenge yourself.

Just don't let the glamour you see from the outside make you forget that it's a difficult road to go down and don't blame yourself if you fail!

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A K-Pop Idol Hopeful Opened Up About Why She Walked Away From It All

The following interview is an excerpt from Daebak Weekly, BuzzFeed's K-pop newsletter. You can sign up for more here.


Produce 101 contestants practicing choreography

The origins of South Korean supergroups might be a mystery to some in the West, but celebrities' references to their "trainee days" are as common knowledge in Asia as Kim Kardashian is to American pop cultural discourse. The search for K-pop stars begins with entertainment companies hosting auditions — domestically and abroad — when they announce plans for a new group. The top-ranking kids — yes, they are literally children and teenagers — are then invited to participate in a rigorous training process. While the notoriously tough basics of the trainee system (intense practice of vocals, dance, and English, as well as some kind of dieting) are generally known, the exact goings-on are not. The process can take anywhere from a few months to several years, but the end result always turns out a lineup of triple-threat groups with strategically built up buzz.

The global popularity of K-pop groups and the subsequent rise in people auditioning to be trainees have provided companies with a huge opportunity for expansion. Reality shows and televised auditions have boomed, with viewers at home voting for their favorites.

While several shows focus on contestants auditioning for all-male and all-female groups, only a handful have become fixtures in Korean media. Music channel Mnet's competition reality show Produce 101 first hit the scene in 2016. It instantly gained a following with its big-budget format of taking 101 contestants and whittling them down to a final group of 11. The show was magnetic, turning out popular groups like I.O.I. and Iz*One and building a loyal international fanbase. It stopped airing in South Korea in 2019 after two producers were accused of accepting bribes from entertainment companies and rigging votes. They were eventually sentenced to jail in 2020.

Katherine Lee was one of the 101 from Season 1 — number 89, to be exact. Hailing from southeast Michigan, she was a trainee at what was then called Midas Entertainment (later Media Line). Kathy, as she likes to be called, went through the trainee process but never debuted in a group. She instead chose to leave the industry and pursue her education after being eliminated from the show.

I called Kathy at her university dorm in Nashville, where she is finishing up her first year of college. On Zoom, we chatted about her life now (college during COVID-19 — ugh), but also about her past life — on the show, as a K-pop trainee, and as a Chinese American living in South Korea.

Note: This Q&A includes descriptions of disordered eating.

Do you want to introduce yourself to our readers?

Katherine Lee: My name is Kathy. I'm a freshman at Vanderbilt studying economics — maybe [laughs]. I took what I like to call a “gap year” after eighth grade to move to Korea and join the K-pop industry. I trained for about 10 months before I auditioned for Mnet’s Produce 101 Season 1. And in the middle of the show, I decided to move back to the States to continue my education.

How did you first get into K-pop?

I went to Korea for Christmas vacation with my family in eighth grade and thought, I may as well go to an audition if I’m here. I loved [the boy band] Exo at the time. I don’t have any background in dancing or singing. It was just for fun. But one day I got this call that was just like, “Hey, we know you don’t have any background, but we think you have potential because you’re international, and we can train you.” This was before the global popularity K-pop has hit now, so they wanted more people from China or America.

I wasn't sure, and my parents didn’t think it would be legit. But they said I should think of it like a summer camp–type thing. So I did, and then I just kept extending it and extending it and then ended up signing a contract.


A photo of Katherine Lee from Produce 101

And what was that like, those first few months of training? You just finished the eighth grade, you were in Korea.

When I first got there, I was really shocked. I remember walking downstairs to meet everyone for the first time — the studio was in the basement — and I was like, “Hi, everyone, I’m Kathy!” And everyone gasped. "She said hi? She didn’t bow down? How could she! She’s so American." That was the first thing. I always thought I was nice, but they thought I was really rude! Turns out, it’s just that I'm American. Korea is so seniority-based, so those cultural things were really hard for me to adjust to in the beginning. I'd make a lot of mistakes and someone would get mad.

[The girls] had also been there a year before me, so they already had their cliques — who they like and who they don’t like, everyone's strengths and weaknesses. So I actually trained with the guys first. The first few months, I also took Korean classes in Gangnam [a district in Seoul] for five hours per day. When I joined the girls, I stopped taking Korean classes, because I was pretty fluent by then, and spent way more time at the studio trying to catch up with the girls.

Every month, we had an exam. I think people know about this now. Every month, they’d cut people. We started with 20 girls, but by the end of my training we had seven. Every month, they’d cut down one to two girls. For the first two months, I didn’t participate in the exams, because they knew I was such a rookie it wasn’t really fair. After the third month, I started joining the girl groups and had my first project with them. We danced to Girls’ Generation.

Katherine Lee

Two selfies of Kathy with other contestants on the show

So what did a day look like for you as a trainee?

The busiest days were maybe two months prior to doing Produce 101. Other contestants were really experienced — some were already famous — so our company was looking at them and then looking at us like, This is not it. [laughs] They basically set a rule where we couldn’t leave the studio until after 4 a.m. We had to text in the company group chat saying “I arrived!” or “I left!” so they could track you down. Because I was still on my summer break, I had to come in during the day. Everyone who had school would just sleep in class because training took the whole night.

On a day like that, I would get to the studio around noon, and we would start by jumping rope while singing to increase your stamina. And because we want to lose weight too, we'd wear parkas. This was also during the summer.

During the busy time, we also had other classes. Vocal classes, rap classes, we also had Pilates classes. I don’t know why — to lose weight, probably. At some point the company also hired a camera director [who] trained us how to act and what to do in front of a camera.

There’s not really a culture of “work smart or work hard” — there’s only “work hard.” If you’re there until 4 a.m., it means you’re doing something right. But we’d be so tired. There are security cameras in the studio, so the company can see what we’re doing. Sometimes we would take naps in the changing rooms because that was the only place without cameras. [laughs] The mentality was, ‘It doesn’t matter; just train, train, train.’ In the beginning, though, when I was learning Korean and not fully on my diet diet, I still got eight hours of sleep. And could eat sushi.

Katherine Lee

More behind the scenes photos with other trainees

That's something else we should talk about: There are a lot of questions around K-pop, dieting, and body image right now. Were you affected by that culture at all?

Oh, definitely. Every few days, we would have to weigh ourselves in front of everyone — guys, girls, teachers — in one room on a scale. So it was really embarrassing, you know what I mean? To get the smallest weight, we’d take off all our clothes and just have a tank top and shorts on. I remember the first time I did it I was obviously “overweight,” because I was in the eighth grade and chubby to begin with. They were OK with it the first time, but once we started training, then the dieting really started. It was really unhealthy at first. I would try and focus on the number. So I would eat really little, but I’d only eat chocolate — which is just not how you lose weight, you know?

At some point, the company said I could go to a diet hospital. They have those in Korea. I went with another trainee who also didn’t have to go to school, because the diet hospital was like an hour bus ride away. They basically gave us this “herbal medicine” before we ate meals that would suppress our appetite and increase our metabolism, so our hearts would beat really fast.

I’m pretty sure they were diet pills. I don’t know. They said it was herbal, but after I took a health class in America, I was like, hang on. That seems sus. [laughs] Because it suppressed my appetite, so I wasn’t hungry! I didn’t have any cravings, so I only ate to fill my stomach up.

That diet thing made me lose a ton of weight. I think the lowest I got to was 46 or 47 kilograms [101 lbs.]. I remember feeling really weak. You could tell I was weak because whenever I’d bow down to say “Annyeonghaseyo” [a formal and polite greeting in Korean], I’d feel really, really dizzy. But that was the lowest weight I think I got to until the next stage of the diet.

Part of the “package” at the diet hospital is that they have these...I think they’re called "carboxy shots" in English? They basically put needles and shoot gas into specific areas of your body to break up the fat so it's easier to lose. I got those shots. They also have an electric thing where there’s needles all around and they electrocute you...and it’s all supposed to help you lose weight. I did a little bit of all that because it was part of the package.

At that point, you were pretty young as well.

I was 14, yeah. A part of me was like, what am I doing? But I think I was so determined to be a K-pop idol. And I was young. I wanted to be pretty. I didn’t know they were diet pills. Someone was like, “These are herbal medicines,” and I was like, OK! These are healthy, then.

I didn’t have to go to the hospital for a few months after, because after you lose that much weight, you just have to maintain it. In the morning, I would have my yogurt, for lunch I’d eat cucumber and some cherry tomatoes and maybe a boiled egg, and for dinner I’d eat a boiled egg and sweet potatoes.

So basically...nothing?

Basically! I remember I kept track of every single calorie. A hard-boiled egg has 62 calories, if I remember correctly. A single tomato has 12 calories.

And this was all leading up to the debut, which also led to theProduce 101audition.

Yeah, while we were training there was news that Mnet was going to have a huge show, looking for [contestants]. They needed 100 people, and they needed them from different companies. We knew they were looking around. Our company actually sent us there — so we “auditioned,” but we low-key already had spots already. OK, I’m not super sure about that! But our company’s CEO [Kim Chang Wan] wrote the song “Pick Me” [Produce 101’s theme song]. So I think he was like, "We have trainees under our company, why don’t they audition?" Seven of us auditioned, and five of us got in.

And I need to address: You were blonde on the show.

Oh, yeah! Part of my contract was that the company can market you however they want. So right before Produce 101, they took me to the salon, and the hairdressers asked, "What would look good for her?" And I think the company was like, “Oh, she’s American, so let’s make her look like a doll, more Americanlike.” I literally took a nap and woke up with bleached hair. I did not ask for this! But you gotta do what you gotta do, you know?

You were on Season 1. What was it like to come onto the show with four other girls whom you’ve grown close to as trainees, and meeting a bunch — well, 100 other girls?

For the first time, there were girls who were younger than me! And it was a big deal because I didn’t know how to talk to them. I only knew how to talk to older people [using appropriate Korean grammar]. I also got close with the other Chinese girl and the Cantonese girl. I met them in the bathroom. It was nice hanging out with other girls who shared a similar background.

But even though there were other girls that I really vibed with, the unnie [oldest girl] in my group was really adamant about sticking together and presenting the right image to others, that we’re like sisters under one company; if you make other friends, it might look like something is wrong. They really hit me with that mentality of, "You are the maknae [youngest member], so you need to listen to us,” which is a mentality I immediately abandoned once I left Korea. I did end up sticking with my company most of the time just because we had to upkeep the image. It’s not like I didn’t want to hang out with them, I just also wanted to branch out a little bit.

What was being on a show as popular asProduce 101like?

I used to be really into K-pop, but after the trainee process I realized that everything is fake, you know what I mean? [laughs] There was a good time after I left Korea that I didn’t watch K-dramas or listen to K-pop or anything. Now I consume some content, but I don't follow groups anymore, just because I know the company really packages you and markets you in a specific way. I feel like fans get really caught up in that — I really got caught up in that — but once I saw the other side, it kind of changed me.

It wasn’t until Produce 101 that I started realizing just how disingenuous and scripted it all is. During the trainee process, it's hard, but you just try and work through it. Some know this, but a lot of news broke out that the show is rigged, and that a lot of people were chosen beforehand. People would cry in front of the cameras to gain screentime because everyone loves a Cinderella story, you know? Or they’d fake-bully girls to pretend they’re the villain and all types of stuff, and I was just there like, whaaat? I thought reality shows were at least real!

Do you still talk to anyone fromProduceor your company?

One of them just reached out yesterday to tell me she missed me! We still text sometimes because we were so close back then, but we all do live separate lives now. Some are still in the industry, and I’m here studying, so it’s different. It’s one of those things — a childhood experience that you never bring up or talk about, but sometimes you have a weird flashback and you’re like, Whoa. I did do that.

You were eliminated fromProduce 101inEpisode 5. After the show, you decided to move back to the States.

Before Produce 101, I was calling my mom, and she was like, “Hey, you’ve been in Korea for a year now. It’s good to finish high school at least.” So we were looking at American schools in Korea, but none wanted to take on a trainee — someone who'd sleep in class and skip school. All fair, really.

I also remember calling my friends during this process, telling them I wasn’t as happy as I thought I would be. And they were talking about taking AP US history and going to winter formal. High school stuff. I felt like I was missing out on so much! FOMO, you know?

One thing looming in my mind was my contract. I had a seven-year contract. How do I get out of it? My mom really pulled through. She flew over and brought a translator. Basically what they told me was that at the end of the day if I wanted to leave, I could, and as long as I don’t join another company, I wouldn’t need to pay a fine or anything.

But you’re off the show now. You’re out of the company. Was it hard transitioning back to high school life at first?

It was kind of hard because it was another culture shock. Things are not as seniority-based or nearly as intense. But I also felt really free, and I really liked it. I hadn't gone to school for such a long time, so I appreciated it so much more. I hadn’t read in such a long time. I was taking chemistry and was just excited at how fun it was. I studied a lot that year, just enjoying it. And I could eat what I wanted, and no one really cared.

It’s actually funny; when I was in high school, my vocal teacher [from Korea] reached out to me about YMC Entertainment starting a new girl group. They were looking for international people, and she asked if I’d want to come back. It gave me a whole flashback and was I like, no, thank you!

I wanted to close with one final question: What does K-pop mean to you?

Before, K-pop was my life. It was everything. I would follow groups like Exo. Now I just see it as another type of music. I love Mamamoo, but I’ll listen to them because I like their songs. I think I used to see them more as a whole package: the personality, the way they look, the reality shows, they must be so nice, blah blah blah. Now, if I like it, great; if I don’t, whatever. I know to other people it’s a whole industry, but to me it's just another genre of music.

Overall, the K-pop experience — even though I left and it was toxic — it still was good in that I learned how to be more independent and be by myself. But in leaving, I realized I also don’t feel like hiding myself anymore.


'I could have been a K-pop idol - but I'm glad I quit'

Achieving fame as a K-pop star involves years of intensive training, and often some plastic surgery. Euodias is one of the few British hopefuls to have experienced the gruelling life of a K-pop trainee. Here she describes what it was like, and explains why - after being selected for a girl group - she quit.

I was a child when I made the big move from my home in the north-east of England to South Korea, where I trained for two years to become a K-pop star.

At the time K-pop was largely unknown in Britain. But I'm half-Korean and half-Chinese, so I started watching South Korean TV dramas like Boys Over Flowers and Playful Kiss - and then fell in love with K-pop and the whole culture.

While my classmates were crazy about Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, I was also listening to Wonder Girls and B2ST.

My burning ambition was to become an actor and perform.

One way of doing that in South Korea is to become an "idol", which means someone who does everything: model, act, sing and dance. So K-pop seemed like a route to achieving my dreams.

From the age of 10, I auditioned for various companies in the hope that one of them would sign me up.

Often this meant sending a self-shot video of myself. Sometimes I skipped school to film an audition tape, which made my mum really mad.

Then, on a family trip to visit my grandma in Seoul, I got to go to a huge audition with more than 2,000 other hopefuls.

We were kept in a vast waiting room, like the sort you see on Britain's Got Talent, except there were no chairs. So we sat on the floor in rows of 10.

After a six-hour wait, it was my row's turn. My heart was beating so fast as we were called forward one-by-one.

When the first girl sang, the judge barked "Stop. Next!" before she got to the chorus of her song. Nearly everyone got the same treatment.

When it was my turn, I performed a monologue from a Korean TV drama. The judge stopped me halfway through.

"We're looking for singers," he said. "So will you sing?" I hadn't prepared a song, but I had a go at doing A Whole New World from Disney's Aladdin.

The judge halted me and asked to see me dance. I hadn't prepared for that either, and felt like an idiot. So they put on a dance track and I did some freestyling.

After conferring with assistants, the judge gave me a yellow piece of paper. I was through to the next stage.

I was directed to a room where I was asked to walk along a line taped on the floor, and my face was photographed from different angles to see how I would look on camera.

Within days, I was asked to come back with a parent to discuss a contract.

Under the terms of the contract, I would leave my family and move to South Korea to live and train at the company.

If I chose to leave before the contract was up, I would have to repay the full cost of my training, which would run into thousands of dollars.

Mum reluctantly signed a two-year contract - the shortest they offered - on my behalf.

After the meeting we had an argument and mum didn't talk to me for a month.

Soon after I started as a trainee, the entertainment company that had signed me up transferred my contract to another firm. Such moves are common and trainees don't get any say in the matter.

My new company was strict. I had to live in their building with the other trainees who were all aged between nine and 16. The sexes were separated.

We only left the building to attend our normal school lessons. Korean trainees went to local state schools but because I was British I went to an international school. Other than that we weren't allowed out without permission, which was usually refused.

If parents wanted to visit they had to get approval in advance. Relatives who turned up without notice were turned away.

On a typical day we trainees would wake up at 5am to get in some extra dance practice before school started at 8am.

When the school day ended we would return to the company to be trained in singing and dancing. Trainees would stay up practising until 11pm or later, in an attempt to impress instructors.

At night we were left to look after ourselves. We had a strict curfew to make sure we'd be back in the dorms before they locked up the building.

Dating was banned, though some secretly did. Trainees were all supposed to act straight even if they weren't. Anybody who appeared to be openly gay was ostracised by the company.

Both male and female trainees would have "managers" - uncle-type figures who would text us at night to keep tabs on us. If we didn't text back, then we would immediately get a phone call, asking where we were.

There was no such thing as weekends or holidays. On national holidays like the Lunar New Year, trainees would remain in the company building while staff took the day off.

The company sorted us into two main groups, kind of like a Team A and Team B. I was one of the 20 to 30 members of Team A - we were thought to have the most potential.

Team B had around 200 trainees. Some of them had even had to pay their way into the company. They could train for years and years and never know if they would actually "debut" - the word used when someone is launched as a K-pop performer.

Team A trainees slept in dorms with four girls to a bedroom. The regular trainees would sleep together in a huge room and had to make do with mats on a wooden floor.

I saw exhausted Team B trainees sleep in the dance studios after training, because the mats there were just like the ones in their dorms.

I only ever saw one Team B trainee get promoted to Team A. If Team A trainees misbehaved, or complained about something they might be threatened with being thrown out or moved to Team B.

But generally nobody complained. We were all really young and ambitious. The company's attitude was that everything we experienced was part of learning the discipline needed to be a K-pop idol. So we just accepted everything.

Inside the company building, we didn't use our own names, except with other trainees. We were each given a number and a stage name in keeping with the sort of character they had picked for us.

I was given the name Dia, but our instructors would only ever call us by our numbers, which they read from stickers on our shirts. It felt weird, a bit like we were in some sort of science experiment.

I knew I had the attributes to be a successful idol.

The company favoured me, because I am very small - instructors constantly praised me for being petite. Don't get me wrong, I love eating, but I'm lucky to have a high metabolism and don't gain weight easily.

Weight was the constant obsession of everyone there. Everyone was required to be no heavier than 47kg (7st 6lb or 104lb) regardless of their age or height.

At weekly weigh-ins, your body would be analysed by the trainer, and then they announced your weight to everyone in the room.

If you were over the designated weight, then they would ration your food. Sometimes they would even take away entire meals and those "overweight" trainees would just be given water.

If you need support with eating disorders, help and support is available from BBC Action Line

I thought that was really harsh because some of those girls couldn't help being tall.

Starving yourself was really normalised. Some trainees were anorexic or bulimic, and many of the girls didn't have periods.

It was common to pass out from exhaustion. Often we had to help carry unconscious trainees back to the dorms.

I passed out twice during dance practice, probably because I was dehydrated or hadn't eaten enough. I woke up in bed not knowing how I got there.

The attitude among the trainees after that was like, "Good for her! She wants it so much!" Looking back on it now, I think it was really disgusting.

I found that I didn't really have good friends there, everyone was more like a colleague. The environment was way too tense and competitive to forge real friendships.

The stressful atmosphere was heightened by the monthly showcase events. Each trainee would perform in front of everyone and be evaluated by the instructors.

If a trainee didn't get a good grade, then they would be kicked out immediately.

They would be replaced by a constant stream of new arrivals. What was even more intimidating was that some of the new trainees had already had plastic surgery done, so they already looked more like K-pop stars than the rest of us.

There was also bullying going on among the trainees. One girl was picked on because she was over the maximum weight. Another trainee who was a good dancer had his dance shoes stolen.

I missed my old friends back in England but I couldn't really keep in touch with them as instructors made us hand in our phones so we would focus on our training. The company also wanted to make trainees seem more mysterious before they debuted, and didn't want us posting anything embarrassing on social media.

We could get our phones back for 15 minutes at night, and I would use that time to call my mum. But most trainees also secretly kept a second phone.

My parents knew that training was difficult, but there really wasn't much they could do because I was under a contract and they were so far away. Most of the Korean trainees wouldn't tell their parents anything at all because they didn't want them to worry.

What kept me going was the belief that I would eventually debut as a member of a group.

However, the company only had spots for fewer than half of the members of Team A. We competed for them through constant examinations in singing, dancing, and interviews.

K-pop groups are typically organised like this: a lead vocalist, dancer, rapper, youngest member, etc. Everyone has a specific role.

I was delighted when they told me I had been picked to be a lead singer. But then the company said they were considering me for an alternative role in the group, the visual.

The visual is the face of the group. You get picked for this because of your appearance, and crucially, how you might look in the future. Another girl was in competition with me for this spot.

She was naturally more attractive than me, but the company predicted that if I got plastic surgery I would end up prettier than her and would then be ready to be the visual.

By Korean standards I have a very big face, so they wanted to change the bridge of my nose and shave my jawline.

The company couldn't force a trainee to have plastic surgery, but it was strongly encouraged. Plastic surgery is very normal in South Korea and the prospect of having surgery didn't bother me at all. I saw it as an investment in my future - the cost of the operation would have been added to my debt to the company.

But my mum had mixed feelings, she realised it meant I would be closer to becoming an idol, but she was also worried for me.

When the company told me that I was being lined up for the visual spot, I was so happy.

They told me that I was going to be a K-pop star, and that's really amazing to hear, especially when you're an impressionable teenager hearing that from powerful people.

As time went on, the company started to tell us more about what the group was going to be like.

They told us the music genre, the style that we would have, and I started feeling iffy about the whole thing.

I learned about the character behind my stage name, Dia. She was supposed to be very reserved, sweet, and innocent. As the visual, I would be expected to personify those characteristics.

But Dia just wasn't me. I'm opinionated and loud. I doubted I would be able to keep up this docile personality in public.

I thought it might just be worth it if it led to me becoming an actor. But when I tried talking to the company about my ambitions the response was: "No, we think you'll fit better with this girl group."

Someone senior there told me that as I was half-Korean, if I pursued an acting career then the best I could hope for was a supporting role on a TV show.

I felt my dreams slipping away.

My contract came up for renewal before my group was due to be launched - and I said that I wanted out.

It's really unusual to walk away, most trainees want the dream so badly that they'll agree to anything.

Despite my refusal, I parted on good terms with the company.

Because I left when I did, I had no debts to pay off, I had fulfilled my part of the contract.

If I had stayed and debuted with the group then I would have been charged for the cost of my instructor fees, accommodation, and for any plastic surgery.

Even successful acts have to continue working to pay off all the debt incurred during training, and the new debt that builds up when you're an idol. It's actually really difficult to make money by being a K-pop star.

I returned to England without having had any plastic surgery and was reunited with my old friends. I was able to sit my exams with everyone else.

I went on to do an art foundation course and then got a place at a fashion school in France. I'm really fortunate because so many trainees get dropped at 18, or finish their contracts when they're 21 and feel lost. They gave up everything to try to be a K-pop idol, but that's ended and they find themselves with no qualifications.

My mum was so happy that I was back. She always believed training wasn't the right thing for me. But she knew I had to find that out for myself. I had to go the long way round, but I learned that mum is always right.

When I see videos of the group I was to have been in, I feel relieved that it isn't me up there on stage.

The whole thing feels fake to me, as I know those girls personally, and the way they have to behave in public is not what they are like in real life.

I'm not really thinking about pursuing acting at the moment, except perhaps as a hobby.

Instead I have a career as a YouTuber. I've realised that I'm quite entrepreneurial.

I love making videos for my channel. I find I'm applying a lot of what I learned in my K-pop training. I feel liberated because I control everything, from planning to filming to editing.

The more I think about it, the more I think I made the right decision.

Since Euodias underwent her training the South Korean Free Trade Commission has introduced regulations to ban some unfair practices in contracts between K-pop trainees and entertainment companies.

You may also be interested in:

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