It’s time once again for Kpopalypse Interview, the interview series that goes where other k-pop writers fear to tread! This time we’re interviewing Cheska, one-time member of k-pop group Fiestar!
Veteran Kpopalypse readers will know that I’ve been following LOEN’s girl group Fiestar ever since debut days. While I wouldn’t classify myself as a “fan” of them, or in fact any group, because I despise the blind, uncritical nature of emotionally manipulated fandoms who unconditionally suck up anything and everything just because their faves’ names are on it, I was certainly interested in tracking Fiestar’s musical output. The fact that they were on LOEN, the same label that hosted IU, certainly drew my attention and I was surprised that the group never really achieved the same A-list levels of fame that they arguably should have. I also noticed Cheska, the girl in the group who lasted for three comebacks and had a fairly different vibe compared to the rest of the members in Fiestar that I couldn’t quite place. It turns out that I definitely wasn’t imagining that “difference”.
Cheska first came to my attention as a potential interview subject in 2018 when she made some brief social media posts about how she wasn’t going to be making music anymore due to the stress of the music industry taking its toll on her personally. I approached her, quite gently, about the possibility of talking about the topic with a view to possibly educating readers as well as helping out others considering going down the same road, and she told me in no uncertain terms (and quite a lot of colourful language) that she was absolutely not ready for such a conversation and would not talk about k-pop to anybody under any circumstances. I didn’t push the issue – I figured that if and when she decided that she was ready, she knew where to find me.
More recently, Cheska did decide to open up and ran an ask-me-anything (AMA) about her k-pop experiences on her Twitch livestreaming channel, a place where she mainly just plays computer games and has fun with friends. The k-pop AMA on her Twitch stream was simple emotional honesty from her point of view, targeted only at her small collection of gaming followers, and wasn’t intended for a wider k-pop audience. Cheska had no idea that there were still k-pop fans out there who would even care what she had to say, much less write about it in major publications, so she wasn’t expecting it to be noticed at all. Sure enough the inevitable happened, every major k-pop site wrote a shady hit-piece on her for clicks, and now every k-pop fan who is reasonably online has their own hot take on exactly how “stanned” or “cancelled” she should be. Unintentional divisiveness through personal self-expression and unfiltered dialogue designed for a much smaller audience? Kpopalypse can relate! With every k-pop netizen having their own opinion, I felt that it would be good to actually get past the gossip and “who did what to who” and down to the real truth of her experiences and let Cheska have her own say about the madness in the k-pop world as well as the madness surrounding her. I touched base with Cheska again with some assistance of a helpful caonima (you know who you are) and she was an absolute pleasure to talk to, what follows is our hour-long conversation about Fiestar, k-pop, her experiences, motivations and wishes.
Hi, how are you?
I’m good! I just woke up!
I’m glad to hear you’re getting some sleep, as I heard you were struggling with that!
I was awake for two whole days, after my Twitch livestream was getting misunderstood by K-pop news or gossip sites and Twitter users. I never even knew what “clout” meant before two days ago. It’s the worst word I’ve ever heard! What’s funny is, people interested in K-pop watched my livestream a week later. [laughs]
Clout is what people who haven’t achieved anything with their lives think they get if they get noticed on the Internet. I hate the word too!
I never intended for the Twitch video to go out among k-pop fans, it was just for my personal new Twitch followers.
A lot of people have probably made up their mind about you and probably won’t like what you say, but there’s a whole bunch of other people who are like “wow, I’m really glad someone’s actually talking about these things”. The whole k-pop world is a very hidden world, there’s very little known about it, and that’s how a lot of people get sucked into it, they think it’s all going to be sunshine and lollipops, and then they make a start and shit happens, and it’s like “oh crap, it’s too late…”.
So how did you get started in Fiestar, what drew you into that.
Well at first I wanted to be a singer when I was young, so I posted videos of me singing and dancing online. There was a company who saw those videos and scouted me, telling me that I could be “the second BoA” . There was nothing to do in Alabama, except doing drugs. I don’t do drugs in Korea, but in America it was different. Me and my parents felt like going to Korea would be a positive step, a way to make a fresh start and get out of the rut of just being in Alabama falling into a hole. I went to Korea and was put into the debut group for the company and it wasn’t how I thought it would be like, everything was just a culture shock, so I went back home to Alabama.
Then I started getting calls and offers from various companies. One of them was LOEN, IU’s company, and I really liked IU. My parents were also keen for me to try again because they thought I had something very special in me, like talents. So I went back to Korea, and they liked me. They wanted me to be a part of the group which is now known as Fiestar. They immediately made me sign a three-month contract, which just said that I couldn’t do auditions for any other companies.
So they just lock you in in advance, so you can’t go anywhere else?
Yeah. So during the three months I didn’t really get along with the other members and at the end of that term, the manager manipulated me into signing a seven-year contract.
In the auditions there were interviews where they would ask you personal details. One of the questions in the interview was if I was the only child, and I told them that I had a brother and he passed away so now I am the only child. When it was time to extend the contract, they would say things like “you’ve lost your brother, you’re an only child, think of your parents, if you go back then you’ll be a failure to them”.
So they’re asking you personal information when you first sign up to the initial contract, so later on they can emotionally manipulate you?
Yes! That’s a good way to put it! Emotional manipulation. That is what the person in the company did to me. He would put pressure on me and make me feel like if I went back home empty handed then I would have failed my parents.
So as soon as you were signed up really, you were already in a situation where you weren’t sure if it was something you wanted to do or not.
That must have been difficult, going through the whole training process, knowing that the outcome you’re working towards at the end wasn’t necessarily something you were wanting to be doing anyway.
Yes, that is true.
How long was the training period?
For the other members, they trained pretty much ever since they were young, but for me I trained for three months and was immediately put into the debut group. I trained in the debut group for two years before actually debuting.
I remember when I was observing you talking about this, that they didn’t like the name they gave you or the image that they gave you…
Oh, well Cheska is the name I gave myself!
You gave that name to yourself? Okay!
Yeah – because my English name is Francesca, so I was like “hey what about Cheska? I’m going to go with Cheska!” – but Fiestar, and the concept that they gave me was not what I wanted.
What did they describe to you as the concept that they gave you?
I just needed to be really cute. My personality is very four-dimensional. It’s true – you don’t know where I’m going to run off to… but cute, I don’t know if I’m cute. I tried my best to force myself to be cute.
Well it’s all subjective I guess – but it wasn’t something that you were comfortable with, obviously.
Yeah I wasn’t comfortable with it at all.
Besides your name, did you get to decide anything at all? Nothing whatsoever?
No. Let me try to think… they let me keep my nose piercing in after “Sea Of Moonlight”, because I wanted to keep my nose-ring in because that’s “me”. What else was there… nothing else!
I thought they would have liked the nose-ring as a differentiating factor. It makes you a bit unique and different from everyone else. Was there resistance to the nose-ring, did you have to talk them into it?
Yeah, I had to. They made me take it out for “Sea Of Moonlight”, and they covered it. I had to look all “innocent” and “pure”, like they were telling me, but having a nose-ring doesn’t mean you’re not innocent or pure, you know?
It’s pretty low on the rebellion scale, having a nose-ring, especially these days!
I kept fighting: “I want my nose-ring, I want my nose-ring, if I don’t have my nose-ring then it’s not me!” so I kept asking without giving up and then eventually they were like “okay you can keep it in”.
After “Sea Of Moonlight” there was the song “Vista” and then you left the group, is that correct?
No, I left after “I Don’t Know”, I think that was the third comeback.
If you’re in a group like this, where everything’s very controlled, obviously, how do you go about leaving? Do you just talk to the manager and say “I don’t want to be in it anymore”, how does that work, what did that look like?
Ever since I was a trainee, I always told a few people in the company, workers, that we didn’t get along and that I don’t want to debut as Fiestar with the group because we don’t get along. For me, it was actually really hard to leave because no-one believed what I said. It took a really long time, it really did.
So you said you wanted to leave and people just said no?
Yes. There were a lot of times where I would go to the upper-level people – the company’s really huge so I don’t know what to call these people – but I go to them and tell them “I want to leave, I don’t want to be a part of this” and they would just give me excuses, for instance “look at Girls’ Generation” – this is what I heard, this might not be facts but this is how they tried to manipulate me into staying in the group and the company – they would say “Girls’ Generation, they didn’t get along, look at them now, they’ve succeeded and they get along, groups that succeed never get along until they succeed”, that’s what they would say to me. I’m over here like stuck, I don’t know what to say…
But they didn’t want you to go, that was obviously clear, right?
Yeah. They didn’t want me to go. I don’t know if this is a good idea to post on the interview…
Don’t say it if you don’t want it to be out there. We can skip something if needed. I don’t want you to say something you’re not comfortable with.
[pause] When I talked about killing myself, that’s when they let me go.
Was that because they were worried about liability, or because they were worried about your health, or…?
I think – this is my honest opinion, it might not be facts – if I did kill myself, and if something went wrong, it wouldn’t look good on the company, or the group. I think that’s what got them to let me go. They gave me two options: to never make music ever again, “you can’t be an artist”, or, you have to pay. Music was everything, the only thing I’d ever loved in my life, so I couldn’t give that up, but looking back I kind of regret it, I should have just gave up music! [laughs]
Before you started to make noises about wanting to quit, were people there aware or sympathetic to the fact that you were having a bad time?
Yes, they knew.
Were they trying to do anything about that?
Ideally, what would you have liked for them to be able to do, if you were to stay in the group? Is there any way they could have realistically helped?
It would have been awesome if they could have given us a time where we could have talked to each other. For instance, if I had a problem with a member, I would be able to tell the member that I had a problem with this situation. I just wish they gave us a time to connect, even if it’s forced. Groups need to be forced to connect, in my opinion, from my experience, because it’s a huge competition in the industry, trainees against trainees, who’s going to debut first, who’s prettier than who…
Yeah, it’s not just groups competing against each other, it’s competition within the groups as well.
Yeah. So I feel like if there was a time to connect, if they made a class for us to connect with each other, I think that would have been very helpful for our group, or any group to be honest.
How are you feeling now that your story is basically out there and a lot of people know at least in some detail what happened?
I think everybody’s just getting it wrong.
What do you think that people are getting wrong the most?
Just me in general. People just think I’m doing this for “clout”. I don’t like this word, I fucking hate this word! Let’s use another word… attention. If I wanted attention, I would have done this a loooong time ago. I like not having attention, to be honest. I like being alone, because I have trust issues and stuff. I hate the fact that some people think I’m a hypocrite and I’m making this stuff up just for attention, I’m really not.
I think that’s the thing I hate most of all, how when I opened up on Twitch… it was just a way for me to talk to new Twitch viewers, I didn’t know that people who didn’t watch Twitch like k-pop lovers, fans, I didn’t know that they would know that I would be doing an AMA about my experience as a k-pop idol. I was hoping… I wasn’t even hoping, I just knew that k-pop fans didn’t care about me. You know? Like I said, people posted everything out of context on Twitter and on K-pop sites. Everyone’s misunderstanding me. I just wanted to be honest and talk about what I went through in the past and what I did before I started streaming to Twitch viewers. I wanted to free myself from hiding what I had went through, but people just made it into drama. It’s not what I wanted, and it’s not what I planned either. People interested in k-pop found out about my livestream a week later. It felt so good to let everything out until people interested in k-pop and k-pop gossip sites posted stuff out of context.
Everybody wants online attention these days, they don’t really understand somebody who doesn’t want that, they’re like “how can you not want attention?” – a lot of k-pop fans see everything through the lens of attention, like attention’s the most important thing to them.
They should be focusing on how the company let us be like that to each other, instead of focusing on how I’m “talking shit” about the members. I’m pretty sure they’re talking shit about me too, but behind my back. At least I’m not going behind anybody’s back, I’m doing this in public! Everything I said is true, it’s honesty. I don’t want people to hate on them, I don’t want people to hate on me, I’m just being open and honest about everything that happened to me in the past. Saying names is wrong for me, but I’m that type of person, I like saying what’s on my mind without hiding anything.
Since all of this blew up, has anyone spoken to you from the actual situation, personally, one-on-one?
What do you mean? The members?
The members, or the management, or anyone else who was involved.
No. None – no-one. I mean, I’m a nobody! I don’t think they would care, to be honest. That’s how Korean k-pop business works. If I was like a popular person I’m pretty sure this would have been huge in Korea, because I’m talking some bad stuff about the industry and the group I was in, but I’m just a nobody. I don’t know why those k-pop gossip or news sites even talked about me to be honest.
Probably because it is rare for someone to be talking about these things.
I’ve heard that I’m not the first one to talk about this stuff.
I’ve interviewed people five or six years ago who’ve done similar things, but everyone’s story is a little bit different and a lot of things come to light that aren’t known generally speaking. But I think that to a large extent those major sites latched onto you just because of the gossip angle, because “Cheska says x about this particular idol who is still in the public eye”, that sort of salacious gossip is always very appealing as it generates lots of web traffic.
Do they not think about my feelings? Do they not think… what if I killed myself, and put a note saying “this is because of Koreaboo and Allkpop”, would that have made any difference?
The short answer is no, I don’t think they do care.
Exactly! It’s just so fucked up, why would they do that?
That’s a question for them – they can answer it!
I want people to know that Allkpop, Koreaboo and every other k-pop site, that I posted on my YouTube, I want them to know that they’re not news sites, they’re friggin’ gossip sites, they just want fucking drama!
You’ve been quite affected by the fallout from this, haven’t you?
Yeah I was, because this is not what I planned. I didn’t want the k-pop audience to… I didn’t even know they would care about what I said, and they’re just making assumptions about me and taking sides, I didn’t want that. I’m very affected by it. But I’m not going to let it get to me where I’m going to give up my life…
Please don’t! We’d like you to stay alive, that would be good. Why do you think it gets to you so much? Why do you think it’s so upsetting?
I think it’s affecting me a lot because when I was in the group, I was always being mistreated and misunderstood, and people would think I’m lying. People would think I’m just being fake. It was all just being honest and I was being truthful and it’s just who I am, the way I talk and stuff might sound fake but it’s honesty and truth. This time it’s the same – people are misunderstanding me and making assumptions about me. I’m just really sick of it, I think that’s why it’s affecting me so much.
It’s a repeat of the feelings from your actual time in the group.
Yeah it’s a repeat of the past. I kind of regret talking about this because I know a lot of people won’t understand what I went through because they haven’t been what I’ve been through, you know?
There were a lot of Lisa (from Blackpink) fans that were messaging me on Instagram. I look at all my messages, no matter if it’s a hater or a fan or a supporter or a friend, I just love communicating so I check all the time. Like I said I’m not a popular person. I wish I was just a normal person, and I think of myself as a normal person, so I like checking my messages, I don’t reply to all of them but I just check them. I see a lot of the Lisa fans say that “you follow all of the members except for Lisa”, I didn’t even know I wasn’t following Lisa! Things like this, it affects me, because I didn’t know that I wasn’t following her, but I found out that I wasn’t following her so I was like “wow I didn’t know this”…
Like they’re looking for something to use against you.
Yeah. It’s something I didn’t know until they told me about it, so I just unfollowed all of them. Now they’re looking for stuff to hate me for. I think Lisa is a beautiful talented girl and I didn’t say shit about her, I was just talking about the YouTube video I was watching when I was livestreaming, the pictures on the YouTube video. I was trying to explain to the people that were watching my livestream, that in the k-pop industry, no matter how pretty you are, the companies make you get plastic surgery, which is why I don’t think anyone in the k-pop industry is natural. There’s botox, fillers, there’s natural temporary plastic surgery procedures, that in my experience every k-pop idol goes through before photoshoots, before comebacks, debuts, music videos. From my experience, every k-pop idol goes through those temporary plastic surgery procedures, and that’s what I was trying to explain on the livestream but everyone just got it all wrong and was like “oh, she’s saying this person got plastic surgery and this person got plastic surgery and this person got plastic surgery”. I blame the k-pop sites, the gossip sites!
As an aside, before this goes out, I’ll send you a copy of everything.
That’d be nice, that’s very nice of you!
It’s so you know exactly what’s going out there. You probably will cop some hate for talking to me, but I’ll cop a lot more hate than you, for talking to you! [laughs]
I don’t really know about the k-pop audience, so…
I do have an audience but I’m not on anywhere near the level of the big sites. I’m not out there trying to get traffic, I don’t run advertising on my site. I’m just someone who is in the industry in my own country so when I started getting into k-pop music, just knowing what I know in the west and seeing it play out in k-pop, I knew there’s a whole bunch of shady stuff going on that people wouldn’t even know and is being buried.
How long have you been doing this?
I started writing in 2012, the first person who I interviewed about these things was a lady called Sarah Wolfgang…
That’s a cool name!
She was in a group called Tahiti who were a group which had fairly limited success. She never actually made it to debut, but she went all the way through the training process.
What happened to her?
I’ve linked you the interview. She was one of the first people to ever really talk about what it’s actually like, what it feels like, what the work regime is like, what diets are like, how much freedom you have or don’t have….
Oh, freedom! We had NO freedom! NO freedom! There were cameras everywhere, you can’t do what you want, if you do something wrong you get scolded for it…
What’s a “wrong” thing?
Uh… let’s see. For instance if you don’t lose enough weight, they put you on a very, very strict diet. If you’re not practicing vocal… I was always made to practice singing in this small room. The most people that could fit in the room was four people. I had to be in there practicing singing for six hours straight, at most eight hours straight. You can’t really practice that long, it gets boring. There’s managers and staff members who would walk past the room, and there’s a little window where they would look at you to see if you’re doing what you’re supposed to do. If you don’t, they come in the room, and they make you… I don’t even know how to say this… they make you raise your arms and do like a squat position until they tell you to stop. It’s like a squat position, you raise your arms, and you’re on the wall, and if you do that for ten minutes, or even five minutes, it’s really hard.
Right… a punishment exercise?
Yeah. They don’t hit you… well, there were choreographers who would hit you if you don’t get your moves right, but that’s not the company’s fault, that’s the choreographers fault!
There are times when we had to practice our choreographies basically 24/7, until we couldn’t move our legs. If you faint or pass out or don’t have enough energy, they would take you to the hospital and they would give you vitamins and stuff you need to give you that energy boost, like giving you [an intravenous drip] for an hour or two hours and then you would get back to practicing without sleeping or resting. You’d get that energy boost and you would do it again, and if you get tired again you go to the hospital and get that energy boost again, and practice again!
It now makes sense why so many idols are always fainting on stage.
Did that ever happen with Fiestar?
Well, with the group?
Yes, many times. If you say you’re tired, they take you to the hospital, you get that energy boost from the shot, I don’t even know what it is, let me see if I can find the name… I’m trying to look for the word… [searches up name] …. intravenous drip Ringer’s solution. I don’t know what that is but that’s what they gave us every time we were tired or anything. Do you know what it is?
Yeah I know what it is, I’ve been in hospital and I’ve had this administered to me for kidney stone. They put you on the drip to give you fluids.
That is what we would get if we were tired or exhausted, then we’d go straight back into training.
Once the fluids were all gone from the bag they’d unplug you and send you straight back out?
What did you have to weigh in as?
I had to weigh around 40 kilograms.
And what was considered to be overweight?
45kg! And how tall are you?
160cm… [does some math]
Companies lie about age, weight and height. Our company didn’t lie about age, but they did lie about weight and height.
What were the lying figures and what were the true figures?
I’m not going to talk about the other members but for me I was not 162cm, I am 159.8cm, which makes me 160cm, but they lied and said I’m 162cm… and they lied and said I was 45kg but actually I was 47-48kg! [laughs]
Why would they lie?
Because they want people to think we’re perfect, you know?
But 160cm at 47 kilograms… um…
Back then, I had a lot of fat and muscle in me because of the stress I was going through when I debuted.
If you’re under 50kg at 160cm, you are underweight.
So yeah that’s quite scary. Did you worry much about your physical health?
No! Back then, all you think about is just … you get very brainwashed, into thinking you’re not perfect enough to debut, so you don’t care about your health, you just want to be this perfect person, because they brainwash you into thinking you’re not good enough.
That’s quite sad. One of the biggest ironies about it is that in the rare situations where k-pop idols do gain weight, the reaction from fans is almost universally positive.
Certainly with male fans of girl groups, absolutely. Most people really find the extreme skinniness to be uncomfortable. I don’t know, maybe it’s different in Korea, but with the international audience they usually appreciate seeing someone who has a bit of form to their body.
I agree with that, but…
Obviously the company doesn’t see it that way.
Yeah. Companies are the problem. What’s wrong is, because the companies think that way, the Korean citizens also think that way, if that makes sense.
Kind of – do they really go along with the company all the time? Are they really that powerful?
The companies? Yes, they are very powerful!
There’s some other things I’d like to touch on that I’m not sure if you’d be comfortable talking about in terms of your experience personally, but you might be able to talk about these type of things more in terms of general terms and what you’ve observed, generally speaking, without naming names.
One of the things I’ve always asked people about is how much illegal drugs do you see in the k-pop industry….
Well yeah or anything of that nature. The answer I’ve always gotten through interviews is “oh, none”. [laughs]
I’ve actually seen some k-pop idols and rappers, celebrities, basically celebrities, I’ve seen a lot of them [do drugs]. Some get caught and some don’t.
It’s now at the point where so many of them have been caught that it’s fairly obvious that a fair bit of that goes on, but it’s something that had always been denied. Whenever I spoke to insiders I always just heard “well I’ve never heard of that happening”.
Oh no no no, it happens a lot! [laughs] A lot! I don’t smoke in Korea, but I’m not gonna lie, I had smoked before when I was a trainee, because I am from the States, and I’ve smoked before, and of course I missed smoking. There was this one idol I knew who actually had weed, and this was like nine years ago, but that person got caught, not long ago. There’s a lot. After that, I stopped meeting anyone in the k-pop industry.
Another thing that I know goes on a lot is prostitution.
I don’t know anything about prostitution, but I know that there are young girls, trainees, who do get manipulated by workers in the company. That’s all I know, but I don’t know anything about prostitution. All I want to say to future k-pop trainees is – do not trust any of the workers! Do not fall for any of them! They are all lies!
What do you mean by workers?
Any of the managers, staff members in the company, choreographers in the companies, vocal teachers, dance teachers, producers, lyricists, anyone in the company, don’t fall for any of what they say.
What do you think are the most common lies that people get told and the most common things that someone in that position really needs to look out for?
Um… as in, being careful on being manipulated?
“Do you want to go out for coffee?” [laughs] Or, “Do you want to get some lunch?” Or “I’ll take you out for dinner tonight!”. When you’re young, you don’t really know what that means, but there’s gonna be times when they ask you to drink with them, even if you’re underage. I’ve seen this happen many times when I first came to Korea – they will get you drunk, and then things will happen. So – be careful. I’m not saying this is like 100% what will happen, I’ve seen this happen many times and I feel like young girls, they need to know how to react to these things to be safe and keep loving themselves without going through such a hard time.
So what do you think are the best ways for someone young in that position to protect themselves, besides just saying no to various offers?
I don’t know. If I was in that position, again, I would just focus on my dream, and not really talk to any of the workers in the company. It’s hard because if you’re Korean-American, you don’t really have any friends in Korea and you don’t have anyone to trust, so it’s hard, but if this happens to you I think it’s best to just ignore the people and focus on your dream.
But you certainly wouldn’t recommend that someone do it anyway, right?
What do you mean?
I remember a comment from the livestream saying – obviously jokingly – that you would beat your child if they considered wanting to be a k-pop idol!
Oh, I would, I would! [laughs jokingly] I didn’t really know anyone in real life who actually experienced the k-pop idol life, but if I did know a person who did experience what I experienced, I don’t think I would be in this position today. If I do have a baby and my child wants to be a k-pop idol, I would tell my child the stories I went through, and my child would of course be like “oh hell no, I ain’t doin’ that shit!” [laughs]
Thanks very much for talking to me, is there anything else you’d like to say that I haven’t covered?
Yes there is, but I mean… there’s a lot to talk about, but there’s really nothing in my mind at the moment. I’d just like to say it was really fun talking to you!
That’s all for this edition of Kpopalypse Interview! Are you someone who is or was active in the Korean pop industry and would like to be featured here? If so, get in touch!