It’s time once again for Kpopalypse Interview!  This time, Kpopalypse is interviewing current idol in training, ex-contestant on “K-pop Star” and ex-Starship trainee, Kim Nayoon!

It’s no secret that most active k-pop idols don’t want to do Kpopalypse Interview.  I reach out to several of the people who I know my readers would really like to see interviews with, but invariably I get no response, and given the territory that my interviews tend to go in, and how exceptionally divergent they are from typical corporate rubber-stamped k-pop media content, it’s little wonder.  Most idols in training are probably concerned about appearing in a tell-all interview being “a bad look” – while my style of interviewing is more common in western independent publications, there really isn’t much precedent for it in the k-pop world where everything is carefully vetted for image control and anything that could be seen as other than 100% supportive of corporate philosophy and image-crafting is carefully excised.

Like many other Kpopalypse interviewees who have had stints in large k-pop companies, Kim Nayoon has hosted k-pop AMAs, and also spoken about the harshness of her experience via social networking, which is where her online activities first caught my eye.  Also like other interviewees, Kim Nayoon is passionate about her experiences, and has a lot to say about the unfairness of the Korean pop industry and how it treats its young stars-in-waiting, as you will shortly read.  However, unlike any of my other interviewees who have spent time in the more corporate end of the Korean entertainment system, Kim Nayoon is still pursuing a career in music and intends to continue onward with her path in the entertainment industry and resolve her destiny.  Read on as Kpopalypse discusses all these aspects and more with the exceptionally brave and candid Kim Nayoon!

Kim Nayoon, on the set of her first music video, 2019.

So how’s the world treating you at the moment?

Well we’re currently on lockdown. Most districts in California are shut down so I’ve basically been home for the past two weeks, just like everyone else. Thankfully, everyone in my circle is healthy and okay. What about you?

I’m okay. It’s difficult in the music industry right now, it’s killed a lot of things stone dead, but hopefully people don’t have to remain on pause for too long. I think a lot of stuff is going to go online because people are still going to need their entertainment.

I totally agree.

How did you get involved in K-pop in the first place, and what made you want to do it?

I got started in K-pop when I was fifteen. I had traveled to Korea and auditioned for the program K-pop Star. There were actually a lot of factors that contributed to me wanting to do that.

I was actually going to ask what those factors were. What made K-pop Star so appealing?

I grew up in a small suburb and there weren’t a lot of kids in my neighborhood. I grew up going to a very small school as well. Growing up, I had a skin condition that restricted me from doing everything that normal kids did, like going out in the sun, going to the beach, going swimming, etc. I naturally found sanctuary in singing because I would be in my room all the time singing after my treatments. That’s when I unintentionally started to develop my singing skills; it was the only emotional outlet I had during that difficult time growing up as a middle school girl.

Kim Nayoon, high school graduation.

Over the summer of 2011, I asked my parents if I could go to Korea. While I was there, I went to a Girls’ Generation concert, because I was really fascinated by them and listened to their songs a lot growing up. I went there and the SM CEO, Lee Soo Man was sitting a few rows behind me. I was so young and naive, so I decided to go up to him and say “hi”. I walked up to him and said “Hi, I’m Nayoon and I like to sing and dance!” I think he got a kick out of that. He actually laughed out loud and then engaged in conversation with me for a few minutes, which was really cool. Meanwhile, my mom was sitting a couple rows in front, completely in disbelief at what I was doing. When I was walking out, one of the casting directors asked me to come to SM for an audition. I have never auditioned or sung in front of anyone, except in my room before that, so to me, the audition was terrifying. I was literally a dysfunctional robot, frozen during the audition. [the auditioner] turned on some music for me to dance to and I could barely move!

I took that experience as a stepping stone for me. I decided to stay in Korea, and I told my parents in America, “hey, I want to actually really audition. I want to test my abilities in this field”. My parents allowed me to stay for a few months during my summer break in high school, and that was the summer that K-pop Star auditions were being held. I quickly enrolled in a small vocal school and made a couple friends there in my neighborhood, which was a real fun experience.  A lot of them were saying “there was a K-pop Star audition at the Jamsil stadium.” The audition itself was like an American Idol kind of thing where thousands of people congregated every day for all-day auditions in small pop-up booths. Of course, I didn’t think I had a chance, but I did want to at least try. I didn’t want to have any regrets. All my friends were all doing it too, so I didn’t want to miss out! I spent countless hours doing nothing but practicing during the months leading up to the audition.

One day, I got a phone call telling me that I got a callback, and that was the beginning of everything. Being on K-pop Star gave me the whole singing experience in such a short duration of time. Soon after that, new opportunities presented themselves, guiding me into the K-pop industry. All this happened when I was just sixteen.

So what is the actual routine when you’re on a show like K-pop Star?

I’m not sure how much I can disclose about this. There’s actually a lot that went on behind the scenes that all of the contestants and those behind the scenes know, yet people who watch the show never see those things. Much of the show was mostly training and practicing in practice rooms they provided, where we would practice all day for our audition songs. They proficiently provided us with teachers once we reached a certain round, but before that, we were all on our own. They just kind of gave us an area, and said “here you go, practice here”.

K-pop Star contestants, Kim Nayoon third from left.

The rounds were also very cutthroat. Kids would get cut, like ten at a time sometimes, and no-one knew who would get cut. It was not about whether one made a mistake or not; there were so many factors. I think it had a lot to do with the image of the show, and whether one fit the character that people wanted to see. Sometimes, I would see some really good singers who didn’t make the cut.  I honestly think a lot of them were better than me; some of them were professionals who were older than me, but I think they were cut because some of the producers thought that they weren’t a great performer or a unique-enough character for the show. I did notice that the producers picked very different characters, kind of like a reality show, in order to make the show more appealing, engaging, and entertaining.  So, of course, the producers got a huge kick out of me crying a lot on TV, but I was very emotional because I just felt a lot of pressure during the whole ordeal. South Korea and the rest of the world was watching every move that I made, and being so young, I was having trouble handling the pressure that came with that. I had a lot of anxiety about being told, “you have to be perfect if you want to pass this round”.

Kim Nayoon crying on K-pop Star.

Some viewers may think that the show was rigged. Of course, every show in a sense has some kind of script to it. K-pop Star did have a direction, but it ultimately depended on the candidate’s abilities, and whether they fit the particular audience that K-pop Star wanted to appeal to. Compared to other reality shows, I think that this show was far less rigged. There were definitely candidates that were “chosen” by the producers and given callbacks just out of the blue by being a personality somewhere else before the show, but it didn’t necessarily mean they were going to win. They were taken in, but after that, it became a straight-up competition between us.

Promotional photo from K-pop Star. “This was when JYP told me that I had improved immensely, and when I was chosen to be a part of the Top Ten finalists for K-pop Star. “

Once I became a top-ten finalist, I was put in the top-ten dorms, where I ate, slept, and lived with the others for two months. Honestly, I felt like I had a lot of difficulty dealing with the amount of seclusion. The staff took away my phone, my computer, and everything else that connected me with the outside world. I didn’t have any way to talk to my parents for that time. My parents were always my best friends, and not being in touch with them felt very lonely.

In a room with no computer and phone, all I had was a piano and some sheet music. For ten hours a day, we would all be placed in our separate practice rooms, which was difficult, as I struggled being in solitude much of the day. My feelings affected my performance capabilities as well. I know that if I had a chance now, I could have handled it a lot better than I did back when I was sixteen. Although the circumstances put a lot of stress on the contestants, I do understand why the show enforced them. They didn’t want information being leaked out to the public, but I also know that it was really hard on everyone.

What do you think they could have done differently?

I think they could have at least let us talk to our parents. I don’t think anyone’s parents would have released the information to the public. Sometimes I would beg the staff to talk to my mum just once because I was either feeling very down or under pressure and very lonely, but they would basically forbid it. I remember once running outside to see if I could borrow someone’s phone, and a staff member chased me down, forcing me to go back in. At that young age, I couldn’t understand or make sense of what was going on.

Kim Nayoon (far right, polo shirt) with members of Kpop Star cast after the end of season one, including Lee Seunghoon from Winner (far left), Lee Michelle (right) and JYP (center) – “he took us to a Korean restaurant near the JYP building to eat Korean barbecue. it was a kind gesture to congratulate us for our efforts”.

How did you get from there, to then being signed to Starship?

After the show, I got calls from seven different labels including DSP, Pledis, and CJ Entertainment, to name a few. The calls were exciting for me, because I didn’t know that there would be so many opportunities after the show. When I was young, I had such a naïve way of thinking that I thought that I’d either win or I’d lose on the show, and after that, everything would just end. Thankfully, that turned out not to be the case and Starship Entertainment was one of the labels that contacted me. I visited their building, auditioned for them, and signed a contract with them soon after. That was when my trainee years began. I spent about two years there at Starship, from age seventeen to nineteen.

What was training with Starship like, was that different to the TV show experience?

Basically a day at Starship would be: I would go in, I would bow to all the executives and all the higher-ups on the third floor, then I would go to the second floor and stretch, meet up with all the other trainees, do our routines, and meet our instructors for singing/dancing/acting lessons. I was one of the few who had Korean lessons because my Korean wasn’t very fluent at that time. We also had some interview sessions that helped trainees talk during interviews.

Kim Nayoon with her newer post-Starship group. “[the fifth girl] was originally part of the group, but not any longer for reasons undisclosed.”

Starship had a well-rounded curriculum and we also got a lot of mentorship from the artists there. Sistar, Boyfriend and K.Will would come in sometimes and tell us, “keep going, it’ll be okay, you’re almost there”. There were around eight female trainees and around ten male trainees around the time that I was a trainee there, but I heard that there’s many more now.  I had lived in the company dorms because I came from California. These dorms were right near the entertainment building where me and the kids who came from other parts of Korea and the world lived. It was tiny and there were four of us living together in two bunk beds in one room, while the other room was for the manager. It was not too unlivable. It honestly wasn’t that bad, especially because I had a lot of fun being in a dormitory environment.  However, training sessions would last a long time – we would wake up, go to the company by 10am, and then come home, sometimes past midnight. So, it was basically training all day, every day. I trained with some members from the current girl group WJSN (Cosmic Girls). Some of them were there when I was there so I spent a lot of time with them, and some of them lived with me.

Were you ever earmarked to be part of that group?

When I was a trainee there, that group didn’t exist. Probably 70% of the girls in that group weren’t a trainee at that time, so I think those [70% of] girls were all new after I had left. There was no real set girl group when I was there.

I was reading your AMA and you mentioned that you had seen trainees lose their spots because of external circumstances. What are some of the most common things that determine whether somebody gets in a group or not, that aren’t necessarily in the control of the trainees themselves?

Sometimes, trainees who were closer to the management and teachers would be favored. Of course, there’s favoritism within most companies. It didn’t always depend on how well we could sing or dance. No matter how good somebody was, that didn’t necessarily guarantee their spot. If there was an issue with dating, or bad relations with management or a teacher, a trainee’s spot could be harshly revoked.

Kim Nayoon, on the set of her new group’s music video, 2019.

I also think visual looks played a huge part in a trainee’s success, which I felt was very disheartening. I do understand that the entertainment industry involves image appeal and physical looks, but I felt like the company was a little rough when they so often critiqued our weight and how we looked, especially because all of us were minors then.

That’s certainly something I’ve noticed across the board with everyone I’ve spoken to in your situation.

Even companies in America probably tell their artists to lose weight, or to “fix” something. I learned to accept these statements to the point where it became a normality for me. I’m not sure if that was mentally healthy for me or the other girls. All of us were doing really unhealthy things to lose weight. After a certain point in a diet, your body doesn’t easily lose any more weight, because you’re already under your BMI index.  I was under weight at that time, but they told me that because I had a lot of fat in my face, I had to lose more. Instead of surgery, I opted for extreme dieting, fasting, and even extreme diet pills, because all the other girls were doing it too. I was like “well okay, if diet pills are what gets me skinny, then I guess I have to”. The diet pills actually made me really sick and I had to go to the hospital. Eventually, I just found myself hating my body, and thinking, “why are my legs short, why is my face fat, and why am I being so compared.” Soon, these thoughts became almost normal for me. I think I definitely lost a lot of self-confidence and endured a lot of body image issues when I was a trainee there.

Kim Nayoon with other Starship trainees waiting in line for a Sistar concert.

You then put your career on hold to do University. Was that due to wanting to get a break from that lifestyle, or was the motivation something different?

During my time at Starship, I was very mentally drained due to reasons beyond my own depression, anxiety, and self-esteem. There were a lot of internal issues and social issues going on between the trainees. Not just me vs. the trainees, but amongst the trainees altogether. Some of them were friends, some of them didn’t get along, and some of them were catty with each other, causing all sorts of drama. There was a lot of social stress, mental stress, and body-image stress – basically my health in all aspects was deteriorating.

The ambiguity of debuting also played a huge part in my decision to leave as well. The company always told us that, “they’ll let us know” when a new project group would be banded, and that notion lasted for my entire two years there. I remember spending countless nights singing the same song over and over again, and dancing until my legs would bruise, so that I could be the best, in hopes of debuting one day. Looking back, I think that all the time I put into those years was not a wasted effort, because I learned so many personal and work-ethic related skills that school never taught me.

Kim Nayoon at Boston University when she was initiated into the National Society of Collegiate Scholars as a freshman (due to high grades and academic achievements), 2016.

During my senior year of high school, I developed a strong desire for a higher education. The application process was especially difficult because I was balancing schoolwork from school-life and trainee practice from trainee-life. However, all the hard work paid off when I got accepted to a few of my most desired universities, including my current one, Boston University, where I currently study economics. Education has been and always will be a strong value of mine, so at the time, I felt that a new pathway of pursuing education would be a great way for me to stitch myself together again. Then maybe later down the line, I could pursue music. That’s what I was thinking when I decided to leave the entertainment company back in 2014.

So you’re back from university and getting back into the industry – what’s happening with you at the moment as far as all that goes?

Two and a half years ago, I had gone back to Korea due to personal reasons. During my time there, a label (not Starship) contacted me and offered me an enticing international record deal. I ended up signing with them and had been working on a girl group project with them for the past two and a half years.

So you’re going to be debuting in the group at some point in the near future?

Everything is up in the air at this point. There were many issues regarding the trust I initially had for my new company (name undisclosed). They weren’t a large company, nor were they a veteran in the industry. They were very small, and this was their first girl group. I was very hesitant about joining their label at first, but they were very persuasive at the beginning and made a lot of promises. They told me that they would get me a working visa to stay in Korea, and that they would help me with my healthcare because I would be coming by myself. I asked them what the living situation would be like, in which they responded by telling me there would be dorms. Turns out, these were all empty promises. I ended up having to do everything myself and take on all the burdens, all while living with my grandmother. It was rough, but I tried to stick it out.

Kim Nayoon with her newer group, 2019.

I had been told at the beginning that our practice rooms were being built and that we were looking for a new company space to move into. However, that turned out to be untrue as well. Most of the time, the rented practice room was literally a refrigerator during the wintertime, with no working heater. I actually got serious influenza during this time. I had a high fever; yet, my company urged me to stay and dance until practice was over. Naturally, I ended up getting all the other girls sick even though that had not been my intention, and I remember being scolded for it. Sometimes, the company would make verbal threats towards me during such instances: “if you do this, we’re going to do this,” and so forth. Most of them were monetary threats; however, a lot of them were also threats related to my family. I felt like that wasn’t okay.

Kim Nayoon ill with influenza during practice.

One day, they announced that we would be filming our music video. That was when I felt a lot of hope and thought that all my efforts were leading to somewhere. We shot our music video with reputable directors who actually shot BTS’s and Girls’ Generation’s past music videos. I thought “oh, finally – this is actually something legit! We may actually debut!” However, after the music video, everything was put on hold. Our company told us “there’s a problem with the investing, and investors” – everything was just very mixed up, and it felt like they were lying to me frequently. I asked them about how the pay would work once we debut, yet, nobody would disclose that information to me, which was really alarming. I remember when I signed a revised contract with them, they actually took it away from me, right away, and I was like “what? I don’t get a copy?” and they said, “you’ll get a copy later” and they still haven’t given me the new copy. I brought it up a few times and was, unfortunately, ignored. I believe that this kind of behavior was neither professional nor legal. I believed and still believe that the girls and I were all abused. We did not deserve to be treated in the ways that we were.

We tried to stick it out during our weekly weigh-ins, we tried to stick it out while being constantly called ugly and fat, but beyond these problems, some very basic human rights were taken from us. I still remember one girl was forced to bleach her hair three times against her will and had her scalp come off and bleed; yet, the company still told her it was necessary, or she’d be out of the group. I myself was forced to sustain an unhealthy weight of 43 kg and was criticized heavily if I put on any more beyond that. It was traumatizing for everyone.

Kim Nayoon, with new group.

One day, I overheard a conversation about how the debut may not even happen due to financial difficulties. When I had approached and asked about it, the company just shooed me away and said, “no, no, it’s going great, you just do what you have to do, don’t focus on this”. That whole ordeal was really disheartening. 

Everything is still up in the air with that company, due to the Coronavirus outbreak. Everyone basically had to be home after that, so I’ve come back home to the States of course, to be with my family. I did open up before the outbreak about some of the mental health concerns that I had about me and the other girls, as all of us were very mentally and emotionally distressed about our situation. I did my best to approach, in a very communicative and open-minded way, the company regarding these problems. I told them that “this is a concern, is there any way you guys can help or alleviate this for us – and if not, do you mind if I take a day to seek some help, or go see my family or talk with friends?” Their response was what signaled to me that something was very wrong, because they said no. They said, “you’d better show up tomorrow at 1pm.” That message showed me everything I needed to know. Our mental health and our physical health were not even of the slightest concern to them. We were just contracted slaves, there to make them money.

Kim Nayoon: “These bruises were from hours of dance practice, stretching and bumping into the other girls during choreography practice. No pain no gain!”

A little bit about myself: I have worked, and I’ve interned at big companies before, outside of the world of entertainment. When I was attending Boston University as an economics major, I interned at Citizens Bank, as a banking intern. During my internship, I had fallen ill once. My company then told me to feel better and come back once I was well. In the K-pop realm, everything was very different; it’s like we weren’t human to them. We would be scolded and shamed for getting sick. Even if we didn’t have a lesson, we were forced to stay in the practice room despite being either ill, mentally distraught, or physically hurt. They didn’t care that my family was in America and I was on my own; they didn’t care that I had a fever and had to go to the hospital by myself with barely anything because I didn’t have insurance, and they didn’t care that my mental health and all the girls’ mental health were sinking by the day. I think the way we were all treated was inhumane.

To be frank, a lot of the K-pop industry in Korea is still like this. I’ve heard horror stories from a lot of my trainee friends and even friends who have debuted and are in the entertainment industry today. Most people [running the companies] just don’t care, and that’s terrible, because how do you expect a creative artist to be creative and spread their wings on stage, if inside, they’re crying, sad, depressed, and hurt? In addition to that, no one’s helping them. I think that there needs to be more awareness about these issues, because the ways in which artists and trainees are treated in this industry can be really cruel.

Kim Nayoon, during her internship at Citizens Bank.

Why do you think it is that way? It seems odd that they wouldn’t see the benefit in looking after their artists at least a little bit, because obviously that would pay some dividends down the track if they had employees who were feeling more mentally stable?

Mental health is still a stigma in Korea. If I bring it up to my more conservative Korean friends or relatives, they’re less open to talking about it than someone at, let’s say, my friends at Boston University who have had an international education and been exposed to a lot of awareness campaigns and liberal ideas. While I was in Korea, I sought mental health care alongside some of the girls in my group. What we quickly realized was that it was disappointingly unhelpful. It went something like this: the doctor said, “what’s your problem?” I’d say, “this is why I have mental distress, I can’t really sleep and I can’t really eat..” and he said, “oh you should really shorten your story because you only have a little bit of time – so basically, are you telling me you’re depressed?” and I was like “well I don’t know. I’m just telling you how I’m feeling,” and he ended with, “okay well here’s some medicine, bye.” At this point, I felt cornered to a wall, without many resources to reach out to. I didn’t know who to talk to in order to feel better.

Kim Nayoon recording songs for her new album, 2019.

The topic of mental health is still a very big social stigma in Korea. Most Korean influencers, YouTubers, and celebrities don’t stand up and talk about mental health as a concern for the culture and the entertainment industry. You really don’t see this happening often because mental health problems are looked upon as an abnormality in Korea. I believe the stigma also has to do with the conformist culture there. Honestly, in California, I see people dressing the way they want on the street, walking the way they want, defying gender norms, defying social norms, and most people being accepting of it. In Korea, I always saw a trend of people trying hard to conform; after years there, I found myself doing the same because I became so immersed within the culture. I believe that is why mental health is a stigma there—because it’s considered abnormal. Sometimes people don’t realize that they are going through mental health problems, nor do they think it is something worth actively trying to fix, until it is too late. It is upsetting to know that some kids are growing up thinking that they’re the weird ones for going through depression and anxiety. Many companies in the entertainment field also definitely do not open their hand to those going through such issues, and in my situation, my company didn’t open their hand at all – if anything, they ignored my concerns about our group’s mental health.

I was hoping that there might’ve been some small change happening in Korea lately, because I have noticed a trend with a lot of the bigger idol groups having people go on hiatus for anxiety, which is something I haven’t ever seen in Korean pop until maybe the last year or two.

Right. I have never seen anything like that before either. Honestly, during my time at Starship, I was going through a lot of distress, but I just didn’t understand my feelings. The girls and I would sometimes all talk about it, and we all found out that everyone seemed to be going through the same problems regarding self-esteem, anxiety, and body image. I think recently, entertainment companies have been more lenient with hiatuses and mental health concerns because of the recent suicides in the media. Just this past year, I was shocked when I heard that some of my favorite idols had passed away due to depression-related suicides. It was unbelievable to me. I began to slowly think about contributing cultural and societal factors to their deaths. I still wonder if they could have gotten better if they had grown up in a culture or society that was more accepting and open to helping their problems.

One thing that I imagine idols in training do to cope with the stresses is have close relationships with each other. You’ve mentioned that idols do date but obviously that’s not something that’s disclosed. How common is idol dating, and what are the odds that any given idol is dating?

Very common. It’d be like any industry. If you’re surrounded by people in the same industry, you end up talking and socializing with them. Your friends also end up being in the entertainment industry, and so does your partner or whoever you’re dating; it’s very common. It’s very common for idols to date amongst each other, and I’ve seen it very often.

Kim Nayoon in the studio, with her group. “This was during the recording of our album taken last summer 2019. We had just finished the final song and took a snapshot to remember our hard work.”

Another thing you mentioned is stories of sexual abuse within the industry. What in your opinion are the main things that are concerning and to watch out for?

Sexual abuse in the Korean entertainment industry is very prevalent. I actually hear more horror stories in the acting industry than in K-pop actually. I have heard of a lot of stories of higher management actively progressing towards female actresses and trainees, to be kind of blunt. There is a theme in the industry where some girls – not all, but some, are given more advancement opportunities because they develop intimate relationships with upper management in the industry. It’s kind of disheartening when you see a lot of girls who just want to make it; yet, no matter how talented, beautiful, hard-working, and smart they are, some of them think that accepting sexual abuse is the only way to make it to the very top of the pyramid, because it has happened before in the industry; it has happened a lot. These young girls see those people make it and think, “is that the only way?” I don’t think the industry is very good at turning away from that idea.

How do those situations transpire?

I heard stories from close friends where sometimes someone in management would advance towards them in a sexual manner and would make them very uncomfortable. However, they didn’t feel like they could say no because they were scared of being turned away from any opportunities that that person could potentially give them. These young girls – and most of them minors – would be put in situations that they didn’t feel like they could reject, because they were scared. Sadly, I heard of a few that have even self-harmed themselves after an incident where a higher-up person promised them something in return for a sexual favor, which turned out to be a lie. My heart hurts so much thinking that someone had to go through that. However, it’s the sad truth, and it’s a recurring trend in this industry; it’s awful and disgusting. There needs to be more awareness regarding these issues. Thankfully, my parents taught me a lot about this before I stepped fully into this industry, and they taught me how to handle certain situations.

What was the best bit of advice that your parents gave you about this?

They always told me to take myself out of any situation where I don’t feel comfortable, especially if someone approaches me in a way where I feel unsafe. They taught me that I should always walk away and not be afraid. Just because I am a woman, doesn’t mean that I can’t say no to a man. That’s what they told me since I was a young girl.

Kim Nayoon, 2018.

Good advice! Obviously with the Coronavirus everything’s somewhat on hold – but where are you at right now, and when things restart, what’s the plan?

When things calm down with the Coronavirus outbreak, I am planning to go back to Korea to open up conversation again with my current company and tell them the things that I viewed as wrong. I think we’ll have a conversation about what comes next after that. That’s my plan so far.  After that, either route 1. continue in the Korean entertainment industry whether it be that company or a different company or 2. come back to the States and pursue something in entertainment here. I will go wherever the wind blows me. I may even attend business or law school – these were some ideas. People need to know that one ending to a story is not always a dead-end. There are many opportunities that lie across different spectrums around the world.

Are you worried about the conversation that you are planning to have with the company?

Companies usually pose threats and tell trainees to pay large sums of money to have their contract cancelled, despite the reasons. So yes, I am indeed scared about what my company might say to me, especially because they have threatened me regarding such terms in the past. However, it was not healthy nor safe for me nor the other girls to continue with the practices there. I do not believe it is right for any company to pose threats when a trainee opens up about mental health. I will continue to stand up for these values, even if it scares me.

Kim Nayoon: “if you had wings, would you fly away?” At the California Palace Of Fine Arts, taken from her Instagram, 2020.

Good luck, and I hope you come out well on top of that. Is there anything else that you would like to tell people?

Through my experiences, I believe that I can help young girls and boys who want to work in the entertainment industry. My stories are told so that people can learn to open up about how they feel. Hiding one’s feelings regarding body-image, self-esteem, depression, and anxiety is not healthy; younger generations should be taught to reach out for help to their close family and friends. Upper management, leaders, elders, and the South Korean education system should also all work towards facilitating a shift in mental health-related stigmas. I don’t think anyone should be scared about saying no to uncomfortable situations, especially when abiding could lead to negative health effects or sexual abuse. People around the world need to be more aware about these problematic issues still going on today.

Kim Nayoon: “This photo we are sitting and going over the lyrics of our song. We do this during singing practice, and go around singing each line in order to perfect the song and give each other feedback.”

The numerous celebrity suicides in the news over the year related to depression also serve as an indicator of the current issues remaining in the K-pop industry. Mental health awareness is something that I have always cared about and always will be campaigning for, as I have personally gone through it and learned from my own personal problems. I genuinely hope that this interview can shine light on these current issues and can serve as a small step towards getting these issues resolved.

Reformation to South Korea’s feminist laws, I believe, is also a necessity, especially during this time and era. One case that highlights the necessity of feminist law reformation is the incident regarding the Telegram Nth room scandal. Currently, this issue has sparked a lot of debate amongst the South Korean community and has created questions about why feminist laws are the way they are in the nation. I think that there is a definite trend of increasing awareness that women in Korea sometimes aren’t treated to par or equal or aren’t given such a voice across industries. I hope that this problem, too, becomes a shifting trend in future years to come.

There seems to be a lot of backlash in Korea to those sorts of ideas, they seem to be met with a lot of hostility and I wonder if that’s why things don’t change.

Oh really? I didn’t hear about that. What do you mean by hostility?

If an idol comes out with anything that seems leaning towards any sort of feminist ideas, they tend to get heavily criticized. For example, Irene from Red Velvet posted that she’s been reading a book that had some feminist ideas in it and she was piled on with lots of hate from Korean audiences. She can obviously survive that because she’s in Red Velvet, but just looking at the online interactions, it’s clear that feminism is a really hot issue and that a lot of men in particular seem to be very insecure about that.

South Korea’s society and culture are not open as much to controversial ideas compared to other nations such as the United States. Ideas such as feminism and gender equality in the media always receive some criticism by the more conservative audience. Ideas regarding freedom of sexuality and LGBTQ, are shunned upon as well in the K-pop industry. I know for a fact that many idols and trainees don’t come out about their sexual preferences, because of the social stigmas attached to homosexuality or gender fluidity. People should be able to confidently be the person that they are and not have to hide their sexual identities or preferences to the public, due to the consequences or lost opportunities that may come. Why should someone be judged upon such preferences? Why should that hinder anybody’s chance at their dreams? The K-pop industry indeed hides a lot of the LGBTQ culture regarding their idols, because it may go against the image they want to portray. Such controversial ideas need to be more accepted in South Korea as time goes by.

If we look at who has actually come out in Korea and said that they are actually somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum, there’s exceptionally few of them who have done so, but statistically that doesn’t really match up because if you look at how many people are that way in real life, it’s quite a large amount. It would work out mathematically that on average almost one person in every big group would be not straight.

Right! A lot of them hide it – and it’s really sad, because I don’t think that they should have to. However, sometimes they feel like they must, in order to keep their status and or opportunities. The world should just be more accepting in general—that would make everyone happier.

Kim Nayoon: “this was my idea of trying to keep warm – we were freezing and trying to warm our hands and feet, so I thought standing upside down could help get some blood rushing. we had a lot of fun doing silly things like this.”

Thank you. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about all this.

Thanks. I hope that this interview not only helps explain my current and past experiences in K-pop, but also provides insight for those thinking about getting into this industry, so that they can be aware of the things that can happen. They need to be actively ready to respond in the right way, whether it be towards sexual abuse or towards personal issues regarding mental health. I also hope that they know that I am always here if they need advice and have no one to turn to.

Aspiring entertainers should be themselves 100% and flaunt it. I know it may be hard, especially knowing that some may not accept you. A controversial entertainer who leaps over all the negativity and cultural norms may inspire others to be like them too. I think we need a strong leader like that in the K-pop industry.

But would the industry accept that? Is there an environment in the industry where that could actually happen?

We need that “one person” to kind of switch it all around. We need someone who becomes a symbol of a movement of change, and to spark the rest of the shift towards a more open-minded and liberal culture. A true artist has the power to change everyone’s view and energize a change in South Korea’s social stigmas related to sexual abuse, social norms, and mental health; everything.

Thanks very much for talking to me!

Okay, thank you so much! It was my pleasure.

Kim Nayoon, 28th March 2020.

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!

13 thoughts on “KPOPALYPSE INTERVIEW – Kim Nayoon

  1. Great interview Nayoon! I admire your courage to share this and am excited to see where your next steps take you 🙂

  2. Another day in kpop, another tale of abuse and exploitation.

    I hope this interview won’t sink Nayoon’s future chances in the kpop industry. In any case it may be better for her to try to get into the US market instead because the pandemic is going to bankrupt many of these small k-entertainment companies, and her company sounds like they were in really bad shape financially already. In the unlikely event they survive this crisis, the way the company handled her contract is illegal and they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on in court.

  3. Kim Nayoon shows an incredible strength of character. I can’t imagine the amount of pain and difficulty that she has had to endure.
    I admire her courage in coming forward with her experiences, for it shines a light on an industry that runs on smoke and mirror.
    Best of luck in your endeavors!

  4. “I still remember one girl was forced to bleach her hair three times against her will and had her scalp come off and bleed”

    Make you wonder about idol that are known to dye their hairs a lot, eh? Anyway. All the best of luck to nayoon. Don’t be afraid to leave if your talks with the company doesn’t pans out well.

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  6. Nice insight about this hugely flawed industry but we all love nonetheless. How about try reaching for boys side of the story next since you’ve never interviewed boygroups if I recall correctly?

    • Hey I’d LOVE to. Getting anyone from a boy group to actually talk to me however, is another issue. People think I can just choose whoever the fuck I want to interview – sadly, no. THEY need to be the ones who want to talk to ME, not the other way around.

  7. No wonder Jaehyo keeps refusing to go back to blonde!

    This girl needs to get a lawyer and move to leave that company. And then start her career in the US. Korea is not going to work for her if she picks companies like that awful one she is with. And, sorry to say this, but they are not going to let her work peacefully there.

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