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By: Hannah Waitt
The past few weeks have been turbulent, to say the least, for Kpop fans. Shortly after the early June revelation that TOP tested positive for marijuana, the BIGBANG member was discharged from his army police unit, and not a day later was found unconscious, overdosed on his prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication. TOP’s overdose shocked BIGBANG fans and the public alike, arousing reactions ranging from sincere empathy to disturbingly critical apathy towards what is clearly a medically diagnosed and prescribed mental disorder. Then, just a few days later, AOA member Choa announced her intent to leave the group due to the severity of her depression and insomnia.
Over the past year or so, there has been a noticeable increase in Kpop idols taking a hiatus due to clinically diagnosed mental disorders. B.A.P’s Yongguk, Nam Taehyun (at the time a WINNER member), Crayon Pop’s Soyul, and most recently UP10TION member Wooshin have all taken a break due to anxiety and depression in this past year alone. Depression, anxiety, and insomnia are not new phenomena in Kpop though: in addition to Choa and TOP, fellow BIGBANG member G-Dragon, Gain, BTS member Suga, miss A member Suzy, Super Junior members Heechul and Leeteuk, 2AM’s Jinwoon and Jo Kwon, Epik High rapper Tablo, B1A4’s Baro, and more have all admitted to depression in the past.
Looking at the comments left on the reports of TOP’s condition over the past few days, what struck me was how incredibly apathetic netizens were to the BIGBANG member’s life-threatening overdose. The one comment that is burned into my memory as the most shocking in reaction to TOP’s overdose was, “We told you to go reflect, not kill yourself, jeez.” Other comments implied that Kpop idols are inherently crazy, while still others claimed that the entire thing was just one big conspiracy to get TOP out of having to serve in the army.
The appalling lack of emotional and medical support for celebrities with mental instability is not specific to Kpop, but it is certainly made more complicated by the unique nature of the industry. While the Korean music industry’s effect on the mental stability of its artists should and will be addressed in the following paragraphs, the psychology of fame cannot be ignored as an additional factor. Experts all over the world have dedicated their lives’ work to dissecting the celebrity psyche, and Kpop idols perhaps more than any other type of famous person experience an extreme form of a celebrity worship. This all begs the question: does Kpop attract mental instability, or breed it?
One factor that seems to be a major contributor to mental illness amongst idols is the Kpop training system. From a young age, idols are forced to exist in a hyper-competitive environment in which an individual’s success is largely determined by outward appearance, rather than intelligence or the quality of one’s character. While you were in elementary school learning that “sharing is caring” and that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts,” your favorite Kpop idols were being pitted against one another in performance evaluations and having their weight recorded every week in front of all the other trainees. The foundational moral basics that children typically learn from a young age — that sharing is good, that friendship is more important than winning, that your intelligence and character are more important than beauty — are all ignored in the Kpop training system. Instead, Kpop trainees as young as 10 years old are discouraged from making friends with other trainees and encouraged to constantly audit their outward appearance.
We’re all self-conscious, but the ultra competitive conditions in which Kpop idols are groomed result in over-examination of themselves, a concern which is largely driven by negative reinforcement courtesy of their coaches, managers, their fellow trainees, and at the most extreme level, the general public. Survival audition programs have become extremely popular in Kpop over the past few years, and with shows like Produce 101, SIXTEEN, WIN: Who Is Next?, No Mercy, and others actually airing the systematic bullying of trainees on national television and international web streams, these trainees are opened up to criticism not just by those training them, but by the entire world. Of course, they are also given the opportunity to receive an immense amount of praise as a result of these survival programs, but we’ll get to that later. Kpop idols are already bred in an extraordinarily competitive, highly demanding environment, and their resultant vanity and mental fragility is only further compounded by survival audition programs. Going through the training system alone is enough to trigger anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and a whole wealth of other psychological issues. And this is all before they even technically become celebrities.
Once Kpop trainees finally do debut as idols, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire. Once the all-important debut has been accomplished, a whole new set of mentally and emotionally-taxing obstacles are presented to Kpop idols, the biggest threat being obscurity. Korea is an especially trend-conscious country, and Kpop is particularly fast-paced, oversaturated, and instantaneous. Combining these two factors, there is no patience and no mercy for the boring, the tired, or the out-of-trend when it comes to Kpop.
As soon as the countdown to debut lands at 00:00, that clock starts ticking forward towards the date that you become obsolete. The more time that passes without your group hitting it big, the more likely it becomes that you never will, and for Kpop idols that is terrifying. It’s terrifying because most of these idols have bet everything they have on being famous. They’ve sacrificed their education in a society infamous for its academic rigor and competitive job market, leaving them with a resume that consists of singing, dancing, acting, and generally entertaining. If your money-making ability depends solely on the condition that you get famous, and then you fail to get famous, you’re not left with much else in the way of a marketable skill set employers are looking for.
Another mental maze that idols have to navigate post-debut is the image assigned to them by their label. As we all know by now, Kpop groups are meticulously crafted and curated by entertainment companies, with each individual member playing a specific role within the group. In Kpop, once that label is stamped across your forehead, you are expected to live up to it — you must do as Taeyeon or Suga does, not as Kim Taeyeon or Min Yoongi would. These characters, or as they’re often referred to in Kpop, the “images” of these human beings become bigger than the people themselves. They are perpetuated through press releases, music videos, posters, and TV appearances, and eventually, the image becomes who they really are to everyone else.
The emotional and mental distress caused by getting lost in what is essentially a character created by a larger industrial machine is something that American pop stars have openly spoken out about. Lady Gaga (born Stefani Germanotta) spoke at Yale University summit in 2015, where she admitted to suffering severe depression and anxiety while trying to live up to the image set by herself, her label, and the public. During the summit, Gaga admits to living a double life, saying, “I invented myself, Lady Gaga. I curated my life to be an expression of my pain. This is how I overcame my depression, was by creating somebody who I felt was stronger than me.” Gaga later goes on to talk about how she, as Stefani Germanotta, feared getting lost in the idea and the image that Lady Gaga had become, saying, “I don’t like selling fragrances, perfumes. I don’t like wasting my time shaking people’s hands, smiling, taking selfies. It feels shallow to my existence. I have more to offer than my image. I don’t like being used to make people money. I feel sad when I am overworked and that I’ve just become a money making machine and that my passion and creativity have taken a backseat to my money-making ability.”
Similarly, as a part of her recent 72-hour live stream celebrating the release of her new Witness album, Katy Perry (born Katheryn Hudson) broadcasted an hour-long therapy session live to the entire worldwide web. During the session, Perry makes almost the exact same confession as Lady Gaga, attesting to the strength of her image versus the weakness of her original self, saying that, “I’m strong as Katy Perry, and then… sometimes I’m not as strong as Katheryn Hudson. I so badly want to be Katheryn Hudson, that I don’t even want to look like Katy Perry sometimes.”
The similarity of the two pop stars’ statements is striking. Both created alter-egos for the stage that take on stronger, more powerful characteristics than their original selves, and both admit to getting lost in those manufactured alter-egos, almost to the point of being unable to return to who they really are as human beings. Both pop stars are also open about how their identity crises led them to seek medical help, whether in the form of medication, therapy, or other holistic solutions. In Gaga and Perry’s case, the dichotomy of their celebrity image and their original selves is stark. They both speak of being either Stefani or Gaga, either Katheryn or Katy, at any given time, and a fear of getting lost in the latter of those personalities.
It’s only natural that Kpop idols would suffer from this same identity crisis and the resultant depression and anxiety that Lady Gaga and Katy Perry describe, if not more so. More so because in Kpop, the contrast between the celebrity and the true self is not as stark. Kpop idols are held to such strict and ever-present expectations that they end up living a greater percentage of their lives as the celebrity than as the self. Rather than having two different personalities to choose from, it does not seem entirely impossible that the celebrity and the self could meld together to form a stormy, swirling cocktail of emotional confusion and mental instability.
What often goes unrealized in all of this, is that fans are just as guilty as the entertainment companies of holding idols to impossible expectations. Fans expect Kpop idols to be superior to us because we want them to be worthy of all the attention, respect, and money that we lavish upon them. At the same time, they should be just like us: approachable, relatable, and down-to-earth. And on top of all of this, we as fans suffer from this need to all at once elevate and destroy Kpop idols. When idols prove themselves to be better than us, it validates the obscene amount of money they earn off of fans and our overwhelming affection for (and in the case of Kpop, obsession over) them. So we elevate them for our own validation — it’s okay to praise someone who is praise-worthy. But it is when they disappoint, when they prove to be just as human as the rest of us, that we feel some sort of primal need to tear them down even more. One only has to look to netizen comments for proof. When celebrities show their human side, we get a different type of validation: the idea that even those we worship can make mistakes, makes our own mistakes all the less grave. As ready as we are to lift celebrities up we are equally as eager to watch them fall, because either way, our own tedious choices and actions are legitimized by their extraordinary ones.
Up to now, I’ve made fans, entertainment companies, the public, the press, and everyone else out to be the sadistic kid holding a magnifying glass over little Kpop idol ants on a hot summer day, relishing their every little move and anticipating the moment they burn up in the spotlight. We are the tormentors, and they are the tormented. But we must not forget that celebrity itself often requires a very specific personality disorder: narcissism.
Contrary to what the press would have you believe, there is no such thing as “overnight fame.” Jennifer Lawrence didn’t magically land a role in “Hunger Games” and then become America’s sweetheart in the span of one movie release — she was doing Abercrombie photoshoots, indie movies, and going out on auditions since age 14. “Cinderella Stories” are non-existent, especially in Kpop. Celebrities hustle their entire pre-pubescent lives to make it in the entertainment industry, and they do so only because they are confident in one thing and one thing only: themselves. To even want to be a celebrity you have to not just believe, but actually know that you are better than everyone else, and deserving of the extra attention, respect, and money that the masses will eventually heap upon you.
In fact, studies have been done on this, and celebrities score significantly higher than the general population on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (also known as the NPI), with reality television personalities scoring the highest amongst all celebrities, followed by comedians, actors, and musicians. Here’s the Kpop kicker: Korean pop idols are expected to entertain us on reality programs, make us laugh on talk shows, play roles in dramas, and of course sing and dance on stage. They are all of the types of celebrity narcissists that scored high on the NPI, rolled up into one person.
And even if they don’t start as narcissists, it’s easy to believe that Kpop idols could evolve into them. Kpop fans fuel the celebrity ego with fervor. They wait outside for hours in the rain, snow, and heat just to catch a glimpse of their favorite idols on their way to work. When the two minutes it takes you to walk from your van into the radio station equals 6 hours of a fan’s time waiting for you, it’s hard not to start thinking that you are in fact better than everyone else.
Meanwhile a “fanmeet” is basically a euphemism for a tribute ceremony: the idols sit on an elevated platform as their fans proceed one by one to kneel before them to offer up expensive gifts before the idols give them a smile, pat them on the head, and send them on their way. It is this kind of over-the-top fan behavior that allows idols to start believing in their own hype. Of course, this is the nature of the fan-celebrity relationship, and it’s not wrong or bad: idols need fans in order to be idols. This is all simply to say that you can’t really fault celebrities for having big egos when they have hoards of people constantly telling them how important, beautiful, and amazing they are.
We must also take into consideration though, that many of the second generation idols we know and love — BIGBANG, Girls’ Generation, 2PM, 2NE1 — had no idea that they would get this famous. Before these groups Kpop was not a global phenomenon, it was just local fame in a small Asian country. Back then idols thought at best they would be domestically famous, and at worst, well, at least singing and dancing was a fun after school activity for a while.
However, it is because of these second generation groups and their sensational worldwide success that today’s trainees enter into the Kpop machine more narcissistic and hungrier for fame than any trainee batch before them. They’ve seen the level of success, fame, and fortune that they can achieve as a Kpop idol and they thirst for it in a way that idols in earlier generations probably did not. As a result, the Kpop industry is more competitive now than it’s ever been before, and this understandably intensifies the amount of physical, emotional, and mental distress that trainees and idols suffer.
Now at this point, a lot of you probably hate me for labelling your faves narcissists and for also calling you out on feeding their egos, but let me get to my main point: whether they’re born with a predisposition for mental disorders, or whether the Kpop industry has pummeled it into them, you cannot persecute your idols for showing their humanity. Did they sign up for the celebrity life? Absolutely. In fact they trained for it. Idols know what kind of world they’re entering into when they debut. Does this mean that they have cold hearts of steel that netizens cannot penetrate with their cowardly yet vicious comments? Absolutely not.
There’s a good argument to be made that netizens pushed TOP to attempt suicide in their overreaction to his marijuana use. There’s an argument to be made that the negative online comments surrounding Choa’s dating rumors deepened her depression and made it impossible for her to carry on with AOA. Kpop idols are held to absurd standards by their entertainment companies, the general public, and their fans, and as a result, the pressure they put upon themselves is ten times that. And when they fuck up (and sometimes even when they don’t), the psychological distress it causes them is a hundred times that. So support your favorite Kpop idols when they’re up, and try to understand them when they’re down, and most of all do not forget that when all is said and done, Kpop idols are just human beings trying to navigate the chaotic, confusing, and very cruel world of fame.