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It’s hard to go on the internet these days without seeing K-pop as the genre is quickly getting a lot of attention in the United States. BTS, possibly the biggest group to have come out of South Korea, is leading the way and becoming a household name on every continent.

K-pop is generally seen as a very fun music industry with its catchy pop songs and colorful music videos. However, looks sometimes can be deceiving. Below the surface, the K-pop world has a lot of dark sides and there are shocking struggles that K-pop stars go through as they put themselves and their lives on the line in order to achieve their dreams.

Young kids have to go through years and years of training

BTS | Kevin Winter/Getty Images for dcp

The K-pop industry works rather differently than the American one, starting with how most people would go about becoming a pop star — called “idol” in South Korea.

Any young person in South Korea who wants to become an idol has to sign with one of the many entertainment companies in the country. Most people get into a company by either auditioning or being street-casted.

After young hopeful creatives sign with a company, they become known as a trainee and will begin the grueling process of preparing to become a singer. The K-pop industry has extremely high standards for its performers, so everyday trainees are given lessons in singing or rapping — depending on their aptitude. They’ll also learn dancing, how to act, being funny on TV, foreign languages, and anything else a company sees is beneficial for its talents.

Training is actually a very stressful process for many people. Companies regularly do evaluations to make sure the trainees are on-track and improving. If no desired improvements are made, they can be dropped completely.

When it comes time for the company to form a K-pop group, the pressure gets added even more and trainees are forced to compete with each other for limited spots in the final lineup. Those who don’t make it to the band will continue training without knowing exactly when they can make their debut (if ever).

This training period usually lasts a few years for most people, though some are lucky enough to only train for a few months while others have been known to train for ten years or more.

High beauty standards result in a lot of plastic surgeries

Aside from honing their trainees’ talents, companies will also work on their image. South Korean society as a whole is known to have high beauty standards and, of course, celebrities are expected to be even more beautiful than average people.

It’s not uncommon for companies to suggest that trainees to get plastic surgery before they can debut, usually to fix some features on their faces, such as their jaw, eyes, or nose.

Rapper Kim Eunmi, who goes by the name Grazy Grace, said that, while plastic surgery is not entirely forced and anyone can choose not to do it, most people agree to go under the knife anyway.

According to Kim, during her training period, company staff members would often make comments to trainees about their looks and give preferential treatment to those who were more “beautiful.” With this pressure and the knowledge that idols who are good-looking tend to attract more fans, a lot of trainees will not hesitate to fix their appearance for a better career prospect.

Companies often have the final say in everything

Perhaps it is evident at this point that in K-pop, companies run everything. In fact, individual creativity is not really something one should expect to be able to show as a K-pop star.

If you have ever seen K-pop music videos or performances, you might notice that they are often quite elaborate with their otherworldly concepts and eye-catching designs. Most of the time, these things are decided by the company in question. Idols are simply there to carry out the visions that their company has with often very little say over what they are doing.

Even an idol’s look is not always their own. The colorful hairstyles that many K-pop artists have could be forced on them against their will. Member Heo Chan from the group Victon once said in a radio interview that, after having light-colored hair for a while, he wanted to go back to having black hair since it can be painful to keep dying and bleaching. Despite the fact that his company initially agreed to let him have black hair for the next release, they didn’t keep their promise and his hair was dyed again to his dismay.

Many K-pop stars actually struggle to make money

While there are numerous K-pop stars (such as BTS) who earn good money, the truth is that a large number of idols struggle quietly behind the scenes.

This is because every idol has a debt to pay off when they start working. Companies poured all of their resources into developing these idols, housing them, feeding them, and footing the bills as they perform on stage – and all of this results in a huge sum of money that idols must work to pay back before they can truly profit.

However, getting to that break-even point is extremely hard. As Christine Park, a member of the disbanded girl group Blady, shared: “the amount of money that’s put into you is so much more than” what one can expect to earn during one’s career.

Song Jaeho from the disbanded group Madtown revealed that for one K-pop release — which usually includes a music video, an album, and many promotional performances — a K-pop group can incur a debt of as much as $500,000. This is usually split between the group members, but even then it is still a lot of money to have to pay back, especially when combined with the debt from their trainee days.

Oftentimes, only K-pop groups who are famous enough to get lucrative advertisement deals can expect to pay off these debts. Less popular groups just rely on album sales, ticket sales, and appearance fees to make money, though these methods do not pay as much. Song Jaeho said that in one promotional period, it’s possible that one person might make only around $7,000.

It’s not uncommon for some K-pop idols to have part-time jobs, such as waiting tables or doing construction work, to make ends meet.

Car crashes are common due to extremely busy schedules

The need to make money and pay off these debts result in many K-pop idols having extremely busy schedules during a promotional period and it’s normal for groups to have several events in one day. This can cause road managers in charge of shuttling K-pop stars to drive more dangerously in order to fulfill everything on their tight schedule. Kim pointed out that they can actually be required to go to different cities as well, which adds more to the pressure that their managers experience.

The heavy workload has resulted in quite a lot of car accidents and crashes, which can sometimes turn deadly. In 2014, the girl group Ladies’ Code was involved in a crash when their manager was speeding on a rainy night. Out of the five members in the band, one was pronounced dead on arrival while another passed away a few days later at the hospital.

More recently, the boy group MustB got into an accident in April 2019. Although the members involved made it out okay, their manager ended up passing away not long after.