In a log cabin nestled in mountains north of Seoul, Kwon Ji-an, dressed in baggy black trousers, black boots and a thick blue blazer, stands behind a stack of paint cans. Canvases of moody abstracts hang from exposed timber rafters.
It is a world away from the screaming fans, synchronised dancing and skimpy outfits that once ruled her life. At 35, the pink-haired singer popularly known as Solbi has gained international recognition for performances combining painting, contemporary dance and electronic music that deal with the unhealed scars from her time in one of the world’s biggest music industries — K-pop.
It is almost a decade since her life fell apart when she became the target of vicious cyber abuse after a fake sex video was circulated online. “I felt like I was getting beaten with my hands and feet tied together,” she told the Financial Times.
Her troubles were an early indication of a crisis engulfing Korea’s entertainment industry just as it gains global prominence. Late last year, two female stars, Choi Jin-ri, 25, better known as Sulli, and Goo Ha-ra, 28, took their own lives after suffering torrents of online abuse; Goo was reportedly blackmailed by an ex-boyfriend over a video with sexual content. In late November, two male stars were jailed for rape, a case that also involved sharing of explicit videos.
K-pop has never been more popular. BTS, the world’s hottest boy band, have performed in front of more than 2m fans over the past 18 months, while top girl group Blackpink set new records last year for online streaming of a debut album.
Amid this intense scrutiny, the potential for a scandal to break and turn fans against the people they had hitherto idolised is “a big risk” — even for BTS — conceded one fund manager with investments in K-pop. “Fan obsession, it is a double-edged sword,” he said.
Investors describe K-pop fans’ devotion as more akin to followers of football than that of average music fans; many regularly hand over thousands of dollars for concert tickets and paraphernalia. BTS’s success has been credited to the rise of even more committed fans. Known as A.R.M.Y, they are acknowledged in song lyrics and carefully catered to via frequent public appearances and via social media.
However, critics say the industry fuels fans’ obsessions by tapping into the increasingly toxic online culture.
Parents in Seoul say their children spend hours each day tracking their favourite stars via Instagram and other social media. The mania is not consigned to teenagers. Yoon Ah-reum, 23, was so devastated by Sulli’s death she was unable to attend university classes. “I was a big fan and I was curious about her life offstage . . . On that day, I didn’t want to do anything,” she said.
For her part, Ms Kwon followed a well-worn path to K-pop stardom; gruelling training for up to six hours after school each day honed her voice and moves before she shot to fame in 2006 as lead vocalist in her group Typhoon.
Ms Kwon said even when she first stormed on to the scene with a number-one single there was little joy. “I was suddenly in the spotlight. I had to attend five or six events every day, my schedule was planned out a year ahead . . . I just had to do what my agency told me, no matter what condition I was in,” she said.
Part of the problem Ms Kwon faced was what she calls a “vicious cycle”; broadcasters and websites evaluate and rank artists based on online comments and responses to their coverage of the stars’ lives, and the comments and rankings subsequently influence fans’ opinions. “I am Solbi on stage but, offstage, I have to live as an individual named Kwon Ji-an. People don’t realise this, they don’t see me as a human being, just as a product.”
With “no way to fight back” and psychologically damaged, she sought medical help and eventually found an outlet in painting.
As a K-pop star, “the system” forced her to focus on her appearance rather than develop her talents. Now, she says, she has found “value and integrity” as an artist. “In the past if I lived like a doll, I am now living a more independent life, less susceptible to criticism . . . I’ve overcome many difficulties. If there is somebody out there in similar circumstances, I just wish that my work can give them hope and courage.”
The recent series of high-profile deaths sparked fresh calls for greater action over physical and online abuse, particularly that targeted at women. “People take it too lightly. This is a really serious crime that can kill people . . . Now that K-pop is on the global stage, its systems and culture should change as well,” said Ms Kwon.