Music

So You Wanna Be a K-Pop Star?

by

At first Lia thought it was a scam. Do you want to learn how to sing properly? Do you want to take the next step into the entertainment industry? What are you going to do today? Do what you love!

A friend had spotted the ads for Born Star Training Center on Facebook and forwarded her a link. Had the note arrived a week earlier, when she was still in the hurricane tunnel of college finals, she would have trashed and forgotten it. But now Lia found herself in an unaccustomed lull.

Lia Li was born in Kuala Lumpur to a Chinese mother and a Malaysian father. By the time she entered college, she spoke four languages fluently and had attended schools in five countries, yet she always tells people she grew up in Manhattan, the city where her memories began. Her Nineties childhood was happily overrun with the kudzu of American culture: *NSync and Backstreet Boys, Barbie and Pokémon. Lia’s father was a real estate developer. Her mother, originally a doctor, joined the UN and became a diplomat. They expected Lia and her older brother and sister to work hard and excel, just as they had.

But as she was being expensively groomed for white-collar success, something unexpected happened: Lia fell in love with K-pop, especially its ballads. Compared with American pop, these foreign sagas of love and loss had oceanic depths. Critics called it melodrama; she called it real.

She typed the address from the ad into Google. The result did not reassure. Born Star occupied a small office on the fourth floor of a sixteen-story midrise in Koreatown, just one tiny brick in a crazy Jenga tower housing dozens of other businesses with aspirational names like Lucid Dream Mentors, and Paparazzi Proposals LLC.

She was twenty years old, finishing her sophomore year of college. In little more than a year, her parents expected her to apply to medical school, just like her older brother and sister had. She liked the idea of becoming a doctor, but felt undistinguished among the thousands of students in the pre-med pipeline. Her talent as a singer, by contrast, felt searing and specific.

She picked up the phone.

One week later, Lia sat down across an empty table from Anthony Seo, Born Star’s 32-year-old manager. At the back of the office, a large vinyl flag with the words “Born Star Training Center, Seoul, Korea” hung from the ceiling. To her right, a cluster of framed photos adorned the wall: actor Jo Seung Hyun of the K-drama My Heart Twinkle Twinkle, Kim Yong-sun of the popular girl group Mamamoo.

Next to the photos, printed in red block letters on the wall, were the words “MADE IN BORN STAR.”

Seo gave Lia his usual spiel: Born Star was the first American campus of South Korea’s biggest K-pop training academy, a network founded by Kim Tae-won, legendary frontman of the rock band Boohwal — Korea’s Jimmy Page. They offered classes in singing, rap, acting, and hip-hop, Seo explained, but the most popular package by far was the Audition Training Program, which offered an inside track to Korean talent agencies, as well as individually tailored prep for national tryouts.

Then he asked Lia to sing him a song.

The criteria for acceptance at Born Star are broad and generous. Trainees are fat and thin, beautiful and homely. According to the advice on the Born Star website, there are practically no deal-breakers. Not age. Not language.

Not even talent:

Q: My Korean, acting, or singing is not good, can I still become a trainee at Born Star?

A: Yes. If everyone was good then they do not need to attend a training center.

Seo did reject students if they failed to demonstrate a certain “mental toughness.” But he was satisfied by what he saw in Lia.

The training center had three small studios and a tiny office with narrow corridors, low ceilings, and a bathroom in the hallway. Aside from oversize banners featuring vaguely Maoist inspirational slogans — Star is born to be made! Be confident and we’ll take care of the rest! — the walls were practically bare; without the sparse decoration, Born Star might be mistaken for a branch of H&R Block. But to Lia, it could have been Madison Square Garden.

“Then I found out the cost — $1500 for three months — and I was like: ‘Oh my God, how am I supposed to pay for that?’ So I started working.”

Musically, there is nothing Korean about K-pop, a genre that started in the early Nineties, inspired by New Jack Swing acts like Bobby Brown who delivered pop hooks and lightweight rap with an ample dose of synchronized air-punches. Supergroups like Big Bang and Girls’ Generation today follow the same maximalist blueprint: squadrons of magazine-ready performers, dancing in lockstep and harmonizing with eerie precision.

What is uniquely Korean, however, is the approach the nation’s music industry took to manufacturing pop perfection. In the mid-Nineties, Korean talent agencies turned themselves into K-pop factories to more efficiently produce idol groups. They built dormitories in the trendy Gangnam district and provided classes in acting, voice, and hip-hop dancing, recruiting hopefuls as young as nine to train in the fine art of pop stardom.

Transforming raw teenage talent into mega-selling product is a brutal business. Exclusive contracts lock trainees in for up to thirteen years, and impose bans on cellphone use, dating, internet access, and the outside world in general. Trainees frequently opt for plastic surgery; one popular procedure, the dual eyelid-tuck/nose job, has been nicknamed the “K-pop Combo.”

But around 2009, an alternative to the grind of the agency system emerged in the form of another Western import: audition survival shows, where hopefuls perform an audition and then compete in a series of challenges that require training at hamster-wheel speed. The winners earn a place at a top talent agency but, unlike their peers, are assured a speedy debut. In 2013, the last time the show disclosed the numbers, two million South Koreans tried out for one hundred slots on Korea’s longest-running audition survival show, Superstar K. That’s one out of every 25 Koreans.

The shows feed a kind of sincerity-hunger on the part of the K-pop-consuming public. After so many years of watching interchangeable stars come and go, fans grew tired of the shrink-wrapped perfection promoted by the industry. The audition shows provide narrative, drama, character, a backstage glimpse at a K-pop hopeful’s darkest days and hardest-won triumphs that’s, okay, still staged, but at least pays homage to reality. The journey — one Lia was about to embark on — is now a product in itself.

Lia signed up for every class Born Star had to offer: vocal training, hip-hop, Korean language — even rap. She belted out Bruno Mars and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” from Disney’s Frozen without fear of reproof. Among the aspiring K-pop stars marooned on 32nd Street, Lia also found her tribe. Ambitions that were elsewhere deemed laughable, megalomaniacal, insane, were a prerequisite here. Many of her fellow students had dropped out of college to pursue their K-pop dreams, and worked crappy, low-paying jobs to afford it.

In two months, Lia had her first audition. The show was Survival Audition K-Pop Star, South Korea’s version of The Voice. Like on the American version, contestants compete for a cash prize and a contract with a top label. But whereas The Voice limits auditions to America, K-Pop Star’s reach is global. The show’s recruitment ads scream for non-Koreans to apply: NOT LIMITED TO KOREANS. ALL RACES AND AGES ARE WELCOME! But the show’s results tell a different story: the winner and the runner-up every season so far have been Korean or Korean-American. Lia worried that her race might nix her chances, but Seo assured her that being non-Korean was her biggest asset. “It’s a global industry these days. If you have something they don’t have, that’s a good thing.”

At 9 a.m. Lia arrived at the downtown theater where auditions were being held to find the lobby already packed; she was five hours early. At 2 p.m., exactly on time, Lia’s name was called. She stepped up to a microphone staked like a flag in an expanse of scuffed flooring. The song she had prepared was Ariana Grande’s power ballad “Almost Is Never Enough.” Lia sang a cappella into the still air, a form of nakedness many singers dread but that had become second nature to her after years of dorm-room soloing.

When it was over, Lia’s eyes were suddenly hot with tears. “Can I have one more chance?” she called out into the camera lights. She inhaled, ready to beg if necessary.

“Don’t worry,” someone yelled back.

“What?” Lia said.

“You passed.”

For a moment, she stood shocked. Then her heart unclenched and she ran over to the cameras to perform that time-honored, audition-survival-show version of a genuflection: jumping around like a total maniac.

More than four hundred people auditioned for K-Pop Star that day in New York City, but only twenty-four made it to the second round that same afternoon. Lia was the only non-Korean-American student at Born Star to make both cuts.

But two weeks later, an email arrived from the production coordinator saying they weren’t ready to send her to Seoul. The email said the producers were unsure if she could go on because most of the songs Lia sang were in English. They wanted to hear her sing in Korean, a language she had only begun studying two months earlier.

By now, Lia’s life had become significantly more complicated. Classes at Stony Brook had begun, which meant that she was juggling a full load of pre-med classes in addition to her lessons at Born Star and working to pay tuition. The commute from Koreatown to Southampton alone was two and a half hours, each way, by train.

As her chances of success increased, so too did Lia’s panic at the thought of confronting her parents. Her friends back at school thought she was overreacting. People kept telling her, “They’re your parents. They won’t, like, disown you.” It’s not like she was moving to Syria to become an ISIS bride; if there was any crime here, it was the crime of high camp.

Yet the thought of disappointing them crushed her. After spending years cycling through different foreign capitals, the family had grown much closer back home in New York. Every Sunday, her mother and father visited her at Stony Brook, bringing bags of “brain food”: goat milk, dates, and walnuts. One night, Lia was Skyping with her parents and realized the walls looked familiar. “Is that my room?” she asked. Her parents sheepishly admitted they slept there sometimes because they missed her.

And she did want to do well; the whim that compelled her to call the number on a spam-like ad three months ago had hardened into obstinacy. I won’t stop thinking about it — won’t be actually happy — until I pursue music, she realized.

On a Friday in early September, Lia made the long trip from Stony Brook to Born Star after class. Seo had the lights and camera set up for her taping; it was past 11 p.m.

Among the Korean songs she had crash-learned at K-Pop Star’s request was a ballad laden with dark, personal meaning: “The Reason I Became a Singer” by Shin Yong Jae.

Do you know why I had to become

A singer like this?

Wanting to become famous

Was only one of the reasons

I wanted you to see me, understand me,

And think of me.

If I come on TV and sing

You might see me…

If you hear me, if you see me,

You might come find me…

That night, suspended high above the glowing bubble tea cafés and karaoke parlors of Koreatown, Lia had no idea just how true those words would turn out to be.

When the call came inviting her to Seoul, Lia didn’t say yes. She asked for a week to think it over, during which she strongly considered turning down the offer. The deadline for withdrawing from classes had passed; leaving school would mean losing her student housing, paying a tuition liability, and filling her transcript with w’s.

There was also something else: In December, her brother was getting married in Kuala Lumpur. Lia’s brother had always been her closest sibling, the one who kept her company when her parents refused to let her go out, waging mock war with Gundam cards for hours on their bedroom floor. Now he was enrolled in an M.D./Ph.D. program back in Malaysia, and she hadn’t seen him for two years, had never even met his fiancée. The show would probably be done taping by the wedding, but it was impossible to know for sure.

Now, obviously, was the time to come clean to her parents, but Lia found herself paralyzed. Even with her acceptance a fait accompli, she couldn’t bring herself to tell them.

The Born Star rep phoned back a week later, and Lia realized she had made up her mind. Three days after the call, she withdrew from college and lost her student housing. She began couch-surfing with friends, and her days, once comfortably constrained by the regime of classes and homework, unraveled into a pandemonium of options. Soon she adopted a brutal training schedule: working out; dieting; listening to the same songs one hundred, two hundred times; internalizing their musical algorithm.

Her parents still thought Lia was living in the dorms, going to classes, studying. As she moved through each day, carrying out her preparations for K-Pop Star, she also had to manufacture a phantom student life — a phantom Lia — for her parents’ consumption. As her departure for Seoul loomed, Lia realized her transgressions had crept ever further from the territory of youthful folly toward something starker and less forgivable.

“Every time they visit me, every time I see them, I feel so much guilt,” she confided to friends. “I’m joking with them. I’m eating with them, having quality time. And I’m just like, ‘How am I supposed to tell you that I’m going to disappoint you so, so much? How do I tell you this?’ ”

A week and a half later, an older man walked into Born Star and began asking Seo the usual questions: What was the nature of the training program? How does Born Star go about setting up auditions for students?

“Born Star doesn’t just set up auditions for students.” It was a question Seo had answered a thousand times. “Before auditioning for any programs, students have to train.”

“My daughter is already training here,” the man replied. He was Lia Li’s father, and he had come to see her.

Seo stepped into the studio where Lia was practicing and told her that her father was waiting. He already knew about Lia’s troubles with her parents. One look at her ashen face, and he also knew the truth: Lia hadn’t told her father anything. But she had recently confided in her sister, who evidently didn’t want to be on the hook for Lia’s secrets. At first, Lia simply refused to leave the studio, but Seo insisted: Lia had to speak to him.

Lia confirmed her father’s worst fears. She told him she already had a Korean visa and plane tickets to Seoul, and had signed a contract with Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS), the network that hosted K-Pop Star. He demanded that Lia come home with him; she refused. A few days later, Lia’s father came to Born Star looking for her again. This time, she wasn’t there. In the weeks to come, Lia became difficult for her friends and the staff at Born Star to reach. Her replies to messages took ever longer to arrive, like dispatches from a satellite drifting out of orbit.

On October 10, Lia replaced her Facebook photo with a cryptic motto: “Defeat Should Motivate You.”

The next morning, she left for Seoul.

Woozy and bed-headed from a fifteen-hour flight, Lia emerged into the glare of Incheon International Airport to discover two cameramen running toward her. She was escorted outside, where an “Idol Van” — the heavily tinted womb-on-wheels favored by K-pop’s biggest stars — awaited.

Lia was looking forward to seeing one familiar face: Joanna Lim, a seventeen-year-old Korean-American from Astoria, Queens, who Lia had met earlier in the summer when she’d stopped by Born Star for a trial class. They’d ended up harmonizing to Beyoncé’s “Listen” in an empty studio that day. Lim, who had auditioned via YouTube, was also among the eight American contestants to make it to Seoul.

Together with the other foreign-born recruits, Lia spent a blissful three days sightseeing, delighting in the surreal physicality of landmarks familiar to her only as settings from her favorite K-drama, The Moon That Embraces the Sun. These would turn out to be her last carefree days in Korea. Round one of K-Pop Star was a brutal four-day culling during which 200 contestants would be winnowed to 71. At 8:30 a.m., she was driven to the SBS complex, a gray grid of glass windows bisected by a garish K-Pop Star banner, and escorted to a huge room chaotic with the sound of contestants getting in a last practice — forty different radios tuned to forty different stations. There was a girl with a monster range running scales, a guy pounding out a virtuosic Tori Kelly cover on his guitar, a piano player whose fingers moved faster than Lance Armstrong on Adderall.

By 5 p.m. the crowd had dwindled, leaving the gray plastic chairs in the middle of the room empty and askew. Lia was called to the holding room next to the stage, where she watched the contestant before her killing it. After they’d passed her to the next round, one of the judges picked up a mic. “Lia Li?”

Imna die, Lia thought.

Lia had prepared “Always Is Never Enough,” an Ariana Grande song she had practiced a million times. But alone on the stage, flanked by a bewildering armature of flashing lights, she couldn’t get into the zone. As the last notes faded, Lia squinted into the cameras, her fingers forming a tight cage around the mic.

J.Y. Park, founder of JYP Entertainment, one of South Korea’s biggest entertainment companies, was the first to speak. There were no snarky Simon Cowells among K-Pop Star’s judges. Seated in their comfy swivel chairs, bantering like old college roommates, the three men went out of their way to put contestants at ease, doling out twinkly-eyed smiles and koans of mogul wisdom. Nonetheless, Park only confirmed Lia’s worst fears. “I feel like you need more work. There was no emotion in your voice. To me, you sound like an amateur.” He paused. “I’m afraid I can’t pass you.”

Unlike the other two judges, his words needed no translation: Park’s English was excellent.

Next to speak was Yang Hyun-suk of YG Entertainment. “A triple major?” he murmured, staring down at Lia’s application. “Shouldn’t you go back to school?” Her heart plunged. But then Yang seemed to change tack. He could see the effort Lia had put into her audition. “I admire your hard work and determination,” he told her. He hit the buzzer on the table in front of him. “You pass.”

The question of whether or not she would return to New York less than a week after leaving for Korea now lay in the hands of Yoo Hee-yeol of Antenna Music, a well-known composer regarded as the maverick of the three. He took one look at Lia’s face and laughed. “Do you think I’m going to do something bad?”

Yoo launched into his own monologue, wondering aloud why it was that Lia had come to South Korea, a country she knew only from songs and soap operas. Yet Yoo also saw something in her. “As a musician,” he said, “I’m curious to see what kind of singer you’ll turn out to be.” His hand reached forward. “I pass you.”

She felt an overpowering relief — like vodka on an empty stomach. Backstage, she floated, alongside a retinue of camera crew, interviewer, and translator, down a long beige corridor to a tiny room dominated by two oversize television monitors.

She didn’t expect to find her father there, waiting for her.

Despite the blowup over her departure, Lia still spoke to her parents every night, even since arriving in Korea. They were as unrelenting in their disapproval as Lia was in her resolve, but at least they were talking. Lia could only assume some kind of tacit understanding was taking hold. For the past two days, though, she’d heard nothing from home and had started to worry. Now it became clear: Nothing was wrong. Her father had simply been en route to Seoul. To surprise her. To see her sing.

“I came into the room and I was so happy. Like, ‘Oh my God, Dad, I can’t believe you’re here!’ ”

Then Lia’s father began to speak.

“I can’t believe you passed. I can’t believe you’re in Korea. I’m so disappointed in you.” He looked at Lia, his face a mask of frustration and regret. “You need to come home.” She began to cry as the cameras greedily circled them both, capturing every word.

“I can’t believe you are my daughter,” he told Lia. Then he left.

Lia had a month to train for round two, the “Ranking Round,” in which contestants would be divided into groups and ranked against one another. Almost half would be eliminated.

When she wasn’t practicing, Lia spent time exercising (“you look chubby on camera” she was told). The remainder of her schedule was ceded to the scriptwriters, who grilled Lia on camera, digging for details about her parental drama and staging vignettes designed to highlight her foreignness, like one where they forced her to eat still-squirming pieces of fresh octopus at a traditional restaurant.

In her one-on-one assessment a little more than a week before the round two showdown, a judge had told her that what she was doing wasn’t working. “I didn’t hear any emotion,” Park had complained.

Only Lia didn’t know how to become more emotional. There was no blueprint to follow. No scales to practice. No diaphragm to control.

The irony was that her life outside the studio was roiling with emotion. Her parents had made it clear that nothing — not even victory — would lessen their opposition, and every additional day she spent in Korea felt like straining a band that was bound to snap. How could her singing sound so rote when she was so full of feelings? It was a paradox.

The only thing Lia could do was inhale again, turning air into breath, and breath into song. She sang Ra.D’s ballad “I’m in Love” over and over and over. She sang it until the song gave up all its secrets, every quirk of phrasing, every riffable note. She sang it until the lyrics became as natural as conversation and she forgot she was singing. She sang it until it was stupid. Then she sang it again.

But just as Lia began to feel that “I’m in Love” was finally heating up, she received her group assignment, news that seemed to roll back all her efforts. She was going to be judged against a formidable cadre of contestants, including Yuyu Liu.

In a sea of girls who splayed their fingers like starfish when they clapped and hid their mouths when they laughed, Liu stood out like Nicki Minaj. A leather-panted, blue-eyed, seventeen-year old model from Changsha, China, she wasn’t the strongest singer, but she could dance, she could rap, and she radiated Chernobyl-strength levels of charisma and confidence. She also spoke perfect English and was applying to college at NYU and Columbia. She was the full package.

Meanwhile Lia’s brother’s wedding loomed: another deadline. Her parents kept reminding her how rare it was for the sprawling Li clan (her parents each had eight siblings) to converge in one place. Who knew when she would ever see them all together again? Her parents were ready to buy her plane ticket, but Lia thought it laughable to ask the scriptwriters for time off in faraway December; she would never make it till then.

As the round two carnage began, the SBS stage had been completely reconfigured. It looked like a Rubik’s Cube imploded within the Matrix. Lia’s group formed a line at the back of the stage, klieg lights blasting through the gaps between them like fire hoses. Liu stepped forward, fixing the judges with a look of open rebellion. She wore black short-shorts, a sweater cropped at the waist, and poppin’ red lipstick.

Liu launched into a hip-thrusting rendition of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk” that ended with a one-handed cartwheel into a split. Lia thought the next performer, a bewitching Korean rapper named Yoo Jin, was even better. Watching Liu and Yoo Jin, she was overcome with anxiety.

But as she heard her name being called, a strange calm descended. You’re going home anyway, Lia thought, as the first plaintive notes of “I’m in Love” drifted across the stage. There’s no one else judging you. She sang:

If my love for you goes any deeper,

It would only hurt me more.

It’s true my mind is full of fear.

Only, in Lia’s mind, the unattainable object of her obsession wasn’t some guy in chemistry class, but music itself. “Like, I fell in love with it, and now I’m stuck.”

When the song ended, Lia tried to focus on the ocean of darkness high above her head, her heart thudding. Three giant flat-screen monitors lit up: PASS. PASS. PASS.

Lia didn’t just pass round two: She ranked first.

In round three, “Team Mission,” contestants formed ensembles that would compete against each other. Lia was paired with a turbulent Korean-Australian named Monica Kim. Kim had stunned the judges during round one, barely eked by in round two. She was over K-Pop Star. She hated the endless training and the control the show exerted over her life. Her family had recently moved back to Ilsan, an hour’s subway ride from Seoul. Instead of rehearsing at night, she hit the bars in hipster Hongdae with her friends.

In the tiny airless practice rooms, Lia and Kim circled each other, arguing about everything: which song to sing, who would riff where, why Kim mysteriously failed to hit a high note. Lia was training up to twelve hours a day. Kim kept showing up to rehearsal with the same unconvincing excuse: “Sorry, I was busy…”

In the midst of the Monica drama, Lia woke up one morning to a soft knock, knock, knock at her door.

“Surprise!” It was her mother standing in the hallway, looking exhausted. It was a surprise, but this time she Lia felt no joy, only wariness.

“What are you doing here?” Lia said, her voice tight and guarded. “Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”

“I just got off an international flight” Her mother smiled uncertainly… “I was expecting a warmer welcome…” Her mother smiled uncertainly, waiting. Still, Lia didn’t move. “Ok, I won’t embarrass you,” she sighed said. “I’ll go.”

They developed a routine. Each day, Lia’s mother would politely wait for Lia to finish practice, then get to work chipping away at her resolve. “You have your responsibilities,” her mother told kept telling her. “How could you leave them?” But even though Lia’s mother swore she would never see Lia perform on a stage, she wasn’t immune to her daughter’s talent. Once, she asked Lia to tape a song and email it to her. “Your voice is very beautiful. Why can’t you just save it for me?” her mother pleaded.

A few days shy of round three, some mysterious alchemy took hold with the duo. Lia stopped trying to convince Kim to stop living and start training, and Kim finally began to apply herself. They shared potluck lunches and strategies for overcoming stage fright. The song they had selected for their duet, Christina Aguilera’s “Hurt,” was sounding better and better.

On the morning of December 13, Lia was taken to the SBS Prism Tower and presented with a lacquered box. The judges asked her to draw a “ball of destiny” containing the name of the team she and Kim would compete against. Lia peeled away the sticker lining the seam, and her heart plunged.

Her opponent was Lim, her friend from Astoria.

Since arriving in Korea, the two young women had only grown closer. Their phones were filled with photos from expeditions they’d made to Hongdae: close-ups of Korean cupcakes and selfies from the pop-up museum where they’d tried on traditional Korean outfits. Now their friendship had become a zero-sum game and the cameras bore down expectantly. “You selected Joanna’s team,” the interviewer asked. “How do you FEEL?”

The round went by in a blur. One minute, Lia was backstage with Monica, doing mini pull-ups, the next they were onstage singing together. Yoo drew a thoughtful knuckle to his turtlenecked chin. Yang gazed out impenetrably from the shade of his newsboy cap. Park cocked his head, streaks of light cavorting in the gelled peaks of his hair. They each said something, but only the verdict stuck with Lia: Lia and Kim would go on to round four.

Lim was going back to Queens.

The teams were whisked to opposite exits for their post-round interviews. Frantically, Lia texted Lim, over and over saying she was sorry, that Lim’s team should have won. Lim texted back: “plz dont say sorry. I hope that you can pass every round and be closer with your dream.”

With her brother’s wedding little more than three weeks away, there was no time to celebrate: Lia needed time off to fly to Malaysia. “You have your responsibilities,” her mother kept reminding her. Lia pleaded with the scriptwriters, but they remained firm. “This is a critical moment,” they told her. “You’re a member of a team; it’s not just about you anymore.”

Except Lia was unraveling. Four days after Lia’s Team Mission victory, Lia’s mother played her trump card: she forwarded Lia an email from the United Nations — her mother’s employer — which stated that if she missed another semester of college, they were rescinding her full scholarship, which also covered the first two years of medical school.

The warfare with her parents, the threat of losing the scholarship, the prying cameras, the nonstop cycle of dieting and training and criticism and stress, had taken on an almost physical weight. She had also started to have misgivings about the show itself: Could a non-Korean ever take the top spot? Some kind of algorithm was certainly at work. She’d become a dark horse, with her foreign status and her family’s scorn serving as whip and spurs. The scriptwriters had plans for Lia. They were setting her up for something.

On December 17, Lia requested a meeting with the scriptwriters. Practice for round four was already underway. She had been in South Korea for two months and no longer needed a translator.

“I quit,” she said.

There was a shocked silence. The scriptwriters, so used to effecting plot twists and cliffhangers themselves, were taken aback.

“If you quit, we can’t show any of your clips,” one of them finally said, “because if we do show you, then where did you go?”

Numbly, Lia nodded. The past six months of her life, the hundreds of hours she’d spent training, enduring the judgment of K-pop’s most powerful gatekeepers, all those killer solos and hard-won victories: It would be as if none of it had ever happened. Only a scholar of the show would ever notice that Lia did in fact appear once, in a split-second cutaway right after Liu performed her one-handed cartwheel.

Each season on K-Pop Star, the judges get to use one “wild card” to save a contestant who would otherwise be voted off the show. Now the scriptwriters handed a wild card to Lia.

“We can give you two days” they told her, to attend the wedding. The words were a final offer.

She shook her head and began to cry.

After a long pause, during which some tissues were produced, a woman nodded curtly. “We’re proud of you,” she said. “None of us thought you would make it this far.”

Lia paused, taken aback by their honesty. “I didn’t either.”

Then she called her parents and told them: You win.

It was night when she boarded the plane four days later, Seoul’s skyline a confetti of lights in the sky. Lia watched as the city shrank to a Lego set, and then a microchip, before fading to black over the Yellow Sea. When she woke up to the morning light after six hours, she was in Kuala Lumpur.

In Malaysia, Lia ate. Malaysian rojak and cendol and laksa and coconut ice cream topped with green sticky rice. She didn’t keep up with the show. The pain was too fresh. It would have been better if I had been eliminated, Lia thought. At least that way I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life wondering “what if?”

Her parents saw quitting K-Pop Star and resuming her studies as a return to sanity, but Lia still felt cloaked in disappointment and disgrace. Mostly, she sought out her young cousins, who thought K-Pop Star was kind of cool. They were the ones who pulled her up to the dais following her brother’s wedding ceremony and announced, “Lia’s going to sing something!”

She chose Christina Aguilera’s “Hurt” because it was the freshest in her mind, but also so she could sing the things she couldn’t say:

Would you tell me I was wrong?

Would you help me understand?

Are you looking down upon me?

Are you proud of who I am?

The song was co-written by Linda Perry as an homage to the father she’d lost less than a year earlier, but Lia directed it at her very alive mother and father, who had sworn never to watch her perform.

I’m sorry for blaming you

For everything I just couldn’t do

And I’ve hurt myself

By hurting you.

Her song didn’t bring about any tearful reconciliation. “Why did you do that?” her father demanded afterward. “I’m disappointed in what you’ve become.” Six months ago, Lia would have been shattered by these words. Now they barely registered.

One afternoon in Kuala Lumpur, in the midst of gaining back all the weight she had lost, and learning how to weave a gift basket for her brother’s fiancée, and reconnecting with her middle-school friends, the phone rang at the house Lia was sharing with her parents. The person on the other end of the line was speaking English — Korean-accented English. It was a representative from a Korean entertainment company. The call was soon followed by another. Agency reps, it turned out, had been watching her progress from the shadowy seats just beyond the stage. For the first time since she’s left Seoul, the curtain of despair lifted. It’s not over, she thought.

Back at Stony Brook, wandering among the redbrick buildings and dirty melting snow, Lia reeled with vertigo. Classes, studying, plugging answers into a multiple-choice test — all of it seemed so abstract and irrelevant after her high-stakes months in Seoul, when success meant the difference between stardom and eternally internet-searchable humiliation.

South Korea, Lia realized, had changed her. “It’s not Lia’s little bubble anymore. It’s a tough world anywhere you go and you really have to be able to rely on yourself.”

Yet there was still K-pop. It was no longer a fantasy to Lia, but a job, one whose fickleness she now understood firsthand. It’s not only skills, it’s looks, being at the right place at the right time, she worried. The better of the two talent agencies offering her a deal had tentatively agreed to wait until Lia finished school, but only provided she could return to Seoul by next spring. She had a lawyer friend looking over the contract.

I don’t know if I should. I want to, but…

At least things with her parents had improved since her return home. Even their attitude toward music had thawed: They promised to buy her a microphone, a professional model with a mesh pop filter and everything. “The good thing is that now there are no more secrets between us,” she told her friends. Except, of course, the secret negotiations with a Korean talent agency.

She would tell her parents everything, Lia assured herself, after she signed.

 

That May, she was accepted early to a prestigious international medical school. Her parents rejoiced. The same month, she finalized negotiations with the better of the two talent agencies. They agreed to minimize Lia’s training program to just a few months and to fast-track her debut; she was potentially one year from icon status. But if she agreed to sign, it was also unlikely Lia would ever go to med school: The contract term was ten years. The agency booked her plane tickets.

One night a few weeks before her flight, on a visit home with her parents, Lia decided to tell them everything. They listened in silence as she described the offers she’d received, the meeting in Korea, the terms of the deal. She was prepared for anything — insults, threats, another scholarship-canceling kamikaze move — anything except what she heard.

“We already went through all that in Korea, and we’re not going to do it again,” her parents said.

The choice, they told Lia, was hers.

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