For K-pop fans around the world, the group SNSD, or Girls’ Generation, is a household name. They’re the flagship act for SM Entertainment, a major South Korean entertainment company that was valued at $660 million in 2013, according to Forbes. SNSD reportedly generated $18.6 million in 2014 alone.
Right before the group debuted, one woman was offered the once in a lifetime opportunity to become the lead member of the group.
Stella Kim, 26, was born in South Korea and came to the U.S. when she was just 4 years old. She had a typical Asian-American upbringing as her parents emphasized the importance of academic excellence above all else.
In middle school, her friends introduced her to K-Pop and she immediately fell in love. She idolized stars at the time like BoA and H.O.T. Little did Kim know, she was about to get a chance at K-pop stardom herself.
While traveling back from vacationing in South Korea, Kim happened to be on the same flight as a senior executive of SM Entertainment. He noticed Kim and immediately invited her for a private audition.
“They made me sing and dance in front of the camera.” She told NextShark. “As a young middle school girl, it was very fun and cool to me. They ended up contacting my parents who were extremely against me doing anything in entertainment. They ended up saying no to them and not telling me about it.”
A year later, Kim coincidentally ran into the same person who scouted her. He extended another offer to her to go to South Korea and train. This time, she convinced her parents to give her their blessing if she continued school in the U.S. and trained in Korea during the summer.
Kim managed to maintain her studies during the school year and fly to Korea for the summer. Training started at 10 a.m. everyday and lasted up to 13 hours. As a trainee for the group, she was quickly thrust into the spotlight of K-Pop fans everywhere.
“There’s language training for anybody that might potentially end up working in China or Japan,” Kim said.
“There are also classes on public speaking and obviously vocal training, and acting for anybody that’s going into acting and all types of dancing — like jazz, ballet and hip hop.”
Although she was having fun at the time, Kim didn’t realize that some of the things she was doing would have a lasting impact on her self-esteem and self-image.
“They would make us stand in line and go on the scale. They would call out what your weight is in front of everyone. If your weight had not gone down from the week prior, you would get bashed on.”
Kim says that she was guilt tripped from time to time and she was always pressured to be thinner by reducing calorie intake instead of working out at the gym.
In 2007, while in high school, she was offered a contract to debut with SNSD. Her parents refused to sign the contract and were adamant that she not have a future in the entertainment industry.
“I was very upset that they wouldn’t do it,” Kim said.
“I just didn’t understand because that’s what I wanted so much at the time. Especially after SNSD debuted and they instantly just became a huge hit. The first couple of years I regretted it and was upset at my parents for not letting me do it.”
Kim went to New York University for college where some of her Korean peers quickly recognized her and rumors started to spread around campus.
“I would walk into a Starbucks and a group of Korean students would stand behind me and I could see them pointing their fingers at me and they’d go, ‘Hey that’s that girl, she’s not as pretty as we thought she’d be. She’s fat. She’s ugly.’”
Struggling to deal with the negativity and the “ideal beauty” standard imprinted in her mind from her training days, Kim developed an eating disorder. At her lowest point, she weighed 90 lbs at just over 5’ 7”.
“If you looked at how big K-Pop and how a lot of women are sexualized in the industry — I’m not sure what kind of impact that has on how young females view themselves, and how men view them as they grow up. They’re following them at a very young age and they don’t really understand the impact.”
Kim began to reflect on the messages and values Korean pop culture was conveying to younger generations. Their portrayal of women in an unrealistic “retouched world” sets up dangerous standards for real women in society.
“In the Korean entertainment industry, beauty is often associated with physical appearance. Beauty is often an exaggeration of femininity or masculinity; that is, clear skin, lustrous hair, tall height, thinness, etc… All extremely distorted views that are unfortunately set by socio-cultural standards in a high-pressure, fast-paced society.”
Kim may be onto something in regards to how fans are impacted by the artists they idolize — Google data trends shows that the keyword “Girls’ Generation Diet” has been a highly searched term dating back to their debut in 2007.
Ironically, what helped Kim heal from anorexia was going back to the exact same place that damaged her. She took a year off college and returned to South Korea to visit her dad. During that time, she experienced other aspects of Korean culture and discovered her love for food.
“The food there is amazing. The real irony behind that is that doctors recommend anorexic patients to not look at cookbooks or any materials surrounding food, because people with eating disorders get extremely attached to looking at them. It’s something that they want to eat and they want to try making, but they’re not able to or they choose not to.
“I think that was definitely a habit that I started to get out of that anorexic part of me, but thankfully, it later translated into me actually making the food and trying it — and really loving it. I started feeding my family the food that I was making, and they loved it too. It was really bringing my family and my friends together. Seeing the bonds you can make with food really made me feel whole again.”
By 2013, Kim had already graduated from college and returned to South Korea to spend time with her family. By this time, she was of age and could make her own decisions without her parent’s permission.
During her stay, companies reached out to her. She attended a few meetings and was eventually offered an acting gig from another major entertainment company. However, when it came time to sign the contract again, she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
“Even to this day, I think about it — ‘what if?’ But I think it’s a matter of what you value more in life, and I wasn’t willing to take the risk again and sacrifice what I had struggled to rebuild. I have a different purpose to serve versus being a musician or actress.”
Kim admits that even after all the time she’s spent healing and rebuilding herself, the insecurities still creep up on her to this very day.
“The thing with self-image and confidence is that we’re always constantly going through a struggle, because we all live relative to one another. We’re always comparing ourselves to other people. There are times when I’m okay and there are times when I’m not okay. To be completely transparent, there are more times that I’m not okay. I think that the reason why I speak out about it more is because I think that’s the healthiest way to really deal with things.”
One of Kim’s main goals through her work is to stress that it’s okay to voice your insecurities as long as you’re actively trying to improve. “Think of vulnerability as intimacy, not a weakness,” she says.
“People that really do have serious, life-threatening problems never talk about it, because they usually don’t even realize they have it. I always say it’s important to talk about your worries and insecurities to people you trust. Getting that dialogue going is crucial, because there are valuable lessons to be learned from other people.”
Kim also urges fans of K-Pop to be more wary of what they expect from their idols as well.
“I’ve seen far too many comments from people saying that celebrities get paid to be bashed on, that it’s in their day-to-day job descriptions to be judged on a regular basis,” she said.
“I want to challenge that thought — they are real people with real feelings, regardless of the retouched world they live in. Their job description entails conceptualizing, defining, interpreting works of art and presenting them in their own ways, thus allowing their audience to feel certain emotions through them. They are real artists, and are essentially doing us a service.”
Even with over 50,000 fans on Instagram, Kim admits that she doesn’t like social media as much as it looks:
“It really distorts the way that people live their lives and how we should be living our lives, because even with all these emails that I’m getting people are saying that I seem like I’m okay, because how I reflect myself on my Instagram or my blog and things like that. “
Kim regularly gets messages from those suffering with the same body image issues. When asked about how one can start feeling better about themselves, she said:
“First off, I am not ‘perfectly’ fine with myself. There are always good and bad days, but I’ve learned how to have more of the former. It’s definitely a learning process. Practice doesn’t always necessarily make perfect, and that’s okay, because you do come to learn that not everything always has to be. There’s beauty in the imperfect, as cliché as that sounds, but we have to keep believing.”
Stella Kim is now a blogger, freelance writer, and works full-time as a global marketing professional at Clinique. She still regularly keeps in touch with the SNSD members she used to train with.