Known as “idols,” the biggest K-pop stars earn the kind of fame and fortune most people only ever dream about. But global success comes with a whole lot of pressure. From dating to dieting, these are the super strict rules that K-Pop stars have to follow. K-Pop fans like their idols to be single, and female performers are preferably fully chaste, which is why they’re not allowed to date.
According to CNN, “Some [stars] even [have] a ‘no dating’ clause in their contracts.” Great Guys’ Donghwi confirmed this, telling Insider, “We agreed not to have a girl in our lives, so we can focus more on our mission.” “Thank you for your love, yeah.” But some stars naturally break this rule, like EXO’s Chen, who announced in January 2020 that he not only had a girlfriend but that she was also pregnant and that they were getting married. But revealing the supposedly happy news wasn’t an easy task for the star.
He wrote for Soompi, “I don’t know how to start this, and I’m very nervous. I have a girlfriend I want to spend the rest of my life with. I was worried and concerned about the situations that would arise as a result of this decision, but…I couldn’t lose any more time thinking about when or how I should announce this, so I mustered up my courage.”
Chen was right to think the announcement was a big deal because the truth can have serious consequences for K-Pop stars. CNN reported, “When it was revealed that artists HyunA and E’Dawn were a couple…there was an angry backlash from some apparently heartbroken fans, and the pair were subsequently suspended by their record label.”
So while the “no dating” rule may seem harsh, when it comes to the fans, it might also be justified. The fact that K-Pop stars can’t date may seem strict, but in reality, they aren’t even supposed to associate with those who don’t share their gender. Former K-Pop artist and current YouTube personality Grazy Grace confirmed this, revealing, “Whenever we were caught like lounging around and talking to the opposite sex, like trainees and idols, we would always be separated.”
She even claimed that management companies would give them different schedules so that groups of guys and girls would quote, “never run into each other or have any time to talk to each other.” While this might sound like another extreme precaution, it’s another rule put in place to appease fans who proved that they’re serious about this situation in 2008, during a performance by Girls’ Generation.
While the group was on stage in Seoul, South Korea, CNN reported, “The crowd created a ‘black ocean,’ refusing to wave lights and cellphones and staying silent throughout the band’s entire 10-minute performance, reportedly to protest how close the group had become to the members of boyband Super Junior.” Jenna Gibson, a specialist in Korea, at the University of Chicago, told the outlet, “In a perverse way because fans put in so much effort to promote and publicize a good image of their idol, some of them get the idea that they should have some say over the idol’s actions and personal life.”
K-Pop stars may embrace headline-making hair and signature styles for their stage-worthy looks, but each outfit and hair cut has to be approved and is usually decided, by their management company. Changing things up without permission is not allowed and will result in repercussions. Korean music industry exec Bernie Cho told CNN, “K-Pop music is a big business and K-Pop bands not only endorse big brands but also become big-time brands themselves.
As a result, for better or for worse, individuals in such bands are viewed as investments.” Just like any other big investment, drastic changes are a big deal. That means if a BTS band member dyes his hair, it’s a safe bet that his management knew about it well before his stylist ever whipped out the bleach. If a K-Pop star did take their personal style into their own hands, it would destroy the carefully coordinated aesthetic of the typical K-Pop group, which depends on its adherence to the scene’s preferences. Not to mention that an unapproved makeover could potentially upset fans who tend to analyze, and freak out over every tiny change. This is definitely not a situation where anyone’s expressing themselves without some serious consideration.
“This is actually my fan club, Jebbies, this is…I’m just gonna live the way that I wanna live. This is who I am” Another part of keeping up the proper K-Pop look means no visible tattoos. Yes, plenty of scene idols have their fair share of body art, but these stars are supposed to keep the ink under wraps as much as possible, that is unless they play the role of the rebel in the group. There’s a good chance that Post Malone’s face tattoos wouldn’t be tolerated by his management if the American rapper was a K-Pop performer. In this case, the aesthetic rule isn’t necessarily about fans’ preferences but is instead about appeasing national media requirements.
Inked reported, “While K-Pop stars are technically allowed to have tattoos, Korean television has yet to catch up with the trends and there are laws banning the showing of tattoos on screen. This is why you so often see K-Pop artists such as Block B’s Taeil in oversized sweaters and covering their tattoos with tape.” The outlet also reported that only doctors are allowed to legally do tattoos, which means that getting inked by a tattoo artist in Korea is actually illegal. While there are quote “still plenty of [tattoo] artists working underground,”
According to Inked, even if the stars avoid a fine, they’ll still have to deal with the other issues of opting for ink that’s against the rules. “Stomach exercise. Yes. I know that I have to do it, but I can’t. I hate it” Staying fit isn’t just necessary for K-Pop stars to be able to handle their 2-hour-long stage dance routines, it’s also a requirement that they need to fulfill in order to satisfy those in charge. That’s why performers work out, a lot. Great Guys’ Ho Ryeong told Insider that his day includes: “Gym, studio, bedroom, that’s my life circle.” And it sounds like that’s pretty much industry standard.
The outlet observed, “It’s a testament to the pressures of maintaining the intense beauty standards of the K-pop industry: idols must look and stay beautiful, young, and in good physical shape. That usually ends up in severe diet and exercise.” “Chocolate abs, ah chocolate abs.” “So it’d be like just perfectly shaped abs. Like a six-pack.” Way, a former member of Crayon Pop, also talked to Insider about the physical demands of being in a K-Pop group, remembering, “We used to dance with [8.8 lbs] of sandbags on our feet for several days. Our teacher wanted us to get used to the sandbags, so without it our dances would look lighter [in the performance].”
Metro noted that BTS also keeps up a relentless rehearsal schedule which has them practicing for quote “12-15 hours a day.” And that’s not the most grueling of the calendars. According to i-D, “There are plenty of stories of trainees spending up to 20 hours a day practicing; after their trainers depart, they’ll keep practicing or studying through the night.” “I just remember him so shaming me about like this little body fat. He was literally saying I’m not gonna be able to make it in the industry because of my body.”
One of the darker aspects of K-Pop stardom is the use of strict, and potentially dangerous, diets to help them stay slim and in shape. And in order to make sure that idols remain the desired size, performers know that their management will be checking in. Koreaboo reported, “Your company may weigh you. If you gain one or two pounds, your managers will hound you about your weight.” In an attempt to meet the harsh physical requirements, some singers rely on dangerous methods like the Paper Cup Diet, according to Insider.
A highly restricted meal-plan, the diet, which is reportedly promoted on alarming pro-anorexia forums, consists of: “Nine paper cups, the size of the ones you’d find by water coolers, worth of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.” And if extreme diets don’t work, some stars resort to quoting “starving” themselves, according to Korea Herald. However, GreatGuys’ Ho Ryeong told Insider that even though he can’t eat what he wants when he wants, that’s not usually an issue due to his busy schedule. He said, “Honestly, we don’t have much time for eating.
Nor are we free to eat what we want.” His bandmate, Jae I, added, “That’s the hardest part. It’s not easy to follow a diet, but [I suppose] it’s not impossible either.” It may not be impossible, but it sure doesn’t sound like fun. In many countries, being a star means that you can indulge in the kind of bad behavior that we normo’s would never get away with. But being a star from Korea means that you must be polite and respectful at all times. Koreaboo reports, “You must greet your elders and bow at a 90-degree angle, and you must take the time to bow perfectly.
[Grazy] Grace recounts a time when she bowed with her hands in her winter [coat] pockets, because it was cold, and she was later scolded for being disrespectful.” Apparently, this no-pockets requirement goes for any scenario, with i-D reporting, “An idol standing on an awards stage with their hands in their pockets [will receive] accusations of bad manners/arrogance.” This strict protocol is also why most performers aren’t allowed to have personal online platforms that they run themselves.
Koreaboo explained, “Some agencies allow their artists to have social media accounts, but the picture and caption are often micromanaged by managers who want to make sure you don’t…send the wrong message.” “Um, I have, I, uh, how do I feel about that? A lot of people slide into my DMs with some crazy ass s—.” Michelle Cho, assistant Professor of Pop Culture for the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, explains the reasoning behind the demand for respectful behavior, telling CTV News, “[K-pop idols] are understood to have a duty to the public to maintain high standards of morality and character, this is because, in general, pop culture, as a collective/mainstream culture, is supposed to have an edifying impact on society.”
When it comes to K-Pop stars, you’re not gonna find them partying it up at a hotel after the show. Bloomberg reports, “[The] ideal idol has a moral record as unblemished as his pores, eschewing drugs, gambling, and public misbehavior of any kind.” Bernie Cho explained the rippling impact of an idol’s potentially questionable actions, telling CNN, “Scandals involving drinking [or] drugs…not only make waves in the entertainment news section but also the finance news section because many of the biggest Korean music management companies are also publicly traded stocks on the Korean stock exchange. Sensational headlines can take a serious hit on the bottom line.” “Korea has jumped to become the sixth-largest music market in the world.”
The expectation that K-Pop stars will stay away from certain substances is also why BIGBANG’s T.O.P issued an apology when news broke in 2017 that he was being investigated by Seoul police over allegations that he had used marijuana, which is illegal in Korea, according to CNN. The performer wrote on Facebook: “I would like to sincerely apologize for causing great disappointment and disturbance with huge wrongdoing…I have left an irreparable scar in everyone’s hearts, so I believe I deserve to be punished…I will deeply repent my wrongdoing. I am very ashamed of myself.”
It sounds like his own regret was already enough of a punishment. K-Pop stars at the top of their game may be raking in the big bucks, but many others are just barely managing to scrape by due to the high cost of investment, and ultra-low pay. Unfortunately, rules in the scene mean that those who need to make extra cash are simply out of luck.
Granted, trainees and rising performers don’t really have time for a second job, but even if they wanted another source of income, they’re not allowed to pick up any extra work. Koreaboo explains, “While this depends on which company you’re with, most companies don’t want you to have a part-time job even though you might not earn enough as a trainee or recently debuted artist.” “That’s not a reason, but okay.” It turns out, the story goes even deeper.
The BBC reported, “Some of K-Pop’s biggest success stories were built on the back of so-called slave contracts, which tied its trainee-stars into long exclusive deals.” But some people in the industry are trying to fight the situation. The group Dong Bang Shin Ki even brought a lawsuit over what they felt was an unfair contract. Per the outlet, “[The group] took its management company to court, on the grounds that their 13-year-contract was too long, too restrictive, and gave them almost none of the profits from their success.” Fortunately, the group won their case, which led to a new example contract being formed by the Fair Trade Commission, with the hopes of increasingly benefiting performers’ relationships with management.
Not only do K-Pop stars have to follow all of the strict requirements set by their management, but they must also adhere to one last demand to prove their commitment to their craft. To do this, performers have to be willing to hand over their cell phones so that their managers can take a look at what they’ve been up to. “Managements could always check your phone at any time that they want.” That’s why these idols have to be prepared to be grilled over whatever is found, even if it’s a seemingly innocent text message. Grazy Grace explained, “We would always, always, like, delete messages from any guys. It could be your friggin’ uncle and they might, like, question who it is.”
But no matter how much last-minute deleting the idols did, those in charge were always one step ahead, thanks to spontaneous checks. When something was found on a K-Pop performer’s phone that broke the rules, Grace says the company punished them by either making them train seven days a week, as opposed to the usual six, or maybe by putting a security camera in front of their dorm room, or completely taking away their phone. It certainly sounds like you shouldn’t even dream of embarking on the road to K-Pop stardom unless you’re willing to abide by the seemingly relentless rules of the trade.