The next interview is an excerpt from Daebak Weekly, BuzzFeed’s Ok-pop publication. You’ll be able to join extra right here.
The origins of South Korean supergroups may be a thriller to some within the West, however celebrities’ references to their “trainee days” are as widespread data in Asia as Kim Kardashian is to American pop cultural discourse. The seek for Ok-pop stars begins with leisure firms internet hosting auditions — domestically and overseas — after they announce plans for a brand new group. The highest-ranking youngsters — sure, they’re actually kids and youngsters — are then invited to take part in a rigorous coaching course of. Whereas the notoriously powerful fundamentals of the trainee system (intense apply of vocals, dance, and English, in addition to some form of weight-reduction plan) are typically recognized, the precise goings-on usually are not. The method can take wherever from a couple of months to a number of years, however the finish consequence at all times seems a lineup of triple-threat teams with strategically constructed up buzz.
The worldwide reputation of Ok-pop teams and the following rise in individuals auditioning to be trainees have supplied firms with an enormous alternative for enlargement. Actuality reveals and televised auditions have boomed, with viewers at dwelling voting for his or her favorites.
Whereas a number of reveals deal with contestants auditioning for all-male and all-female teams, solely a handful have grow to be fixtures in Korean media. Music channel Mnet’s competitors actuality present Produce 101 first hit the scene in 2016. It immediately gained a following with its big-budget format of taking 101 contestants and whittling them right down to a remaining group of 11. The present was magnetic, turning out well-liked teams like I.O.I. and Iz*One and constructing a loyal worldwide fanbase. It stopped airing in South Korea in 2019 after two producers had been accused of accepting bribes from leisure firms and rigging votes. They had been ultimately sentenced to jail in 2020.
Katherine Lee was one of many 101 from Season 1 — quantity 89, to be actual. Hailing from southeast Michigan, she was a trainee at what was then known as Midas Leisure (later Media Line). Kathy, as she likes to be known as, went via the trainee course of however by no means debuted in a bunch. She as a substitute selected to go away the trade and pursue her schooling after being eradicated from the present.
I known as Kathy at her college dorm in Nashville, the place she is ending up her first 12 months of school. On Zoom, we chatted about her life now (school throughout COVID-19 — ugh), but in addition about her previous life — on the present, as a Ok-pop trainee, and as a Chinese language American residing in South Korea.
Be aware: This Q&A contains descriptions of disordered consuming.
Do you need to introduce your self to our readers?
Katherine Lee: My identify is Kathy. I am a freshman at Vanderbilt learning economics — possibly [laughs]. I took what I wish to name a “hole 12 months” after eighth grade to maneuver to Korea and be part of the Ok-pop trade. I skilled for about 10 months earlier than I auditioned for Mnet’s Produce 101 Season 1. And in the course of the present, I made a decision to maneuver again to the States to proceed my schooling.
How did you first get into Ok-pop?
I went to Korea for Christmas trip with my household in eighth grade and thought, I’ll as properly go to an audition if I’m right here. I liked [the boy band] Exo on the time. I don’t have any background in dancing or singing. It was only for enjoyable. However in the future I obtained this name that was similar to, “Hey, we all know you don’t have any background, however we expect you’ve got potential since you’re worldwide, and we will practice you.” This was earlier than the worldwide reputation Ok-pop has hit now, in order that they wished extra individuals from China or America.
I wasn’t positive, and my dad and mom didn’t suppose it might be legit. However they stated I ought to consider it like a summer time camp–kind factor. So I did, after which I simply stored extending it and increasing it after which ended up signing a contract.
And what was that like, these first few months of coaching? You simply completed the eighth grade, you had been in Korea.
Once I first obtained there, I used to be actually shocked. I bear in mind strolling downstairs to fulfill everybody for the primary time — the studio was within the basement — and I used to be like, “Hello, everybody, I’m Kathy!” And everybody gasped. “She stated hello? She didn’t bow down? How may she! She’s so American.” That was the very first thing. I at all times thought I used to be good, however they thought I used to be actually impolite! Seems, it’s simply that I am American. Korea is so seniority-based, so these cultural issues had been actually exhausting for me to regulate to at first. I would make plenty of errors and somebody would get mad.
[The girls] had additionally been there a 12 months earlier than me, in order that they already had their cliques — who they like and who they don’t like, everybody’s strengths and weaknesses. So I truly skilled with the fellows first. The primary few months, I additionally took Korean lessons in Gangnam [a district in Seoul] for 5 hours per day. Once I joined the ladies, I finished taking Korean lessons, as a result of I used to be fairly fluent by then, and spent far more time on the studio attempting to meet up with the ladies.
Each month, we had an examination. I feel individuals find out about this now. Each month, they’d reduce individuals. We began with 20 women, however by the top of my coaching we had seven. Each month, they’d reduce down one to 2 women. For the primary two months, I didn’t take part within the exams, as a result of they knew I used to be such a rookie it wasn’t actually truthful. After the third month, I began becoming a member of the lady teams and had my first undertaking with them. We danced to Women’ Era.
So what did a day appear to be for you as a trainee?
The busiest days had been possibly two months previous to doing Produce 101. Different contestants had been actually skilled — some had been already well-known — so our firm was them after which us like, This isn’t it. [laughs] They principally set a rule the place we couldn’t go away the studio till after 4 a.m. We needed to textual content within the firm group chat saying “I arrived!” or “I left!” so they might monitor you down. As a result of I used to be nonetheless on my summer time break, I needed to are available in through the day. Everybody who had faculty would simply sleep in school as a result of coaching took the entire night time.
On a day like that, I might get to the studio round midday, and we’d begin by leaping rope whereas singing to extend your stamina. And since we need to shed weight too, we might put on parkas. This was additionally through the summer time.
In the course of the busy time, we additionally had different lessons. Vocal lessons, rap lessons, we additionally had Pilates lessons. I don’t know why — to shed weight, most likely. In some unspecified time in the future the corporate additionally employed a digicam director [who] skilled us how one can act and what to do in entrance of a digicam.
There’s probably not a tradition of “work sensible or work exhausting” — there’s solely “work exhausting.” Should you’re there till 4 a.m., it means you’re doing one thing proper. However we’d be so drained. There are safety cameras within the studio, so the corporate can see what we’re doing. Generally we might take naps within the altering rooms as a result of that was the one place with out cameras. [laughs] The mentality was, ‘It doesn’t matter; simply practice, practice, practice.’ At first, although, once I was studying Korean and never totally on my food plan food plan, I nonetheless obtained eight hours of sleep. And will eat sushi.
That is one thing else we must always speak about: There are plenty of questions round Ok-pop, weight-reduction plan, and physique picture proper now. Had been you influenced by that tradition in any respect?
Oh, positively. Each few days, we must weigh ourselves in entrance of everybody — guys, women, lecturers — in a single room on a scale. So it was actually embarrassing, you recognize what I imply? To get the smallest weight, we’d take off all our garments and simply have a tank high and shorts on. I bear in mind the primary time I did it I used to be clearly “chubby,” as a result of I used to be within the eighth grade and chubby to start with. They had been OK with it the primary time, however as soon as we began coaching, then the weight-reduction plan actually began. It was actually unhealthy at first. I might attempt to deal with the quantity. So I might eat actually little, however I’d solely eat chocolate — which is simply not the way you shed weight, you recognize?
In some unspecified time in the future, the corporate stated I may go to a food plan hospital. They’ve these in Korea. I went with one other trainee who additionally didn’t need to go to highschool, as a result of the food plan hospital was like an hour bus experience away. They principally gave us this “natural medication” earlier than we ate meals that will suppress our urge for food and enhance our metabolism, so our hearts would beat actually quick.
I’m fairly positive they had been slimming capsules. I don’t know. They stated it was natural, however after I took a well being class in America, I used to be like, grasp on. That appears sus. [laughs] As a result of it suppressed my urge for food, so I wasn’t hungry! I didn’t have any cravings, so I solely ate to fill my abdomen up.
That food plan factor made me lose a ton of weight. I feel the bottom I obtained to was 46 or 47 kilograms [101 lbs.]. I bear in mind feeling actually weak. You might inform I used to be weak as a result of each time I’d bow right down to say “Annyeonghaseyo” [a formal and polite greeting in Korean], I’d really feel actually, actually dizzy. However that was the bottom weight I feel I obtained to till the following stage of the food plan.
A part of the “package deal” on the food plan hospital is that they’ve these…I feel they’re known as “carboxy photographs” in English? They principally put needles and shoot gasoline into particular areas of your physique to interrupt up the fats so it is simpler to lose. I obtained these photographs. Additionally they have an electrical factor the place there’s needles throughout and so they electrocute you…and it’s all supposed that will help you shed weight. I did slightly little bit of all that as a result of it was a part of the package deal.
At that time, you had been fairly younger as properly.
I used to be 14, yeah. Part of me was like, what am I doing? However I feel I used to be so decided to be a Ok-pop idol. And I used to be younger. I wished to be fairly. I didn’t know they had been slimming capsules. Somebody was like, “These are natural medicines,” and I used to be like, OK! These are wholesome, then.
I didn’t need to go to the hospital for a couple of months after, as a result of after you lose that a lot weight, you simply have to keep up it. Within the morning, I might have my yogurt, for lunch I’d eat cucumber and a few cherry tomatoes and possibly a boiled egg, and for dinner I’d eat a boiled egg and candy potatoes.
Principally! I bear in mind I stored monitor of each single calorie. A tough-boiled egg has 62 energy, if I bear in mind appropriately. A single tomato has 12 energy.
And this was all main as much as the debut, which additionally led to the Produce 101 audition.
Yeah, whereas we had been coaching there was information that Mnet was going to have an enormous present, searching for [contestants]. They wanted 100 individuals, and so they wanted them from totally different firms. We knew they had been trying round. Our firm truly despatched us there — so we “auditioned,” however we low-key already had spots already. OK, I’m not tremendous positive about that! However our firm’s CEO [Kim Chang Wan] wrote the tune “Choose Me” [Produce 101’s theme song]. So I suppose he was like, “We’ve trainees beneath our firm, why don’t they audition?” Seven of us auditioned, and 5 of us obtained in.
And I want to deal with: You had been blonde on the present.
Oh, yeah! A part of my contract was that the corporate can market you nonetheless they need. So proper earlier than Produce 101, they took me to the salon, and the hairdressers requested, “What would look good for her?” And I feel the corporate was like, “Oh, she’s American, so let’s make her appear to be a doll, extra Americanlike.” I actually took a nap and awoke with bleached hair. I didn’t ask for this! However you gotta do what you gotta do, you recognize?
You had been on Season 1. What was it like to return onto the present with 4 different women whom you’ve grown near as trainees, and assembly a bunch — properly, 100 different women?
For the primary time, there have been women who had been youthful than me! And it was an enormous deal as a result of I didn’t know how one can speak to them. I solely knew how one can speak to older individuals [using appropriate Korean grammar]. I additionally obtained shut with the opposite Chinese language lady and the Cantonese lady. I met them within the lavatory. It was good hanging out with different women who shared an identical background.
However although there have been different women that I actually vibed with, the unnie [oldest girl] in my group was actually adamant about sticking collectively and presenting the precise picture to others, that we’re like sisters beneath one firm; for those who make different buddies, it would appear to be one thing is improper. They actually hit me with that mentality of, “You’re the maknae [youngest member], so you have to take heed to us,” which is a mentality I instantly deserted as soon as I left Korea. I did find yourself sticking with my firm more often than not simply because we needed to repairs the picture. It’s not like I didn’t need to hang around with them, I simply additionally wished to department out slightly bit.
What was being on a present as well-liked as Produce 101 like?
I was actually into Ok-pop, however after the trainee course of I spotted that the whole lot is pretend, you recognize what I imply? [laughs] There was a very good time after I left Korea that I didn’t watch Ok-dramas or take heed to Ok-pop or something. Now I eat some content material, however I do not comply with teams anymore, simply because I do know the corporate actually packages you and markets you in a particular method. I really feel like followers get actually caught up in that — I actually obtained caught up in that — however as soon as I noticed the opposite facet, it form of modified me.
It wasn’t till Produce 101 that I began realizing simply how disingenuous and scripted all of it is. In the course of the trainee course of, it is exhausting, however you simply attempt to work via it. Some know this, however plenty of information broke out that the present is rigged, and that lots of people had been chosen beforehand. Folks would cry in entrance of the cameras to achieve screentime as a result of everybody loves a Cinderella story, you recognize? Or they’d fake-bully women to faux they’re the villain and all kinds of stuff, and I used to be simply there like, whaaat? I believed actuality reveals had been at the least actual!
Do you continue to speak to anybody from Produce or your organization?
One among them simply reached out yesterday to inform me she missed me! We nonetheless textual content typically as a result of we had been so shut again then, however all of us do reside separate lives now. Some are nonetheless within the trade, and I’m right here learning, so it’s totally different. It’s a kind of issues — a childhood expertise that you simply by no means carry up or speak about, however typically you’ve got a bizarre flashback and also you’re like, Whoa. I did try this.
You had been eradicated from Produce 101 in Episode 5. After the present, you determined to maneuver again to the States.
Earlier than Produce 101, I used to be calling my mother, and he or she was like, “Hey, you’ve been in Korea for a 12 months now. It’s good to complete highschool at the least.” So we had been American colleges in Korea, however none wished to tackle a trainee — somebody who’d sleep in school and skip faculty. All truthful, actually.
I additionally bear in mind calling my buddies throughout this course of, telling them I wasn’t as glad as I believed I might be. They usually had been speaking about taking AP US historical past and going to winter formal. Highschool stuff. I felt like I used to be lacking out on a lot! FOMO, you recognize?
One factor looming in my thoughts was my contract. I had a seven-year contract. How do I get out of it? My mother actually pulled via. She flew over and introduced a translator. Principally what they advised me was that on the finish of the day if I wished to go away, I may, and so long as I don’t be part of one other firm, I wouldn’t have to pay a nice or something.
However you’re off the present now. You’re out of the corporate. Was it exhausting transitioning again to highschool life at first?
It was form of exhausting as a result of it was one other tradition shock. Issues usually are not as seniority-based or practically as intense. However I additionally felt actually free, and I actually favored it. I hadn’t gone to highschool for such a very long time, so I appreciated it a lot extra. I hadn’t learn in such a very long time. I used to be taking chemistry and was simply excited at how enjoyable it was. I studied loads that 12 months, simply having fun with it. And I may eat what I wished, and nobody actually cared.
It’s truly humorous; once I was in highschool, my vocal trainer [from Korea] reached out to me about YMC Leisure beginning a brand new lady group. They had been searching for worldwide individuals, and he or she requested if I’d need to come again. It gave me a complete flashback and was I like, no, thanks!
I wished to shut with one remaining query: What does Ok-pop imply to you?
Earlier than, Ok-pop was my life. It was the whole lot. I might comply with teams like Exo. Now I simply see it as one other kind of music. I really like Mamamoo, however I’ll take heed to them as a result of I like their songs. I feel I used to see them extra as a complete package deal: the character, the best way they give the impression of being, the truth reveals, they have to be so good, blah blah blah. Now, if I prefer it, nice; if I don’t, no matter. I do know to different individuals it’s a complete trade, however to me it is simply one other style of music.
Total, the Ok-pop expertise — although I left and it was poisonous — it nonetheless was good in that I realized how one can be extra unbiased and be on my own. However in leaving, I spotted I additionally don’t really feel like hiding myself anymore.