A few weeks ago, the K-pop industry was shaken by another unexpected death, the death of former f(x) member Choi Jin-Ri, also known as Sulli. This came less than 2 years after the death of K-pop vocal powerhouse, Kim Jonghyun, a member of SHINee. Earlier this year, news of the death of famous actress Jeon Mi Sun (who played Kim Kwon’s character’s mother in He is Psychometric). One common theme revolves around these two deaths: suicide and mental health. The question many of us are asking amidst these is: why is the korean entertainment industry turning a blind eye to the mental health of stars and what are the entertainment companies doing to protect their idols??
It is now no news that South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Let’s take a step back and look a bit into the history of the korean entertainment industry. Now, without going too much into technical jargons surrounding it, the korean entertainment industry was formed on a capitalistic basis. This means that most companies are formed, scout for idols and stars, make decisions and handle idols with only one clear goal in mind: profit making and wealth maximisation. Essentially, they are nothing different from your everyday profit-making organisation. Now combine those capitalistic foundation with the hard core military-style training and you get the experience many ‘K-pop’ idols have gone through to get where they are today.
In some extreme situations, Idols are subjected to the ridiculous requirements the name ‘idol’ must come with. Idols confess to having spent between 10-12 hours training EVERY day before they debut. Most likely, this becomes even more hours once they’ve debuted, having showcases, music show preparations, award shows and end of the year festivals to prepare for in the first year they debut. This is not even adding the days and days of prep that goes into preparing for comebacks within the year they debuted, in order to stay fresh and relevant in people’s minds. Dressing a certain way, eating only certain things, speaking in a certain way that sometimes is void of personal opinion and in extreme cases, undergoing surgery to conform to a certain image. All of this is whilst being away from their family and in many idols cases, miles and miles away from their homes. Expectedly, this schedule and expectations are likely to take a huge to toll on any person’s mental health.
Companies hold idols to a certain standard and to conform to a certain image (hence the name idols) so much so that they give fans the leeway to see idols as ‘perfect’ and anything falling short of this perfection, even by an inch, is essentially ‘not what we signed up for’. Idols are bullied for ‘being too skinny’ or ‘too fat’. Bullied for ‘being too white’ or ‘too dark’. Companies and over-possessive fans dictate to idols what to wear, how to sound, how to speak and not speak, what to do with their lifestyles and essentially all the various facets of their lifestyles. Why? ‘Because they’re our idols’, said the sasaeng fans. ‘Because they’re our property and investment’ Said their companies.
Mental health has always been, for lack of a better word, some form a ‘taboo’ in the entertainment industry. To some degree it is ironic that with this punishing schedule, idols are meant to keep up with fan service, God forbid they fall sick or are simply not in the right mood to provide fan service. Let’s not even talk about depression or anxiety. It’s ironic how ‘dating’ has its suffix as ‘scandal’- like why is dating a scandal? And best believe any idol that is found out to be dating ends up not only being bashed and ‘cancelled’ but whoever is caught up in the ‘scandal’ also gets the blunt end of the stick. We say that idols are allowed to have their opinions but in reality that’s just theory. If an idol is opinionated and speaks boldly about an issue then they’re sentenced to judgment by netizens. It’s sad how the same people who say the mental health of idols is important are the same ones who subject idols to such defamation and slander, or are bystanders when things like this happen. The stench of the double standard! There’s only so much we international stans can do, honestly!
Mental health is such an integral part of everyone which unfortunately is being given little to no importance. Many idols have in the past, come out to speak about their depression or anxiety or mental health disorder and even when speaking out, still end up being subjected to insulting and demoralising remarks from ‘so-called fans’. In Vlives (Vlive is something similar to YouTube which allows idols communicate with fans by going live or releasing videos), we see comments like ‘so so Group is better than yours’ and to the extreme of ‘kill yourself’ or ‘the world is a better place without you’ (no exaggeration because I’ve seen comments like this). We need to realise that these type of behaviour is damaging to anyone who sees it not to talk of the idols at the brunt of such comments.
Things have seemingly changed in today’s industry and amongst the 4th generation korean entertainment. The industry is becoming more aware and taking some steps to ensure idols are ‘protected’ and take care of their mental health. But, in my honest opinion, it’s still not enough. It’s still not even up to minimum standard. Idols are still subjected to malicious and defaming comments and actions from obsessive fans and over possessive fans. We still see companies give into the insurmountable pressure these type of fans place on them to drop idols. And instead of protecting their idols, companies choose goodwill, brand reputation and all things related, and willingly drop idols.
I really hope companies and the industry in general can get to a point where they prioritise the mental health of their artist! A HEALTHY MIND IS A HEALTHY BODY! We as fans should also put some degree of pressure on companies to protect the minds of artists, regardless. Idols need to be allowed to breathe, should be allowed to let their minds breathe! ‘Scandals’ should not equal a termination of a contract (except where there has been a serious breach, which becomes a legal issue). Companies need to do better and not throw idols out to fend for themselves. Companies need to start fighting for their artists and standing up for them! Companies need to embody the ‘human’ side of business! We need to create a safe mental and emotional environment not only for ourselves, but for everyone around us and everyone we come in contact with, idols inclusive.