Meet the New Yorkers Vying to Be the Next K-pop Star—Even if They’re Not Korean
The K-pop industry says it’s opening its doors to include more diversity. But at an NYC training center full of non-Korean hopefuls, dreams of stardom keep colliding with reality.
The ballroom of the Hotel Pennsylvania in midtown Manhattan was packed with 300 or so nervous unknowns who’d come to audition in the hope of becoming K-pop stars. Posters lined the walls—glossy images of successful, beautifully manicured singers. This was the 2018 Global Audition held by SM Entertainment, one of the “Big Three” talent agencies in Korea.
Leo Lopez-Gonzalez was unsure why he was there, surrounded by people who seemed naturally beautiful, many of them glammed out in winged eyeliner and red-orange lipstick.
“And then there was little, ambiguous-featured me,” Leo, now 17, joked.
Leo’s best friend had urged him to come with her, just for fun. But she backed out at the last minute because of an earth sciences final the next day. So it was just Leo, then 15, standing in the ornate ballroom of the century-old hotel, slowly realizing just how intense this was going to be.
Sure, he liked to sing and dance, but Leo’s performing experience was limited to a year of choir at school and that time he played the male lead, Prince Slacker, in his eighth-grade production of the musical Haphazardly Ever After. By contrast, it seemed like everyone at the audition had been training for months, maybe years. Even the youngest, who looked maybe 10 years old, held themselves with professional poise.
K-pop, short for Korean pop music, has skyrocketed into a global phenomenon, becoming a more than $5 billion industry. At 2019’s Coachella, Blackpink became the first K-pop group to play an American music festival. The same year, MTV announced that it would introduce a new K-pop category at its annual Video Music Awards, a move seen by some as recognition of the genre’s global popularity, and by others as a way of excluding it from the top awards by creating a separate silo for Korean music. The monumentally popular boy group BTS is often seen as a measure of K-pop’s crossover success. Their “Boy With Luv” music video made YouTube history by racking up 74.6 million views in 24 hours, according to Market Watch, and they frequently collaborate with prominent artists like Ed Sheeran, and Halsey and The Chainsmokers.
The international appeal of K-pop attracts a diverse audience—nearly 100 million fans worldwide in 2019, according to the non-profit organization Korea Foundation. But who can be a K-pop star? Most successful K-pop groups are made up of impossibly slender, young men and women with small faces and long limbs. While there are some Chinese and Thai members, the vast majority are Korean.
Leo, who is broad-faced with an easy smile, has a Colombian mother and a part-Puerto Rican father. Like him, most of the hopefuls at the global audition were not Korean. But more recently, there have been efforts to diversify the industry. That year, 2018, SM Entertainment also held castings in countries around the world, including Thailand, Canada and Argentina.
In the Hotel Pennsylvania ballroom, Leo watched as dancers freestyled to Camila Cabello’s “Havana,” while actors performed a scene and models strutted and struck poses. The two judges, both very thin young women with orange-tinted lips—the trend du jour in Korea—watched with armored faces.
When Leo’s turn came, he strode in front of the judges and beamed. “I will be singing ‘Like I’m Gonna Lose You’ by Meghan Trainor,” he told them. He took a deep breath, channeled his inner Prince Slacker, and began singing.
Both too quickly and too slowly, it was over. Though Leo didn’t end up getting a callback, he couldn’t shake the thrum of pure excitement that overtook him. He loved the energy, the intensity. He knew, then, that he wanted to become a K-pop star, whatever the odds.
“Juh, chuh, kuh, tuh, puh…”
In a small classroom in East Harlem, five students read out Korean characters in unison. Leo, who that day had lavender hair and wore a black sweatshirt with “thanks for not texting me back” printed on front, was having trouble differentiating between “guh” and “kuh,” the characters set apart by just one stroke. He squinted at his textbook, Korean Made Easy for Beginners, and back at the whiteboard, propped up on top of a black Casio piano.
Their teacher, Sunyoung Kim, pointed at each character with a marker she’d pulled out from an empty tub of Fage Greek yogurt. Pictures of the K-pop girl groups Mamamoo and Girl’s Day hung on the wall.
Every Saturday at 3 p.m., Kim teaches Korean classes to a group of students, some of them “trainees,” at the Born Star Training Center, where, according to its website, “you will become a star.”
Born Star has nine “campuses” in South Korea, and is devoted to fostering the next wave of Korean celebrities. Since its founding in 2008, it’s cultivated several big-name idols, including Solar, a member of Mamamoo, and Woohyun Nam, a multi-skilled singer, songwriter, composer and actor. Its current director is Tae Won Kim, a Korean rocker whose signature look is long, pin-straight hair pulled back in a ponytail and sunglasses that hide his eyes at all times, accentuating a pinched, mousey face.
Born Star’s New York campus opened in 2010 and is the only center outside of South Korea. Kim has been teaching both language and vocal classes at the center for the past two years, and says she’s seen an increase in the number of trainees since the rise of groups like BTS.
And, despite some cultural differences between Korea and Western countries, Kim believes that “this K-pop sensation, the K-wave, can be translated to new cultures.”
Kim estimates that less than 10 percent of Born Star trainees in New York are Korean. In the language class, out of the half-dozen students, only one, Eli, was Korean. Rachell Delsez, 20, who sat next to Leo, is Hispanic, while Salsabil Elubuluk, the oldest of the trainees at 25, her hair tucked under a black head scarf and matching black beanie, is Sudanese. Learning how to speak Korean, along with vocal and dance lessons, is a prerequisite for becoming a K-pop star.
Leo’s life revolves around Born Star. After attending the High School for Language and Diplomacy in Manhattan’s Union Square, and remedial classes, he interned at Born Star almost every day before the coronavirus pandemic hit New York City. Leo also spent his weekends there, often six to 12 hours a day. Even when the school shut down due to stay-at-home measures, he snuck in—four times—to practice.
The first time Leo watched a K-pop music video, he was seven years old. He was sprawled on the white-tiled floor of his family’s one-bedroom home in Howard Beach, Queens, scrolling through his mom’s iPhone when he came across “Gee” by Girls’ Generation. In the video, the eight members pose as mannequins in a mall, wearing midriff-baring T-shirts, and glittering stacks of jewelry. As the mannequins come to life, each sings into the camera in cutesy, high-pitched tones, while wider shots show the group shimmying and popping in perfect synchronization.
“I had no idea what the hell was going on, but then I was like, Why do I want to watch it again?” Leo said with a laugh.
The bubblegum pop was a world away from the Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. that his parents listened to. The energy of the meticulously choreographed dance was something he could “just feel,” even through the small screen of the phone.
Though Leo didn’t see much more K-pop in the few years after that, something about that first experience stayed with him.
“Everything else seemed bland,” he recalled.
Leo, who has since analyzed almost every music video and can talk endlessly about K-pop, said that his obsession wasn’t always well-received. Last year, he performed Blackpink’s “Kill This Love” for his school. It was “traumatic,” he says, because of the negative comments the video got. Someone even remarked that Leo was fat, “but that wasn’t offensive to me because I knew that.”
Born Star, to Leo, became a safe space. “It’s a close-knit community for sure,” he said with a wide grin. “We all have that common interest of K-pop.”
Kelly, a blonde trainee, agreed. “I was shy at first, but no ice breakers are needed,” she said.
At a dance class one Saturday, it certainly didn’t seem like anyone lacked confidence. Their eyes trained on the studio mirrors, Leo, Rachell and Salsabil popped and rolled their bodies to Mamamoo’s “Hip” as their instructor, Mee Jung, counted out beats. She’d just finished teaching an hour-long private lesson for an 8-year-old Korean boy, Brian, who left the class doused in sweat.
“They start young here,” Jung said.
After Leo’s first audition with SM in 2018, he made his way to two more, one with JYP, another of the Big Three entertainment companies, and one with Big Hit. He kept in touch with the Born Star trainees he met, and, in February 2019, finally joined a class: vocal, with Sunyoung Kim.
Though Leo found the technical skills Kim taught fascinating, he did not attend another class because he could not afford it: A three-month course costs $1,050, ranging up to the most expensive, intensive program at $6,000 a year. (Salsabil works as a cashier at Target to pay for her classes, and Rachell worked full time at Line Friends before the pandemic.)
When Leo broached the topic with his mother, Isabella, she often said, “maybe later”—mom-speak for “probably not.” She later relented, and, until the citywide shutdown, Leo attended vocal, language and dance classes at Born Star.
Isabella herself, who moved from Colombia to the U.S. in 1989 when she was 12 years old, soon became enamored with K-pop. She is “100 percent supportive” of Leo’s dreams—she said she is confident that if she can make it in the U.S., so can her son—but school comes first. Education is important to the Lopez-Gonzalezes, especially as immigrants.
“For families of color, that’s where the opportunity is,” Leo said.
Over the past few decades, popular culture—from K-pop to Korean films and T.V. dramas—has become one of South Korea’s hallmark exports.
The South Korean government’s push to promote pop culture came in the late 1990s, while Asia grappled with a financial crisis. The government invested millions into forming a Ministry of Culture, which had a department devoted to K-pop.
The government regards K-pop as one of the highlights of South Korea, said John Lie, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of K-pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea. In the summer of 2019, President Trump visited the country. His welcome party included both South Korean president Moon Jae-in and the boy group EXO.
“K-pop is made for export,” Lie said. “It’s intended to appeal to—and make money from—audiences from around the world.”
Despite its international target audience, K-pop is still largely seen as a monolithic industry, where you have to fit a very specific “look.” Salsabil, the oldest student at Born Star, recognizes that, as someone who isn’t Asian, has curves and dark skin, and is considered “old” for industry standards at 25, there are some real challenges to making it as a K-pop star.
“It feels like the agencies already have an ideal person in mind, even though it’s supposed to be an ‘open audition,’” said Salsabil. That ideal person is younger, already extremely talented and/or extremely good-looking. She’s been to seven auditions so far.
Asdry Vancamper, 22, quit Born Star once she grew disillusioned with seeing only Koreans getting picked at auditions. “It’s close to impossible,” Asdry, who is Dominican, said. While she still wants to pursue dancing professionally, she feels she must relegate K-pop to more of a hobby than a realistic dream.
Even those with Korean backgrounds find it tough to break into the industry. Fellow Born Star ex-trainee, Ashleigh Chang, 18, is half-Korean, half-Chinese. But she isn’t fluent in either language, which is a minus in producers’ books. “Because K-pop is so international, they really value fluency in other languages to break that barrier and reach a wider audience,” Ashleigh explained.
There’s also the issue of culture. Some non-Asian idols face backlash from Koreans, who feel protective over K-pop, especially given the lack of Asian representation in mainstream Western media. “They feel like Caucasians are infiltrating the one thing they have,” Ashleigh said.
Some K-pop fans even go so far as to accuse idols who aren’t Korean of cultural appropriation. Ashleigh recalled some non-Korean K-pop stars being branded “Koreaboos,” the borderline pejorative term for people who are so obsessed with Korean culture that they denounce their own.
The irony in the fact that producers don’t seem to want trainees who aren’t Korean, even as they target international audiences, isn’t totally lost on the K-pop hopefuls.
Leo made a deal with himself: He knows that age is yet another big factor in K-pop, so if he doesn’t make it by the time he hits 19, he’ll pivot to the American music industry.
“The skills learned here can be applied to other kinds of music, too. I can totally take this to the Latin-American music scene,” he said. “I mean, how many artists can sing, act, dance and write? It’s the whole package.”
And, if that doesn’t work out either, he’ll teach English abroad. But Leo is remaining optimistic. He thinks that the K-pop industry has been opening up more to foreigners over the past few years, with the caveat that they have mostly been other Asians or mixed Westerners.
“It could be a big marketing strategy for attention,” he mused. “Which sucks. But at least it’s an open door.”