Korean idol

An idol (Korean아이돌; RRAidol), in fandom culture in South Korea, refers to a celebrity working in the field of K-pop, either as a member of a group or as a solo act. K-pop idols are characterized by the highly manufactured star system that they are produced by and debuted under, as well as their tendency to represent a hybridized convergence of visuals, music, fashion, dance, and music influenced by Western culture.[1] They usually work for a mainstream entertainment agency and have undergone extensive training in dance, vocals, and foreign language. Idols maintain a carefully curated public image and social media presence, and dedicate significant time and resources to building relationships with fans through concerts and meetups.[2][3][4]


Korean idol groups began to appear in the early 20th century. Its earliest examples came in the form of vocal groups that both sang and danced. The most notable early example is the Jeogori Sisters, who debuted in 1939.

Trainee systemEdit

Part of idol group Girls' Generation, signed under SM Entertainment

During the late 90s, talent agencies began to market K-pop stars by implementing an idol business model used in J-pop.[5] The K-pop trainee system was popularised by Lee Soo-man, the founder of S.M. Entertainment, as part of a concept labelled cultural technology.[6] Hundreds of candidates each day attend the global auditions held by Korean entertainment agencies to perform for the chance of becoming a trainee.[7] Auditions include public auditions and closed auditions. Others are street-cast or scouted without auditioning, based on looks or potential talent. Those who successfully pass this audition stage are offered long-term contracts with the entertainment company. There are no age limits to becoming a trainee; thus is not uncommon for trainees, and even debuted idols, to be very young.[8][9]

The trainee process lasts for an indefinite period of time, ranging from months to years, and usually involves vocal, dance, and language[10][11] classes taken while living together with other trainees, who sometimes attend school at the same time, although some trainees drop out of school to focus on their careers.[12][13] The process may include "scouting, auditioning, training, styling, producing, and managing", and was developed around the creation of "H.O.T", a boyband of S.M. Entertainment in late 1990s. Trainees in the same company compete with each other, with some being eliminated from the coveted chance of settling in "the company-owned dormitories", and continue fighting for the chance to debut in new idol groups, while those who cannot show their company the potential to become an eligible idol artist are weeded out of the company.[citation needed]

Once a trainee enters the system, they are regulated in multiple aspects including personal life (for example, dating) to body conditions and visual appearances. The survival, and training and regulation take precedence over natural talent in the production of Korean idols.[1] The system requires trainees to maintain a "wholesome image" while remaining "private about their lives and thoughts". [14]

Big Bang member, solo singer-songwriter, rapper and producer G-Dragon is one of the highest-earning Korean idols in the South Korean entertainment industry.

Former trainees have reported that they were required to go through plastic surgeries, such as a Blepharoplasty or a Rhinoplasty, in order to adhere to the acceptable Korean beauty standards. Further criticism towards the trainee system arose regarding the companies' harsh weight restrictions, which often caused trainees to pass out from exhaustion or dehydration in an attempt to reach the required weight for their desired program. [15][16]

The investment on a potential trainee could be expensive. In 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that the cost of training one member of Girls' Generation under S.M. Entertainment was US$3 million.[17] As a unique process, the Korean idol trainee system has been criticised by Western media outlets. There are also negative connotations of idols within independent and underground Korean music scenes.[18][19]

Personal imageEdit

When trainees are finally chosen to debut in new groups, they will face a new setting of personalities created by the company to cater the entertainment market. Each member of an idol group has his or her own character to play and therefore an important part of their job duties is to maintain that temperament in any kind of exposure they may get. One way to build personal image of idol groups is through social media services with contents taken care by the company to make sure the consistency of these personal characteristics.[20]

Relationship with fansEdit

The relationship between Korean idols and their fans can be characterized as "parasocial kin", which means for fans to create a familial connection with their idols rather than just being a "look-from-afar" fan. In some cases, within and outside of fandoms, fans also create familial connections with other fans through similar interests or just to make friends. These interactions can be initiated by the fans, the company, or the idols themselves, where they would most likely still have to go through their company to be approved. Some projects or activities, created by fans for the idols, must also be approved by the venue or the idols’ company to minimize any harm to the idols and fan-participants. Interactions and fan connections can be seen through events like fan meetings, also known as artist engagements, concerts or fansites, and artist cafés. An annual event known as KCon is also a place for fans and artists to interact. The nature of this "parasocial kin" relationship can also be seen in the proactive participation of Korean idol fans in production of idol groups. Even before debut, some trainees would already have their own fans. This leads to the "kinship" starting out early, and building that up is very important for the idol as an artist and the fan as a supporter. Once debuted, fans grow alongside their idols and idol-fan relationships become deeper. If anything happens, fans have their own unique ways to show their attitude and opinion on issues concerning "unfair" actions of management companies. Under this situation, fans often appear to be protecting idols from company mistreatment due to the familial connection built between both sides.[20]

Working conditionsEdit

Several Korean idol groups and solo artists have resented the contracts issued to them by their management companies, claiming that the decade-long contracts are "too long, too restrictive, and gave them almost none of the profits from their success". A director of South Korean entertainment agency DSP Media stated that the company does share profit with the performers, but often little is left over after paying costs.[21] Korean entertainment companies such as S.M Entertainment have been called "factories"[22] for their unique method of mass-producing stars. Members of groups are frequently retired and replaced with fresh trainees when their age or musical inclinations begin to pose a problem.[23] TVXQ charged S.M. Entertainment for unreasonable terms in their contracts with the company in 2009.[24]


Entertainment companies in Korea use a boot-camp system in grooming their idols. In the case of S.M. Entertainment, the company receives 300,000 applicants in nine countries every year.[25] They possess training facilities in the Gangnam district of Seoul, where recruits then train for years in anticipation of their debut. SM was called the first company to market "bands as brands", and commodify not just the artists' product, but the artist(s) themselves. Such techniques have resulted in mass recognition abroad and helped to spark the Korean Wave, which benefits entertainment companies by broadening their audience.[25] As domestic fandom is not generally enough to produce the profits that these corporations and their players require, branding and marketing of the artist/group has become central to industry profits and thus a defining feature of the genre today.[21]

Reported earningsEdit

According to the South Korean National Tax Service, the average annual earnings for a Korean idol in 2013 were KR₩46.74 million (US$42,000). This was almost double the 2010 figure of KR₩26.97 million (US$25,275), a rise attributable to the global spread of Hallyu in recent years.[26][27]

Some of the highest-earning Korean idols, for example G-Dragon, receive multimillion-dollar annual incomes in album and concert sales. On June 25, 2015, SBS's "Midnight TV Entertainment" revealed that G-Dragon earned an annual KR₩790 million (US$710,000) from songwriting royalties alone.[28] Idols can also earn revenues from endorsements, merchandise, corporate sponsorship deals and commercials. According to The Korea Herald, once a K-pop music video attracts more than a million views, it will "generate a meaningful revenue big enough to dole out profits to members of a K-pop group."[29]


The Korean Wave has led to a global rise in interest in Korean idols, along with other aspects of Korean culture including Korean films and K-dramas being exported to other parts of the globe.[30]

Sasaeng fansEdit

Some idols have experienced extreme invasions of privacy from obsessive "fans" as a result of their career in the public eye. Alleged invasions of idols' private lives include stalking, hidden cameras in idols' dorms, fans attending personal events such as relatives' weddings, and physical assault.[31][32]


There have been criticisms on the sexual objectification of female and male idols across the industry. The problem is exacerbated due to the higher rigidity of gender norms in contemporary Korean society.[33] Korean censorship practices regarding nudity and obscenity may have further reinforced this objectification.

Korean idols also frequently wear revealing clothes and dance provocatively in music videos as part of the companies' effort to market idols in multiple ways.[34] In some cases, these efforts have resulted in censorship; for example, "Miniskirt" by AOA was deemed sexually inappropriate to public TV shows and programs and was unable to be aired until the group modified their outfits and choreography.[35]

This sexualization has also led to a notion of conformity in idol acceptance. Idols that do not perform in a sexually appealing way to their targeted demographic have been harassed; for example, Amber Liu has received criticism for her androgynous appearance and disregard for gender norms.[36]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Elfving-Hwang, Joanna (2018-03-05), "K-pop idols, artificial beauty and affective fan relationships in South Korea", Routledge Handbook of Celebrity Studies, Routledge, pp. 190–201, doi:10.4324/9781315776774-12, ISBN 978-1-315-77677-4
  2. ^ Caramanica, Jon (2011-10-24). "Korean Pop Machine, Running on Innocence and Hair Gel". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 17 February 2015. Retrieved 7 September 2012.
  3. ^ Seabrook, John. "Cultural technology and the making of K-pop". The New Yorker. Archived from the original on 25 October 2012. Retrieved 30 October 2012.
  4. ^ Sun, Jung (2010). K-Pop Idol Boy Bands and Manufactured Versatile Masculinity: Making Chogukjeok Boys. Hong Kong University Press. doi:10.5790/hongkong/9789888028672.001.0001. ISBN 9789888028672.
  5. ^ Gingold, Naomi (2019-01-08). "Why The Blueprint For K-Pop Actually Came From Japan". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2020-03-22.
  6. ^ Seabrook, John (2012-10-08). "Factory Girls". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Archived from the original on 2019-07-24. Retrieved 2016-04-17.
  7. ^ "K-Pop Boot Camp". ABC News. Archived from the original on 29 October 2012. Retrieved 30 October 2012.
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