The Cute Quotient
Primastuti Handayani, WEEKENDER | Fri, 01/06/2012 1:40 PM |
The pretty young men of K-pop have girls swooning and their creators laughing all the way to the bank. Why here, why now?
South Korea’s best-known export today is not pickled cabbage. Instead, it comes in a sleek, pretty package and suits the tastes of people across Asia – especially young women – and increasingly the world.
Move over, kimchi. Come on down, K-pop male idols.
In the past few years, Indonesian teenage girls, like their peers across Asia and increasingly in Europe, have become devoted fans of Hallyu (Korean wave) entertainers such as Choi Si-won of Super Junior, Kim Jaejoong of JYJ (formerly a member of DBSK/TVXQ), SS501’s Kim Hyun-joong and many more.
Back in 2009, the era of Bae Yong-joon with his famous Winter Sonata TV series gave way to protégé Hyun-joong in the role of Yoon Ji-hoo in Boys Before Flowers. Jaejoong’s Protect the Boss and Si-won’s Poseidon, produced in 2011, have captured the hearts of fans who watch the series however they can – cable TV, video streaming, pirated DVDs or on YouTube.
Asian countries, especially Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, have turned out plenty of attractive young entertainers in the past, but these Korean men – stylish, well groomed and well built – fulfill a fantasy for young women of the very handsome boy next door.
According to psychologist Dewi Dewo, moviegoers want to see men who are good-looking but not intimidating.
“Why do sweet-looking boys sell? Because the trend today is for them. Even young stars from the West are cute guys,” she says.
Tati Winarsih, the author of Seoulvivor, a book on K-pop hot spots in Seoul released late November, believes that it’s only natural for everybody to want to see “beautiful creatures”.
“These girls really love those pretty boys because despite their beautiful look, they are still able to show their macho side, their manly character. They aren’t effeminate despite their beauty,” she says, adding that reality shows have helped the stars to reveal their true selves to their fans.
The dramas also sell Korea. Most of the shows treat viewers to beautiful scenes of Korea’s main tourism sites such as the famous Jeju Island or the landmark N Seoul Tower on Namsan – a major driver of the increasing number of foreign tourists arriving in South Korea. The dramas also perform wonders in advertising traditional Korean dishes such as kimchi and bibimbap.
Even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, himself South Korean, has praised the K-pop stars, saying that, thanks to them, “Korea’s status was elevated”.
Brands of Brothers
It’s no surprise then, given the young men’s popularity and good looks, that some of them have been named brand ambassadors for South Korean cosmetics companies. Being beautiful is big business.
Hyun-joong, for example, was a model for Tonymoly in 2009, before being named brand ambassador for The Face Shop in 2010. Other stars include Jang Geun-seuk for Nature Republic, 2PM’s Nichkhun for It’s Skin, actor Song Joong-ki for Tonymoly, SHINee for Etude and DBSK for Mischa.
“Even in Korea, it used to be the way that men are really not used to using makeup products,” Hyun-joong said in an interview during his Asia Tour to Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines in August to endorse The Face Shop.
“However, due to a shift in culture, men nowadays pay attention to their skin complexion as much as women do. The time when men have a simple skin routine is long gone,”
But apart from their beautiful faces and perfect skin, do these boys have another selling point?
“I admire their hard work. They are like the representatives of Korea as a nation. They really work hard to achieve what they have become now. Other than that, they seem polite, creative and respect their seniors,” said Laksmi, a mother of two teenagers, who loves watching dramas from Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Indeed, the artists undergo training – polishing their looks and talents – for three to seven years before they finally debut, depending on each individual’s talent.
On the Taiwanese talk show The Person, Hyun-joong explained that he slept only five or six hours in the five days producing a drama. It’s no wonder he lost eight kilograms after finishing Boys Before Flowers and collapsed from fatigue during a commercial shoot, as reported in Arirang.
In preparing a new album, Hyun-joong slept only three to four hours a day, spending seven hours in dance practice, five hours recording and two hours physical training.
JYP Entertainment, whose artists include 2PM, 2AM, MissA and Wonder Girls, imposes an even stricter physical regime. In a reality show called Young Blood, 2PM members Junsu, Junho, Nichkhun, Taecyeon, Wooyoung and Chansung – dubbed the “beasty idols” because of their rough image, in contrast to the pretty boys – underwent military-style training to buff their bodies, in addition to their regular dancing and singing workouts.
Even after going through such intensive training – or maybe because of it – at times they forget their dance moves or lyrics. Si-won is an example. The 25-year-old once punched a wall, shocking his fellow Super Junior members, because he was angry with himself for forgetting his dance moves, as revealed in The Secret of Super Junior by Yu Kigoshi.
The comprehensive training system, according to SM Entertainment CEO Kim Young-min, is the secret behind the success of K-pop. SM is currently the biggest entertainment agency in South Korea, with its stable of stars including DBSK, Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, SHINee and f(x).
“If a group concept is chosen, then the members start training their foreign languages, dancing and singing,” he was quoted as saying by Soompi.com. “I think the most important aspect of training is training a celebrity’s personality.”
“Creating” a superstar is not a cheap enterprise. SM founder, Lee So-man, revealed how his agency spent 4 billion won (US$4 million) grooming the original five members of DBSK, according to Chosun. The amount doubled as the group – named the best second-generation K-pop band from their 2004 debut until they splintered into DBSK and JYJ in 2009 following a legal dispute – started producing their album and doing promotions.
The enormous investment pays off: The artists, once successful and popular, are veritable money machines. According to one estimate, the Hallyu may have generated as much as US$4 billion in sales in 2011, a 14 percent increase from the previous year. The number is likely to grow given the high demand for more concerts and fan meetings overseas.
SM is one of the agencies that have expanded to Europe and the United States. In 2010, they staged concerts in Paris and New York City, attracting the critical attention of no lesser publication than The New York Times.
The huge popularity of Korean TV dramas throughout Asia is largely attributable to the shared cultural values. The Korean male characters show respect for their parents, for example, demonstrating traditional Asian filial responsibility.
“What makes us love Korean dramas is also how we see those men treat women. The main character usually treats his woman in a gentle, respectful manner,” says Laksmi. “Maybe that fulfills our fantasy of meeting such a man in real life.”
With its simple dance moves and catchy lyrics and melodies, K-pop has captured the hearts of fans worldwide, bridging the language gap. Despite predictions that Hallyu fever will fade soon, or gripes that the boys are all style and no substance, all signs show it is still going strong.
And those pretty boys still have what it takes.