Death of singer Goo Hara, 28, resurfaces questions about pressures of K-pop fame

Korean pop star Goo Hara, 28, was found dead at her home in Seoul on Sunday — just weeks after her friend and fellow K-pop singer Sulli died in a suspected suicide at age 25.

While the cause of Goo’s death is not yet known, the singer, who performed with the K-pop group Kara from 2008 to 2015 before embarking on a solo career, left a “pessimistic” note on her living room table, a Seoul Metropolitan Police spokesperson said.

Further, she attempted what was widely reported as suicide in May. After her hospitalisation, she told reporters she had been “in agony over a number of overlapping issues” yet apologised for “causing concerns and a commotion.”

Goo Hara, a former member of South Korean girl group Kara, at a photocall in Seoul in 2017. (Photo: Han Myung-Gu/WireImage)

In addition to the death of her peer and friend, Goo (also known as Hara in other parts of Asia) recently found herself in a court battle with an ex-boyfriend after he allegedly assaulted her and attempted to blackmail her with the release of a sex video she didn’t consent to making, Variety reports. It made her the target of intense media attention and cyberbullying.

While her ex was found guilty, it still damaged her reputation with her agency terminating her contract. In June, she signed a new contract with a Japanese talent management agency, Production Ogi. Just about a week after she died, she released a single, “Midnight Queen,” in Japan on 13 November.

Her last Instagram post, on 22 November, said “good night” — and she was found dead, by her housekeeper, on 24 November.

The pressures of K-pop fame

The meteoric rise of South Korean bands like BTS and BlackPink can be attributed to a signature K-pop formula of intoxicating melodies, synchronised dance routines, meticulously-crafted appearances and a group of attractive South Korean entertainers rigorously trained to sing in perfect harmony. But behind the veneer of the carefully constructed image of these K-pop band sensations is a culture of extreme pressure, hyper-scrutiny and unaddressed mental health problems.

South Korean boy band BTS perform on ABC's "Good Morning America at Rumsey Playfield/SummerStage in Central Park on Wednesday, May 15, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Scott Roth/Invision/AP)

The back-to-back deaths of Goo and Sulli had renewed worry of the unbearably high pressures of K-pop fame. The latter, a former member of the Korean girl group f(x), was found dead in her Seongnam, South Korea, home on 14 October with an autopsy later concluding that there was evidence that she may have died by suicide.

Sulli had openly discussed the cyberbullying she faced for being outspoken about social issues in conservative South Korea and revealed her struggles with mental health in an interview soon before her death, saying that she had been "lying to everyone by pretending to be happy."

The women were not the only Korean idols battling mental health issues — reports have cited a growing crisis in the K-pop industry. In 2017, Kim Jong-hyun, a former member of popular boy band SHINee, took his own life and left a note behind describing his crippling depression, writing that "the life of fame was not for me.”

However, the culture of silence around mental health extends to South Korean society at large. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, South Korea has consistently had one of the highest suicide rates among developed countries, prompting its government to take steps to tackle the issue.

Euny Hong, the Korean-American author of The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World with Pop Culture, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the increasing pressures of being a K-pop star from their record labels and the public, combined with the stigmas around mental illness in South Korea, will continue to drive its idols over the edge.

“Koreans have only had internationally known stars for a few decades, so they are even less equipped to deal with this kind of thing,” Hong tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “That, and the taboo against seeking psychiatric care, all but guarantees that these kinds of tragedies will keep happening unless there is a fundamental societal change.”

Training a Korean pop “idol”

BLACKPINK performs on the Sahara stage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. on Fri. April 19, 2019. (Thomas Hawthorne/USA Today Network/Sipa USA)

As K-pop expert and music journalist Jeff Benjamin put it, “No one just shows up to the K-pop scene.” The synchronised choreography and perfect harmony fans see on stage from their favorite Korean pop stars is the product of years of grueling training.

“They’re called K-pop idol and that’s an important word when thinking about this industry,” Benjamin tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “This idea that they’re supposed to be ideal and perfect — that’s the reason they train so rigorously and intensely before they debut.”

Korean performers are discovered through massive global auditions, similar to that of The X Factor or American Idol, or are recruited on the street for their looks alone. After signing a contract with entertainment companies like SM Entertainment (Sulli’s talent agency), then they undergo a notoriously brutal training that professor Lee Dong-yeon, who teaches cultural theory at the Korean National University, told South China Morning Post is known as the “idol farm system.”

“Pop idol trainees often follow an arduous daily schedule that includes two hours of exercise, four hours of dance and choreography classes, two hours of vocal training, followed by three hours of language studies,” South China Morning Post reported.

Stella Kim, a trainee who was on track to join South Korean girl group Girls Generation, recalled being forced to go on a scale in front of other trainees and developing an eating disorder as a result. “They would make us stand in line and go on the scale,” Kim shared with the Asian-American publication, NextShark. “They would call out what your weight is in front of everyone. If your weight had not gone down from the week prior, you would get bashed on.” At one point, the 5-foot-7 former aspiring K-pop star weighed only 90 pounds.

South Korean pop girl group Girl's Generation perform during the Twin Towers Alive concert, held in conjunction with the Malaysian Formula One Grand Prix in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Friday, March 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Ching Kien Huo)

“In the Korean entertainment industry, beauty is often associated with physical appearance,” Kim added. “Beauty is often an exaggeration of femininity or masculinity… All extremely distorted views that are unfortunately set by socio-cultural standards in a high-pressure, fast-paced society.”

Many “K-pop trainees” are students, who are juggling as many as 13 hours of training at the label along with their academic studies. These individuals are then evaluated on their singing, dancing, and even weight loss on a weekly or monthly basis. Trainees will spend anywhere from two to 10 years in these rigorous programs — but even then you’re not guaranteed a spot in a coveted K-pop group.

“You have to put in all these crazy hours and hard work. The person that works harder to be more fit and dance harder to look more presentable will fair better,” says Benjamin, adding that plastic surgery is also often encouraged for K-pop star hopefuls. “It’s more vigorous than what we’re used to in the West... If you don’t make these groups, you have to start all over.”

Mental health in the K-pop industry

Once a trainee is picked to debut with a Korean pop group, everything from their hair, clothes and makeup to their public image is meticulously constructed and controlled by their talent agency — and the responsibility of maintaining this appearance is critical to their group. “To keep that look and image and vision of the group intact, they are dressed by coordinators and stylists,” Benjamin explains. “In the East, it’s a very Confucian ideal that the family or the group comes first.”

However, with the rise of social media and increasingly obsessive superfans known as “sasaeng fans,” admiration for K-pop idols has spiraled to sometimes creepy, and even criminal, behavior: One fan broke into the home of a K-pop idol to take a photo, South China Morning Post reported. Hong says that this scrutiny from their fans adds to the already intense pressure they face from their record labels.

BTS arrives at the Billboard Music Awards on Wednesday, May 1, 2019, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

The presumed suicides of Goo and Sulli “just goes to show that, despite the more 'humane' treatment of K-pop stars, the pressures seem not to have abated,” Hong tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I think this suggests that the pressure on these stars doesn't come 100 percent from the record labels, as was previously assumed. I'm not aware of any culture that knows how to deal with its stars on a human level, whether they're at the top of their game or past their peak.”

Kyung Hyun Kim, a UC Irvine professor and expert on Korean popular culture says that he’s surprised that there “aren’t more cases of depressions, drug abuse, and self-destruction reported in K-pop today” — but that is likely due to the stigma around mental health and seeking psychiatric help.

“Imagine Michael Jackson who obviously came into showbiz at the age of 3 and then tried to stay normal for the next five decades, and then multiply that number by about 50,000, and you got a very sick industry called K-pop. The meticulously perfected choreography, killer schedules and constant demand from their fans do make these idols go insane,” Kim tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Fans watch South Korean boy band BTS perform on ABC's "Good Morning America at Rumsey Playfield/SummerStage in Central Park on Wednesday, May 15, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Scott Roth/Invision/AP)

However, fans are hopeful for a change in the K-pop industry with more stars opening up about their mental health struggles. In response to the suicide of SHINee member Jong-hyun, BTS member Suga said that “everyone is suffering and lonely” and that he hoped their country could create an environment “where we can ask for help, and say things are hard when they're hard, and say that we miss someone when we miss them," E! News reported. Meanwhile, BTS member RM told Billboard that he hoped the South Korean government would take more steps to address the mental health of their generation.

Some talent agencies have recognised the rising mental health crisis in the K-pop world and are working to address it. Korean entertainment agencies, including Starship Entertainment and Fantagio Entertainment, have begun to provide more mental health resources and suicide prevention training, according to Benjamin.

“These artists are taking the time to open up about these issues and reduce the stigmas about mental health,” says Benjamin. “This issue is bigger than one celebrity. As K-pop grows its international footprint, these things that are considered the standard way of doing things will change if places like America, where there’s an open culture about mental health, have more eyes on it.”

For confidential emotional support at times of distress, contact The Samaritans at any time by calling 116 123 or emailing jo@samaritans.org.

Suzy Byrne contributed reporting to this story, which was originally published on Oct. 15, 2019 at 2:17 p.m. ET.