For years, fans and artists of K-Pop have fought against the prejudice that portrays it as an inherently malicious industry. The phrase “dark side of K-Pop” has become an online lingo for fans to poke fun at the lens through which many Western people have tried to represent K-Pop to the world with its rising popularity. As much as these stereotypes are untrue, it doesn’t mean that the industry is free from its faults. There are many artists, who have been in the system and seen its ugly side, who have escaped and then come forward to tell their stories, and Kim Gayoung is one of them.
Kim Ga Young rose to fame very early in life, when she was in high school. During an episode of the popular variety show 2 Days & 1 Night, she appeared on screen as a viewer and caught the public’s attention. Later, she got scouted by Top Class Entertainment, which was then renamed to The Entertainment Pascal. She joined the agency to start her career as an actor and even made her debut with the television series Spy Mung Wol. But her agency wanted her to try out being an idol, and she debuted as a member of the girl group Stellar.
Stellar debuted in 2011 with four members, Gayoung, Jeonyul, Leeseul, and JoA, with the single “Rocket Girl.” But after the single failed to perform well on charts, the group underwent a line-up change before releasing “UFO” the following year. Unfortunately, “UFO” was met with the same fate as “Rocket Girl,” leading to another change in the line-up. Members Leeseul and JoA left the group and were replaced by Minhee and Hyoeun.
In 2013, the group released a new single, “Study,” which charted decently, marking the beginning of their popularity. The following year, Stellar received immense public attention with their first EP, Marionette, but it turned out to be a curse for the members. During Marionette, the agency almost forced an overly-sensual image on the group, which has had a more cute-meets-girl crush concept. This image switch was marked by risqué outfits and questionable marketing tactics.
The “Marionette” music video received a 19+ rating, but the song charted very well on Gaon and Billboard‘s K-Pop Hot 100. The group had been waiting for his success for a long time, but it came at a steep price.
When we first debuted, we were closer to a cute concept. There were things like aliens, but it was a cute concept that fit our age range well. We were able to get a lot of attention at first because we were the group ‘produced by Shinhwa’s Eric’. We released about three albums, but they weren’t good results. So the company was in a difficult situation. Eric eventually left, and there was a time when it was just the CEO and our manager. It was hard. We didn’t even have the financial freedom to go sit at a cafe. We’d get so embarrassed when the van of another celebrity would pass us by. We used to hide our faces.
Years after leaving the group, Gayoung reunited with her former groupmate Minhee on her YouTube channel and revealed that the members were tricked into filming sexually provocative scenes for the music video and didn’t know how the footage would be portrayed until it was already out.
There was one scene where a member had to drink milk. The script said, ‘Missing your past lover, Tossing and turning in bed, Wake up and drink milk.’ We simply thought that they wanted her to drink milk to portray a morning scene. The member drank the milk for the scene, but they apparently told her, ‘Spill the milk while drinking.’ She thought that she was spilling it to show that the character had no strength, but we were shocked when we read the comments that said, ‘This scene can make you imagine a certain act’. The member who filmed it was only 20 years old at the time, and she was so shocked that she can’t drink white milk to this day. She was hurt a lot. No one knew that was [the purpose of the scene].
Though the group tried to move away from this sexy concept, the songs didn’t do well, giving their agency more leverage to coerce them into going back to sexually provocative themes.
During ‘Vibrato’, they all of a sudden told us that day to dance in the outfits. We told them, ‘We can’t dance in these.’ They responded, ‘Just try it. Why do you say no before even trying it.’ We shot about 5 photos with it, and we told them, ‘Look, it’s too much.’ They seemed to agree and told us to change, but those photos were released. When we saw those photos, we called them to argue. They brushed it aside saying, ‘Oh, you didn’t know? Okay sorry, we won’t do it again.’ But the photos were already released so there was nothing we can do. I think they knew that the members were all too kind and soft.
Gayoung also revealed that during this time, the agency also exerted them physically, giving them one meal to split among four members. Eventually, all four members of the group left after their contract with the company expired, and the group was disbanded.
Gayoung left Stellar in 2017, but it took her three years to make her way back to the entertainment industry. In 2020, she appeared on MBN‘s reality show Miss Back, where she shared heartbreaking details of her trauma from being forced to do sexually charged concepts in Stellar. The singer revealed that during their time in the group, the members were targeted with hate and sexual harassment, which continued for her even after leaving the industry.
I still get photos of genitals and messages asking me if I’m interested in being ‘sponsored.’
The psychological toll her idol days took on her was so severe, that she couldn’t even wear short clothes in her daily life.
I’m traumatized from only wearing short things during my time with Stellar. So I only wear long things even in the middle of summer. I hate people seeing my legs.
The young Gayoung that started to chase her dream of becoming an actor, went through immense pain after falling victim to the dark side of the K-Pop industry. But thankfully, she found her footing again. Gayoung now runs a successful cafe, “Hartogela,” in Itaewon, and continues to pursue her dream of being an actor.
Recently, she has done modeling for some brands, appeared in multiple variety programs, and also started pursuing writing on her own blog!
It takes a certain amount of courage to stand up tall again once life knocks you down, and Gayoung has proved that she’s got it plenty! We wish her bthe est finall her future endeavors.