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Before Fame, These K-Pop Idols Faced Extreme Poverty, Cancer & Tragic Loss

today6 February 2021


The life of a K-Pop idol that makes it in the music and entertainment industry appears – on the surface- to be an exciting journey with expensive designer clothes, jet setting from country to country (pre-COVID19) and legions of fans. However, as K-pop (Korean Pop) rapidly took over the globe with their powerful dance moves, movie-standard music videos and gorgeous visuals, the identity of these artists, as individuals and human beings, got swept away just as quickly. Misconceptions about these young artists rage from the idea that they are…


• Rolling in riches (very wrong: most of them work hard for years to pay off all of the money their company invested in them for training, food, accommodation and so on)

• Given creative freedom (not always: a lot of groups are forced to take on images and songs that the company thinks will make them more appealing, even if they are not comfortable with it) 

• Got to where they are because they “are beautiful/handsome” (also not 100% true: idols train for YEARS – some up to 15 years – under gruelling and strenuous contracts that do not guarantee that they can even make it onto a stage even after all that training).


So, why do they push themselves so hard to be a part of an industry that is both creatively stifling and uncompromising? For these individuals, where and what they came from shaped their desperation and will power to work towards achieving their dreams.


Wonder Girls’ SUNMI


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A post shared by SUNMI (@miyayeah)

Sunmi originally debuted back in 2009 in one of the first K-Pop groups to make it big internationally, Wonder Girls (they sand the song with lyrics that go: “I want nobody, nobody but you!”). Now a solo artist with over 20 different awards under her belt, Sunmi accredits her hard work and decision for becoming a celebrity to her father. On an episode of tvN’s ‘Talk Mon’, Sunmi shared that it was her fathers declining health and the pressure as the oldest in the family that got her looking towards fame as a source of income. Sunmi stated,


“When I was in the 5th grade, I lived with my two younger brothers and my dad. But my dad was sick and he kept getting worse. He lived at home with an oxygen breathing apparatus but he was transferred to the hospital because his condition worsened. So our family was faced financial difficulties. I became the head of the house. My dad was immobile. My teachers had wished for me to become a teacher too, but that would have taken another 10 years of study. How was I supposed to make money right then and there?”


Sunmi shared that at the time, she truly believed that the fastest way to make money was to make it big. So even before she got accepted into JYP (one of the big three entertainment companies in Korea and subsequently the company Wonder Girls made their debut under) at the age of 14, she was taking the bus all around South Korea to try to get noticed by an agency.  14, she started At the time, the young me believed that was the fastest way to make money. When she made it into JYP, she was forced to leave her 12-year-old and 10-year-old brother behind with their ailing father to train to become an idol. Sunmi stated that before she could debut, her dad sent her one last message,


“My dad relied on me a lot and would sometimes whine while speaking to me. I’d always replied to his messages but training was hard. It was too much for my young self to bare. And then one day, I received a message from my dad saying, ‘Dad is leaving first.’ I didn’t text back, thinking that my dad was just whining again but… he passed away the next day…”


Sunmi shared that she regrets not responding to his message. His last words, in the form of a letter that he wrote to her, were,


“Please be born as my daughter again in the next life.”



JYJ’s Jae-Joong


Also known by his stage names, Hero Jae-joong and Jejung, Kim Jae-Joong is best known as one of the members of the Korean pop group, ‘JYJ’ and before that, ‘TVXQ’. Before he found his identity as one of the most powerful vocalists in Korea, Jae-Joong found himself struggling with the identity of his real family. It turns out, Jae-Joong had been adopted at a young age (3/4 years old) and hadn’t realised that he was adopted until later on. After Jae-Joong made a name for himself as a singe (and almost 20 years after giving him up for adoption) his biological mother reached out to him. She even went on TV shows to explain the situation. She explained,


“My husband lost all his money after being scammed. We split up in 1989. Afterwards, I would serve at a restaurant from 10AM to 11PM. I couldn’t take care of Jae-Joong. There weren’t extended daycares or kindergartens back in the days. I had to feed him leftovers from the restaurant. Things were not good. That’s when an acquaintance of mine suggested that I give him up for adoption. She had an older brother who had eight daughters and thought that that family would take great care of Jae-Joong, who would be the youngest and only son.”


His biological mother went on to say that people who found out that she was Jae-Joong’s mother, especially since she was reappearing after so long, were harsh as they said hurtful things about her. Things got so bad, that his biological mother even tried to end her life. As for his biological father, he remained a mystery up until 2006, when he reappeared to try to obtain parental rights over Jae-Joong, despite his adoptive parents raising him for most of his life. His biological father later went on to drop the case. Jae-Joong himself has addressed his dual parentage, stating,


“I wish to continue living as Kim Jae-Joong, as I have always had. I also want my biological and adoptive families to continue understanding and loving each other.”


At present, Jae-Joong spends his time acting, writing music and promoting them. He has won 8 different awards as a solo artist and an actor, including the “New Star Award”, “Best New Actor” and “Top Excellence Award, Actor”.





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A post shared by 이지금 IU (@dlwlrma)

Lee Ji-eun, or known by her stage name IU, faced extreme poverty when her family debts started piling up. And while her parents struggled to get their family back on their feet, IU and her younger brother were sent to live with their Grandmother in a cockroach-infested studio room with her cousins. Afterwards, they were moved to a relatives house. However, their relative was verbally abusive and would come home drunk, only to start shouting that IU would never make it as an artist and should, instead, be studying to make a proper living. Rather than letting this tear her down, IU continued to pursue music. She found herself going to audition after audition, hitting the 20 different auditions in a year and failing all of them. When she did eventually become a trainee, IU was conned out of her grandmothers hard saved cash after an ‘agency’ promised to help her appear on TV programmes.


In 2012, IU was named as ‘one of the most influential people in South Korea’ by the Forbes Korea Power Celebrity list.


By 2014, IU had solidified her presence as the ‘Nation’s Little Sister’, having released multiple award-winning albums and singles. However, behind the scenes, the young star revealed that she had been struggling with bulimia, a disorder involving body image and the obsessive desire to lose weight. As a result of her struggles, IU found herself in a “hole of self-pity”. She shared,


“Because I was so stressed, even the smallest thing would actually make my skin crawl. I was really unhappy. Once I started disliking myself, there was no end to that. I kept digging deeper and deeper into a hole of self-pity. I was so lethargic and felt like I only had two choices – to sleep or to eat. So whenever I wasn’t sleeping, I was binge eating.”


Now, IU is living her best life, managing her diet, her schedule and her self care routine with yoga. To date, IU has over 70 different awards for both her music and her acting.



Super Junior’s Leeteuk 


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A post shared by 이특 leeteuk (@xxteukxx)

If you see Leeteuk on TV, you wouldn’t be able to tell just how tragic of a life the 37-year-old leader of Super Junior has led. From the start, Leeteuk has had a rough life, with his father physically and verbally abusing him, their poor household condition and his parent’s subsequent divorce. On MBC’s ‘Good Day’, Leeteuk revealed, that he had always been bitter towards his father, for the way he had treated him and thus, found himself becoming “someone who chased happiness all the time”. As a result, Leeteuk took it upon himself to make a better life and after 5 years of training, debuted with Super Junior.


However, after years of success, in 2014, Leeteuk’s father spited his son one last time.  Both his father and his paternal grandparents were found dead in their home. After his business started failing, Leeteuk’s father struggled with managing its failure and subsequent debt alongside his grandfathers Alzheimer’s and his grandmothers ailing health as a result of cancer. As such, Leeteuk’s father strangled both of them before hanging himself. Before taking their lives and his own, Leeteuk’s father left a note for him and the police. It read,


“I will bring my parents with me. My children, I am sorry. Please forgive me.”


Unfortunately, that was not all that his father had left to say. Leeteuk would later go on to share how his father left him one last message, saying,


“Do you truly believe you achieved success all by yourself?”


Leeteuk, who found out about the murder-suicide while he was on mandatory military service, would later share how the news coincided with his depression. After finishing his service, he worked to pay off the $4.3 million (RM18,330,900) debt that his father had left behind. Through the years, Leeteuk has been open about his family, his struggles and his emotions, sharing…


“I am telling you my family story to tell you that a celebrity’s life is not all that it seems, it is filled with despair and sadness much like everyone else’s.”



IZ*ONE’s Yena

As a child, Yena (full name Choi Yena) battled lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes.  During a broadcast of Mnet’s ‘IZ*ONE CHU’ Yena visited her parents with kimbap (rice roll) that she had made herself. As Yena and her family were sitting at the table for food, the show’s producers asked her what she wanted to do most, to which Yena replied that her wish is to send her parents on a honeymoon. She went on to explain,


“When I was young, I had lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system). I was really sick to the point where the hospital told us that there was no hope. Our family wasn’t very well off, and because of the hospital bills, my parents went to sell kimbap every day early in the morning.”




 *Cover image credits: @dlwlrma / @jj_1986_jj / @miyayeah

Written by: Marissa Anne

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