One TV advertisement lays out the reality with just a simple phrase: “You and I can be an idol; there are no more children dreaming of becoming scientists.” In certain parts of Seoul like Nonhyundong and Chungdamdong alone, there are an estimated 5,000 trainees hoping for a chance to debut. If you include the number of elementary school students who listed becoming an idol as their career goal, the number far exceeds a million.
Jumping with the trend is also the growth of businesses specializing in idol trainees. From vocal academies to acting academies, and even plastic surgery hospitals – they’re all spreading by the day. Every sector of the market is wanting a piece of the pie, and Gangnam is evidence of that as there simply aren’t enough buildings or space anymore to house new businesses like villa-style dormitories for idol groups and dance rehearsal studios.
There has been an incredible rise in academies over the past two to three years. Vocal academies have risen by 10 times through the success of audition shows like Mnet’s ‘Superstar K’. A director of the Voice Fact Academy commented, “There are over 3,000 registered vocal academies nationwide. There are hundreds alone in Seoul. Just until two to three years ago, there were only a handful of major academies, but now there are probably close to 40~50.”
Hospitals specializing in plastic surgery and dermatology, beauty salons, and fitness centers are all popular business items as well. A company spends close to $1,000~2,000 USD a month on beauty expenses alone to prepare for their debut.
CEO Lee Dae Hee of Star Fox Entertainment had to say, “Since it is a profession that focuses on what you have to show, our artists and trainees spend more on managing their outer appearance than their actual skills. These days, competition is tough so these business will partner up with entertainment companies for special perks and promotional offers.”
The rise in such businesses can be accredited to the profit value of the Korea entertainment market. There are rising numbers across the board, as seen with the 16% rise in the content development market, an 11.9% rise in the music market, a 4.5% rise in the movie market, and a 6.1% rise in the broadcast market.
Unfortunately, there’s also a shadow looming over these numbers. In hand with the rise of success also brings ‘dark hands’ like unqualified instructors setting up academies to bait trainees and rob them of their money and time. The secretary general of the Entertainment Management Association said, “There isn’t a clear answer that leads to becoming a celebrity so trainees will do whatever they can to get the skills they need to succeed. The only way we can continue the growth of the entertainment market is if we block people from using the dreams of these kids for money.”
The numbers aren’t too different from other trainees or rookie stars.
Audition programs are now even after the pockets of these people, as they’ve started demanding application fees per audition. One such operation was caught and brought to court. Lee Ji Hoon of JellyFish Entertainment had to say, “It is possible that auditions will ask for a minimum fee, but you should always be suspicious if you’re asked more than what you feel you should be comfortable with.”
Some academies have even taken to demanding money from their students for training upkeep. One CEO revealed that companies will usually pay for everything for the artist up front and then request a payback after the artist has debuted and made enough money to do well. Such is the case with plastic surgery. Companies will pick a hospital of their choice for the procedure and the trainee can pay back the costs after their debut.
An insider who’s worked for over 10 years in the industry revealed, “Celebrities who go on hiatus will work at these sex salons or as DJs and other types of ‘service’ workers at karaokes to make a living.”
It’s naive to think that just because you become a celebrity that everything else will fall into place. Being in the entertainment industry is like working freelance in that you have to give up on being paid regularly. According to the Korea Broadcasting Actors Union, 72% of the 5,000 actors they have registered with them make less than $10,000 USD a year.
The situation isn’t any different for idols. Although it’s just as hard without a company, the difficulties they face are the same even with a company. At their request, artists can ask that the company pay for their living expenses, but this will all be taken out of their next pay check, so they continually sit on debt.
And just because you’ve landed a drama role doesn’t mean much either. The minimum amount an actor was paid for a drama was $36.65 USD. For a 16 episode mini-series, the actor was basically paid 70 cents an episode once you take out the division with the company and other expenses like stylists, transportation, food, etc.
That’s why most will take on two jobs to make ends meet. One actress ‘C’ works at a bar in Gangnam. “When people ask me why I’m working here, I don’t know what to tell them.”
Others can’t escape the seduction of the fast cash the sex service industry can bring. Those that do end up going this route, however, live every day in fear and anxiety of whether they can pick their careers back up again.
‘D’, who’s currently preparing for his own debut, said, “I knew this one trainee who didn’t have a lot of things going for him after some disagreements with his company. He began working at a bar while going through some tough times and eventually fell to depression and developed a panic disorder, which is making it even harder for him to find a job.”