Feb 23, 2016

K-poparazzi

In the U.S., paparazzi are pretty much synonymous with invasion of privacy. But today we travel to a place where the prying press create something more like a prison break. 

K-pop is a global juggernaut - with billions in sales and millions of fans hanging on every note, watching K-pop idols synchronize and strut. And that fame rests on a fantasy, K-pop stars have to be chaste and pure, but also … available. Until recently, Korean music agencies and K-pop fans held their pop stars to a strict set of rules designed to keep that fantasy alive. That is, until Dispatch showed up.

Taking a cue from American and British paparazzi, a group of South Korean reporters started hiding in their cars and snapping photos of stars on their secret dates. The first-ever paparazzi photos turned the world of K-pop upside down and introduced sort of a puzzle … how much do you want to know about the people you idolize, and when is enough enough?

Produced by Matthew Kielty and Alexandra Young. Reported by Alexandra Young with Brenna Farrell.

Special Thanks to Dispatch, Haeryun Kang, Joseph Kim, Charlie Cho, Hyena, Crayon Pop, Jeremy Bloom, The Kirukkiruk Guesthouse, Choi Baekseol, Jiin Choi, David Bevan, and The One Shots. 

And if, like us, this story leaves you with an insatiable desire to listen to K-pop here is a starter list of our recommendations: 

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[RADIOLAB INTRO]

 

ROBERT KRULWICH: Are you surprised that this is so popular?

 

ALEXANDRA YOUNG: Am I surprised? You know what I'm surprised about? I'm surprised that this morning I was walking to the subway and I was like, "Man, I want to listen to my K-Pop playlist.

 

ROBERT: I guess I'm a little surprised with that myself. Take a note, Robert.

 

ALEXANDRA: And I did listen to it and it was amazing. And I -- it's undeniable.

 

JAD ABUMRAD: Okay, I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

JAD: This is Radiolab.

 

ROBERT: And today -- oh, sorry.

 

JAD: No, no. You go. Today a story from our reporter, Alex Young.

 

JAD: Hi.

 

ALEXANDRA: Hi!

 

JAD: Well, just to set it up, this story for us connects to one we did a few podcasts ago about Gary Hart and the moment when how we covered politics changed. This story is about a similar change that's happening right now, right in front of our eyes in South Korea.

 

ROBERT: So we're going to travel a few thousand miles.

 

JAD: Yeah. And in this one, all the usual dynamics you would expect in this kind of story get totally flipped.

 

ROBERT: It's not about politics this time. It's about music and fans.

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

ROBERT: It's gonna sound a little bit like a music piece as you already heard, but really it's a puzzle. If you really admire someone and love them and so on, how much do you want to know about -- about them, really?

 

JAD: Yeah. Is it tell me everything, or tell me nothing? And if someone does try and tell you everything, at what point do you say stop? Ready?

 

ALEXANDRA: I'm ready.

 

JAD: Where do -- where should we begin?

 

ALEXANDRA: Well, I think before we get to, like, the moment that I am very excited about, I need to kind of give you guys a little bit of the world in which all of this is gonna happen.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

ROBERT: Okay.

 

ALEXANDRA: And so we're gonna start with this woman.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: When I tell my friends about it, I kind of describe it as a prison but it's a prison you decide to walk into.

 

ALEXANDRA: Okay, so this -- this is Sarah Wolfgang.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: I was a former trainee for a K-Pop group in Korea, and I'm here to talk about that.

 

ALEXANDRA: Sarah is Korean American. She was born in America.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: But I actually grew up in Korea. My parents both worked for the military.

 

ALEXANDRA: And you were living in Seoul?

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: Correct.

 

ALEXANDRA: Okay.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: Yongsan Seoul.

 

ALEXANDRA: And Sarah says that her whole K-Pop adventure, it all started for her because when she was growing up ...

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: I really never liked school.

 

ALEXANDRA: Mm-hmm.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: So my parents were kind of wanting me to do something else. Like, they still wanted me to finish school, but ...

 

ALEXANDRA: They encouraged her to try out acting.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: To go to auditions, try out for school plays. And when I was in high school ...

 

ALEXANDRA: About 15 years old.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: I think maybe 10th grade.

 

ALEXANDRA: Her headshots ended up getting passed to a South Korean record company.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: And when we received the phone call, they were like, "Oh, hey you want to come in and audition for a K-Pop group?" And I was -- I actually denied it. I really didn't want to do it.

 

ALEXANDRA: Oh.

 

ALEXANDRA: But then she thought maybe this will lead to an acting job.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: So I went in and then they were like, "Okay." They put me in front of a camera and they were -- they asked me to sing. And I'm not the best singer.

 

ALEXANDRA: But that doesn't seem to matter to K-Pop.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: Nope! Everything, you know, can be touched up really well.

 

ALEXANDRA: To make a long story short, they end up offering her a contract.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: Of more than five years.

 

ALEXANDRA: And as part of that contract ...

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: We were asked to move into the dorms.

 

JAD: The what?

 

ALEXANDRA: They are these facilities that all the agencies have for their idols in-training.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: They described it like a boarding school.

 

ALEXANDRA: All the kids kind of live together.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: And so I moved in the dorms with six or seven other girls.

 

ALEXANDRA: And it was here that Sarah says the company basically kept them under lock and key.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: Well, they didn't lock us in there, but we weren't allowed to leave. It's like one of those cockroach prisons or like those ant prisons, you can walk in but you can't walk out.

 

JAD: Wait, why is she doing this again?

 

ALEXANDRA: Well, let me explain to you guys just, like, how phenomenally huge K-Pop is.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

ALEXANDRA: K-Pop actually started in Korea in the early '90s, but like, in the last five or so years, it has just spilled out into the rest of the world. And by some estimates it was generating, like, around $5-billion a year. And then if you throw in, like, K-Drama, K-Soap Operas, which is called the Hallyu Wave, that Hallyu Wave in 2012 was valued at $83-billion.

 

JAD: Jesus!

 

ROBERT: Really?

 

ALEXANDRA: Yeah. And nearly all of this is based on a kind of fantasy.

 

SUK-YOUNG KIM: Because K-Pop stars are, you know, products of fantasy world.

 

ALEXANDRA: That's Professor Suk-Young Kim.

 

SUK-YOUNG KIM: Theater Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara. I study K-Pop industry. You know, stars are the embodied forms of Manga and Anime and all these unrealistic figures that don't exist in real life. So they have to have just surreally beautiful face, beautiful body. You know, excessively long legs, round eyes, pale skin, flowing hair. They're not a creature of this world. They shouldn't be, you know? They can only exist in fantasy world.

 

ALEXANDRA: And that fantasy, that's what they're trying to manufacture in those dorms.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: Like, they wanted us to lose weight. So we would wake up at, like, 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. in the morning and then go hiking.

 

ALEXANDRA: Sarah says after the hike they'd come back, eat breakfast.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: Which usually consisted of lettuce.

 

ALEXANDRA: Then they'd have dance classes, singing classes.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: And then we have lessons of, I think they're called, like, humble lessons.

 

ALEXANDRA: Where basically this guy would show up to the dorm.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: And he would teach us to bow correctly. So like, we would have to bow in unison so that we seemed as like one big happy group.

 

ALEXANDRA: They weren't allowed to have cellphones.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: No.

 

ALEXANDRA: Computers.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: Nope.

 

ALEXANDRA: Or a relationship of any kind.

 

SARAH WOLFGANG: All companies pretty much don't want you to be in a relationship.

 

ALEXANDRA: And in fact, Suk-Young told me that in 2011 ...

 

SUK-YOUNG KIM: That one of the members of 2NE1, which is a girl group managed by YG Entertainment revealed that their management said they should not be dating before age 29.

 

JAD: What?

 

SUK-YOUNG KIM: They shouldn't be dating because stars belong to the public, to the fans.

 

ALEXANDRA: And that was the thing. It was like a purity thing.

 

AJ PARK: You know, that pure angelic virgin Madonna image.

 

ALEXANDRA: This by the way, is K-Pop writer AJ Park.

 

AJ PARK: Editor-at-large at Soompi.com. Like, girl groups, they used to call them, like, nation's fairies. You know, they had this pure chaste image to them. And the boy bands, too. Because that -- being single makes them more marketable and appealing.

 

ALEXANDRA: And AJ says that's -- that's the main takeaway. Of course, there's all kinds of cultural observations that you can make about this, but the main driver here is economic. The founders of K-pop knew back in the early '90s that the fans would love the stars even more if the stars weren't just beautiful and perfect, but they also seemed somehow available.

 

AJ PARK: You would be surprised how many K-Pop stars come out and be like, "Oh, I've never had my first kiss yet."

 

ALEXANDRA: And they're, like, 19-20 years old.

 

AJ PARK: Kind of like, "I haven't had my first kiss. Will it be with you?" You know, feeding the fantasy kind of thing.

 

JAD: But wait. Wait, is that all that different than America? I mean, didn't you feel weirder or stranger or something-er when -- when like, I don't know, Catherine Zeta-Jones married that guy whatever his name is.

 

ALEXANDRA: Yeah, yeah.

 

JAD: I don't even want to think about his name. Because it changed things for me.

 

ALEXANDRA: Me too.

 

ROBERT: I mean, I didn't have that feeling. I mean, I don't know.

 

JAD: What? Come on. What about -- okay, you're always going on about Meryl Streep.

 

ROBERT: Yes.

 

JAD: What did -- is she married, by the way?

 

ROBERT: To me. But she doesn't know it. She is married to a -- to a very quiet man who's a sculptor, you know?

 

JAD: And how does that make you feel?

 

ROBERT: I lurk around at his shows to see, like, what does he got that I don't have?

 

JAD: [laughs] No, but that -- my point is that -- I mean, American celebrity culture has fantasy woven in too.

 

ROBERT: Of course. Of course it does.

 

ALEXANDRA: Yeah, but there's a big difference.

 

SUK-YOUNG KIM: In Korea, that fantasy world it is so extremely controlled.

 

ALEXANDRA: Way more than in America, according to Suk-Young Kim. And it's controlled not just by the agencies.

 

SUK-YOUNG KIM: But by the fans to the extent that it defies all of our common sense.

 

ROBERT: What do you mean?

 

ALEXANDRA: I'll give you an example. This one I heard from Professor Suk-Young Kim and also writer Leslie Tumbaco.

 

LESLIE TUMBACO: I'm the editor-in-chief of Seoulbeats.

 

ALEXANDRA: It's a big K-Pop/K-Entertainment site. Okay, 2008 there was this new girl group.

 

LESLIE TUMBACO: Girls' Generation.

 

ALEXANDRA: Called Girls' Generation.

 

LESLIE TUMBACO: Girls' Generation was a nine-member all-girls group. That was, like, appearing on, like, music shows and, like, variety shows. Being promoted as, like, the girl next door all cute and, you know, like the ideal girlfriend kind of idea.

 

ALEXANDRA: And Leslie says that on some of these shows Girls' Generation would appear with boy bands.

 

LESLIE TUMBACO: You know, who were also promoting at the same time, groups such as Super Junior, SS501 and DBSK. Okay, so these three groups in, like, various shows, they would be, like, standing next to each other on stage, talking to each other during variety shows. And ...

 

ALEXANDRA: This is where we kind of get into the cultural stuff. There are several times when they're on stage with one or more of these boy bands, and they're kind of taking the microphone from the host or whatever and kind of just nodding their head. Whereas the boy bands are, like, doing these deep bows. Some of the fans are seeing this and they're thinking that's disrespectful.

 

JAD: Why? Why would that be disrespectful?

 

ALEXANDRA: Well, the thinking is that since Girls' Generation is a new group, they should be bowing much more deeply than their sunbaes or their seniors.

 

LESLIE TUMBACO: Being a rookie group is a big deal in Korea, because seniority is something that people hold very strongly. And so as a rookie you have to show deference to the superior, you know senior groups.

 

ROBERT: Oh, so they're not showing respect.

 

ALEXANDRA: They're not showing deference.

 

JAD: Just in the bowing?

 

ALEXANDRA: That's how some of the fans were taking it. But I mean, aside from all that and this is the key, is that some of the fans thought that the Girl's Generation girls were flirting with some of the boy bands. Like, you know, like these little sidelong glances or teasing them.

 

LESLIE TUMBACO: And so that interaction, seeing that, fans were very, very, very upset about that. And so all the fans of the three groups ...

 

ALEXANDRA: The three boy bands.

 

LESLIE TUMBACO: Got together and decided to do a black ocean.

 

ROBERT: What is that?

 

ALEXANDRA: We're gonna get there. We're gonna get there.

 

ROBERT: Okay.

 

ALEXANDRA: Fast forward to June 7, 2008, all of those bands that were on those TV shows are playing this big K-Pop concert.

 

SUK-YOUNG KIM: This event called ...

 

[CLIP, CONCERT ANNOUNCER: Dream concert!]

 

SUK-YOUNG KIM: Dream Concert.

 

ALEXANDRA: A huge stadium show. Like, more than 40,000 fans. And Suk-Young told me that there's one thing you need to know about fans, about K-Pop fans at live events. They all have light sticks.

 

SUK-YOUNG KIM: And they come in different colors.

 

ALEXANDRA: Because each band has its own color.

 

SUK-YOUNG KIM: Super Junior, for example, has blue. And when they appear on stage, you see this sea of blue light sticks waving in support of their stars on stage.

 

ALEXANDRA: So they played for a while. When SS501 comes out, the whole place just turned to light green. Show goes on. TVXQ comes to the stage, they were, like, the biggest band at the time, and then up go thousands and thousands of these ruby red glittery lights. And at some point Girls' Generation takes the stage. And here's the thing. Pretty much as soon as they walk on stage ...

 

LESLIE TUMBACO: All the people in the audience turned off their lights sticks.

 

JAD: What?

 

SUK-YOUNG KIM: Suddenly there was blackout in the whole auditorium.

 

LESLIE TUMBACO: Everybody stops clapping, screaming. Silence.

 

JAD: Are you saying like the whole -- like, everybody? 40,000 people?

 

LESLIE TUMBACO: Yes. And if you look up pictures of it, it was a stadium performance. The entire stadium was black.

 

JAD: No way!

 

ALEXANDRA: Yes way! Look at this picture.

 

JAD: Oh my God!

 

ROBERT: What are we looking at? Oh, this is the ...

 

JAD: It's totally black!

 

ROBERT: [laughs]

 

JAD: It's like a whole football stadium.

 

ROBERT: Oh my God!

 

JAD: This isn't Photoshopped or something?

 

ALEXANDRA: No, because if you look down in the corner, you can kind of see the pink Girls' Generation section.

 

JAD: Oh, yeah. There's a little box.

 

ALEXANDRA: Like a little boop of pink.

 

JAD: Pink is their color?

 

ALEXANDRA: Yeah, and then everything else is black.

 

SUK-YOUNG KIM: Girls' Generation had to sing and dance to this silent crowd.

 

ROBERT: Had anything like this ever happened before?

 

ALEXANDRA: Never.

 

JAD: Well, how on Earth did they pull that off? How could you get this many people doing the same thing?

 

ALEXANDRA: Okay, so the way that these shows happen at least at these Dream Concerts, is that different sections of the auditorium belong to different fan groups.

 

ROBERT: Oh, so they sell it as zone seating.

 

ALEXANDRA: Right. So the fan clubs actually get to, like, dole out the tickets. And during the show, there's this moment where some of the fan club leaders stood up and held up these signs that said "Quiet."

 

JAD: Dude!

 

ROBERT: This is -- this is that upsetting.

 

ALEXANDRA: Yeah. What don't you understand about this, Robert?

 

ROBERT: Because it seems like -- it doesn't seem like the most weighty sin I've ever heard. A little blink of an eye, a little leaning forward, a little failure to bow. But that's just the difference, I guess.

 

JAD: Okay, wait a second. If you -- if you would allow me to frame for a second.

 

ALEXANDRA: Yes.

 

JAD: So what have we learned so far? We've learned that this is a global phenomenon.

 

ROBERT: This is a nightmare. Total nightmare.

 

JAD: It's a global phenomenon, born of the nightmare of these stars who seem to be tightly held in check by everybody, the fans, the agencies, everybody. That's what we know so far.

 

ROBERT: That's what we know so far.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

ALEXANDRA: And this sort of tight control is how it operated for quite a few decades. But -- and this is why I wanted to do this whole story in the first place -- just a couple years ago in walks this guy, and he just messes everything up.

 

[RECEPTIONIST SPEAKING KOREAN]

 

ALEXANDRA: We sent an interpreter with a mic over to the Gangnam District in Seoul.

 

JAD: Gangnam Style.

 

ALEXANDRA: To speak with a guy named Lee Myung-Joo. But, you know, he told me to call him Mr. Lee.

 

ALEXANDRA: Hello?

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: Hello.

 

ALEXANDRA: Hey!

 

ALEXANDRA: I hopped on the line from our studio in New York.

 

ALEXANDRA: Want to get started?

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: Yeah, are you guys ready?

 

ALEXANDRA: Yep.

 

ALEXANDRA: Okay, so here's the story.

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO: [speaking Korean]

 

ALEXANDRA: In the early 2000s Mr. Lee, he was working at a news organization called Sports Seoul which did all kinds of things, not just sports. They also did, like, business and entertainment.

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO: [speaking Korean]

 

ALEXANDRA: He was actually in charge of all the online news. And while he was there, I think it's fair to say that he took his reporting very seriously. Like, he always had this idea in his mind.

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO: [speaking Korean]

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: That I believe any contents that can be published, that's possible to publish, should be freely published. That's the kind of culture that would be better to have.

 

ALEXANDRA: So he was a guy who believed in an independent press. But he also knew that there were certain things that he just couldn't report on.

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO: [speaking Korean]

 

ALEXANDRA: That certain subjects like politics were just dangerous.

 

JAD: How? Why? What are you talking about?

 

ALEXANDRA: We actually need to back up a little bit. Put this into a little bit of context. So between -- like, after the Korean War between say the '60s and the '80s, South Korea was under a series of military dictatorships. And there was basically a censorship of the press. Things got a lot better in the '90s when they turn to civilian rule, but even today the government still has a branch that goes around the internet and deletes websites for their content. So this is the -- this is, like, the world in which the press is living in.

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO: [speaking Korean]

 

ALEXANDRA: So getting back to Mr. Lee. It's 2010, he's at Sports Seoul having dreams of independence, and he feels like politics is a little tricky. So he does what to me feels like a little bit of a Trojan horse move.

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO: [speaking Korean]

 

ALEXANDRA: Basically, he says if I can't do independent reporting in politics, I'll just sneak it into celebrity news.

 

JAD: Oh!

 

ALEXANDRA: So ...

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO: [speaking Korean]

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: So we looked on the internet for Hollywood news and media in the UK, and looked at what they were doing.

 

ALEXANDRA: So he studied The Sun, US Weekly, TMZ.

 

JAD: Wait, he studied TMZ?

 

ALEXANDRA: That's what he said. You know, how they take their pictures? How close do they get?

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: Because there isn't -- there wasn't paparazzi in Korea. And we decided to apply that to South Korea.

 

ALEXANDRA: So what kind -- what kind of tactics did you use to get the photos in the first place?

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: We decided the best way to do the reporting is, you know, by hiding in the car.

 

ALEXANDRA: Their first target were these two stars Jonghyun who is an idol from a boy band called Shinee. Huge band. And an actress, her name is Shin Se Kyung.

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: First you have to go through the information-gathering process.

 

ALEXANDRA: So they tailed both these stars on and off.

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: For one month.

 

JAD: Whoa!

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: To get a sense of their movement patterns.

 

ALEXANDRA: You know, and they figure out that they have this pattern of meeting up in front of her apartment really early in the morning, like 3:00 in the morning or something and they take these walks. So late October, 2010 ...

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: It came to a point where we couldn't miss the opportunity.

 

ALEXANDRA: They call this -- I guess they call this ...

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: The D-Day. The dating day.

 

ALEXANDRA: Which I think is pretty funny. And on this particular day, one of Mr. Lee's reporters stakes out the apartment. And the two stars meet up to take their walk, and you get the very first paparazzi photos as far as we know in Korea.

 

JAD: Huh. What do these photos look like?

 

ALEXANDRA: So these photos are so -- well, I think they're so cute. It's these two idols, you know, walking down the street hand in hand under these yellow street lights, and they just look like they're in their own little world. There's this one photo where he's pulling back her hair and I think he's putting, like, an earbud in her ear and they're maybe they're sharing a song, they're listening to a song together.

 

JAD: Aww!

 

ALEXANDRA: He's got her purse on his shoulder. You know, he's just holding her bag for her.

 

JAD: What happens when the photographer guy runs up and goes click, click, click, click, click in their face?

 

ALEXANDRA: Well, the guys at Sports Seoul kind of drew this line. They were like, we're gonna keep back a distance from the celebrities.

 

ROBERT: Oh, so there's a silent click, click, click, coming through a car window.

 

ALEXANDRA: Right.

 

JAD: Do they see the guy?

 

ALEXANDRA: No, they don't. And that's why these photos, they're -- it's not like that typical, like, hands in the face photo. They just look totally serene.

 

ROBERT: At this moment, these two innocents are truly innocent. They have no reason to expect anyone to be out there at all.

 

ALEXANDRA: Right. Because, you know, before this moment there weren't paparazzi photographers stalking celebrities like this.

 

JAD: This is Eden right here. This is Eden.

 

ALEXANDRA: Yeah, this is ...

 

ROBERT: Just before the fall. Let's move onto the fall!

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO: [speaking Korean]

 

ALEXANDRA: Mr. Lee said right before they published, and this has sort of become their tradition, all of the reporters got together and stayed in the office all night. And everybody was on pins and needles because, you know, they didn't know. They didn't know what was gonna happen. Are people gonna be outraged? Are they gonna be totally excited about this? They just had no idea what was gonna happen.

 

JAD: And you also will have no idea what's gonna happen. Until after the break.

 

[MARK: Hey, this is Mark from Astoria, Queens. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]

 

[ADVERTISEMENT]

 

JAD: Jad. Robert. Radiolab. Back to our story from reporter Alex Young.

 

ALEXANDRA: So when we left off, we were talking about Lee Myung-Joo. Mr. Lee. And he and his team had just captured the first paparazzi moment in South Korea. They had taken a picture of these two stars.

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: The photos were pretty dark and ...

 

ALEXANDRA: Super grainy.

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: Totally paparazzi-style. Like, shot in the night. Probably from a zoom lens, like thousands of yards away. It was hard to tell the photographs really.

 

ALEXANDRA: He says that they all got together in their office. They were just about to publish, no idea what was gonna happen.

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: And when we first published them ...

 

ALEXANDRA: Nothing.

 

JAD: Really?

 

ROBERT: Really?

 

ALEXANDRA: Yeah.

 

JAD: Seriously?

 

ALEXANDRA: Oh, come on! I'm kidding!

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: The general response was ...

 

ALEXANDRA: People went crazy!

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness. The photos went viral. It just took the whole country. There was an incredible amount of web traffic. Like, so much that our servers were breaking down.

 

JAD: So people clicked.

 

ALEXANDRA: Oh, yeah. When it all comes down to it, people really want to know. At first they just -- you know, they just inundated the website trying to look at these photos. But then they were like, "Oh! Oh, no!" So then they rushed over to the fan sites, and four of the websites from the boy band, the guy, crashed. Shin Se Kyung's website, which is called a minihompy page, it just gets flooded with comments.

 

SUK-YOUNG KIM: Rumors, vile comments about how the fans felt betrayed.

 

ALEXANDRA: People were, like, posting defaced pictures of her.

 

LESLIE TUMBACO: In typical sexist ways, she got the brunt of it.

 

ALEXANDRA: This is always the way it is, right? Just like in America, that's the way it happens in Korea.

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO: [speaking Korean]

 

ALEXANDRA: You know, when I talk to Lee Myung-Joo, he -- he was the first one to recognize that. Usually when this kind of scandal breaks, it's the woman who gets it worse.

 

JAD: Yeah. Yeah. So how -- how did the agencies respond?

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: Shock. In the beginning, you could tell that the companies were not prepared because their official statement would be like, "We need to talk to the celebrity about this." Or, "We had no idea this was going on." And you could see that the companies were struggling.

 

ALEXANDRA: There is actually, you know, a couple times later on where God, the fans got really crazy. And they would actually protest at, like, their live shows or whatever. And then pretty much the next day, like, after the protest, the idol at the center of that scandal would just kind of vanish. Like, they would just take a indefinite hiatus from all their, like, promotional activities.

 

JAD: Like, you mean, like, the agencies just yanked them?

 

ALEXANDRA: I mean, yeah. That was the suggestion, yeah.

 

JAD: And did the agencies say anything about that to you?

 

ALEXANDRA: No one would go on the record with me, but I did talk to some people over email, and they said that, you know, when fans react this way, they're kind of forced to take drastic action.

 

JAD: So they kind of confirmed that they were disappearing idols?

 

ALEXANDRA: They confirmed with me that they were taking action. [laughs] But here's what ends up happening.

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO: [speaking Korean]

 

ALEXANDRA: Lee Myung-Joo says, you know, that very first scandal that they broke, yeah, they got a lot of backlash but it showed them that ...

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: What worked in the foreign media could also work in South Korea. So it gave us strength to keep experimenting.

 

ALEXANDRA: So in 2011, Lee Myung-Joo and, like, a couple of the people from Sports Seoul, they break off and they form this company called Dispatch. And then the following years 2012-2013, this is a really important chunk of time where they just start pumping out scandals.

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: We must have done more than 10 stories small and big. Do you want to hear the list?

 

JAD: I do want to hear the list.

 

ALEXANDRA: First off, There's Park Jeong, she's dating Mr. P. Then there's Goo Hara who's with Junhyung. Then there's Tachyon who gets caught with Jessica. Rain dating Kim Tae Hee. And you have Yuna dating Lee Sun Hee. Sulli, that was like a crazy one. And of course, we all remember Baekhyun and Taeyeon.

 

JAD: I don't remember.

 

ALEXANDRA: Oh, I remember. But according to see Suk-Young Kim, you had so many scandals and such a short period of time.

 

SUK-YOUNG KIM: Headlines after headlines after headlines at such a frequent rate, that we fans became somehow desensitized by this news.

 

LESLIE TUMBACO: It shook us. And I'm going to put myself in there now, yeah. It shook us.

 

ALEXANDRA: According to writer AJ Park, what you saw after this crazy onslaught of scandals is, well, a couple things. So the paparazzi ...

 

AJ PARK: Became a trend, something that all the Korean entertainment news started picking up.

 

ALEXANDRA: There starts to be all these other paparazzi companies that come out.

 

JAD: Competitors?

 

ALEXANDRA: Exactly. Just like Dispatch but with a different name. But the craziest part I think is that you start seeing celebrities tiptoeing out and telling the truth about their lives.

 

AJ PARK: Little by little, the celebrities would get more comfortable about revealing it themselves.

 

ALEXANDRA: For instance, in 2012 on this talk show ...

 

AJ PARK: Kwon Hee who is a member of this K-Pop boy band, he made waves because he explained that celebrities date in cars.

 

ALEXANDRA: In order to get away from all these new paparazzi ...

 

AJ PARK: They park by the Han River and they have their dates there.

 

ALEXANDRA: And there are parking lots where multiple celebrities park and have their secret dates inside the car. This is something that people always sort of suspected was the case ...

 

AJ PARK: But it was kind of like the first time it was just out in the open like that.

 

ALEXANDRA: And I think that the audience reaction is, like, super telling because you can hear it in the tape, they're laughing.

 

ROBERT: So he's breaking the spell, and what you expect is, "Gasp!"

 

ALEXANDRA: Yeah.

 

ROBERT: And what you get is ...

 

ALEXANDRA: Casual laughter.

 

ROBERT: So that's a sea change.

 

JAD: That's a real sea change. So -- and this happened in just two years, you're saying?

 

ALEXANDRA: We probably have to say five years.

 

JAD: Yeah, but still I mean that's -- see, this actually does make me think I mean well, first of all it's interesting to think of paparazzi as liberators. In this case.

 

ALEXANDRA: Totally, totally.

 

JAD: Because we're used to think of them as, like, scum. But I mean, if you pan out, here's literally the thought I'm having. Like, there's a tendency because we're dumb westerners, to sort of see what happens in places like Korea as being very different from us. Like, culturally separate.

 

ALEXANDRA: Yeah.

 

JAD: But this -- to hear that they change that quickly makes me think in some way that we're all very similar.

 

ALEXANDRA: Hmm.

 

JAD: Or maybe we're all headed to the same place and, like, tabloid is the great equalizer. And maybe we're all gonna just end up all of us in post-Kardashian hell. Like, literally this is how far they traveled in five years, and literally in another five years you will have the Kardashian family of Korea.

 

ALEXANDRA: Right, right, right.

 

JAD: Just dishing all the time and making sex tapes on their own or whatever it is.

 

ALEXANDRA: I also thought the same thing. You know, being from America you're like, well, this is just inevitable. But I -- I actually don't think so anymore.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

ALEXANDRA: AJ told me a story that really changed my mind.

 

AJ PARK: It was like -- it was our Watergate. It was our K-popgate. It was -- it changed everything.

 

ALEXANDRA: This story, it revolves around this one young female solo artist, Ailee. She's just hugely popular. I mean, they actually call her the Korean Beyonce, and in 2013, she was just killing it. By this point, Ailee has a couple albums out, her YouTube videos have millions and millions of views. But then in November 2013, a bomb drops.

 

[CLIP OF PHONE CALL IN KOREAN]

 

ALEXANDRA: What happens is this guy cold calls Dispatch. Mr. Lee actually picks up, and he recorded this phone call between them. And the guy tells him, "I have nude pictures of Ailee. Mr. Lee tells the guy, "We need to know how you obtained these." The guy says, "I received them." "From who?" "The singer." "The singer gave them to you?" "Yes." "Why?" "I was her boyfriend."

 

JAD: What exactly is he asking?

 

ALEXANDRA: So he's calling Dispatch to see how much these nude photos are worth. And when I was talking to Mr. Lee about this, he said that in that moment, when he was on the phone ...

 

LEE MYUNG-JOO INTERPRETER: As a reporter, I was greedy about the story and the information.

 

ALEXANDRA: He said that he wanted those pictures. But what he ends up telling the guy is, "We don't want your photos." And then if you keep listening to the phone call, you can hear him start getting really upset with the ex-boyfriend. Like, "This is not right. You're crossing a line." So to make a long story short, Dispatch turns down the photos and the photos somehow make their way to a competitor's website.

 

AJ PARK: This one American K-Pop website called AllKPop who was pretty big. They were probably the number one K-Pop site at that time.

 

ROBERT: In the world?

 

ALEXANDRA: For English speakers.

 

ROBERT: Oh, for English speakers. And they published the naked pictures.

 

ALEXANDRA: They're the ones who published the naked pictures.

 

AJ PARK: Can't remember if they censored it or not, but if they did it wasn't a very good job. Like, you could see.

 

ALEXANDRA: So the photos come out. And what would you expect to happen?

 

JAD: Some anger, maybe? A little bit? And then basically people just click on the pictures.

 

ALEXANDRA: No. What actually happens is instantly the entire K-Pop world bands together black ocean-style and just comes out against AllKPop. The agencies, they start threatening to sue, this competitor website starts this boycott. And in just a few days, the figure was, like, 22,000 Twitter followers just stopped following them. Really their -- their reputation just tanks.

 

AJ PARK: It was a warning to them. You know, don't mess with us. And so they really haven't -- I mean, I haven't really followed them in a while, but they haven't recovered since then.

 

ALEXANDRA: But what I think is the most surprising part of this, is just three days after the photos come out, was the night of one of South Korea's biggest award ceremonies called the Melon Music Awards. And, you know, scheduled for that night Ailee was supposed to receive one of these Top 10 Artist of The Year awards. And I think to everyone's surprise she actually showed up. And about two hours in ...

 

[AWARDS CLIP IN KOREAN]

 

ALEXANDRA: You know, they call her name and she stands up, walks to center stage, goes to the presenters. She takes a bow, and she looks -- I think she looks fraught, or at least overwhelmed. But then she faces the crowd. At one point her face kind of cracks. She puts her head in her elbow, and she starts crying. She says, "It really means a lot to me that you supported me, that you believed in me, despite everything that's going on. Thank you." And then she walked off stage.

 

ALEXANDRA: For me, this story shows that they're gonna draw a line in the sand that's different from ours.

 

ROBERT: For now. Or for a long time? Or can you say?

 

ALEXANDRA: I mean, when I asked AJ Park the same question ...

 

ALEXANDRA: Do you think that it's going to go the way of the west?

 

ALEXANDRA: I mean, she said no way.

 

AJ PARK: I don't think it's ever gonna be that way.

 

ALEXANDRA: Why not?

 

AJ PARK: I mean culturally, Koreans we're a little more strict. And also I think there's also a part where we look at the U.S. and we're like, "Come on, guys." You know, like we see them as an example of let's not totally go there.

 

ALEXANDRA: So like, the U.S. is a cautionary tale or something?

 

AJ PARK: Yeah, like don't ever get to that point, guys.

 

ROBERT: And maybe this is one of those ones where you really wonder like, is there a cultural difference that runs deep enough that you can say 'shh' to the part of you that says, "I want to know, I want to see, I want to hear." And I ...

 

JAD: You think that that ultimately there might be a ...?

 

ROBERT: I don't know.

 

JAD: Part of me thinks that as the -- when it gets so easy to know the most intimate details about anyone, we'll all give in. I don't know, there's part of me that just feels that way about humans.

 

ALEXANDRA: Yeah, I don't know. I have to go with Robert on this one.

 

JAD: Well, I'm gonna have to go with Ailee.

 

ALEXANDRA: Oh, me too.

 

JAD: Thank you, Alex.

 

ALEXANDRA: Thank you.

 

JAD: This piece was produced by Matt Kielty with Alex Young. Reported by Alex and also Brenna Farrell. Thanks to our guests Suk-Young Kim, AJ Park, Leslie Tumbaco, Lee Myung-Joo, Sarah Wolfgang. And very special thanks to our stringer and interpreter Haeryun Kang, Joseph Kim, Jeremy Bloom, Jiin Choi and the K-Pop supergroup Crayon Pop who happens to be on Alex's playlist, Spotify playlist, which also has, like, K-Pop favorites from the entire staff. That's at Radiolab.org.

 

[ANSWERING MACHINE: Start of message.]

 

[LESLIE TUMBACO: Hey, it's Leslie Tumbaco. I was calling about the Radiolab credits.]

 

[AJ PARK: Hi, this is AJ from Soompi.]

 

[SUK-YOUNG KIM: Hi this is Suk-Young Kim calling.]

 

[LESLIE TUMBACO: I don't know if it's too late, but I'll just go ahead and give it a try. Here goes. Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad. Our staff includes ...]

 

[SUK-YOUNG KIM: Simon Adler, Brenna Farrell]

 

[AJ PARK: David Gebel, Dylan Keefe, Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Andy Mills, Latif Nasser]

 

[LESLIE TUMBACO: Kelsey Padgett, Arianne Wack, Molly Webster]

 

[SUK-YOUNG KIM: Soren Wheeler and Jamie York.]

 

[AJ PARK: With help from Alexandra Leigh Young]

 

[SUK-YOUNG KIM: Tracie Hunte, Stephanie Tam, and Michael Lowinger.]

 

[AJ PARK: Our fact-checkers are Eva, Tasha and Michelle Harris. Yay, Radiolab!]

 

[ANSWERING MACHINE: To hear the message again, press 2. End of message.]



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