Learning to fly with broken wings

At age 17, crowned as winner of an audition program
But the idol life lasted three short years.
After 13 years… he is now 33 years old
Back on stage as the hero of the musical ‘Wicked’

A world where pure luck is indispensable

Lee Solim, who represents SL Studio, has been running an academy dedicated to idol hopefuls for almost 18 years, since 2003. She is an expert in the area ever since the studio had been incorporated under SM Entertainment, where she opened the doors to stardom for renowned idols such as Taeyeon of Girls’ Generation, Onew of Shinee, Kai of Exo among others.

To parents who bring their kids along to solicit her advice, she stresses that becoming a K-pop idol is something that requires ‘pure luck’.

“No matter how good looking or outstanding your skills are, I think some things are just destined to unfold in certain ways - which means it’s not just about how good you are. The chances are slim and it’s daunting to survive in all the competition, but I tell them to go for it if that’s what they truly want”.

This is an undeniable truth that even an expert who witnessed countless stars being born can’t help but admit. As the term ‘idol exam’(to imply that becoming an idol is like passing a tough exam with extremely low pass rates) shows, there are way more children who dream of becoming an idol then give up with their hearts broken, rather than those who actually realize their dreams. Lee doesn’t hesitate to reveal such reality, because she understands the kind of concerns parents might have, whether their children could ‘actually make a living out of being an idol.’ Due to such reasons, Lee was exceptionally pleased to recently hear from a former student.

“There was an audition program that aired 16 years ago to pick the ‘Second Shinhwa (popular boy group produced by SM Entertainment in 1998)’ called Battle Shinhwa. The winner of the program was one of my students. Unfortunately things didn’t work out for him when he debuted as an idol group and then as a solo artist afterwards. After serving in the military, he became a musical actor. Recently I received the news that he got the male lead role in Wicked so I went (to see him perform). Couldn’t believe he was thirty-three already. Back then he was so young like 17 or 18…. He doesn’t even have a entertainment management company right now, so I think it’s great that he just went for the audition and got the role in a blockbuster musical.”

Facing failure
at age 20

In his second year of high school, Jin Taehwa had already become a star. He gained popularity from ‘Battle Shinhwa’, the audition program that aired for six months from April of 2005. Even before he made the debut, there were 18,000 members on his fan website, and his face was publicized on major portal sites. In the program’s final episode broadcasted live, he made it to the final six, seizing his opportunity to debut as the ‘Second Shinhwa’.

When the MC asked to comment on behalf of other finalists, Taehwa said smiling, “I greatly respect Shinhwa. After we debut, we’ll make sure we catch up with them”. In response to such innocent ambitions, Minwoo of Shinhwa shared a bittersweet advice.

“Just because you’ve been chosen this time it doesn’t mean you’re an idol singer already. There’s a long and strenuous road ahead of you but we’ll be there to help you out. Leading a life as a singer is far from easy. We hope that you can endure all the harsh trainings so that you really deserve to hear that you guys are the second Shinhwa as well as awesome Shinhwa, and remember we’re rooting for you.”

Hearing a throwback from those days, “Did I really say we were going to ‘catch up with them’ not ‘follow in their footsteps’? I must’ve been out of my mind” Taehwa said laughing out loud.

Taehwa’s debut and success, although both seemed very much within reach, did not come easy. His debut was postponed numerous times even after the final audition, though it did eventually happen in December of 2006; more than a year had passed since the program had concluded. Under the name of ‘Battle’ there were six members in the group. By then, all the fervor generated from the audition had died down and few fans remained.

The ‘long and strenuous road’ had turned out to be true, as Minwoo had advised. Battle did not make much of a presence among other boy groups who debuted around that time such as Super Junior (2005) and Bigbang (2006). The 3rd mini album was the last album Battle released. Worn out members left for their military services, and like that Battle practically disbanded. When all this happened, Taehwa was just twenty years old.

As long as there’s a stage to perform on

“I was so stressed out back then. Even if I kept trying, I had no idea what would come next. What should I do? This is everything I’ve ever learned. This is the only thing I’m capable of doing, so what should I do with myself…”

Taehwa didn’t give up his dream of becoming a singer but still he had nothing substantial to do. While looking for another entertainment company, he joined a celebrity soccer team where he met many others who were in a similar situation as him, those who were taking time off from the idol life. Unless an idol group reaps tangible outcomes in three years, the chances of releasing the next album drop dramatically.

It was around that time that Taehwa got an offer to join a five-member group that would debut in Japan. A Japanese company led the project to produce a new J-pop group that would obviously sing in Japanese. It was not an easy choice to make. First of all, he didn’t speak Japanese.
However, Taehwa made up his mind thanks to an advice he got, that it could serve him better to initiate at least something in Japan rather than blindly wait around.

“I thought that being on stage is the most important thing. Wherever that might be. What country I’m in or anything else for that matter was irrelevant, the fact that I needed to be on stage was what mattered the most.”

However, Taehwa was not a singer who came over to Japan taking advantage of ‘Hallyu (Korean wave)’. The group that Taehwa belonged to was just one of the many indie bands in Japan. The very first time he got on stage as a group, he sang in front of some twenty people in the audience.

Most K-pop idol groups last until the members are in their early to mid twenties, even if they achieve success. The Japanese music industry, on the other hand, is more welcoming to musicians in their forties as long as they have enough presence. Unlike Korea where idol groups can become extremely rich if they rise to stardom, but otherwise earn practically nothing until they get recognition, Japanese idol groups can rely on a stable source of income. Taehwa also got his first paycheck during his stint in Japan. He wired some of the Japanese yen that he earned to his parents.

Taehwa’s parents saved up the money their son had given them. Even after eight years, they said that they couldn’t dare spend any of it.

“There were many times when I wanted to tell him to quit, because he was having such a hard time. But I never said it out loud. He was the one who was going through everything alone. How could I spend that money knowing how hard he tried? So I just deposited everything in a bank account under my son’s name.” ( Hong Eunkyung, Taehwa’s mother)

from scratch

As the fan base started to grow, though by a little, Taehwa was determined to stay and persevere in Japan. Then came a point in time where he couldn’t postpone the military service any longer. Just a year after his career began in Japan, Taehwa joined the army as a conscripted policeman conducting PR duties. In the early days, he could concentrate on preparing for the performances the PR team would put together, without worrying about the ‘outside world’. As the date of discharge from the military approached however, anxiety about the next career steps began to creep back. As Taehwa was getting ready to go back to Japan, Kim Junsu(Xia Junsu) who had known him through the soccer team suggested he should give it a go at performing in musical theater. Junsu had sorry feelings for Taehwa, who entered the entertainment industry later than him, as he had to resume his singing career from scratch in a foreign country.

“Back in the days when I was an idol, the most important thing was for the lead vocalist to have distinctive features that could represent the group. So anyone listening to a song could instantly recognize whether it’s by ‘BigBang’ or ‘2NE1’, but that wasn’t the case for us, which was very stressful. I often heard comments like ‘you have a nice tone, but your voice is not unique enough’, ’find your own color’. Then one day Junsu told me ‘that can be a major handicap as a singer, but in musical theater a voice like yours could open up so many opportunities’. The fact that my voice doesn’t stand out, he said, means I could play more diverse roles….”

In 2015 Taehwa went to his very first audition for the musical, ‘Dracula’ held in a grand theater. He recorded the musical numbers he practiced then sent them to Junsu, so that he could ‘evaluate’ then fill in any gaps. One day, while he was totally occupied with the upcoming audition, Taehwa broke his leg during a workout. He had no choice but to go to the audition on crutches with a cast. The head of the production company who saw him recognized ‘his passion’. Like that, he was able to get a supporting role in his first ever musical.

When the first musical was over however, Taehwa turned to seek opportunities at small-scale theaters in Daehak-ro(a popular district for theater performances).

“People said to me with envy, ‘Wow, you made the debut in a mega musical”, but I could feel the void inside me. When you are performing in a musical, you’re compelled to attract the audience who pay like $100 per ticket and make them feel it’s worth it. That’s why I wanted to perform in small theaters to learn the sophisticated art of acting and grow from there.”

However, the opportunity to perform in a small theater didn’t come easy. Taehwa kept being pushed back behind actors who have built a long and solid presence in Daehak-ro.

“I think that’s when I hit rock bottom in life. Every audition I went to, I didn’t make it. For a whole six months. For most musicals that people have heard of, I’ve failed at least once to get a part. Then, I was lucky enough to play a part in ‘Me and Natasha and the White Donkey’, although I had failed the audition itself.”

Once he had opened the doors to small theater performances, the second and third time became a little bit easier. As he persevered through many musicals big and small, fans gradually began to acknowledge him as a proper musical actor.

Last August, Taehwa ended the contract with his entertainment company. To his mind, building a solid career in small productions did not require much assistance from a company. Then, there was news that the audition for a world famous musical ‘Wicked’ was coming up.
Taehwa auditioned for the lead male role ‘Fiyero’. Most auditions last 10 minutes at the longest, but it lasted almost 30 minutes for Taehwa. Though he didn’t have high hopes to get it, he later received a text saying he ‘got the role’. Another actor who was double cast(casting two actors for the same role) was Seo Kyungsoo, whose career as a musical actor spanned more than 10 years than that of Taehwa.

The short lifespan of an idol doesn’t solely apply to those that did not achieve success. Even if a group rises to stardom, passing the 7-year mark is rare at best. The Fair Trade Commission in Korea limits the exclusive contract period for idols to seven years; which is why most entertainment companies enter into a seven-year contract with individual idol members to begin with. By the time the contract expires, they are no longer young enough to present themselves as ‘idols’. For boy groups in particular, there are only so many times one can postpone the mandatory military service.

“After about three years since we debuted, I always had this kind of anxiety in the back of my mind. I thought to myself, ‘the team obviously can’t go on forever, but I don’t want to be separated from the members’. When separation became a reality, I was devastated, even though it wasn’t like I was never going to see them again.”(Sandara Park, in an interview after disbandment of 2NE1 in April 2017)

When the time comes to renew the contract, complicated dynamics emerge between the entertainment company and the idol group, not to mention within the group itself. If the group has risen to stardom already, the group has the ‘upper hand’ to sway the contract renewal. At times negotiations fall apart because the share of the profit allocated to the entertainment company tends to be far less under the renewed contract.

Even within successful idol groups, members who are relatively more popular as opposed to others often have different needs. Those who wish to start a new chapter of their career in acting for instance, may no longer wish to continue the idol life, where every member has to be onboard for busy promotions for the group and all the profits are evenly distributed.
‹Wicked› 2021 Production

Life itself is an audition

On May 2nd, the last performance of the ‘Wicked’ tour in Seoul took place. After the final scene, the audience gave a standing ovation. Taehwa, as the lead male character ‘Fiyero’, burst into tears on the goodbye stage, almost unable to deliver his remarks to the crowd.

“Wicked means a lot to me because it is the first role that I earned myself, after I ended the contract with the company. It is also the first lead male role I got to play in a grand theater like this. I really tried not to cry but then I saw the music director looking at me. She was the one who saw the potential in me even when I had nothing going, and she also saw me through all the other auditions I’ve been to. I suddenly got so emotional when I realized she was looking toward me. I’ve never cried at big theaters like this before….”

Among the Battle members, Taehwa is the only one leading a life on stage now. Other members are leading different lives outside the stage. One is an acting coach, the other a café owner; one former member has shifted his career to construction industry. To this day, however, the members have their own group chat about how life is treating them.

“We lived together in a group home back then. Since our days as trainees, through teen years until we were in our mid twenties, they are the ones who were there throughout the most beaming yet challenging times… our collective goal is that ‘no matter what we do, and wherever that may be, let’s hope that at least one of us can fly high’.”

Thanks to a music program on Mnet that aired in 2019, Battle members got a chance to reunite on stage in 11 years. Their appearance was meant to be a small remembrance gift for longtime fans. Then they were also invited to an audition program to shine a light on forgotten singers from the past, but they turned down the offer.

“The members were hesitant because it was another audition after all… It would’ve been okay if it was just doing a replay of our previous albums, but having to go through a fierce competition was a burden we all wanted to avoid.”

The world of musical theater that Taehwa currently belongs to, doesn’t not guarantee a bright future either just because he played a lead role in a famous production. To be able to perform on stage in the long run, one must become an actor who’s sought after by production companies, or else, one has to win each and every part through endless auditions. The auditions that lie ahead are not that different from the life he has led so far; beginning with the audition for the KBS children’s choir when he was in elementary school, modeling audition for Tom Kids, a children’s clothing brand, auditions for SM entertainment and Battle Shinhwa during high school days, and many more musical auditions to come down the road….

In the first meeting with reporters in April, Taehwa said, “Life itself is like an audition” looking back on his past. Around the time Taehwa took on new challenges to enter the world of musicals, he got a tattoo written in English, which read “Take these broken wings and learn to fly”, quoted from the famous song ‘Blackbird’ by The Beatles.

“I don’t necessarily think I’m in such position, but I wanted a message in English similar to the saying ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’. I always think of the second worst scenario that can happen, in addition to the best, second best case scenarios. It’s best if everything works out as I intended, but that may not be the case. This job can give self-satisfaction but at the same time you have to learn to live with a certain level of anxiety. Still I’ve been through a lot… there were really tough times in the past. So I really can’t complain about what I have now. Although I shifted gears to musicals I take pride in the fact that I didn’t give up doing what I truly want.”

July 23, 2021

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