Why A K-Pop Idol Hopeful Walked Away From It All

"The mentality was, ‘It doesn’t matter; just train, train, train.’"

The following interview is an excerpt from Daebak Weekly, BuzzFeed's K-pop newsletter. You can sign up for more here.

Dozens of K-pop girls wear skirts, ties, and blazers and pose for the camera while holding microphones

The origins of South Korean supergroups might be a mystery to some in the West, but celebrities' references to their "trainee days" are as common knowledge in Asia as Kim Kardashian is to American pop cultural discourse. The search for K-pop stars begins with entertainment companies hosting auditions — domestically and abroad — when they announce plans for a new group. The top-ranking kids — yes, they are literally children and teenagers — are then invited to participate in a rigorous training process. While the notoriously tough basics of the trainee system (intense practice of vocals, dance, and English, as well as some kind of dieting) are generally known, the exact goings-on are not. The process can take anywhere from a few months to several years, but the end result always turns out a lineup of triple-threat groups with strategically built up buzz.

The global popularity of K-pop groups and the subsequent rise in people auditioning to be trainees have provided companies with a huge opportunity for expansion. Reality shows and televised auditions have boomed, with viewers at home voting for their favorites.

While several shows focus on contestants auditioning for all-male and all-female groups, only a handful have become fixtures in Korean media. Music channel Mnet's competition reality show Produce 101 first hit the scene in 2016. It instantly gained a following with its big-budget format of taking 101 contestants and whittling them down to a final group of 11. The show was magnetic, turning out popular groups like I.O.I. and Iz*One and building a loyal international fanbase. It stopped airing in South Korea in 2019 after two producers were accused of accepting bribes from entertainment companies and rigging votes. They were eventually sentenced to jail in 2020.

Katherine Lee was one of the 101 from Season 1 — number 89, to be exact. Hailing from southeast Michigan, she was a trainee at what was then called Midas Entertainment (later Media Line). Kathy, as she likes to be called, went through the trainee process but never debuted in a group. She instead chose to leave the industry and pursue her education after being eliminated from the show.

I called Kathy at her university dorm in Nashville, where she is finishing up her first year of college. On Zoom, we chatted about her life now (college during COVID-19 — ugh), but also about her past life — on the show, as a K-pop trainee, and as a Chinese American living in South Korea.

Note: This Q&A includes descriptions of disordered eating.

Do you want to introduce yourself to our readers?

Katherine Lee: My name is Kathy. I'm a freshman at Vanderbilt studying economics — maybe [laughs]. I took what I like to call a “gap year” after eighth grade to move to Korea and join the K-pop industry. I trained for about 10 months before I auditioned for Mnet’s Produce 101 Season 1. And in the middle of the show, I decided to move back to the States to continue my education.

How did you first get into K-pop?

I went to Korea for Christmas vacation with my family in eighth grade and thought, I may as well go to an audition if I’m here. I loved [the boy band] Exo at the time. I don’t have any background in dancing or singing. It was just for fun. But one day I got this call that was just like, “Hey, we know you don’t have any background, but we think you have potential because you’re international, and we can train you.” This was before the global popularity K-pop has hit now, so they wanted more people from China or America.

I wasn't sure, and my parents didn’t think it would be legit. But they said I should think of it like a summer camp–type thing. So I did, and then I just kept extending it and extending it and then ended up signing a contract.

And what was that like, those first few months of training? You just finished the eighth grade, you were in Korea.

When I first got there, I was really shocked. I remember walking downstairs to meet everyone for the first time — the studio was in the basement — and I was like, “Hi, everyone, I’m Kathy!” And everyone gasped. "She said hi? She didn’t bow down? How could she! She’s so American." That was the first thing. I always thought I was nice, but they thought I was really rude! Turns out, it’s just that I'm American. Korea is so seniority-based, so those cultural things were really hard for me to adjust to in the beginning. I'd make a lot of mistakes and someone would get mad.

[The girls] had also been there a year before me, so they already had their cliques — who they like and who they don’t like, everyone's strengths and weaknesses. So I actually trained with the guys first. The first few months, I also took Korean classes in Gangnam [a district in Seoul] for five hours per day. When I joined the girls, I stopped taking Korean classes, because I was pretty fluent by then, and spent way more time at the studio trying to catch up with the girls.

Every month, we had an exam. I think people know about this now. Every month, they’d cut people. We started with 20 girls, but by the end of my training we had seven. Every month, they’d cut down one to two girls. For the first two months, I didn’t participate in the exams, because they knew I was such a rookie it wasn’t really fair. After the third month, I started joining the girl groups and had my first project with them. We danced to Girls’ Generation.

So what did a day look like for you as a trainee?

The busiest days were maybe two months prior to doing Produce 101. Other contestants were really experienced — some were already famous — so our company was looking at them and then looking at us like, This is not it. [laughs] They basically set a rule where we couldn’t leave the studio until after 4 a.m. We had to text in the company group chat saying “I arrived!” or “I left!” so they could track you down. Because I was still on my summer break, I had to come in during the day. Everyone who had school would just sleep in class because training took the whole night.

On a day like that, I would get to the studio around noon, and we would start by jumping rope while singing to increase your stamina. And because we want to lose weight too, we'd wear parkas. This was also during the summer.

During the busy time, we also had other classes. Vocal classes, rap classes, we also had Pilates classes. I don’t know why — to lose weight, probably. At some point the company also hired a camera director [who] trained us how to act and what to do in front of a camera.

There’s not really a culture of “work smart or work hard” — there’s only “work hard.” If you’re there until 4 a.m., it means you’re doing something right. But we’d be so tired. There are security cameras in the studio, so the company can see what we’re doing. Sometimes we would take naps in the changing rooms because that was the only place without cameras. [laughs] The mentality was, ‘It doesn’t matter; just train, train, train.’ In the beginning, though, when I was learning Korean and not fully on my diet diet, I still got eight hours of sleep. And could eat sushi.

That's something else we should talk about: There are a lot of questions around K-pop, dieting, and body image right now. Were you affected by that culture at all?

Oh, definitely. Every few days, we would have to weigh ourselves in front of everyone — guys, girls, teachers — in one room on a scale. So it was really embarrassing, you know what I mean? To get the smallest weight, we’d take off all our clothes and just have a tank top and shorts on. I remember the first time I did it I was obviously “overweight,” because I was in the eighth grade and chubby to begin with. They were OK with it the first time, but once we started training, then the dieting really started. It was really unhealthy at first. I would try and focus on the number. So I would eat really little, but I’d only eat chocolate — which is just not how you lose weight, you know?

At some point, the company said I could go to a diet hospital. They have those in Korea. I went with another trainee who also didn’t have to go to school, because the diet hospital was like an hour bus ride away. They basically gave us this “herbal medicine” before we ate meals that would suppress our appetite and increase our metabolism, so our hearts would beat really fast.

I’m pretty sure they were diet pills. I don’t know. They said it was herbal, but after I took a health class in America, I was like, hang on. That seems sus. [laughs] Because it suppressed my appetite, so I wasn’t hungry! I didn’t have any cravings, so I only ate to fill my stomach up.

That diet thing made me lose a ton of weight. I think the lowest I got to was 46 or 47 kilograms [101 lbs.]. I remember feeling really weak. You could tell I was weak because whenever I’d bow down to say “Annyeonghaseyo” [a formal and polite greeting in Korean], I’d feel really, really dizzy. But that was the lowest weight I think I got to until the next stage of the diet.

Part of the “package” at the diet hospital is that they have these...I think they’re called "carboxy shots" in English? They basically put needles and shoot gas into specific areas of your body to break up the fat so it's easier to lose. I got those shots. They also have an electric thing where there’s needles all around and they electrocute you...and it’s all supposed to help you lose weight. I did a little bit of all that because it was part of the package.

At that point, you were pretty young as well.

I was 14, yeah. A part of me was like, what am I doing? But I think I was so determined to be a K-pop idol. And I was young. I wanted to be pretty. I didn’t know they were diet pills. Someone was like, “These are herbal medicines,” and I was like, OK! These are healthy, then.

I didn’t have to go to the hospital for a few months after, because after you lose that much weight, you just have to maintain it. In the morning, I would have my yogurt, for lunch I’d eat cucumber and some cherry tomatoes and maybe a boiled egg, and for dinner I’d eat a boiled egg and sweet potatoes.

So basically...nothing?

Basically! I remember I kept track of every single calorie. A hard-boiled egg has 62 calories, if I remember correctly. A single tomato has 12 calories.

And this was all leading up to the debut, which also led to the Produce 101 audition.

Yeah, while we were training there was news that Mnet was going to have a huge show, looking for [contestants]. They needed 100 people, and they needed them from different companies. We knew they were looking around. Our company actually sent us there — so we “auditioned,” but we low-key already had spots already. OK, I’m not super sure about that! But our company’s CEO [Kim Chang Wan] wrote the song “Pick Me” [Produce 101’s theme song]. So I think he was like, "We have trainees under our company, why don’t they audition?" Seven of us auditioned, and five of us got in.

And I need to address: You were blonde on the show.

Oh, yeah! Part of my contract was that the company can market you however they want. So right before Produce 101, they took me to the salon, and the hairdressers asked, "What would look good for her?" And I think the company was like, “Oh, she’s American, so let’s make her look like a doll, more Americanlike.” I literally took a nap and woke up with bleached hair. I did not ask for this! But you gotta do what you gotta do, you know?

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You were on Season 1. What was it like to come onto the show with four other girls whom you’ve grown close to as trainees, and meeting a bunch — well, 100 other girls?

For the first time, there were girls who were younger than me! And it was a big deal because I didn’t know how to talk to them. I only knew how to talk to older people [using appropriate Korean grammar]. I also got close with the other Chinese girl and the Cantonese girl. I met them in the bathroom. It was nice hanging out with other girls who shared a similar background.

But even though there were other girls that I really vibed with, the unnie [oldest girl] in my group was really adamant about sticking together and presenting the right image to others, that we’re like sisters under one company; if you make other friends, it might look like something is wrong. They really hit me with that mentality of, "You are the maknae [youngest member], so you need to listen to us,” which is a mentality I immediately abandoned once I left Korea. I did end up sticking with my company most of the time just because we had to upkeep the image. It’s not like I didn’t want to hang out with them, I just also wanted to branch out a little bit.

What was being on a show as popular as Produce 101 like?

I used to be really into K-pop, but after the trainee process I realized that everything is fake, you know what I mean? [laughs] There was a good time after I left Korea that I didn’t watch K-dramas or listen to K-pop or anything. Now I consume some content, but I don't follow groups anymore, just because I know the company really packages you and markets you in a specific way. I feel like fans get really caught up in that — I really got caught up in that — but once I saw the other side, it kind of changed me.

It wasn’t until Produce 101 that I started realizing just how disingenuous and scripted it all is. During the trainee process, it's hard, but you just try and work through it. Some know this, but a lot of news broke out that the show is rigged, and that a lot of people were chosen beforehand. People would cry in front of the cameras to gain screentime because everyone loves a Cinderella story, you know? Or they’d fake-bully girls to pretend they’re the villain and all types of stuff, and I was just there like, whaaat? I thought reality shows were at least real!

Do you still talk to anyone from Produce or your company?

One of them just reached out yesterday to tell me she missed me! We still text sometimes because we were so close back then, but we all do live separate lives now. Some are still in the industry, and I’m here studying, so it’s different. It’s one of those things — a childhood experience that you never bring up or talk about, but sometimes you have a weird flashback and you’re like, Whoa. I did do that.

You were eliminated from Produce 101 in Episode 5. After the show, you decided to move back to the States.

Before Produce 101, I was calling my mom, and she was like, “Hey, you’ve been in Korea for a year now. It’s good to finish high school at least.” So we were looking at American schools in Korea, but none wanted to take on a trainee — someone who'd sleep in class and skip school. All fair, really.

I also remember calling my friends during this process, telling them I wasn’t as happy as I thought I would be. And they were talking about taking AP US history and going to winter formal. High school stuff. I felt like I was missing out on so much! FOMO, you know?

One thing looming in my mind was my contract. I had a seven-year contract. How do I get out of it? My mom really pulled through. She flew over and brought a translator. Basically what they told me was that at the end of the day if I wanted to leave, I could, and as long as I don’t join another company, I wouldn’t need to pay a fine or anything.

But you’re off the show now. You’re out of the company. Was it hard transitioning back to high school life at first?

It was kind of hard because it was another culture shock. Things are not as seniority-based or nearly as intense. But I also felt really free, and I really liked it. I hadn't gone to school for such a long time, so I appreciated it so much more. I hadn’t read in such a long time. I was taking chemistry and was just excited at how fun it was. I studied a lot that year, just enjoying it. And I could eat what I wanted, and no one really cared.

It’s actually funny; when I was in high school, my vocal teacher [from Korea] reached out to me about YMC Entertainment starting a new girl group. They were looking for international people, and she asked if I’d want to come back. It gave me a whole flashback and was I like, no, thank you!

I wanted to close with one final question: What does K-pop mean to you?

Before, K-pop was my life. It was everything. I would follow groups like Exo. Now I just see it as another type of music. I love Mamamoo, but I’ll listen to them because I like their songs. I think I used to see them more as a whole package: the personality, the way they look, the reality shows, they must be so nice, blah blah blah. Now, if I like it, great; if I don’t, whatever. I know to other people it’s a whole industry, but to me it's just another genre of music.

Overall, the K-pop experience — even though I left and it was toxic — it still was good in that I learned how to be more independent and be by myself. But in leaving, I realized I also don’t feel like hiding myself anymore.

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