The first things people usually associate with K-Pop are funky music videos, creative stage outfits and funny variety show appearances. Fans who have been into K-Pop for a longer time or those who started looking under the surface immediately, already know that there is also a dark side to the life of beauty, glamour and success.
Almost every idol talks about their hard time being a trainee and so-called “survival programs” such as “WIN: Who Is Next” that aired in 2013 and “SIXTEEN” that is airing right now, give fans a small glimpse of what it is like to be a trainee. Young people who succeeded in the auditioning process of a company are supposed to sacrifice many years of their life to reach their goals – until they are either able to debut or so exhausted and disillusioned that they decide to quit. They start their days early in the morning and practice until long after the sun sets. Their lessons include singing, dancing, acting, variety show and interview skills, workouts as well as language courses for the international trainees.
Due to this high amount of lessons a lot of trainees suffer from sleep loss and it is rumored that some of them even take medications to stay awake longer and to boost their physical abilities. Another thing that heavily damages their health is keeping up with the impossible high beauty standards of Korea and its netizens, meaning that trainees usually have to lose a lot of weight and maintain their look, which can result in major health issues due to risky diets and working out for insane amount of hours a day. While diets and workouts might make them suffer physically, the incredible pressure they are put under is likely to make them suffer psychologically as well.
There are famous long-time trainees such as Jokwon of 2AM, who trained for 8 years, and Hyoyeon of SNSD, who trained for 7 years; all of whom didn’t even know whether or not they would debut. And they are certainly not an exception. Other trainees even leave their families behind in hopes of helping them out financially once they debut. For example iKon’s Bobby who left the US and JYJ’s Jaejoong who left home at the age of 15 – He had various jobs such as working in a restaurant or delivering newspapers to pay for his classes in SM Entertainment. In addition to that many trainees can’t usually go to university and some of them even drop out of high school to focus solely on their training schedule. This is especially surprising when thinking about the importance of education is within Korea and how many families compare the education of their children as good grades are seen as a form of prestige.
On the other hand there are also trainees who go to school, which can place them under more pressure because they have to focus on school and be physically and skill wise on the same level as other trainees who don’t go to school. Besides their education, another important factor is their social life; Due to their busy schedule, trainees usually only make friends with other trainees. While this may sound like a great start of a friendship – living in a dorm together, having the same interests and the determination to reach the same goal, they always have to keep in mind that they are still rivals. This is why the atmosphere among groups can be seen as really competitive and cold. Now imagine debuting in a group together with your biggest rival, pretending to be all lovey-dovey in front of the cameras. Some companies even ban their trainees from dating so that they won’t get distracted and spend more time training.
Talking about their companies, the agency the trainees are under usually have the right to end the contract at any time, whilst the trainee has to pay back their debt if they decide to end the contract before its expiration. Jokwon for example had to pay back his trainee debts even two years after his official debut although he never left the company. And even if you go through the whole trainee process successfully and are able to debut there is still no guarantee that you will be successful and your hardships will end, especially when debuting under a rather unknown company. Obviously not all trainees are able to debut, but we usually only ever hear about the past of those who did it, finishing their story with something along the lines of “but in the end all the suffering was worth it”. But what if your suffering didn’t pay off at the end?
Overall it can be said that trainee life certainly is not an easy life and although these facts might already be known to some of you, I think it is always important to keep them in mind since fans (with me included) sometimes tend to take the things idols have done and what they do for us for granted.