By Tae Hong
Think K-pop idols. All that fame, the flash, the fans — it’s the gig millions crave.
Agencies hungry for a piece of Hallyu cash number in the dozens; trainees hundreds, maybe thousands. It’s the landscape that birthed roughly 270 idol group debuts from 2010 to 2014, most of them fated to obscurity.
Celena Ahn, known more popularly as Lena, had a realer chance than most. She was signed under one of the Big Three, JYP Entertainment. As a trainee, she’d already been on stage, on screens and in a music video as the featured rapper for Sunmi’s “Full Moon.”
Then, on the precipice of being named to JYP’s new girl group, Ahn walked away.
Almost a year after that, back in her hometown near Los Angeles, she was crowned one of the winners of Miss Korea USA inside a Palm Springs Resort, glittering in a red dress. Now the former trainee and actress hopeful is headed back to Seoul, the city that held her in a limbo between spotlight and hard-earned sweat for three years.
There, she’ll compete for the ultimate title come July: Miss Korea.
“I wasn’t expecting to win [the USA pageant],” she said. “I was just doing it for the experience. If I won, I wanted to use that platform to fulfill my dreams.”
Ahn, who left Korea last year and who is currently studying communications at St. Mount Antonio College, has her eyes on Hollywood. She’s been doing auditions. The Miss Korea trip has put a hold on that, but once she’s back, acting will be her focus, she said.
She’s somewhat of a pageant vet — in 2009, at 16, she won Miss Hi-Teen. It was there that she was noticed by JYP talent scouters. Two years later, fresh off high school graduation, she flew to Korea to join the agency’s training program.
All the while, she said, her end goal lay with acting.
“I never thought about being a singer until I went to JYP. They helped me form a passion for singing and rapping and dancing. I’m really grateful for that,” she said. “While I was training, I thought, If I happened to debut as a singer in Korea, it would open more gates for me to act. The whole Korean industry is becoming really big.”
Her experience is one that reflects those of a majority of today’s K-pop stars. Agencies scout for young talent, bring them in as trainees and teach them how to sing, dance, rap and smile like pros. For those who persevere, and for those lucky enough to be in a larger, more influential company, K-pop idol stardom — the sort that’s spread throughout Asia and which is now spilling onto the rest of the globe — comes within reach.
During Ahn’s training period, JYP allowed her to film and send in audition tapes for U.S. projects, she said. While she appreciated the support, when it came time for her training contract to expire, she chose home.
Her leave came as a surprise to those who had started following her as one of JYP’s most promising new talents, especially after her stint rapping for former Wonder Girls member Sunmi’s well-received “Full Moon” early last year. Talk had emerged pointing to Ahn as one of the members of the agency’s soon-to-debut girl group, 6Mix.
So, Lena, what happened?
“I didn’t lose my passion or anything like that,” she said. “My dream is to become an actress. It was just, there were bigger opportunities [in the U.S.], so I decided to come back and fulfill and pursue it. There was no other reason for me leaving.”
Ahn started acting when she was 9, appearing in “Memoirs of a Geisha” in 2005 as a student dancer.
The arts run in her blood — her grandmother is Lee Ae-ju, an official National Living Treasure of traditional Korean dance and Seoul National University professor.
Perhaps as a result, Ahn began Korean dance at age 5 and continued well into her teenage years, placing as a YoungArts 2011 finalist in dance.
As a JYP trainee, the then-18-year-old, born-and-raised-Angeleno first had to adjust to a new country, and adjust to life in K-pop prep. The experience, she said, made her strong.
“There’s ups and downs, but during training you can’t focus on the downs, or you won’t move forward. You’ll just be stuck in the same spot,” she said. “Korea’s very big on not letting people down, so that is what was running through my mind a lot: ‘I don’t want to let these people down.’”
And the return home?
“After all of that, it was…” she paused. “My life just became really calm all of a sudden.”
Lena Ahn, far right, at Miss Korea USA 2015 (Kim Hyung-jae/Korea Times)
Now she has time to read (her most recent pick is “Gone With the Wind”), cook for her brother, blog, manage her social media (“I love Instagram. It shows people what I’m about. They have no other way of knowing. It connects me to them.”)
“I didn’t go to college right after I graduated, I went [to Korea]. I experienced the world. I was working already at 18, 19,” Ahn said. “After I came back here, I realized that if I had stayed here and went to college, I would’ve learned different things, but I wouldn’t have learned the things that I learned in Korea. In a way, those things are more valuable. I’m just grateful I got to experience the whole thing.”
She’s also aware of her existing fans.
“I’m really, really grateful for everybody. I’m grateful that even after I left, I would get comments saying that they would stand by me until the end, or ‘We won’t forget you.’ It really means a lot to me,” she said. “They give me strength. I just want to say thank you.”
Worry not — she’ll be back, whether it be in Hollywood or in Korea, with sights set on the screen. She plans to follow in the footsteps of role models Audrey Hepburn and Angelina Jolie in using fame and fortune to bring awareness to important causes.
“I’m looking to [eventually] start my own charity,” she said. “That’s one thing I really want to do, for young children and people who don’t have homes or who have been mistreated.”
For now, she’s moving forward, on to Miss Korea. She’ll be there representing the USA alongside three others who won the annual event held in Los Angeles.
Then it’ll be another chapter, and the next, and the next.
“Who knows what’s next?” Ahn laughed. “I’m a firm believer that if you leave your life in the hands of God, he’ll help you and guide you. So I’m just expecting to go to Korea, do the competition, try my hardest, be a good representative of the USA, and if things go well, then I will just have to see where life takes me from there.”
its bit old news but i found out today cause btob peniel asked ppl to vote for her and i realised shes the same girl that did full moon with sunmi...
idk how to tag it, sorry mods