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One in two Korean children wants to become a star

The Tough Life of Wannabes at Korean Star Factories

One in two Korean children wants to become a star, according to a survey by Internet portal Daum of 10,478 people, and due to the explosive popularity of manufactured bands, there has been a marked increase in the number of young Koreans entering entertainment "academies" that groom them. But many of the more than 1,000 young Koreans believed to be enrolled suffer physical and psychological abuse by entertainment agencies.

The Chosun Ilbo recently interviewed 15 of these kids and learned that many of their human rights are being ignored. They have to follow an extremely rigorous schedule, with some quitting school to concentrate on their training. Those that are still at school are forced to spend their vacations at training camps where they practice their various skills from 9 to 10 a.m. until 2 or 3 a.m. the next day and only have two or three hours off before or after meals.


Participants are on stage during a televised audition for singers by cable music station m.net last year.

The training consists of dancing, singing and acting lessons and physical training to improve their figures. "The toughest part is getting only five hours of sleep," said a 16-year-old student. "I feel like I’m in hell every time I get up in the morning." One manager for the entertainers said, "The reason why the trainees are often punished and shouted at is so that they are driven to succeed in a very competitive industry."

Some trainees suffer inhumane treatment, but for many kids, being accepted by an entertainment factory is their top goal in life. At one audition for singers by cable music station m.net last year, no fewer than 720,000 people sent in applications. Aspiring singers and dancers turn to these auditions or various training institutes so they can be accepted as trainees by the big management companies. Students pay between W500,000 to W2 million (US$1=W1,137) a month at those institutes.

There are around 700 of these academies. Bae Jin-taek, the head of one of them, said, "Five years ago, there were only around 300 music academies, but the explosive popularity of idol groups has led to more academies to open." His own academy opened in July last year and already has 220 students. "Students train at music academies for one to three years so they can be accepted as trainees at management companies."

Experts say it is worrying to see these budding entertainers grow up under such conditions and develop a distorted set of social values. Ji Jung-soon of the Bright Youth Center, said, "Young kids who want to be stars grow up being punished and pushed around, so if they become famous, they may become fixated on power and influence, while suffering from low self-esteem."

Sung Young-shin, a psychologist at Korea University who works for a committee to prevent violence against teenagers, said, "Another factor behind the abusive practices by management companies is the excessive desire of parents who force their kids into show business."

Young Koreans' Obsession with Stardom Is a Deep Concern

In 1983, a popular children's magazine conducted a survey of 6,595 schoolchildren asking them what they wanted to be when they grew up. Their top choice was scientist with 23.3 percent, followed by teacher (14.1 percent), judge (11.5 percent), doctor (11 percent) and artist (7.8 percent). When asked what would bring them happiness, 63 percent of them said living a worthwhile life. When those children entered university, the Physics Department at Seoul National University was the preferred choice among applicants that drew the brightest minds from across the country.

Twenty years later, kids.daum.net, a popular Internet portal for children, surveyed 10,478 kids about their preferred profession as adults and found that 41.6 percent or 4,364 of them wanted to be singers. When combined with the 892 (8.5 percent) who chose actor, 50.1 percent of the children surveyed wanted to be entertainers. Only 110 respondents said they wanted to be scientists, ranking 19th out of the favored professions.

The trend is not restricted to elementary schoolchildren. Young Koreans are fixated on becoming stars. Last year, 4,157 people applied in a contest by broadcaster SBS to choose 14 new actors. The competition ratio for men was 397:1 and for women 222:1. Another contest that selected a single winner who will get to join a Japanese girl band drew 2,500 applicants from across the country ranging from 8 to 34 years of age. An audition by JYP Entertainment, one of the largest entertainment firms which manages 2PM and the Wonder Girls, drew some 23,000 applicants -- a 6,000:1 competition rate. A few universities that have majors specializing in entertainment-related fields are so competitive to get into that a student must beat hundreds of other applicants for a place.

Around 1,000 young trainees at talent management agencies spend all day practicing singing and dancing while missing school. The most popular profession among female university graduates is news anchor, and the competition ratio there often surpasses 1,000:1. The reason is that over the last few years a number of news anchors have become high-profile celebrities rivaling movie stars.

Being an entertainer is like running a venture business staked on a single product. Success means money and fame, but the flipside is that those who do not succeed have to worry where their next meal will come from. An entertainers' union surveyed 403 actors last year and found that 40 percent of them had been unable to appear even once in a movie or TV show a year. Moon Jae-gap, director of policy at the union, said 70 percent of members make less than W1 million (US$1=W1,133) a month. What is worse is that the factor that determines success or failure is pure luck. In the entertainment profession, hopefuls must stake their future on the eternally fickle tastes of the public.

The reason so many Koreans are caught up in showbiz dreams appears to be an increasing sense of disillusionment with the merits of climbing up the success ladder one step at a time. "There is probably no country in the world other than Korea where more than half of elementary school students aspire to become entertainers," one entertainment lawyer said. "I'm worried about the future of my country."

Of course, the country needs people who dream about becoming actors and singers. But it also needs people who fall in love with science or aspire to become great politicians or military leaders. It needs people who live passionate lives as artists too. Celebrity fever is a cause for deep concern.

Source: The Chosun Ilbo - 1 & 2
Tags: culture
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