Say K-pop and what comes to mind are sleek sexy stars, complete with strong vocals, fancy grooves and good looks, who offer glitz and glamour in well-packaged sound bites.
The K-pop industry, which churns out countless pretty-faced boybands and girl groups yearly, was almost unheard of in Asia a decade ago.
Now, it is a regional powerhouse. Witness the bedlam when popular groups such as FT Island and Brown Eyed Girls visited Singapore for showcases last year. Fans camped overnight at venue entrances to get up close and personal with their pop idols.
Last year, Financial Supervisory Service (South Korea), the country's integrated financial regulator, revealed the earnings of the top three talent management companies in the country, namely SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment.
SM Entertainment, which manages some of the biggest pop idol groups in South Korea, including Super Junior, SNSD and Shinee, earned more than 61.8 billion won (SGD68 million; USD49 million) last year.
Rivals YG Entertainment, which produced popular groups such as Big Bang and 2NE1, pulled in more than SGD41 million (USD29.5 million), while JYP Entertainment, which pulls the strings for Wonder Girls, earned more than SGD11 million (USD7.9 million).
Now, K-pop has its sights set on the international market, with singers such as Rain and Wonder Girls attempting to break into that Holy Grail of all pop markets - the United States.
How did the Hallyu pop wave go from zero to hero in just a few years? The answer is pop cram school.
Korean pop stars are literally the assembly-line products of a lean, mean pop machine operated by talent management agencies.
Before they make their debut, pop-star wannabes have to first get through tough auditions. SM Entertainment, for example, holds weekly walk-in auditions in South Korea and also accepts e-mail auditions from hopeful teenagers who send in video clips. JYP Entertainment holds auditions fortnightly, with as many as 1,000 people turning up for each one.
Although there is no age limit, Ms Mei Han, JYP Entertainment's publicist, says the hopefuls are getting younger, with some just 10 years old.
She tells Life! over the telephone from South Korea: 'As there are many good and talented young people who turn up, we usually look at their potential and choose those whom we feel are very passionate and really want to be stars. Sometimes, we can choose up to five people from one audition session, and sometimes, we won't choose anyone at all.'
Once they are picked, the applicants become trainees in a tough regime aimed at manufacturing pop stars. They have to learn singing, dancing, hosting, acting and foreign languages. They can train for anywhere between one and seven years, or sometimes even longer, in courses organised or sponsored by the talent management agencies which have cherry-picked them for grooming.
Jo Kwon, leader of ballad boyband 2AM, for example, trained for seven years and 10 days before he was selected to debut.
And training is not the only hurdle. Trainees have to pass the equivalent of performance examinations.
Ms Han says JYP Entertainment sets monthly tests for its trainees and holds an in-house showcase twice a year to gauge their standards.
She says: 'The showcase is also for trainees to gain stage experience. From these tests, we grade them and place them in different challenge projects, before selecting a few to form a group.'
There are now 40 trainees in the agency and it will be debuting a new five-member girl group before September.
DSP Entertainment, which has popular boyband SS501 and girl group KARA on its roster of artists, also sets singing and dancing practical tests for its trainees before launching them.
Mr Choi Seong Pil, the agency's senior chief manager, tells Life!: 'Trainees usually spend many hours training very hard so that they can get chosen. Now, we have about 15 trainees and we will debut a new boyband of five to six people in November.'
The lengthy training period does not come cheap. Korean talent management companies pay not only for the classes, but also for the trainees' accommodation, food and allowances. Then, once they debut as performers, the companies pay for their clothes as well as extensive grooming which, given the norm in the Korean entertainment industry, could include plastic surgery.
Industry insiders in Singapore estimate that the total costs can range from SGD50,000 to SGD300,000 (USD36,000 to USD215,500) or more for each trainee, depending on how long he trains.
Comedienne-actress Irene Ang, founder and chief executive of artist management agency Fly Entertainment, says: 'It is important to train a star first before debuting him because looks can only go so far. He must have talent and substance.'
Xiao Han, co-founder of Funkie Monkies Productions which also grooms local talent, agrees: 'Companies are willing to invest in trainees because the group which debut represent the company and in turn become spokesmen for the company.'
Eric Ng, co-founder of Funkie Monkies, adds: 'After receiving training, the artists become more aware of the industry and know what to expect from the media, clients and fans. This will help prepare them as the industry can sometimes be cruel.'
The Korean companies' investments have obviously paid off in the past five years as K-pop groups now command thousands of fans and earn huge sums of money for them.
K-pop fan Sheralyn Tan, 19, says: 'Korean groups can sing and dance extremely well. They are also good-looking and well-packaged, which appeals to me.'
But the price of stardom is steep and exacted with bottom-line ruthlessness by the firms. For one thing, pop singers are signed on for lengthy contracts. Mr Choi says: 'Our stars usually sign a five- to seven-year contract with us after debuting.'
That is reasonable compared to some other contracts such as that of now-inactive Dong Bang Shin Ki, whose five members signed 13-year deals with SM Entertainment.
Small wonder then that some former pop stars, such as Han Geng from boyband Super Junior, have quit or are embroiled in legal tussles with record companies, claiming that the contracts are unfair.
Financial imbroglios aside, the training and constant pressures also take a psychological toll on the stars.
Kevin Woo, 19, a member of boyband U-Kiss which were in town recently, says of the tough training period: 'We were far away from our families and we missed them so much. We were homesick and depressed, but we told ourselves that since we have already started, we should not give up.'
Min Sun Ye, leader of Wonder Girls who were advised by their company not to date for the next two years, says: 'I had wanted to give up but kept telling myself not to because it has always been my dream to perform in front of many people. Thankfully, I focused on my training and I am grateful to be here now.'
Life of a Wannabe
A typical day in the life of a pop-star wannabe starts with school. In previous years, talent management agencies would sign up hopefuls in their late teens, but nowadays, candidates aged between 10 and 12 are becoming more common.
After school, instead of going shopping or hanging out with their friends like typical teenagers, trainees would rush to their respective talent management companies to attend classes, be it singing, dancing, acting or learning a new language.
Ms Mei Han, publicist at JYP Entertainment in South Korea, says: 'The classes usually last four to six hours. After that, the trainees would stay back and train on their own as they want to hone their skills and be better than the others.'
Many of them, hoping to get picked for a group, would practise for extra hours before going home to do their homework and rest.
This routine could continue for years before star hopefuls are launched on their glittering careers.
After they make their debut, there is yet more work. Their daily lives will revolve around promoting their albums, attending television and radio shows, appearing for autograph sessions and travelling to different parts of the world to meet their fans.
As Park Ye Eun, 20, from popular girl group Wonder Girls says: 'Being a star now, I get very tired as I have to wake up early a lot. We have to wake up at 4 or 5am and catch up on sleep on planes. I miss sleeping comfortably on my bed the most.
'Also, I miss not being able to see my friends and family when I am on tour. As we are currently promoting our album in America, we can't talk much to our family in Korea due to the time difference. It is quite sad.'
Boyband F.cuz's members agree, saying in an e-mail interview: 'Our everyday life consists of going to the television and radio stations, going to the dance studios to practise our dance steps and vocals and going home to rest.'
"..candidates aged between 10 and 12 are becoming more common." o_O
Reported by: Joceyln Lee for the Straits Times (Singapore) [accessible to paying subscribers only]