6:50 pm - 02/18/2012

Why Michelle Lee will not win ‘K-POP Star’


With the recent influx of singing competition shows sprouting faster than Jeremy Lin fans, I try avoiding them like people with bad breath. However, it wasn’t until I saw a preview of ‘SBS KPOP Star at the conclusion of a hilarious ‘Running Man’ episode that baited me to check out a few clips of the auditions. One YouTube clip led to another and another (curse you ‘Recommended Videos’ section!), and before I knew it, I was watching full episodes of the show from its inception.

As Michelle Lee appeared before the judges for the first time, she stood anxiously grabbing the mic with both hands and introduced herself. She spoke in fluent Korean, throwing the judges and myself off guard, because she was… different. The curvy, darker skinned contestant in frumpy attire revealed that she is half black and half Korean, born and raised in Korea. She then delivered an impressive acapella of “Chain of Fools” that Aretha Franklin herself would approve of, immediately garnering the respect of the judges.

‘Wow,’ I thought to myself. ‘She’s gooooood… But in the back of my mind I also thought that she’ll never win.’


Some of you might be saying ‘WTF’, but the rest of you who live in the real world were probably thinking the same thing. However, for the sake of argument, I’ll be the one to tell the kids that Santa isn’t real. I don’t mind being the bad guy, I’ll say what no one wants to: Michelle Lee will not win KPOP Star because of her appearance.

Before you go logging into your 6Theory accounts to curse my unborn child, hear me out. My deduction may seem cold and racially insensitive on the surface, but I’m merely relaying the status quo of nationalism in South Korea and the standards of beauty as promulgated by K-pop fans and the media. Yes, we’ve seen the atypical underdogs win these competitions before (see: Susan Boyle), but the requisites are different here, as indicated by the literal title of the show in big, bold, pink font. This show is looking for a K-pop star.


Let’s be real. We all know there are more than a few idols out there with mediocre singing ability. With respect for the wrath of the K-pop netizen, I won’t name names for fear of my own safety, but I will say that almost every group has at least one. Entertainment companies cleverly conceal this lack of talent by designating specific roles to group members like ‘main vocalist,’ ‘sub vocalist,’ ‘dancer,’ etc., or the most creative one I’ve seen yet, ‘sexy charisma’. L-O-L.

While exceptional vocal ability is not common in every idol, the ideal physical idiosyncrasies are – the crescent-shaped eyes complimented with double eyelids, the cute button nose, the milky-soft skin, and the S-line figure forged from the perfect ratio of athletic tone and starvation—whether they’re God-given or not.

The point is, that in K-pop, image takes precedence over talent. Is it justified? I’ll be the first to admit that I often fall victim to the pretty face. I rotate crushes on female idols like Big Bang members change their hairstyles. But to answer the question, hell yes. The voice might sell the 99 cent song on iTunes, but it’s the face that sells the posters, clothes, cosmetics, and bottles of soju. We, the fans, the consumers, the drooling dupes who are attracted to shiny things, are the ones to blame for the perpetuation of this criterion.

As the future idols of K-pop now endure the battle auditions and prepare for live performances where elimination is partially influenced by viewer voting, we should start seeing the development of the inevitable transformations in aesthetic presentation. My inner nerd can’t help but compare this to the recent Captain America movie, where a scrawny Steve Rogers is injected with the ‘super soldier’ serum and comes out all jacked up as if he were auditioning for the next season of ‘Jersey Shore’. So as our own contestants are about to head into their proverbial stasis chambers, I’ve noticed a few contestants’ metamorphoses have already begun. The judges have specifically asked Lee Ha Yi and Park Ji Min (two leading favorites to take it all), among others, to lose weight. Anyone notice that mum’s the word for Michelle?


New York Times, 2009 ‘South Koreans Struggle with Race‘

“In a report issued Oct. 21, Amnesty International criticized discrimination in South Korea against migrant workers, who mostly are from poor Asian countries, citing sexual abuse, racial slurs, inadequate safety training and the mandatory disclosure of H.I.V. status, a requirement not imposed on South Koreans in the same jobs. Citing local news media and rights advocates, it said that following last year’s financial downturn, “incidents of xenophobia are on the rise.”

For most of its modern history, South Koreans were taught to take pride in its ethnic homogeneity. Its ‘pure-blood’ nationalism was fueled from the foul tastes of Imperialist invasion and subjugation from its bigger neighbors, but I’ll save the full history lessons for your boring professors.

Before I go on, I want to clear the air. My intention here is not to denounce the Korean people as jingoistic beasts, nor is it to justify their sociological attitude that’s governed them for decades. South Korea has made strides in improving its internal disposition. According to the aforementioned New York Times article, in 2007, they urged public education to further condemn widespread use of terms like ‘pure-blood’ and ‘mixed blood’. Political parties also planned to draft legislation that would “provide detailed definition of discrimination by race and ethnicity and impose criminal penalties.”

Now some of you Hottests and Aff(x)tion-ites are itching to point out that there are actually quite a few idols in the industry that aren’t ‘pure-blood’ Koreans, exempli gratia Nichkhun, Victoria, Amber, Fei, and Jia to name a few. Being a computer science major, my argumentative response would refer to the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing’s logic test for inductive reasoning to rationalize this contrasting principle: “If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.” So yeah. I’m reaching, I know.

Interestingly though, Michelle would not be the first black-Korean to hit the Korean mainstream music scene. Yoon Mi Rae aka Tasha Reid, Lady T or T, is in my opinion, the best female rapper in the world. Like Michelle, Yoon Mi Rae was born to a Korean mother and African-American father. She debuted in a duo at the age of 16 in 1999, was a member of Uptown and has had a successful career as a solo artist, but not without conflict. Throughout her life, she often faced discrimination because of her mixed heritage, as can be validated by the emotional lyrics of her songs.

“Black Happiness” (translated)
“I was young, but I could see my mother’s sadness.
I was ashamed—thought it was all my fault.
I scrubbed my face twice every day,
My tears melted the white soap
Because I hated my dark skin.”

Even not too long ago, Yoon Mi Rae experienced racism after her husband, famed rapper Tiger JK, brought their 21-month old son Jordan onstage with him at ‘Yoo Hee Yeol’s Sketchbook’. Sadly, after the show, Tiger read some hateful racist comments about his son and family that led to this Twitter tantrum.

On the flip side, discrimination in the entertainment industry isn’t exclusive to South Korea, as we’ve seen many cases of Asian artists having difficulties being accepted in America and other countries as well.


I’m not saying we should hand the crown over to Michelle by default. There are a handful of very talented contestants that could easily win it. If she didn’t win, I’d have no qualms with it… if she’s outperformed. I honestly don’t think we’ll get a fair trial though.

Her only advantage and ray of hope is that advancement to the next rounds are heavily influenced by the judges and not entirely by viewer voting as is the case on other shows. In the opening minutes of the very first episode where the judges are introduced, they are each asked what they’re looking for and what their standards of judging will be based on:

YG: “I hope to create a new kind of star that has yet to be established.”

J.Y. Park: “The standard for KPOP Star is… originality. A person with their own style. One who can express themselves through singing or dancing. That is the person we want to find.”

BoA: “For me, rather than someone who is already well-polished, I want to find someone with potential who can be polished in the future. I hope to find someone who’s like a clean, white canvas.”

If these truly are their ambitions, then Michelle has a shot. Yang Hyun Suk, Park Jin Young, and BoA are three of the most influential icons of the industry that have shaped the K-pop landscape into what it is today. These judges, CEO’s and ambassadors of their respective companies, have continually tried to penetrate the western market with their best arsenal (Wonder Girls, Rain, Se7en, and BoA herself), and while they’ve made progress, they’ve ultimately failed by most standards. Perhaps its time to try different ammunition.

Maybe instead of the catchy tune backed by the pretty face, you try sheer, unadulterated, magnificent talent? How will America respond? Ask Adele’s eight Grammy’s.

It’s a good thing that Adele wasn’t born as a half-black/half-Korean though… because then we wouldn’t ever know.


eventhough this article is from akp its surprisingly a good one. i think the author has a few good points.
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lelouchikaru 18th-Feb-2012 05:58 pm (UTC)
this is fuckery. racism tbh imo
neumi 18th-Feb-2012 05:59 pm (UTC)
Didn't need an article to tell me what I already know. She'll be fine on her own, screw Korea if they don't want her. At least she was brave enough to go there and stick around for so long. I never would have tried in the first place.
lcbarnes 18th-Feb-2012 06:07 pm (UTC)
Exactly! I think she is awesome!
cairistiona 18th-Feb-2012 06:04 pm (UTC)
I never thought I'd see the day.
This is actually well thought-out. IA.
xfactorglory 18th-Feb-2012 06:11 pm (UTC)
A+ article. Leaving before the troll comments tho
luvey 18th-Feb-2012 06:11 pm (UTC)
good article, even if it offers nothing new on the subject. we can only hope YG and JYP step up and out of their bubble and maybe try to nab Michelle Lee for their respective companies....but i won't be holding my breath.

in reading: ‘pure-blood’ and ‘mixed blood’ all i could think of was Harry Potter and muggles.
freeiheit 18th-Feb-2012 06:11 pm (UTC)
Well, I think we all knew that. Michelle is awesome and was brave enough to put herself out there, and she has talent! She definetely can do own her own.
khimia 18th-Feb-2012 06:14 pm (UTC)
We already know that this is Korea we are talking about, by the did you saw that:

Jenny Hyun, songwriter for SNSD & Chocolat, is a racist psychopath

Source: http://www.asianjunkie.com/2012/02/jenny-hyun-songwriter-for-snsd-chocolat-is-a-racist-psychopath/
kazu_kumaguro 18th-Feb-2012 06:22 pm (UTC)
yolleh 18th-Feb-2012 06:15 pm (UTC)
Well blow me down, AKP made a rational article.
I agree with this for the most part and it's really sad. I really applaud Michelle for trying though because if no one does, nothing will change. There definitely needs to be more people trying to break down the barriers imo.

I know some black people that want to get into kpop and it's a really frustrating/backward idea that you can't break into the market you want because of the way you look.
Obviously this isn't exclusive to South Korea and not everyone over there has a homogenous mind set but it can be very discouraging.

Also, people always tell me that YG is the most open company in terms of race and there's always rumours of a black trainee but out of all the big 3, they're the only ones with no foreign members in any of their groups.
22by7 18th-Feb-2012 07:02 pm (UTC)
i really side-eye their association with diplo too :|
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shortysc22 18th-Feb-2012 06:18 pm (UTC)
I do agree that this is a well thought out article and it will be interesting to see how the show pans out and the success of the winner.
xkimchi_ninja 18th-Feb-2012 06:28 pm (UTC)
wat about insooni tho
taeconme 18th-Feb-2012 06:50 pm (UTC)
whenever there's an article like this someone always brings up the one exception to the million truths
like there are mostly white dudes in US movies
"no what about will smith"
cotxpaxi 18th-Feb-2012 06:44 pm (UTC)
this article really ticked me off, it's a piece of crap.
she won't win because her voice is all over the place.
unreal 18th-Feb-2012 06:50 pm (UTC)
You sound ignorant and you probably have never seen all those Korean idols doing blackface.
scubajr 18th-Feb-2012 06:48 pm (UTC)
Really good article for once. And I always knew since I first saw Michelle with SuPearls that there was no way she would win. It's quite sad, but there is really no way I see her winning. I hope she finds her own way to make it big though. She really is talented and it would be a waste.

Although BoA's comment irks me in a way. It's like SME needs someone who they can morph into their definition of idol. YG and JYP seem to want someone who are their own person and is different from current idols.
kellygreen 18th-Feb-2012 07:02 pm (UTC)
If any of the three sign her, it will be YG. I feel like they're the only one legitimately concerned with talent over traditional K-pop "good looks" (see: CL, Minzy, everyone in Big Bang except TOP and maybe GD). I really hope they do, because she has serious talent and it would be awesome to see a half-black k-pop star.
goshipgurl 18th-Feb-2012 07:20 pm (UTC)
but wasnt YG the one who said it doesnt matter if you cant sing or dance?
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22by7 18th-Feb-2012 07:03 pm (UTC)
great article. michelle lee is fantastic and i am so sad and so angry she has to put up with this shit.
i know this was translated but omg boa NO.
abortions 18th-Feb-2012 07:22 pm (UTC)
she didnt literally mean she wanted some pasty canvas, she meant she wanted someone she could mold into a star
geonitacka 18th-Feb-2012 07:25 pm (UTC)
It's definitely the first thing I thought when I saw her "damn u ain't goin nowhere cuz u black as hale" then I cried a little inside. I'm also half and know first hand how much it sucks in the Korean community to not be full.

The chubby bit is also a whole nother thing but that can be "fixed" honestly.
uledy 18th-Feb-2012 08:07 pm (UTC)
Honestly, even if she does win, she'll still be an exception, not the rule.

Also, to people who want to claim that race won't be a factor here, please take note that most people refer to her as being Black not bi-racial or any other multi-racial identifier. They completely strip her of half of her identity and her culture, a reduce her to color that she may or may not fully identify with (especially as she was born and raised in sk). But, when you have half-Korean/half-White artists, they're rarely referred to as simply White. They're usually referred to as some typed of bi-racial identifier, because you may be accepted easier and desired more if you are partially White. I don't know if that made sense...

But damn, girl is brave.
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