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The S factor in K-pop
Publication Date : 16-08-2012
With hopes and dreams in their hearts and possibly not a little stardust in their eyes, Singapore girls Natasha Low and Ferlyn Wong signed a seven-year contract last year to train to become pop stars in the South Korean music industry.
Little did they know their no-holds-barred training in Seoul would be their equivalent of many young Singapore men's national service stint in the army: They have grown up dramatically over the course of one year, according to their families.
Their dreams of stardom may well come true, now that their music careers were launched officially on Tuesday as half of a pop quartet called Skarf. Low and Wong are the first-ever Singaporeans to be part of a Korean pop band.
K-pop fans around the world will find out in the coming months whether the Singaporean girls and their Korean Skarf mates, Jeong Sol and Lee Joo Young, can make an impact in an increasingly crowded market.
On the same day Skarf made their debut, rookie boyband Vixx released their second single through a showcase held in Hongdae, an area popular with varsity students.
Wong, 20, and Low, 18, will go by the stage names of Ferlyn and Tasha respectively, while Jeong, 21, and Lee, 16, will be known simply as Sol and Jenny.
Skarf are the first K-pop group to be launched by Singapore-based entertainment company Alpha Entertainment Group, which has fully owned subsidiaries in places such as South Korea and Hong Kong.
They made their debut with two launch showcases held at Ilchi Art Hall, an intimate setting for at least 200 people. Situated in Gangnam, a glitzy district in Seoul featured in current hit song Gangnam Style, the venue is frequently used by K-pop groups for showcases. Girl group Sistar and ballad group 2AM have held showcases there this year.
On Tuesday afternoon, Skarf took centre stage at the venue, performing "My Love", a slow number with a sweet dance routine, and their lead single, "Oh! Dance", a mid-tempo dance ditty with an infectious refrain.
About 80 members of the Korean media, including English-language channel Arirang, attended the first session along with 200-plus guests including the Skarf girls' family members.
The second session was graced by Singapore's Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, Peter Tan, among other VIPs.
Skarf's entry into K-pop does not come cheap. The launch alone costs about S$170,000 (US$136,000), while their "Oh! Dance" music video was made for about S$150,000 (US$120,000). That is not counting the cost of their intensive year-long, morning-to-night training. Nor does it take into account the personal price each Skarf girl paid at the K-pop boot camp.
Before the glitz and the glamour, the quartet had to submit to a tightly controlled regimen that starts with early-morning jogs and revolves around vocal, dance, acting and language lessons.
Any free time Wong and Low, who signed a seven-year contract, had was free only in name. In reality, they continued to hone their craft during these rest periods.
Neither did they have access to their mobile phones. Instead, the four girls shared a laptop meant for doing homework researching about music and firing off brief e-mail messages to family and friends, which they had time to do only every two or three days.
Training and rehearsals are held nearly 24/7 at the Alpha Entertainment office in Gangnam, the de facto Skarf headquarters. The 1,940 sq ft premises house three rooms for lessons and a studio with full- length mirrors that is big enough for six to seven trainees to practise in.
Late on Tuesday night, hours after what must have been an emotionally and physically exhausting launch, they were still working there.
In the midst of filming an interview with broadcasting network MBC on the same night as part of their debut schedule, Wong and Low tell Life! their lives have completely changed.
Low, the leader of Skarf, says: "I used to have a lot of freedom. I would stay at home the whole day to watch TV. Now, my life is very different. I have no time for TV and I don't even know what new shows there are."
What does she miss from her carefree days? "The lifestyle, the food, everything."
Wong misses the people in her life. Before becoming a K-pop recruit, she was a dance instructor at music company Ocean Butterflies and a business studies student at Temasek Polytechnic. She quit her studies for a shot at a pop star's career.
She reminisces: "I really miss campus life. I was also a dance instructor and I miss all my students badly."
Apart from their highly regimented lifestyle, these K-pop starlets are put through training that could break or make aspirants.
Low found herself crying buckets during dance lessons when she had to learn to do the split.
"I cried every day," she says. "I'd say during class, 'Please, please, please, no more.' Before I went to bed, I hoped tomorrow wouldn't come. I'd scream and cry in the studio. The teacher really pushed me to my limits."
And they do not get a break from their "torturer", Carrie Hwang, a director at Alpha Entertainment Korea, who currently lives with them.
Apart from administrative matters, she oversees the trainees' schedule, which includes lessons by industry professionals.
Back in Skarf's living quarters - a three-bedroom apartment a five-minute walk from the office - they have to perform their own chores, such as making breakfast and washing their own clothes.
Hwang, 34, has been in the business of making Korean stars for more than a decade. From 2004 to 2008, she worked at K-pop giant SM Entertainment, whose stable includes Super Junior and Girls' Generation. She also previously handpicked stars such as Victoria from the girl group f(x).
She is not only "nanny" to Skarf but also the brains behind the group's concept.
"There is no doubt that I'm strict," she says, adding that she can immediately spot a star. According to her, she started out in the performing arts when she was 17.
"Here in Korea, it's very tough in the K-pop industry. Every day, you have someone new making their debut, so you have to keep working hard."
Well, the Skarf girls have put in the hours upon gruelling hours of work. It has not killed them - or made them quit - so it must have made them stronger, if the adage holds true.
Low says: "The past year's experience made me a better person. We learnt how to give way to one another. The company controls aspects of our lives only to help us be better people."
Wong chimes in: "We have become stronger."
Ironically, the taste they have had of show business so far has not appeared to turn them into party animals who love the limelight and nightlife.
When Low and Wong returned to Singapore for breaks during the first six months of training, both cooked Korean dishes for their families, such as kimchi jigae, a kind of stew; japchae, a dish which consists of sweet potato noodles; and even their "diet" dish, which is red bean or pumpkin porridge.
Their return trips were, of course, not the only times they could relax.
Hwang says: "If you are placed under such strict conditions every day, it's really hard on your spirit. I will relax every once in a while. For example, I'll give them one day to eat everything and anything that they want. But just for that one day."
She is close to the girls, whom she says sometimes call her "mama". Three weeks ago, she took them to visit a jimjilbang (Korean bathhouse) where they had to shower in the women-only open shower area together.
Amid much laughter from Wong, Low recounts the experience and both mention it was their first visit to such a place. Low says: "Changing in front of everyone was already a shock to me and then you had to shower there? We got the shock of our lives."
Fun aside, Hwang is determined to make Skarf a success. "Now in K-pop, a lot of groups are sexy. We want Skarf to have a more innocent image. These days, K-pop music can sound complicated, which is not comfortable to the ears. So Skarf's music will be more soothing and our target audience is not the youth but people of all ages."
She says the members of Skarf have what it takes because of their hardworking attitude and goodnatured personalities.
"It's all about the character. These girls are really trying their best and I don't see them changing any time soon. In Korea, some artists change after becoming famous, but I can see these girls will continue to work hard, and this will allow them to work hand- in-hand with the company."