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K-pop Confidential
Author: Stephan Lee


I bet I’ve stared at my reflection in rehearsal room mirrors just like this one for hundreds and hundreds of hours.

Usually while I’m soaking in sweat, wishing my toes would just fall off from all the blisters and torn nails. Or watching myself try to wink and toss my hair and smile at the exact right time while our dance coach—“The General”—screams at me for always being a half beat behind.

Now, as I huddle in this room with twenty-four other female trainees—all of whom have been training much, much longer than I have—my reflection looks like me, but she’s me through a Snapchat filter. She looks as if long locks of silvery-purple hair have grown naturally from her head her whole life. She looks like she was born with otherworldly blue eyes that can pierce your soul. She looks like she’s never had a pimple on her spotless, dewy skin.

She would never let on that her scalp is burning from bleach, that her eyes are itching from the colored contact lenses, and that under those layers of “natural-look” K-beauty makeup, she looks like she hasn’t slept in weeks—because she hasn’t.

This girl is me, but she’s not exactly. She’s still Candace from New Jersey. But this version of me knows how to push through pain, through bruises and bleeding feet and homesickness and inhumane diets. She knows how to rise above criticism and insults, keep her eye on the ultimate goal. She’s left friends, said goodbye to family, flown all the way to Seoul. She’s been picked apart by rooms full of executives older than her dad.

On top of all that, I haven’t held my phone in three months. I’ve been through it.

Behind a closed door, the CEO of S.A.Y. Entertainment and top executives and investors are deciding the final lineup of their new super-hyped girl group, the female version of the most famous K-pop boy band in the world, SLK. Girls are praying, pacing around. Others are rocking back and forth, talking to themselves. Most are already crying.

Weirdly, I feel totally calm. I step closer to the mirror to get a better look at my familiar but unfamiliar face. It hits me how much I want this. I’ve earned this. I’ve given up everything for this.

I deserve this.

I believe, with all my heart, that I’m about to become a K-pop idol. And whichever other girls they choose, we’re going to slay. Not just in Korea, or Asia, but the entire globe. It’s my destiny. I can feel it in the roots of my unicorn-purple hair.



Four Months Earlier …

One of my greatest talents in life is “air bowing.” It’s the orchestral equivalent of lip syncing, except it’s not a cool skill and never will be. There will never be a TV show called Air-Bow Battle.

The Fort Lee Magnet Symphony Orchestra is kicking off the Spring Performing Arts Showcase with a rousing rendition of “Spring” by Antonio Vivaldi (a bit on the nose, I know). I keep my bow hovering an inch above the strings while I sway my body back and forth, curling my upper lip as if I’m smelling something nasty, all to give the impression that my whole body is overcome with the swelling emotions of the music—even though I’m not actually making a sound. It’s better for everyone if I air-bow. If I can’t be heard.

If it were up to me, I’d blast my viola up into space. It was Umma’s idea, when I was five years old, for me to take it up. Since not that many kids choose the viola, she thought it would be easier for me to stand out and get accepted to the prestigious youth orchestras, which would look great on college applications.

Well, the joke’s on her. Ten years later, I’m in the very back of the viola section with my equally untalented stand partner, Chris DeBenedetti. And let’s be very real: Violas are already the backup dancers of orchestras. We’re essential, but no one’s checking for us. The violins are the glamorous lead singers who get all the best parts, all the money notes. The cellos are the sexy, mysterious, brooding ones with the most Instagram followers.

Violas are the Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child of string instruments … except not iconic or best friends with Beyoncé.

It’s only when we all stand up for our bow after the song is finished that I can see Umma and Abba in the audience. Abba is clapping frantically, giving a standing O, while Umma is taking tons of flash photos of me in my hideous orchestra uniform (a frilly white blouse and green ankle-length skirt). I smile miserably, getting blinded, until we can all sit back down to watch the chorale performances, which is what the audience actually came for.

Unlike every high school movie stereotype, the chorale is actually full of the coolest kids at Fort Lee Magnet. It’s considered the “easiest” of the required arts electives, so it’s packed with popular girls and jocks, including my older brother, Tommy.

The chorale has so many members that for this showcase, they’ve broken up into performance groups. For the opening number, Tommy and twenty of his bro friends strut onto the stage in neon tank tops, sweatbands, and high socks; the students in the audience, especially the girls, go nuts. The dudes give an ironic performance of the boy band classic “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction.

The dudes aren’t good singers; they’re making a joke out of it, shouting off-key while doing all the standard boy band moves, like tracing hearts in the air, pointing at girls in the audience, putting their hands on their chests, and winking. But they’re so unselfconscious about looking stupid that I have to admit, it’s legitimately pretty cool. Tommy and his friends from the baseball team stand out in front, Tommy in the center. I see my best friend, Imani, in the front row, literally swooning—she’s always said my brother is her “primary thirst object,” which is too gross and cringey for words.

I don’t know what it is about seeing Tommy and all those guys up there, but I’m suddenly balling up my hands into fists. A fantasy of breaking my viola against the floor flashes in my mind.

It’s all so unfair. I’m the one who can sing—at least I think I can, since I only ever sing alone in my room. So why does Tommy get to jump around in silly clothes, getting cheered on by the whole school, while I’m hidden away in the back of the orchestra?

No matter how many times I’ve begged Umma to let me quit viola and focus on singing, she won’t budge. The last time I brought it up, she shouted “Bae-jjae-ra!” which literally means Cut my stomach open and let me bleed to death! Super dramatic, but basically, it’s the Korean equivalent of Over my dead body!

What’s even more unfair is that I’m pretty sure I’m not allowed to do chorale because she knows I’d take it seriously, unlike Tommy. “Singing is something you can do on your own time,” she once told me. “Singing is not a dignified art. You have to bring the sound from inside of you with so much effort—everyone can see how hard you try.”

Umma’s bias against singing is so weird—she’s actually a good singer herself. Umma and Abba both went to a prestigious music college back in Korea, which is how they met. Abba was studying to become a conductor, and Umma was studying vocal performance. But I also know neither of them finished, and they moved to America soon after they dropped out. Neither of them works in music now—they run a convenience store in Fort Lee—so I know Umma’s music dreams went wrong somewhere, but she’ll never talk about it. It’ll remain one of those Family Secrets, probably forever.

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