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The heat and organised chaos hit you like a fist. The windowless dressing room in one of Seoul’s major TV studios isn’t much bigger than a double bedroom, but is crowded with 11 staff and the seven members of K-pop group Monsta X, who are promoting their new single: the seductive, dramatic Jealousy. Vocalists Shownu, Kihyun, Minhyuk, Hyungwon and Wonho, and rappers Jooheon and I.M, are now seasoned “idols”, as K-pop stars are called, and oblivious to this lack of space. Within a culture of seniority, a dressing room is earned; until recently, they were in a communal room with other young teams (known as “rookies”) with flimsy dividers for privacy.

Wonho, 25, whose infectious laugh belies a thoughtful intensity, is practising dance moves while the softly spoken 25-year-old Shownu, Monsta X’s team leader, whose duty is to “guide them in the right direction and keep them sharp”, asks if we have eaten.


Red-haired Kihyun, 24, brings over iced Americano. They are running on zero sleep from a trip to the south-east city of Ulsan the day before, where they performed in a rainstorm on a TV show. Fan footage shows Kihyun falling over, but he shrugs it off. “From our debut, we’ve experienced stuff like this. I knew I was going to slip. In my head it’s: ‘Choreography! Choreography!’ so I go into the next move. It’s not something to be embarrassed about.”

K-pop’s hyper-produced earworm songs and visual perfection have had a recent boom of global interest, spearheaded by boyband BTS, whose phenomenal success has crossed over into the US and the Billboard Hot 100, and whose every tweet is shared hundreds of thousands of times; they have just booked two nights at London’s O2 Arena in October. But the cameras of Korean fans, who post online every minute of an idol’s public life, reveal a strenuous existence. K-pop can seem like a factory, its idols helpless drones rather than artists, and the stress and fatigue are often in the spotlight: 33-year-old Seo Minwoo, of the group 100%, died of a reported heart attack in March, while Shinee member Jonghyun, struggling with depression, took his life last December.

Ms Suh and Ms Shim, executive directors at Monsta X’s agency, Starship, put idol training – when talent is honed and new skills developed – at five to seven years. The aim for these putative stars is to be put alongside others in a manufactured band, and then “debuted” as a finished product; Monsta X were formed in 2015 after prospective members were whittled down on a reality show called No.Mercy. “Korean entertainment is one of the hardest jobs out there,” say Suh and Shim. “Trainees are cast from the street and auditions, and learn there are guidelines, and things they need to give up. Everyone is running towards the same goal: debuting.” No trainee is guaranteed a debut and Shownu switched agencies (“It was slightly painful”) to give himself the best chance of being picked for a group.

Each agency sets its own rules, but mobile phones or romantic relationships are forbidden as standard; Monsta X say they relinquished their phones as trainees and for nearly two years after their debut. Minhyuk, 24, saw it as an “inconvenience”, and Hyungwon, also 24, a self-proclaimed introvert with pink hair and a wry sense of humour, says only now does he understand Starship’s intentions in removing outside distractions. But Jooheon, 23, recalls he felt “walled in during training. There was no freedom. At least when you debut, you experience new things.”

Their early, aggressive-sounding singles, Trespass and Rush, brought a solid fanbase, known as Monbebe. They shower Monsta X with clothes, toys, snacks and letters before shows and at album signings, where fans talk with each member, often holding hands with their favourite. To the cynical, it may be a genius marketing ploy but these meetings develop an emotionally symbiotic bond unique to K-pop – in a tough industry, the fans are, says I.M, a “source of strength”.

Jooheon reveals dozens of inspirational phrases on his phone and says he frequently gets by on three hours of sleep. “I feel uneasy if I don’t make one song every day,” he says, yet he and I.M have been able to release only a couple of solo singles. The group live together in a cluttered apartment but each has a small studio where they can create. “I’ll do everything there – eat, scream, cry, laugh, watch movies. It’s my playground,” Jooheon smiles.

This downtime is crucial; an idol’s schedule is back-breaking. Interviews, radio, variety TV, fan meetings and music shows make for 18-hour days. There is no off-switch once they are beyond the safety of their dressing room but there’s a family atmosphere within those confines; they cheerfully eat together, banter noisily and rest when possible – Wonho dozes despite hairdryers blasting around him, Minhyuk sleeps so deeply it takes five minutes to wake him. “The workload can sometimes be too much but we need to grow. It’s good to be busy,” says Wonho. Kihyun, laughing, says: “It’s our third year. This is in my bones.” Fans call him Monsta X’s “mom”, although he refers to himself as the “police, keeping Monsta X within the boundaries”. But he is happy. “I’m doing something I love, I’m earning money and I don’t feel like I’ve sacrificed a lot.”

Most successful K-pop groups will exist for five to seven years, and idols often head into presenting or acting, with some finding solo success. But male groups face South Korea’s compulsory two-year military service and the threat of career decline on return to civilian life. As a result, Shownu has adopted a day-by-day approach for Monsta X. “I used to think: would I be able to make a living from this?” he says. “There were teams that debuted at the same time as us but we weren’t going at the same pace. Now I feel like I shouldn’t be pressured – it’s more about longevity as a group.”

After their upcoming, sold out world tour, Monsta X may well have another release before the end of 2018. If they had full control what would they create? Minhyuk quickly replies with “something like Trespass, a banger”. Hyungwon would keep the sexiness of Jealousy but “I’d love to mix it up with a more casual look”, but it’s Shownu who grounds and bolsters them simultaneously. “It doesn’t matter what song we do,” he says from across the room where he’s been silently observing. “Sexy, soft, or strong – if Monsta X are doing it, it’s our style.”