They’re wishing upon StarlightThe entertainment industry is often seen as a den of immorality populated by people with more ego than brains, where idols are manufactured and then quickly dumped if they become a liability. But the allure of fame and riches keeps drawing people to the insatiable star-making machines, which these days are grasping even more aggressively for talent among the very young.
"I've been dreaming of becoming a star singer since sixth grade," says Jang Tae-young, a 20-year-old college student. Considering that many Korean pop singers are already veteran performers at 20, Tae-young seems to be jumping onto the stage in middle-age. But he insists, "It is never too late."
In the last five months, Tae-young, has been polishing his talents daily at Starlight Academy System, a private, for-profit institute that trains aspiring actors and pop singers. Starlight, launched in March of this year, is affiliated with S.M. Entertainment, one of Korea's largest talent management agencies. The academy, located in Apgujeong, southern Seoul, auditioned 100 young applicants, picking 25 as students for its first class.
"One of the youngest students is a third grader," says Jee Won-hee, a Starlight talent coach. She says many parents are pushing their children to be entertainers; thus, aspiring stars are getting younger and younger.
How do you turn a child into a child star? Ms. Jee emphasizes physical conditioning and close monitoring.
"When the students are practicing, without warning I appear behind them to check on their performance," she says. To keep the students from overeating and gaining weight, Ms. Jee forces them to remove snack food from their mouths.
"The students grumble but they know that to become a star, there are certain things they must give up," Ms. Jee says.
The academy bases its training on the same methods applied to the many professional entertainers under S.M. Entertainment's roof. One oft-cited example of S.M.'s effectiveness is the singer BoA, who was “discovered” by S.M. when she was 12 years old. Three years later she was appearing in music videos and had hits in Japan and Taiwan. Today the 17- year-old is one of Korea's top entertainers.
One piece of apocryhpha is illustrative of S.M.'s discerning eye. According to rumors, BoA tagged along with her older brother to an S.M. audition. After a talent scout made a whimsical request for her to sing a couple of bars, she was plucked from obscurity on the spot. Her brother was shown the door.
Ms. Jee says that the instructors at S.M. have been instrumental in producing and training many of the top pop stars in Korea, including Jang Nara and Sung Si-kyung.
"The academy’s first mission is to make each of our students a precious commodity so they can sign with any agency," Ms. Jee says.
According to Ms. Jee, BoA is a good example of a star who was groomed through vigorous training. She has been coached on speaking effectively in three languages, English, Japanese and Korean, to position her as an international brand. BoA makes more money than most small companies, Ms. Jee claims.
Stories such as BoA’s have ignited dreams of stardom in many Korean homes. Parents are dragging their children to talent agencies for auditions, hoping to beat the one-in-a-million odds, Ms. Jee says.
"In the past, Korean parents strongly opposed their children entering the entertainment business, which was seen as low status.”
"A lot of parents still hold this view, but the perception is slowly changing."
Lee So-yeon has been dreaming of stardom since she first appeared on television when she was 8 years old. Today So-yeon, 10, commutes 150 kilometers (90 miles) from Daejeon three times a week to attend classes at Starlight. Her mother, Jeon Sun-young, says she strongly opposed her daughter's choice in this case, but finally relented after So-yeon pushed incessantly to enroll in S.M.'s program.
Ms. Jeon says she pays as much per semester for her daughter to attend Starlight as Seoul National University charges for a semester of graduate school education.
The students at the academy are ambitious but jejune in the demands of the entertainment industry. Tae-young, the 20-year-old college student, had never been in a talent show. His only experience as a singer was a stint with his college choir.
Kim Soon-young, 15, says she never planned to be a pop singer. "All I wanted to do was dance." Soon-young says that although she wants to succeed, she does not wish to be known as a second BoA.
"I respect BoA because she worked hard to stand where she is today and she succeeded at a very young age, but I want to make it on my own terms," Soon-young says. She says she prefers to model herself after the American singers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
Soon-young, despite her age, already has a fan club and has reached the finals of several influential talent shows. "Some times she thinks she is already a celebrity," Ms. Jee says jokingly. "A lot of guys are rooting for her."
Jang Hae-yeon, 18, says she had to strike a deal with her parents to get their permission for her to apply to the academy. "My mom said that if I do not make it at the academy I will have to study for college like any other high school student.”
If there is anything reassuring about the fickleness of the entertainment industry it is the fact that talent can be found anywhere. Lee Hwa-sook, 18, says her dream is to be a singer. She found she had the talent at a school picnic performance.
Of course the dreams are exactly that -- dreams. The work needed to have anything more than that is quite startling to people who have never aspired to sing, dance or act professionally. Students enrolled at S.M. practically live there. Tae-young, who is on leave from university, spends 12 hours at the academy daily. "I arrive here at 10 a.m., earlier than most of the staff.”
Students who are still attending traditional school programs usually practice 12 hours during school breaks and on weekends; otherwise they start their rehearsals and training in the afternoon, working late into the night. There are complaints of exhaustion, but Ms. Jee says none of the students at the academy falls behind. "These students are tenacious not only in their training here but also in school work.”
Ms. Jee says the students accept the hard work because it is what they want to do. She says the students actually sign the training contract with Starlight, after parents provide age verification and sign a consent form.
As strong as these children might be, there is still the incalculable toll of missing out on the carefree moments of youth. But they seem aware of the sacrifice.
"I do envy those who have boyfriends," Hae-yeon says. "But I have to practice in pursuit of my dreams."
Tae-young says that before enrolling in Starlight he never wanted anything as far as life is concerned. "But now I just have this greed of wanting to be a singer-song writer like Baby Face or Montel Jordan, so I have no regrets about a life that others enjoy."
According to Ms. Jee, the students' talent gels after about three years of intense training, after which a star shines or hopes are dashed. The students say they see progress. "We can feel it," says Soon-young. "I can feel that my voice is getting better and better."
"Some of the students go on to sign a contract with S.M. Entertainment, but that is not necessary," Ms. Jee says. In addition to the 50 students receiving training in voice, acting and dance, about 60 others are enrolled in other Starlight courses, including its entertainment management program.
Another thing Ms. Jee points out is how the students are beginning to take on the bearing and style of a star.
"Hwa-sook until a few months ago only wore baggy pants and over-sized shirts, which distorted her posture," Ms. Jee says. "She would hunch her back. I made her wear tight shirts and skirts, and that changed her posture to a more upright stance."
Ms. Jee says that after joining Starlight, Tae-young lost nearly 20 kilograms (44 pounds.).
The change in physical attributes and the polishing of nascent talent is one measure of success for the academy and its students. But the greater gain is the assuredness the program instills and the lesson of always being prepared for opportunity's knock at the door.
Although not a single student professes to being ready for the public, they are all certain they will one day become stars performing in front of large audiences.
"It is not important when I will be debuting but how well prepared I am," Tae-young says. "I want to be perfectly sure when I get out on the stage."
"All we do here is set the base for the students," Ms. Jee says. "It is up to them whether they will be stars or not."
by Lee Ho-jeong
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