It’s been a long minute (literal years!) since my last Dear kfangurl post, but when the comment below popped up on my recently posted Her Private Life review, blog reader Yoona found the topic and my initial response interesting enough, that she suggested a proper post on it. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to explore the topic a little further, and so here we are.
“So I started watching [Her Private Life] on your recommendation, Fangurl, but there is something I wish you could verify for me. Are Korean celebrities really not allowed to date? How is it a scandal if two unmarried people have a consensual relationship? I’ve encountered this before in other kdramas, of course, but I can’t quite get a handle on how much of this is exaggerated. I mean, it can’t be real, right?
And the crazy fans…the crazy ADULT fans? Is this really a thing to this extent? Okay, we’ve all experienced crushes on celebrities, but what is acceptable at 13 is just not normal at 30… it’s the reason I had a hard time relating to the heroine in “Answer me 1997. ” I have a friend who has seen Bruce Springsteen perform over a hundred times, but she doesn’t stalk him or obsess about this personal life; she just really loves his music. So I can sort of understand this kind of excessive adoration, but the way fans are portrayed in Kdramas is so over-the-top it just doesn’t seem like that can be real.”
I guess this is as good a time as any, to state for the record, that I am no expert on the topic. In fact, I’m not even into kpop myself, which is where most of the intense fandoms sit. But, I’ve been watching kdramas in a big way, and been exposed to a pretty wide range of k-ent news for a full 12 years now, so I think I have at least accumulated a bit of, shall we say, bystander knowledge.
The following is just what I can contribute to the discussion; feel free to add on your own insights and knowledge in the comments below!
I’ve broken down Dolores’s question into two main sections, below.
Q1. Is it really a scandal if celebrities date? Are celebrities really not allowed to date?
Short answer: yes, but not as much now as before, generally speaking.
While it is common for celebrities in Western entertainment to date openly, and even change partners multiple times, without it actually affecting their popularity, the dynamic in Korean entertainment is very different. (Note, I single out Korean entertainment because that’s our chosen topic of discussion. There are probably similarities and differences compared to other Asian entertainment circles.)
In Korea, it is apparently common for management agencies to ban their trainees and idols from dating. While this is very likely partly to enable them to focus fully on their training and their craft, it is also closely linked to how idols are marketed and perceived in Korean entertainment.
In k-ent, idols tend to be marketed as single and available, an Oppa that the fans can look to as their ideal boyfriend. This perception tends to be played up, with certain celebrities even earning the unofficial title of “The Nation’s Boyfriend.” In 2018, media outlets and fans declared that Park Bo Gum was deserving of the title, because he was “the perfect man to date” (article here).
This is indicative of the kind of perception and attitudes that surround the celebs in k-ent. Basically, many fans end up having a (completely wrong) perspective that the idol “belongs” to them; that somehow, they do stand a chance of a happy-ever-after with their idol, no matter how small the chances.
Therefore, when an idol is outed as dating someone else, those fantasies are shattered, which then results in a lot of angst and broken hearts. For example, in 2014, upset fans petitioned for Baekhyun to be removed from EXO when news broke that he was in a relationship with Girls’ Generation’s Taeyeon (article here). This shattering of fan fantasy is not ideal from the perspective of the management agencies because they could end up losing many fans from the fandom, and the support and revenue that those fans bring.
On top of that, there are legitimate safety concerns because some fans are so intense that there is a real danger of them hurting themselves or even attempting suicide as a result of the heartbreak. In 2016, there was rumor going around that BTS Jungkook had a girlfriend, and there was an actual, er, “trend” among very intense fans, who would cut themselves in protest. There was even a hashtag for it: #CutForKookie (more information here, but trigger warning, there are several photos lower down on the page that some readers would find disturbing).
Because of these reasons, management agencies work hard to (a) prevent their idols from dating in the first place, and (b) keep things from blowing up, if they discover that their idols are indeed dating.
As an example of how the singleness of an idol is considered an asset, consider the case of HyunA and E’Dawn who went public with their relationship in 2018. They were soon let go by their company, Cube Entertainment, who cited that the reasons these artists were let go, was because “the trust [between them and the company] is broken beyond repair” (article here). For even the most casual k-ent observer, this was clearly a case of Cube Entertainment deciding that the audience appeal of both artists was significantly hurt by their public relationship.
General culture within the industry
Another thing to consider is that within k-ent, idols are looked up to a great deal.
While celebrities in Western entertainment might get into trouble for serious infractions like violence, abuse or other criminal activity, celebs in k-ent also get into trouble for offenses which are a lot smaller in comparison.
For example, celebs in k-ent have been heavily criticized for behavior that is deemed disrespectful. In 2016, Kim Yoo Jung came under fire for her “disrespectful posture” during a promotion event for movie Because I Love You (article here). In 2018, Jung Hae In was heavily criticized for standing front-and-center during a group photo-taking at the Baeksang Awards, instead of ceding the position to the veteran actors at the event (article here).
Within this context, where k-celebs are held up to a high degree of scrutiny, it also becomes more understandable why something as “trivial” as dating could come under fire as well.
Things are evolving
I do think that things are evolving and fans are becoming more open-minded and accepting of the idea of their idols dating.
For one thing, more and more celebs have been outed / have come out as dating in the last couple of years (sample list here), and with the prevalence of these public relationships, it’s slowly becoming relatively more “normal” for an idol to be dating publicly.
More and more fans are professing to be supportive of their idols dating, but at the same time, the transition isn’t complete and there are still large numbers of fans who would be crushed to find out that their idol is dating.
It does appear that it will be quite some time yet, before k-celebs will be able to date as openly as their Western counterparts. But for now, at least we can say that it’s less of a scandal than it was, say, 5 years ago.
Additionally, with the other big scandals coming out of Korea in recent months (like the Burning Sun scandal for example), the dating scandals appear small in comparison as well.
Q2. Are fans, especially adult ones, really as crazy as shown in dramas?
Fans span a very wide age range, from kids, to tweens, to teens, to young adults, to adults, to older adults. There really doesn’t seem to be an age limit when it comes to fangirling or fanboying.
In the same way, there is also a wide range when it comes fan intensity. Some fans are on the much more casual end of the scale. Their support would typically take the form of listening to the music, watching the shows, buying the music, and maybe attending a fan meeting – if the location and timing is convenient for them.
Generally speaking, the more dedicated a fan is, the more s/he would be willing to rearrange schedules / finances in order to attend their idols’ concerts &/or fan meetings. It is not uncommon for international fans with the financial means to fly to Korea to attend an event that involves their idol. Conversely, fans based in Korea have been known to purchase multiple concert tickets in order to follow their idols on tour in the US.
Moving up a notch on the Dedicated Fan Scale (I totally made that up), I’ve heard of a number of international adult fans who have relocated to Korea in order to be nearer their idol (I recently heard of a friend of a friend who did exactly this). This would translate into having more access to events that their idol is involved in, but I think, it also simply translates into being physically nearer to their idol.
All of these activities are considered relatively harmless, in that these decisions mainly impact only the fans themselves. Although, it wouldn’t surprise me if a dedicated fan without sufficient self-control actually went into debt, in the name of supporting their idol. That’s.. not so good.
But yes, being a dedicated fan can be expensive business. Buying boxes of albums in order to qualify for some kind of hi-touch event, buying merchandise endorsed by their idol, concert tickets.. It all adds up, and fairly quickly. Especially if you’re an international fan wanting to attend multiple events in Korea.
And then there are cases of fans who are so set on looking like their idols that they invest heavily in plastic surgery, like in this case. That’s not only extremely expensive, but also carries with it surgery and health risks.
However, all of this pales in comparison to the behavior of sasaeng fans, who are much scarier.
In Korea, a sasaeng fan is one that engages in obsessive behavior that results in an invasion of the idols’ privacy. The hanja for sasaeng (사생) is 私生, which means private life.
On a tangent, the Korean title of Her Private Life is 그녀의 사생활, which, based on the Hangul title, I would translate into Chinese as 她的私生活. Interestingly, the Chinese title, besides translating into “Her Private Life,” can also be translated as “her sasaeng activities.” I found that quite ironic, and just wanted to share. 😉
Sasaeng fans are the ones who might stalk their idols and obsess about their personal lives. According to this Wiki article, celebrity managers estimate that popular Korean celebs generally have about 500 to 1000 sasaeng fans, and can be stalked by up to 100 sasaeng fans in a single day. The ages of sasaeng fans are estimated to generally fall in the range of 17 to 22 years old, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there are sasaeng fans who are older than 22.
According to the sasaeng fans themselves, the whole motivation behind their sasaeng activities, is to stand out from the rest of the fans, and gain recognition from their idols.
Unfortunately, sasaeng fan behavior can be very disturbing, with sasaeng fans breaking the law in order to feel closer to their idols.
There are wild stories of sasaeng fans who stalk their idols, send threatening / weird / disgusting stuff in the mail, or even break into and enter their idols’ living quarters. There’ve even been stories of sasaeng fans preparing an identical van to the one their idols were supposed to board, in an attempt to kidnap their idols. Sasaeng fans have also been known to chase their idols, not only on foot, but in vehicles, resulting in accidents and injuries. There are also stories of sasaeng fans cross-dressing in order to enter the men’s bathroom that their idols were using, and of sasaeng fans sending messages to their idols written in blood (one incident even reportedly involved menstrual blood). You can read more stories about sasaeng fan incidents here, and here.
And if you think that sasaeng fans are only limited to local Korean fans, this article states that two Chinese sasaeng fans were reported for attempting to break into an office-tel belonging to EXO’s Chanyeol. Which indicates that sasaeng behavior can extend into the international fan community too.
It all sounds quite insane to be sure, but sasaeng fans do exist. Which means that the superfandom portrayed in Her Private Life and other shows might be exaggerated in places, but isn’t actually far from the truth.
Not all fans are obsessive, but there are definitely obsessive fans out there. And yes, some of them are adults.
Ultimately, while obsessive fan behavior is a fascinating topic that sheds light on some very disturbing events in k-ent, I hope that it doesn’t dampen your enjoyment of k-ent in general. And, if you’re a fan, you do you. Enjoy being a fan, enjoy supporting your idols, and enjoy making friends within the fandom. Just remember to keep it classy, so that Oppa would be proud to call you his fan.
I hope that helps!
1. If you feel that I missed anything, or if you have your own experiences that you’d like to share with the rest of us, do tell us about it in the comments!
2. Do you have a question of your own? Drop me a comment here or on the Dear kfangurl page, or send me an email!