So, what actually happened?
Oh My Girl tried to get into the USA to do some shows or promotions or whatever, but without the required paperwork (a performing visa for each traveller). When quizzed by US Customs, the girls and their entourage lied and said that they were "sisters" presumably to keep their "we're not k-pop performers, honest" cover intact. Customs thought that maybe eight mostly-above-school-age girls with different surnames plus entourage carrying a metric ton of frilly dresses, school uniforms and short skirts in their luggage looked a bit more like a fly-in brothel than a family get-together (because while k-pop fans think all that shit is "innocent concept wear", people who live in the real world know what a fetish is), so naturally Oh My Girl were detained while everyone tried to work out what was actually going on. Eventually it was decided that nobody could be fucked waiting around forever so the girls hopped on a plane back to Korea. The agency later confirmed that this is what happened, so there's no dispute about the facts.
Was the US Customs response reasonable or just racist?
It's the job of customs officers in many countries to check whether people are legally allowed to enter a country or not and to investigate matters that may be classed as suspicious, and Oh My Girl in this instance would have looked suspicious as hell, regardless of where they were from and where they were going. Of course if it was me I would have recognised the girls straight away and waved them through into the special caonima express baggage check but you can't expect some random American to recognise a group only a few thousand people outside of Korea even know about. The prostitute theory was obviously wrong (unless Oh My Girl do a little Tenpro agency work on the side) but it's easy to see why they would have felt the need to consider that possibility, as a customs officer erring on the side of caution in the face of oddities is part of doing your job properly... and k-pop groups look pretty fucking odd to most people who aren't embroiled in the world of k-pop fandoms and media.
So why did their agency do this then? Are they just dumb?
To enter the USA legally as performers, the agency would need to, on behalf of each of the girls in Oh My Girl, plus all support staff travelling with them:
- Fill out form I-129 (visa petition for a non-immigrant worker) which is a 36-page document, for a P-3 category visa (for culturally unique artists and entertainers), as per the accompanying 28 pages of instructions. Note that the more standard P-1 category visa for internationally known entertainers would be off-limits to 2015 rookies Oh My Girl as any group claiming a P-1 visa needs to be established and performing regularly for at least 12 months.
- Be sure to include supporting documentation in the application of the group's status as a culturally unique entity, this is a requirement.
- File the form I-129 to the correct location (don't forget the $190 visa application processing fee and the $325 filing fee!) and wait between 2-8 weeks for processing. If you really can't wait longer than 14 days, the USA will fast-track your visa application for a cool $1225 per individual... of course this doesn't guarantee acceptance of your application, only that they will look at your application within 14 days, and it doesn't preclude them from throwing a spanner in the works like asking for more documentation and then making you wait another 14 days once they receive it... and this process can repeat indefinitely.
- Cross your fingers. Fees are not refundable.
The difference in cost between performance and tourist visas has been pointed out, but if Oh My Girl were genuine tourists staying less than 90 days they wouldn't have even needed a visa at all, because South Korea is a participant in the USA's visa waiver program, they would have just had to make an electronic application and wait for approval. However as performers they would require a performance visa (performance doesn't come under the visa waiver program's business exemptions). So ultimately the entire cost of the performance visa could be dodged by Oh My Girl being passed off as "tourists". However, the cost saving is just an incidental (tiny) benefit to the agency (or would be, if they got away with it), and is highly unlikely to be the real reason for trying to pass the girls off as tourists.
How do you know this?
Let's have a look at the two music videos that Oh My Girl have released so far.
Both are very high budget productions, featuring multiple elaborate purpose-built sets, the agency would have probably burned up a million dollars just on these videos alone. It's obvious enough that their agency has money to throw around and an extra few thousand dollars on some paperwork would be nothing in the grand scheme, especially for a shot at that American advancement that k-pop agencies so dearly covet.
So what's the real reason then? Were the agency just dumb?
Here's a fun fact about getting a performance visa for the USA. You're not allowed to wait to sign any touring or performance agreements until AFTER the visa application is approved, you must do it BEFORE. So if you play by the rules by booking your show, and then filing your visa application after, and then the USA says you can't come in, you've not only wasted money on the application but you've also automatically breached a contractual agreement with your American business partners, which potentially means way more money than a few annoying filing fees, not to mention you've pissed off fans. The USA can also delay your application almost indefinitely by asking for "further evidence", insist that you pay union fees and any other manner of things, waits of up to six months for performance visas are extremely common.
What maybe could have happened in the Oh My Girl situation is this - the agency booked the shows first a few months ahead of time, then filed the correct paperwork (legally it must be done in this order). The concert date drew closer and closer but either they got no response or they were requested to provide extra documents time and time again, stalling the administrative process. The day that the girls had to hop on the plane and go to the USA for the show finally came along and there was still no final response so the agency said "fuck it, let's just send them on the plane anyway, we'll try our luck passing them off as tourists - it's either that or just cancel the shows and give up so we've got nothing to lose".
Oh. Okay, I feel stupid now for assuming the agency were just a bunch of morons. It might not even be their fault.
Well, saying "we're sisters" at the airport was maybe a bit silly and the girls' or the agency's only real fuckup - but that could be down to language barriers or mistranslation of a comment made in jest or in the "we're like family" spirit that these k-pop groups are probably in the habit of acting like when in public. When appearing before customs you have to be really careful what you say and not try any funny business, because these people are on the lookout for anything that doesn't square off neatly - after all it's their job, and it's not their fault if the visa rules suck dick and you're trying to get around them, you sneaky caonima.
I've never heard of anything like this before - is it common for performers to try and travel with incorrect visas?
OH FUCK YES, it's very, very, very common. If you want a k-pop example JYP did visa scams with The Wonder Girls and got away with it but this is a practice far from limited to just k-pop groups. US punk group Black Flag famously lost their drummer when his visa expired in the UK and he wasn't able to return to the USA due to his status as an illegal immigrant. Visa entry issues are also not just restricted to USA entry - the Japanese punk band Limited Express (Has Gone?) tried to enter Australia on tourist visas in exactly the same type of situation as Oh My Girl, and were busted the same way - their language barrier meant they ended up saying the wrong thing to customs who realised that the group might be in the country for performance work rather than tourism, so they promptly got sent back home. I could give dozens more examples including a few personal ones (but I won't because my lawyer has read this post and wants a chat - but maybe they'll appear as blind items one day?). Customs officers in Australia now actually actively scan gig guides and keep on the lookout for international performers expected to be entering the country. Artists have risen to the challenge - check any insider musician blogs for plenty of "how to convincingly pretend you're a tourist" style advice, and you'll see why customs officers everywhere are becoming super-vigilant about this. I would say that for any artist anywhere in the world who is touring internationally but not A-list in their respective genre, cheap and dirty "tourist" tours are the norm, not the exception.
Wow, I guess that might be the real reason why my fave group suddenly cancelled their tour to my country only a day or two before it happened.
Yes, it might.
Wow Kpopalypse, you're so brainy. How can I be more like you and less like some of the dickheads I see on other k-pop related websites?
- Question everything. Especially question the people who tell you to question everything, because a lot of those people just like questioning everything because they can.
- Just because someone is a deluded fangirl or a media outlet is corrupt and petty doesn't mean that they're wrong. It doesn't mean that they're right either. Take informations on their own merit, or lack thereof.
- Don't let morality cloud your rationality. Stop thinking about what's right and wrong, instead worry about what's true and false. Adhere to Kpopalypse standards of trufax.
- Enjoy life and k-pop in your newfound wisdom and knowledges!