Saturday, August 16, 2014

KPOPALYPSE INTERVIEW - Sarah Wolfgang/Hanhee (ex-TAHITI)

Welcome readers, to another episode of...

This time Kpopalypse is interviewing Sarah Wolfgang, formerly of k-pop girl group Tahiti!

A few months ago, Sarah Wolfgang's Reddit AmA ("ask me anything") caught my attention.  Sarah, also known as Hanhee, was in the k-pop group Tahiti during their training days, but didn't stick with the group long enough to debut with them.  Sarah's revelations about her time in Tahiti were refreshingly honest and candid, you can read more about them here, but most of it was stuff that I already either knew for sure from my own industry experiences elsewhere and/or had figured out through casual observation:
  • Training in a k-pop group is seriously hard work like you can't imagine
  • Money distribution is awful for the performers
  • Almost everyone who is an idol has plastic surgery
  • Groups inevitably have internal politics and members who get ostracised
  • Idol diets suck the big one (well, maybe the small one - the big one would be too fattening)
I thought to myself "here's someone not afraid to tell it how it really is, this person would probably make a good interview subject" and I also had quite a few extra questions of my own so I got in touch and spent the next couple of months exchanging emails where I asked her about various aspects of herself, Tahiti, and the k-pop music scene in general.  Enjoy!

Hi!  How are you?  Answer in as much or as little detail as applicable.

I'm doing great. Just moved out to LA, and although life is certainly a lot more difficult, it's been an experience I could have never achieved else wise.

Great to hear!  In what way do you find that living in LA is more difficult than Korea?

Korea is a great place to live if you have a) money or b) something that you do really well (ex. speak English to teach it, underground dance for a living). LA has been pretty hard on me because job hunting has been pretty hard... no degree - limited jobs.

Anyone from LA reading, let's help Sarah out!  Put job referrals in the comments below!

Haha, thanks.

I wanted to ask a bit about the process that led you into being part of a k-pop group.  What was the initial drive that made you want to enter that industry?

I never imagined myself entering into the K-pop industry. As a matter of fact, I always dreamt of being an actress. I started acting from a very young age and it has always been my passion. I first auditioned for my company for an acting gig. That later turned into me signing with my company to use K-pop as a mere stepping stone into my acting career.

How did that transformation occur, from wanting to act, to deciding to pursue singing first?

I don't think the transformation occurred as quickly as it probably should have. I signed with my company to use K-pop as a stepping stone to get into the acting world of Korea. I, of course, set the acting aside to focus on my K-pop career. I don't think it was until I actually left the company that I realized I had formed a drive to want to pursue music.

How much of a realistic option do you think it is, in retrospect, to use k-pop as a stepping stone to acting in Korea?  Did you see it work for others, or do you think is it simply not viable except for those at the very top tiers?

I think it's quite possible. The Korean entertainment industry never has to do with talent. It has to do with a) whether or not your company can pay to support your fame or b) whether or not you're in high demand because your company already went through route a.

I mean there is the occasional actor/artist that spends years under the light (usually without a company) that may be very talented... but it's the actual entertainment agency that helps anyone actually see any light or fame.

Sarah Wolfgang, during training

I read that you didn't end up debuting with Tahiti, but you were on a "sitcom style reality TV show" during the training period.  Can you describe what that experience was like?

I recorded the first album and left midway through the production. I did, however, stay through the entire recording of the reality show. It was definitely a once in a lifetime experience! We went through the whole process of waking up super early, going to the hair and make up artist, and waiting our turns to be filmed.

Can you describe the album recording process that you experienced?

It started off with us hearing an instrumental with a guide (nonsense words) being recorded on top of it. We listened to it many times, over and over again. We then got lyrics a few weeks after. We memorized them and were brought into a recording studio. We each took turns going in and recording for the parts that were given to us. If one didn't do well, then someone else would be given the part... and so on.

How much of your own vocal part eventually made it onto Tahiti feature tracks such as "Tonight", or were those parts overdubbed by other girls?

I'm not exactly sure as to how much made it on the actual album as a lot of the voices were altered.

Do you follow or keep track of Tahiti's group activities since you left the group out of curiosity, nostalgia or any other reasons?

I have never felt nostalgic about leaving the group. I feel it was a great experience. If I had to do it again, I definitely know how I would do it the second time around. I feel the experience changed me as a person. It honestly broke me in many ways, but taught me so much about myself.

Are you aware of their current musical output?

I see updates once in a while on my twitter feed. I am still twitter friends with a lot of them.

The next set of questions aren't about yourself, your group or company specifically, but just about things that you may have observed during your experiences.  Firstly, what do you think is the biggest misconception about the world of k-pop that someone just entering the industry might have?

A lot of the things happen behind hidden walls... It's hard to understand anything fully without actually having gone through it. I think the biggest misconception that a lot of people have when entering the industry might be that things will progress smoothly. Although hard work is definitely one of the things everyone expects, it goes beyond what anyone could ever imagine.

Sarah Wolfgang, during training

There are many stories about artists being very overworked and some of them having only 2 hours sleep per night.  Do you believe that this is a common situation that people in groups may experience?

I think it's different with each company. I can't say for sure, but some things are usually blown out of proportion to seem appealing on the news. From my experience, I've been through only one day where we didn't even get any hours of sleep (due to the MTV shooting 2 days in a row). But most of the days we'd get 4 plus hours of sleep depending on what our schedule was like.

One thing I'm curious about with idols that is rarely discussed is drug use, and I don't just mean illegal recreational drugs but also legal and performance-enhancing drugs.  I know from personal experience in the western music industry that drugs are absolutely everywhere.  I won't ask about your specific group, but just going on what you may have heard during your time in the business, do you think it's a different situation in Korea, or more similar to the west than people realise?

All drugs are illegal in Korea. As far as I know, they are really hard to come by. And even if you're lucky enough.. they'd cost a lot of money. I've heard of certain k-pop groups using drugs (strictly through media) but I've never encountered it first hand.

When you're in training, how much possessions do you actually own?  Are things like clothes yours or is everything label property?

When I first moved into the dorms, I actually took 2 big suitcases and my laptop. I filled my suitcase with lots of clothes and a few textbooks because I was taking online classes at the time.

If you knew someone just about to enter the k-pop industry, what advice would you give them?

For anyone that wanted to enter to the k-pop industry, I would give them the advice not to. I would tell them that they should take the longer road... First try underground music in Korea (if you really want to get into the Korean industry) and work your way up. This will tell you if a) you really want to do music (because it's hard being an underground artist) and b) if you're strong enough to stick with it. The industry is vicious. If you aren't prepared - it will eat you up.

Looking at media representation of what life is like for idol groups, what are the things that you think that the k-pop media get right?  Also, what do you think they most often get horribly wrong?

I think the biggest thing they get wrong is that life as a k-pop artist, or even a trainee, is super glamourous. It really doesn't get glamorous until you're about 4 years in... One thing that they do get right is, k-pop artists (even though I don't enjoy calling them artists) do work very hard to perform.

Obviously k-pop performers aren't "artists", I prefer to liken the performer to a "crafter" who is assisting to craft the artistic vision of someone else, or a group of people, behind the scenes. It's the difference between a bricklayer and an architect.


Do you think this is an accurate perception?

The only thing different would be that when it comes to buildings, the architect takes most of the credit... as where in K-pop, the group takes more of the credit.

Were there any opportunities to get involved in the artistry side of things, that you observed?

None, for me. Most of the lessons I received were those that dealt with dance... and even then, we were given a choreography to which we were supposed to learn step by step... and perform step by step.

Do you think it's just a matter of which company you get saddled with, or do you think other factors are involved?

I know some companies do offer their trainees the option to learn to produce. I think this is awesome! It gives trainees the opportunity to showcase their artistic ability!

How aware of the opinions and buzz of their own companies' media are people undergoing training in a k-pop company?

For trainees, most of the time... they're cut off from the outside world - no phone, no internet.

In your experience, are comments by the general public and/or fans on news articles noticed and/or considered important by the performers, or their companies?  How much influence do you think such comments have?

I'm not sure, I think companies take suggestions/comments seriously to improve the group.

Do performers get any kind of education in avoiding controversy or controversial statements/opinions, or "cultural sensitivity" training for dealing with media and fanbases in other countries?

I think it really depends on the company. I never received any training for dealing with media/fanbases in other countries. I do think that with the amount of diversity there is in K-pop now, cultural sensitivity is dealt with within it's members.

I know you're not into k-pop, musically.  Name some favourite artists that inspire you or that you enjoy the work of - any genre.

I love Jazzhop. My favorite artists include Kero One, Nujabes, Shirosky, Re:Plus, and DJ Okiwari.

Sarah Wolfgang, during training

I'm aware that k-pop trainees and new groups don't make a lot of money, plus they get heavily into debt.  I've heard of people working second jobs just to get by.  Did you meet or hear of people who had to take up outside extra-curricular activities to generate income, and if so, what did they do?  And how did they find the time?

A lot of time, extra-curricular activities are not permitted. Personally, I have never heard of anyone working second jobs. 

"Parental pressure" is often cited as a reason for people leaving idol groups in the early stages, and seemingly for good reason!  Do you think the parents of trainees generally are very aware of what life is like for their sons or daughters as a trainee or as a member of a young unknown group, or do you think there's an element of looking at the situation through rose-coloured glasses?

I believe a lot of trainees and their parents are unaware of what goes on behind the scene. A lot of times, the reason why Korean parents are against their children doing music is usually because they're against the arts. They know that the odds are slight, and wasting valuable study time isn't something they'd like to see their child do.

Do you think labels are accepting of people who might want to balance being a trainee with other activities such as outside study, or do you think those people would just not have a chance and get overlooked in favour of someone more committed to only being an idol? 

 Definitely someone more committed. Training to be an idol is a 24 hour job. Most companies do not want someone that has one foot in training and one foot in studying. As a matter of fact, I had to give up school and opted to get a GED (as many students do). 

Why do you think your label emphasized humility so much?

 I think we were expected to be humble because so many people in the industry are not. They wanted us to learn how to be humble before we could think we were the shit (excuse my language, but this was the only way to explain myself to the fullest).

Why do you think k-pop labels cut their trainees off from the outside world so much?  What function do you think that serves for them?

I think they cut trainees off from the rest of the world because they want to protect their trainees from bad publicity and mishap.

What made you want to do the Reddit AMA?

I wanted to do the Reddit AMA as a means to be honest with myself and the online community. It's such a hidden subject that little is known, and I was glad to shine some light on it.

Thanks for doing this interview, I really appreciate it! 

No problem! 

If there's anything else that you'd like to say to my readers about your experiences, or the industry, please do!

 Although a lot of idols do work hard towards making their performance look great... many songs have really awesome songwriters and choreographers working even harder to put it all together. I honestly think, a true fan should work harder in supporting all aspects of an idol group's song - rather than just the idol. Also, the industry is beyond glitz and glamour. Don't be fooled with what you see on TV!
Sarah Wolfgang, August 2014

That's it for this episode of Kpopalypse Interview!  Are you or do you know someone doing something relevant to the world of k-pop, who would like to be interviewed?  If so, get in touch!


  1. Lol so I was looking for pictures of Miso and found this interview and I was like when did this happen? did I miss it somehow? and then saw it was brand new but yeah pretty standard stuff especially:

    If anyone STILL needs confirmation of how little(to not call it nonexistent) musical input idols really have there you go.

    Weren't Eunjung and Jiyeon in the same situation: trained to be actresses and ended up in a kpop group. It does seem like the fastest way to an acting gig.

    “whether or not your company can pay to support your fame or b) whether or not you're in high demand because your company already went through route a.” Love this bit goes to show why companies push their most popular members and why the ‘every member should shine/given lines/exposure equally’ whine of fangirls/boys is not sustainable and just plain stupid. If Suzy brings in all the cash why would JYP promote Fei(as perfect as she is God bless her) over her?

    They were getting 4+ hours of sleep(she writes, as if that were normal) and they hadn’t even debut. Imagine top groups with busy schedules or more importantly new groups working plugs everywhere.

    Also Nujabes <3.

    1. It never hurts to have a reminder. Of course myself and others have been saying this stuff for ages. It's one thing for someone like me to say that these things happen and get the inevitable "oh you're just being snarky/cynical" response from k-pop fans but to have someone who's been there and done that confirm it is another.

  2. I saw her AMA ages ago, but this is still so interesting. (Thanks to Sarah for doing this, should she read the comments!)

    Although, I think a lot of experiences must differ from company to company a lot. Like she mentioned that her company cut her/the group off from internet/cell phones, whereas you have people like Lori from Chocolat with an askfm account going back to predebut.( And a lot of debuted artists are seen with mobile phones, obviously.

    1. Yeah other companies will vary with the details no doubt.

  3. I think it's quite possible. The Korean entertainment industry never has to do with talent. It has to do with a) whether or not your company can pay to support your fame or b) whether or not you're in high demand because your company already went through route a.

    This is just pure bullshit and highly subjective. How do you define "talents" anyway? There's a lot of talented people in the world but not all of them can make it big in the entertainment industry. For me, hardworking is talent itself. To never give up no matter what. That's how most idols and celebrities make it big.
    Best example I can give you in this situation is Crayon Pop. Their agencies started from nothing and they had to promote in the street by themselves at one point. They stick to it and worked hard endlessly and look where they are now.
    Even if you do start big, it doesn't mean you're gonna have it easy or make it big anyways. Popular composers like Brave Brothers and E-tribe failed horribly with their respective idol groups.

    Bitch is obviously bitter and a failure at that. Looking at how she's got no job now she probably has the worst kind of luck too, which one of the factors I think is important if you wanna be famous.

    1. Disagree. I'll address my own points of view in a follow-up post.

    2. I don't think she seemed bitter at all...

    3. Yeah I've interview plenty of bitter people before (although not bitter k-pop people), they come off WAY different to this. Trust me, if she really was bitter I would have asked her the appropriate questions and she would have stuck the knife in and twisted it with relish. I'm good at bringing that aspect out of people in interviews.

    4. Well, I wouldn't have thrown that particular word that simple, but reading some of her answers here and there, it just struct me as such.

      Ex: Her comment about one person in Tahiti whom she claimed smelled like poo. I mean, was that necessary? Considering she used to train and live with them for almost 24 hours a day, I would assume she would use some caution, respect even when talking about them.

      Her answers were pretty generic too. If you've been into kpop for a while now, you would already know most of them. She didn't really need to do the AMA IMO... Considering she only used to be a trainee, I doubt she actually knows that much at all about other companies and I feel like she's not really that qualified to answer anything else apart from her own experiences. There were a lot of, "I thinks", the "I'm not sure" and the usual "I believe". Did she say how long she trained for?

    5. On the one hand you're complaining that her answers are generic and non-specific, and then you're complaining when she says something that's about as far away from generic as you can fucking get. Make up your mind, damn.

    6. I was actually trying to raise 2 separate issues there. Didn't work as well as I thought it would be

    7. All kpop idols have to be hardworking, or else they never get to debut in the first place. That's not a talent, that's just a requirement.

      Singing and dancing ability is talent. Let's be real here, just about anyone can become a decent dancer when doing 20 hour training days for years, so there's no real need to scout only the most talented dancers out there. Singing ability is not important because that can(and will) be fixed with autotune and such. It certainly never hurts to be a good singer to begin with, but just the fact that being the best singer in the group is obviously no guarantee of popularity goes to show that singing talent doesn't mean squat. Is Luna from f(x) the most popular? No. Is Chen from Exo the most popular? No. Is Raina from After School the most popular? No(sorry kpopalypse). Is Yesung from Suju? No. Is Soyeon from T-ara? No. Is Jiyoon from 4minute? No. ETC. ETC. ETC.

      Anyway, you sound waaay more bitter than this girl does. Oh no, someone who was actually a trainee confirmed that talent doesn't mean shit. Better call her a bitter bitch for dissing your oppars and unnirs wah wah wah. Please.

    8. "...The Korean entertainment industry never has to do with talent. It has to do with whether or not your company can pay to support your fame..."

      I doubt she meant this literally. Of course talent is at least part of the equation.

      In the acting and idol business, an even bigger factor than talent is looks. Suzy is popular in part because of agency promotion but mostly because her image matches what most Koreans consider ideal.

      It's not like you could just pick any girl off the streets of Seoul, spend tons of money promoting her, and end up with the next Suzy.

      You also couldn't simply recruit any random girl and train her to sing like Hyorin or magically give her the sweet-sounding voice of IU.

      The opportunities that you get because of a large agency's connections and promotions give you a significant advantage but the audience still has to like the end product for it to work.

    9. Hey, Sarah here. (:
      Just want to clear the air and specify what I meant.
      As Incheon and xxcurestfuxxstated, I did not mean it in any literal way. I have other kpop idol friends that are very talented, yet they do not get enough screen time or fame for their amazing talent. I was trying to express the fact that a very talented group of people may not be able to get the opportunity they need if their company does not have the money to pay broadcasting stations.

      As for one of the answers I wrote on my AMA about someone smelling like poo, I was merely trying to lift the mood. No one smelled like poo. I mean.. we all did.. especially after practice or when we went hiking... Maybe I did even more than the other girls because of my caucasian sweating genes. Haha.

      And as for being bitter - I definitely am not. Being with my company taught me a kind of love and choreographers, producers, musicians, and overall artists. I just feel it's such a shame that so many people behind the scenes don't get the proper credit they deserve. I have gained a lot of experience and have since been able to figure out what I want to achieve in my future. Hence, the reason for my relocation to LA. If you've been here before, you'd understand that job hunting is not easy. There are too many people and too few jobs.

      As for how long I trained for, I was officially with my company for 2 years, but only under the contract for a few months (contract starts when albums are released). This seems like a really short time, and it may be... but I had given up high school to go into the dorms and spend 24 hours with these girls.. It was more than just a full time job, it had become my life.

      It's so awesome to see such an amazing community out there that's so understanding and supportive. Thank you Kpopalypse for doing the interview with me, and thank you to everyone out there that has given me kind words.

    10. Thanks for the clarification, Sarah!

  4. Oh and if everything else fails, there's always porn. It's a legitimate career choice. Just put the title as "kpop artist turned pornstar" and her popularity will skyrocket.

    1. Isn't porn like the easiest industry to get in? People have fetishes for anything so there is something that anyone could star in...

    2. Porn isn't easy at all. Not that I've tried, lol, but it's highly competitive. Like all performing arts (which is really what it is) there are more people wanting to get into it, than the industry can support.

    3. There's always a market for more porn. Especially if she's somewhat a celebrity already (read: paris hilton and co)

    4. The novelty of a celebrity fucking wears off after the first time.

  5. Slightly off topic but does she know that you write for AKF?

    1. Yes, it was the first thing I told her about myself.

    2. And her reaction was what, exactly?

    3. "Yes, I'll do the interview" or words to that effect! Also, she's commented above... so she definitely knows!

  6. This was cool to read. Although most of the stuff I kind of already knew (like fake glamorizing of idol/trainee life.) It's honestly not that hard to find out how stuff like that is behind the scenes. On an unrelated note I think idols are part of the art that the artist wants to put out there, and are part of the process of executing that art. So I agree with the bricklayer part. They're like the bricklayer the architect needs for the house to be fully built in his vision. However people typically just see the house and not necessarily the blueprints.

    1. That's how K-pop groups are designed. The members themselves are presented to the fans first and formost. That's why most k-pop fans would rather fap to boy bands then actually listen the the music.

    2. Yeah. basically the members themselves are the house. I do like kpop for music (eye candy is good however if your music sucks then too bad.) Which is why my love for girl and boy groups is pretty equal, yes even in the music. Keep in mind, this is coming from a person with zero taste in everything including music.

  7. I really like the honesty in her answers, she sounds like she's not bashing anyone but simply telling the truth. thank you Kpopalypse!

  8. How to become a successful and popular kpop idol:

    Step 1: Be attractive.

    1. Then how come Tahiti are still nugus?

    2. The company that produce them isnt running on dosh

  9. Very interesting and enjoyable to read.
    Did you just send her one question per e-mail ?

    I was hoping you were also asking her about the "sexual favours" rumors, when I read the drugs question.

  10. Good interview, I appreciatted the way she handled her AMA as well.

    I don't share her view of performers, as not all performers are idols. But I do get why she uses the word adressed to the K-Pop idols. There are performers who don't necesseraly create their songs, but get a say on those, or dancers who do get to create their own routines. The use of the word was in a way too generalized way, perhaps, but yes, I do believe her answers were honest and gave some reality to what a lot of K-Pop followers had been arguing about for ages now.

  11. I really enjoy reading these interviews. hope you find more people to interview!


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