"I felt people around me assumed debuting as a tomboy meant I should be some hardcore style female"
K-Pop (Korean Pop) has created huge fanfares not only in Korea but all over the world. K-Pop band names such as “Girls Generation” and “BTS” have now become household names with the industry experiencing huge global growth and recognition. With that, the interest of being part of the K-Pop success has spread to non Koreans who have ventured into this lucrative industry looking for their career path of success. Taiwanese American Amber Liu was one of these prospective non Koreans seeking success in an industry worlds apart from her country of birth America, at 16 years old.
Now 27, Liu is back stateside looking at contributing her experience and skills to the push for greater diversity and representation in Western media. I recently had the opportunity to interview Liu in light of the new McDonald’s (US) commercial she featured in with her best friend and YouTube star MIKE BOW promoting the addition of bacon to the “Classics menu”.
During our interview we had lengthy discussions on her journey and her experiences being a Taiwanese American navigating success in the world of K-Pop. The focus areas were looking at what K-Pop means for her, how was it going through the arduous training regime to be a K-Pop star, how she dealt with the extreme body image expectations imposed on her by both the industry and Korean society and what mechanisms/support got her through the difficult periods ( being subject of gossip etc). But before we get to the interview, here is a little information about her ( but I am pretty sure those of us who follow K-Pop would know her name).
Liu was only 16 years old when she was one of 2 people cast from SM Entertainment’s global audition in 2008, and that is when she moved to South Korea and started her rigorous training. By 2009 she debuted as a member of girl band f(x), and that is the start of her career in K-Pop. All that at 16 years of age. It is interesting because when I asked Liu how she prepared herself (mentally) to move to South Korea at such a young age, she told me that it really did not hit her till later on, and her dad raised some concerns about the career she chose. But what got her through was her friends and family.
LIU: “It really did not hit me till later on when I was dealing with the stress and mental battles. Actually when I was about to first move to Korea, my dad had a huge talk to me and said that moving there will not be all bubble gums and rainbows. I remember sweeping those concerns he raised under the rug because when I first arrived I was more excited to pursue something new. The adrenaline at the start appeared to solve all the problems I could have had, and I was more focused on that.”
“In time when I was getting more deeper into the industry I started feeling the pressure, stress and the negative effects the industry can have one someone. Luckily, I had a great support network, a close knit of friends and my family who helped me through the difficult times. They are my life savers and constant therapists. They have always stuck behind me and have my back. They comforted me when I was down but also told me hard truths when I was going down a path which was negative for my life. ”
Part of the stress, pressure and mental gymnastics in being not only a public person but also a huge K-Pop star in South Korea is how to navigate around the unrealistic and extreme body image expectations and beauty standards Korean society imposes. There, society is all about cosmetic surgery to get the perfect nose, to have the double eye lids and the plump lips. And this obsession with cosmetic surgery is actually really unhealthy. There is also the idea that attractive people are thin and have really pale/ white skin.
Women are expected to look sweet and feminine to the point of being “subservient” and “vulnerable”, whilst men are to be thin and have extremely pale skinned. All this is another set of pressures and it is a sign that as a society Korea still has a long way to go. I put this to Liu and asked her how she confronted these societal demands/expectations.
LIU: “Oh, extreme body image and beauty standards definitely impacted on me. It was expected that females weighed less, be really feminine, have long silky hair and in some ways come across as “fragile”, and that really was not me. However, when I first started on my K-Pop journey I was certainly opened to the idea of potentially having to “change myself” to fit societal standards and expectations. But later I realized that doing so would remove who I am and diminish the importance of my individuality.”
“When I debuted as a member of f(x) I was introduced as a tomboy, but even with that, it did not feel like me because I felt people around me assumed debuting as a tomboy meant I should be some hardcore style female. I wear pants a lot and have short hair but inside I am still a fragile little girl. But reflecting on all that, right now I do not really care about these standards and expectations anymore. I am learning to be more true to myself.”
And now that Liu has spent a number of years in South Korea pursuing her K-Pop career, she has returned stateside to continue her career path of being a performer. She has made a number of YouTube videos with her best friend YouTuber Mike Bow, with their “bacon love” video from 2018 going viral online and leading to an advertisement deal with McDonald’s and collaborating with Wong Fu Productions to develop it.
As the final interview question we discussed how that experience was working with Wong Fu, her thoughts on representation and visibility in Western media, her transition from being a K-Pop star to being a performer/YouTuber in the US and what is next up for her in terms of projects.
LIU: “I remember when Mike told me about the project deal with McDonald’s and Wong Fu, I was really excited at the start. Later when I was checking in about when the project would be starting, it was really a waiting game. But yes, having made it now, it was really a surreal experience. I think when we talk about representation and visibility, it is really crazy because only a couple of years ago you don’t see what you do see today. I hope as time goes we will see even more significant changes in the industry and it will become even more diverse. When I was a kid growing up in LA, as Asians we would only be cast in certain type of roles and many of these roles perpetuate negative stereotypes about being Asian and being Asian American.”
“At that time to see an Asian American gain a lead role where they were not playing a certain stereotype was really abnormal. Now the change is here and it is a lot more different. Just look at the success of Crazy Rich Asians. I hope I can also add to that change, but let’s see how it goes.”
“In terms of my transition from K-Pop back to the US projects, I think because I have eased into becoming an internet personality, there really was no transition issues and for me it felt natural. The difficulties of the transition really come from more of the technical stuff – like finances etc but I will admit it is great to be back.”
“Future projects? Well music wise I am releasing something with my friends and Mike, so keep your eyes out for it. I guess if I were to give out a spoiler to a current project I am working on, all I can say is that it is more personal, and it will relate to doing things I should have been doing long ago. So stay tuned…”
All in all, my interview with Liu went smoothly and our discussions developed naturally and organically. From a person who started her K-Pop career at 16, she has definitely learned to mature really fast. She is extremely forward thinking and that will benefit her career now on out.