Celebrity

Public Opinions Are the Death Sentence for Many Korean celebrities 

Fame brings many privileges: high income, great influence, and the love of the audience. However, the path to fame, and even the one after it, is not always rosy. 

In particular, those who have become “public figures” have to endure intense pressure from fierce competition, the dizzying pace of turnover in the entertainment industry, and the fact that they always have to be the focus of the crowd. This also includes baseless rumors, criticism, disdain, and personal attacks – some of the most potent poisons for people’s mentality. 

lee sun kyun

In 2017, SHINee’s Kim Jonghyun took his own life at the age of 27 while his career was flourishing. In 2018, actor Jun Tae Soo resorted to extreme actions at the age of 33. In 2019, two famous K-pop idols, Sulli and Goo Hara, along actor Cha In Ha, died by suicide. In 2023, ASTRO’s Moonbin and singer Choi Bong-sung passed away. And most recently, star actor Lee Sun-kyun ended his life after facing various scandals by burning coals in his car.

At this point, it is no exaggeration to say that the suicide rate in the Korean showbiz is one of the highest across entertainment industries. Starting from 2005 until now, the public had to witness the departure of at leaslet one Kbiz artist a year. And the common thread leading to these tragedies is none other than online criticisms and public condemnation. 

Celebrities have to uphold “impossible standards”

John Lennon from the legendary Beatles once said, “These critics with the illusions they’ve created about artists – it’s like idol worship. They only like people when they’re on their way up… I cannot be on the way up again”, acutely aware of impossible standards that artists must uphold. However, he died at the cruel hands of one of his own fans.

In the Korean entertainment industry, standards for talent, appearance, and even the personality of stars are proportionate to societal demands. K-pop stars like BLACKPINK and BTS, or powerful actors like Jeon Ji-hyun, Song Hye-kyo, and Hyun Bin are not only setting standards for beauty, talent, and fame not only for future generations but also influencing the general audience. 

John Lennon

However, looking back, these superstars have also been trained, guided, and led by entertainment companies, producers, or experienced managers, and “molded” based on the previous generations as well as public opinions. 

In the last 10 years, these standards have become increasingly high. In an era where everything needs to be the best, the most beautiful, and the most unique, the audience has become more unpredictable and demanding. Additionally, with the rapid development of information technology and convenience in the social media environment, artists must exert effort every day to bring new and fresh content to serve the public, at the same time competing with hundreds of competitors and a massive amount of information. Gradually, a significant portion of the audience also maintains a nonchalant attitude towards every situation, both positive and negative. Now, the efforts of celebrities are regarded with indifference and increased scrutiny, and very few of them can withstand the entertainment industry without being somewhat mentally worn.

“They told me: ‘You were born beautiful. You don’t need to know anything. Just sit among these people and make them happy. Then they will like you”. These are words from Sulli’s documentary “Dear Jinri”, words that have haunted her childhood, youth, and even the last minutes of her life. 

It does not matter if a celebrity has talent, beauty, youth, or passion for the profession, in the end, people only see them as a product, Sulli said in the same documentary, adding, “Even when people don’t call me a product, they would treat me like one. I have to be something they want. I have to fear losing my ‘product quality’”

This is why a beloved celebrity can see their life upturned in one second, just with one wrong action of the past, one intimate photo, or the use of one wrong word. The “product quality” is lost, so a string of negative comments naturally arrives. 

The celebrities that lost value ended up being relentlessly mocked by thousands of people, who frantically hunted for every piece of information and image of them, dragging down a person and poisoning their spirit. 

On top of this, Korean netizens are known for being harsh, ready to use the most cruel and brutal words for the protagonists of scandals over the smallest misdeed, leading to artists suffering from great pressure. The annual series of suicides, the potential idol expulsion cases prove the harmful nature of Korea’s toxic social media and the cutthroat showbiz as depicted in dramas like “Celebrity” and “Mask Girl.”

sulli

Sulli once shared how she was worried that even her mother would leave her over a wrong deed, whilst BTS’s RM confessed how he felt like he’d done something terrible when saying he wanted a break. 

The fear of being evaluated inadvertently creates pressure for the famous to be “perfect”, especially among K-pop stars who often debut young.

A celebrity have to become what the public want. They cannot express their opinion, know whether or not to speak up, and are basically the public’s puppet. In fact, most people don’t even think that celebrities have the right to be exhausted. 

shinee-jonghyun
SHINee’s Jonghyun, a rare talent in Kpop, committed suicide at the age of 27 due to the pressure of being an idol. He debuted at a very young age and dedicated nearly 10 years to the Korean music scene.

Whether online or offline, celebrities are always at risk of being followed by a stranger. They can hide behind an unclear avatar, they can also be anyone who happens to pass by, or observe from a distance with a phone in recording mode.

And immediately, the private images of any famous star flood across various platforms, but hardly anyone cares about the artist’s privacy.

Of course, setting standards to evaluate the personality of a star and their private life is a necessary factor to filter out negative influences on the public and especially young audiences. However, many audiences manipulate the concept, unable to distinguish between the personal life and the career of the artist.

BLACKPINK’s Jennie once endured a barrage of criticism for her acting debut in “The Idol.” Due to the drama’s poor quality and somewhat risque production, many people felt vindicated to attack Jennie and judge her based on her role. 

The Idol

The public, who worshiped the sweet and perfect image of Jennie, found her daring role to be an “unacceptable betrayal”. They thus started to complain about the “product quality”, instead of regarding Jennie as a person with her own wishes and thoughts. 

Jennie is also a typical example of a star being “forbidden” to make mistakes in Kbiz. Highly praised even before her debut, this idol superstar has enough talent, beauty, and courage to meet the expectations of the public. However, because of physical limitations compared to other BLACKPINK members, and often exhausted to the point of needing oxygen after performances, Jennie became a victim of global netizens’ criticism. Every gesture, attitude, glance, or smile of the female idol was scrutinized, even to the extreme point where online users said, “She’s criticized even for just sitting and breathing.”

“Oh, Kpop, being a Kpop idol is the worst thing. I see people not treating celebrities as human beings,” Sulli bitterly talked about the lives of famous people. In a harsh environment like showbiz, where fame and fortune can come in the blink of an eye, standards become a crucial factor. However, forcing artists to devote their entire lives, never taking a moment to rest, to live o the opinions of millions is truly unfair.

According to a study by Cambridge University, enduring online bullying for an extended period significantly affects mental health. Victims may feel that their community does not accept them as human beings, leading to loneliness and a tendency to isolate themselves from society. Over time, this leads to feelings of inadequacy, and, more severely, depression.

When social media provides everyone with a space for free expression without revealing their identity, bullying becomes more troublesome than ever. Confronting constant attacks over a prolonged period, not everyone can maintain a clear head and uphold their “armor.”

Verbal abuse may not immediately defeat a person, but it corrodes the soul like corrosive acid from within. We have witnessed numerous cases where individuals cannot escape the shadow of their wounds. Talented individuals may abandon their artistic dreams to escape the public eye, and even A-list stars may give up their entire lives due to heavy psychological burdens. Is the toxic environment directed at artists a result of the public setting standards too high without acknowledging their multidimensionality? Are they only seen as puppets that must operate flawlessly? And do they not have the right to live as human beings, with emotions, successes, and occasional mistakes?

“Everyone deserves a second chance” against the “death sentence” of public opinions

In the age of digital technology, celebrities live a second life and career on social media. Virtual stages, online concerts, interactive livestreams, and social media interactions—all these methods support stars in connecting with the public. From here, social media gradually becomes a place for online “trials.” Not only netizens but also many media outlets and individuals claiming to be former entertainment experts have criticized those with wrongdoing or scandals.

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It cannot be denied that these criticisms play a significant role in purifying showbiz, pushing out artists with moral declines. Park Yoo-chun, Jung Joon-young, Seungri, and a series of wrongdoers have no way back to showbiz due to the public’s steadfast boycotting attitude. However, unlike a real-life legal trial, accusations, boycott waves, or accusations against celebrities online often lack authenticity, are prone to getting out of control, and can mutate. In the worst cases, online “trials” can turn into cyberbullying without resolution or be exploited by malicious individuals to manipulate public opinion and tarnish artists.

t-ara

No one can name those who buried T-ara’s career or compensate for the unjust reputation they endured during the difficult period when they were labeled as internal bullies. Both Lee Jin-wook and Park Shi-hoo were accused and acquitted, yet the label of “sexual assault actors” may follow them for a lifetime. Everyone assumes that the comments of celebrities are freedom of speech. However, online rumors are virtual, and the real harm they cause is tangible. The culprit here is often not an individual but an entire community, making it difficult to point fingers and accuse anyone to seek justice for these artists.

The most reflective cases are those of Lee Sun-kyun and veteran actor Jo Min-ki. Both took their own lives amidst shocking scandals. In February 2018, under the strong wave of the #MeToo campaign, Jo Min-ki was accused by a female student at Cheongju University of sexual harassment during his teaching tenure. This incident led to more than 20 victims exposing the heinous acts of the veteran actor, including theater actress Song Ha Neul. The pressure from the campaign caused Jo Min-ki, a seasoned actor in the Korean film industry, to lose everything overnight. Ultimately, Jo Min-ki took his own life to escape public pressure and the sense of guilt.

In October 2023, “Parasite” actor – Lee Sun-kyun was arrested for drug charges and exposed for extramarital affairs with a bar manager. On December 27, 2023, Lee Sun-kyun took his own life in his personal car, just one day after proclaiming his innocence and requesting an official investigation using a lie detector.

lee sun kyun

Before passing away, the actor left a will for his wife and departed, while Jo Min-ki called close ones to apologize for the past and left a handwritten letter expressing remorse to the victims. The guilt infected the minds of these two individuals, already struggling with extreme thoughts, and the public pressure was like the time bomb’s detonator. “Irresponsible,” “Suicide to escape, what about those who stay behind?” “Even in death, his crimes do not disappear”… K-netizens continued to harshly criticize the two departed individuals, forgetting the truth that Lee Sun-kyun and Jo Min-ki paid for their mistakes with their lives.

However, looking at it more soberly, public opinion indirectly pushed Lee Sun-kyun and Jo Min-ki towards the path of suicide, concluding two serious cases without a satisfactory answer. According to South Korean law, when there is no longer a subject to sue, the accusations become meaningless. Consequently, the police closed the cases of Lee Sun-kyun and Jo Min-ki If they were still alive, perhaps these two artists would have had to face the consequences of their mistakes through legal judgments, and the victims might have sought justice. Yet, in the end, the grievances of the victims were never clarified, and justice was not served.

Lee Sun Kyun Jo Min Ki

After Lee Sun-kyun’s passing, actress Claudia Kim (Avengers: Age of Ultron) expressed condolences to his family. However, her statement made the public contemplate deeply: “Everyone deserves forgiveness for their mistakes. Everyone deserves a second chance.” When an artist makes a mistake or even commits a serious crime, their actions are entirely deserving of condemnation. It is not wrong to say that the public should open their hearts to give artists a second chance, an opportunity to make amends. However, this decision depends on the individual’s repentance, the severity of the incident, and their contributions to art and society.

It’s time for the public to have a nuanced perspective instead of having unrealistic expectations for artists. The toxicity of unreasonable expectations or hurtful statements can drive artists to despair and bury talents that are shining. On the contrary, empathy and kindness not only demonstrate ethics among people but also play a crucial role in creating a healthy entertainment environment. There, the audience can enjoy artistic products and engage in multidimensional discussions, while young artists can learn, absorb opinions to correct mistakes, and focus on their creative work instead of being busy wearing perfect masks out of fear of criticism. It is the best path for art to develop in a civilized manner, and no one has to struggle with invisible wounds.

Source: K14

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