A Blinding Spotlight: The Reality of Expectations for South Korean Celebrities

In recent years, South Korean entertainment has tremendously risen in fame, with South Korean music, movies and TV shows quickly becoming internationally known and recognised. This upsurge was not instantaneous and had a years long process behind it. It was mostly seen around 2018 with K-pop group BTS making it big overseas, the movie “Parasite” being a massive hit and rightfully winning an Oscar in 2020, and later the TV show “Squid Game” which most of us have seen or at least heard of. An overall look into the South Korean entertainment industry tells a tale of success and almost uncanny perfection. However, it is upon closer inspection that we start to see the deep cracks that run along this immaculate image.

On December 27th, we were presented with the tragic news of actor Lee Sun-kyun having been found dead in his car at the young age of 48 years old. Although this may never be confirmed, the note he allegedly left to his wife strongly suggests that the actor committed suicide, which comes as no surprise when examining the long line of similar incidents that the industry, and the merciless expectations that come with it, has left behind. Lee Sun-kyun had internationally jumped to fame when starring in the award-winning film “Parasite” in 2019. His reputation was almost immaculate, as is firmly expected of the nation’s celebrities, before a series of events starting in October. The actor was accused by a bar hostess of consuming drugs, such as Marijuana and Ketamine, accusations that he steadfastly denied, claiming that he was tricked into it by the same hostess. Nonetheless, this opened a relentless police investigation into the case, a probe so deeply publicised, against the actor’s own wishes, that it immediately ruined his reputation and forced him to drop out of other projects. This was accompanied by malicious comments and tremendously hostile discourse by the South Korean public around him that lasted months, and cruelly continued even after his statement apologising to his family and the public for causing such disappointment and pain by being involved in a scandal. 

Regardless of whether or not the rumours and allegations were based on truth, this situation is deeply saddening and alarming. It was not drug use that led Lee Sun-kyun to death’s doorstep, but rather the unrealistic expectations and the bullying that South Korean celebrities often have to withstand. Already, the leading cause of death in South Korea for people aged 10 to 39 is suicide. This can be said to stem from the highly competitive and individualistic society of the country, with high standards being demanded from even regular citizens. These are only accentuated when it comes to public figures, after all just ordinary people that the country’s public expects to act as flawless machines, never stepping out of line and blindly sticking to the rules, with no room for failure. The sum of their competitive logic is that if they have been the “lucky” ones that have risen to the top, they must act accordingly and be essentially perfect.

Celebrities must follow unrealistic and extremely strict beauty standards, leading to a grand majority getting plastic surgery from a young age and following insane diets in order to avoid the bullying from online communities. If they are seen and reported of dating, clubbing or in some cases even just speaking to celebrities of the opposite sex, they are sure to be caught in a scandal, which is a steady and sure pass to being overtly scrutinised and ostracised by the public. Additionally, mental health issues are not commonly talked about and as such, the necessary help can be hard to find, a deeply isolating experience. This is especially true for south korean pop, commonly known as K-pop, singers, with actors sometimes receiving laxer treatment. 

We must keep in mind that Lee Sun-kyun’s heartbreaking death is not an isolated incident, with many other celebrities such as Choi Jin-ri, Kim Jong-hyun, or Moon Bin, all beloved singers, committing suicide in recent years over pressure, scandals and public harassment. It is unbelievably despairing that due to frankly nonsensical standards such young people feel there is no other choice but to end their lives. There is absolutely no valid reason for these “scandals”, such as harassment over not wearing a bra, to ever reach this point, or even come close to it, and it is my sincere hope that in the future years the general public, especially in South Korea, reaches this conclusion too and ceases this idealisation of celebrities that will always inevitably lead to disappointment, in one way or another.

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