Walking into the film studio, we're swiftly met by Girls' Generation's squadron of handlers. Yoona, a Korean-born member of the group, makes her way through a series of crane shots and close-ups along a thick strip of black gravel poured and combed across the width of the studio. Everyone else in the room is bundled up and huddled next to industrial space heaters. As she begins jogging from end to end, all arms and legs and milky right angles, Saw suggests we duck into a dressing-room area. The craft service is a marketing statement in its own right: bouquets of pink balloons and pink roses, pink ribbons and diamonds, pink lemonade and cupcakes and tarts and macaroons. We're waiting on another member, Tiffany, a 22-year-old Southern Californian who entered the S.M. training program in 2004.
She clip-clops into the room on a pair of Adidas high-top wedges, half-asleep until the second she realizes that there's another American in the room. "I'm so at peace with myself when I can speak English," she purrs. Despite the protests of her family, she came to Seoul alone when she was 15 in hopes of bypassing the general xenophobia that Asian performers confront in the States. "I thought they'd move here by now," she says of her parents with a sigh. "It's weird…but they just really love California. Once I got here, I had all these regrets about leaving. I didn't even go to prom!" But Tiffany is only a few years away from the end of her contract with S.M., at which point she'd like to parlay her training and experience into a career as a singer or actress in the States.
For someone who grew up during that late-'90s teen-pop boom spearheaded by Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera, Tiffany has been witness to two strains of bubblegum phenomena. She's keenly aware of their many differences, cultural and strategic. "It's not that we're not allowed to date," she says. "But we have such a young fan base and the girls are going to look up to the boys as their boyfriends, and the guys are going to look up to the girls as their girlfriends. And if we said we have a boyfriend or we have a girlfriend, in Korean culture, it'd be kind of a shock."
Social-media privileges, she explains, remain firmly in the control of S.M. "We are slowly revealing our personal issues and personalities through our music and through our concepts," she says. "I think over time we'll be able to express what we like and what we don't like. I think it will happen — it's just going to take a matter of time."
According to Saw, each of S.M.'s 20 to 30 trainees costs $100,000 a year, for anywhere between three and seven years. As is the case with the majority of these systems, once artists have been selected to "debut" as part of a boy group or girl group, they're offered a contract, or, as Saw phrases it, "partnership," that can last as long as 15 years. Boy bands in particular pose difficult challenges: Between the ages of 18 and 27, all Korean males must fulfill a two-year military requirement, no small impediment to sales.
"They're not just singers or dancers," says Yuen. "Their system develops a holistic entertainer in all aspects: singing, dancing, acting, presentation, all of it." Both the volume of the kids' obligations (this could include any number of product endorsements conceived before they even debut) and the length of the contractual agreements have caused some Koreans to bandy about the term "slave contracts," which has forced artists to publicly denounce allegations of exploitation just as adamantly as they protest charges of plastic surgery.
As we wrap up, I ask Tiffany if there is any one way she likes to spend her rare bit of free time. "Sleep," she shoots back. "I think right now my favorite thing to do is sleep, because we don't get much. If I could just sleep without anyone waking me up, I could probably sleep for, like, 24 hours. I slept for 20 once."
She scrunches her nose and smiles. "That's pretty sad, huh?"