All Hail The Queen: Jessica Jung Is Esquire's Sexiest Woman Alive
This is a story of how an 11-year-old American girl became a Korean music sensation who is worshipped around the world. This is a story of betrayal and liberty in an industry that values one over the other. This is the story of how a queen is made.
Jessica Jung wears Fendi. Her long, brunette-dyed hair veils the side of her fair, porcelain complexion. She eyes her feet as she takes measured steps across the freezing, dimly lit photo studio. The air-conditioning must be broken. Jung intended the temperature as such. It is at her request.
It’s an odd perspective, but she seems to be gliding unhurriedly as more than a dozen people surround her every move between the set and the changing room. Her posture is mannered; her expression is studied and cold. The stylists, the groomers, the minders, her mother; their eyes are silently and sharply focused on her. Their smiles are muscled by anxiety and politeness. Their hands are ready to correct any imperfections. Like a queen approaching her throne.
There’s heavy breathing here. There’s a camera clicking there. Flash. Pause. Repeat. If anyone were to lick a proverbial finger and forecast the mood of the room, solemnness would be detected in the air with no chance of letting up. It’s a stark contrast to the humidity of Taipei’s summer where Jung’s followers wait devotedly outside the building. The public wasn’t informed that she would remain in Taipei after her fan meet yesterday on June 18, 2016. News of her extended stay spread like wildfire. Her followers are descending in droves.
But here, in the studio, it seems like an implosion is about to happen at any moment.
Whenever Jung exits the set and enters the changing room to switch to another look, the mood of the studio turns to a lighter one. There’s almost an audible collective sigh of relief. Shoulders relax. Refreshments are enjoyed. The crew that were on their toes are now resting easy on their feet.
It’s a stance that only a person held in high regard would command—especially in a cultural system that continues to revere the upper echelons of conservative hierarchy, status and power. This greatly differs from Jung’s earlier upbringing in her birthplace, San Francisco. The city is endowed with a more open, liberal ideology as compared to Seoul. Jung was a typical girl. She loved her toys and played dress up in her room. In the studio, today, she commands respect. Perhaps it’s the result of the years of training she had at an age where most children could barely work the microphone.
While on a family vacation in South Korea, Jung and her then-five-year- old sister, Chrystal, were talent spotted in a mall by one of the biggest local entertainment conglomerates, SM Entertainment. By the wisdom of her parents, Chrystal was deemed too young for the entertainment business. They decided that the eldest of the two sisters would begin training—one that would take up her entire teenage life. The year was 2000 and Jung, 11 years old at the time, joined SM’s training system at the height of the country’s burgeoning export of its local popular culture—also known as the Hallyu wave.
Formed some 27 years ago, SM Entertainment was one of the first flagbearers of the K-pop phenomenon in the ’90s. According to a Forbes article, SM’s infamous boot camp-style training and factory line of music output was a perfected model that produced consistent Top 40 chart hitters.
In the fourth quarter of 2015, SM announced consolidated revenue of KRW89.2 billon and an operating profit of KRW2.1 billon. Earlier this year, Jack Ma’s Alibaba bought a four percent stake in the public-listed entertainment company for USD30 million. That places SM’s valuation around a cool USD750 million. Last year, Alibaba signed a distribution agreement with BMG, for digital rights to over 2.5 million songs, and took over China’s YouTube, Youku Tudou, for USD4 billon. Alibaba’s seat at SM’s table makes for a beneficial position for the Korean company whose artists could gain greater visibility in one of their most important markets.
“Like the chaebols [Korean for a family-owned conglomerate], SM is very secretive at the top; they don’t talk much,” Daniel Tudor, author of Korea: The Impossible Country, told Forbes. “Their business practices in the past have been questionable contracts for young people who perhaps don’t know what they are getting into.” For the youth in the system, some even younger than Jung when she joined, the path towards idolisation requires grit, resilience and determination.
The same article reported that SM could receive up to 300,000 applicants every year from global casting calls. Training includes a full day of vocal, dance and acting lessons, physical workouts and routine weight inspections. Korean language courses are catered for foreign talents. But in the process of manufacturing these “idols”, not every trainee will have his or her chance in the spotlight no matter how many hours he or she may put in.
Esquire: Do you remember what it was like when you were a trainee?
Jessica Jung: I was very competitive at that age [she said after the photo shoot.] I don’t like to lose.
She spots a smile, the same weighted smile that will punctuate every one of her measured answers. This seems like an achievement given that her default disposition is one that might be misconstrued as distant or cold. For this, her followers have anointed her, Ice Princess. And most of Jung’s followers, especially the loyal handful that I’ve met over the months, have pointed out that beneath the icy facade is a confident and loving woman. This seems like the anchored affection her followers aspire to.
“Whatever Jessica does, we will always be there as she would for us,” one of her followers rallies. Where can we even begin to place Jung’s unbridled dedication towards her followers and them to her? Is this the by-product of a massive entertainment system—a matrix that codes the rules and delete those who come up against it?
Esquire: What else do you remember?
Jessica Jung: People might think that it was just training. But I was a normal girl who went to school and my parents [who moved back to Korea from San Francisco] made sure that my studies came first.
After seven-and-a-half years of training for a chance to be an “idol”, Jung debuted with the nine-girl group Sonyuh Shi-dae (Korean for “Generation of Girls”) in 2007. Now 27 and with 16 years of entertainment experience under her belt, Jung is no stranger to the glitzy game that this particular world throws at her. She’s now embarked on a solo career. But if anything hasn’t changed, it’s her demand for perfection. In the studio, this teeth-bearing hunger was about to reveal itself.
During one of her many wardrobe changes, the veteran signer raises her voice from the changing room. The same dozen people are now on high alert. I ask an English-speaking minder for the context. She says that Jung isn’t too pleased about a certain item of clothing. I push further for details and instead receive a bottle of water and unsolicited comfort. Back in front of the camera, Jung seems indignant. She waves off two of her entourage who are blocking the view of a laptop that is screening the photos taken. There’s heavy breathing here. There’s a camera clicking there. Flash. Pause. Repeat. The air-conditioning must be broken. Jung intended the temperature as such. It is at her request.
ACROSS THE GOLDEN STARS
After four hours, the photo shoot is done and dusted. Jessica Jung seems happy with the result as assumed by her more laidback approach. A courteous “gomapseumnida” here, a polite “daume ddo bayo” there. She changes into a white blouse and blue jeans— presumably from her contemporary fashion label, Blanc and Eclare.
There’s an aura about this woman and it all seems to rest in her eyes. She’s slender, not scrawny, and is raised like a slim monolith made of marble. Standing at 1.63m, she compensates for her height with a steely calm that fortifies her vulnerability. Her eyes are soft and gentle as a child and welcoming as a mother, but her body says otherwise— designed to handle an all-out assault of expectations. She fiddles with the wires of an earphone and sits with me in the pantry of the studio.
Esquire: Tell me about the Golden Stars [Jung’s fan club].
Jessica Jung: The Golden Stars was named after my followers. I could be feeling down, but when I look out into the darkness and see twinkling lights held up by the fans, they are like beautiful stars that are shining for me and me for them.
Of all the places in the world, she’s found the greatest comfort on stage in front of thousands. All the training, concerts, commercials and media appearances would have taken their toll at some point. In an official statement by Coridel Entertainment, the talent company she joined after leaving SM Entertainment, it reads: Last month, we ran a poll amongst fans to select Jessica’s official fan club name. The resulting winner is Golden Stars, a tribute to Jessica’s fans who shine for her during the dark times…
Images of broken light, which dance before me like a million eyes
They call me on and on across the universe...
The song from The Beatles’ “Across The Universe” plays in my head from the memory bank of a mouldy cassette tape whenever I hear about the Golden Stars. The nerve of moments like these: too poetic, too pronounced but idealistically relevant. However, Jung isn’t talking to me when she’s talking about her followers. I am but a physical manifestation of a question that leads to a storied time. She sees right through me, towards a celestial concept that comforts. For anyone with a global following that could fill a country, the relationship between a figure like Jung and her Golden Stars is an alchemical one. Without one, there wouldn’t be the other.
Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letterbox
They tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe…
Back in Singapore, months after meeting Jung, I invite five of her most ardent followers for coffee to understand more about their devotion. “She said that when feels sad, she would look out into the darkness and see all the twinkling lights held up by her fans, like golden stars, and she would feel better,” I quote Jung on how the name of her fan club came to be. One of them, the most vocal of the group, with lips pursed, is holding back tears. The rest nod their heads in silent agreement painted with pride of a concept that they hold dearly—that Jung loves them as much as they do her. A soft collective muttering, whispered prayers for Jung, follow after.
Limitless undying love, which shines around me like a million suns
It calls me on and on across the universe…
The followers that I met in Singapore sing praises of the times when Jung will indulge them at airports, at fan meets and from a V app live performance— where she bought bags of fast food for followers who stayed past midnight with her.
Her visibility isn’t waning, and perhaps that continues to be the catalyst that keeps the forums and the comment sections abuzz for those who are with or against her. It has been two years since she left Girls’ Generation, but the torches from warring camps, of predominantly young girls, continues to burn.
Esquire: Now that you’re on own, what would you really like to do for your solo career?
Jessica Jung: My fans are important. They are the reason why I do what I do in the first place.
Esquire: But what would you like to do?
It’s an important question because Jung doesn’t have eight colleagues from her former group to turn to and a conglomerate to manage her career. Now, she has herself and rumoured fiancé Tyler Kwon, the founder of her current artist agency, Coridel Entertainment. This is a path that is tantamount to restarting a career. Her answer?
Jessica Jung: We'll see.
In the vein of successful “idols” who have left K-pop groups to embark on solo careers—Jay Park of 2PM, Kim Hyun-a of Wonder Girls and, most recently, Gong Min-ji of 2NE1—not everyone, as when they were trainees, will have a chance to further their career.
Jung trained for seven-plus years under SM Entertainment and performed for another seven-plus more with Girls’ Generation. It has been a long journey, one that was lit by the values of hardwork and heartache. But these 15-odd years will only be the making of how the true Jung will come to form.
Jai guru deva om
Nothing’s gonna change my world…
THE END OF A GENERATION
The initial announcement of Jessica Jung’s exit from Girls’ Generation (SNSD) sent shockwaves around the world. Videos of young fans crying, screaming and seething with anger were posted online. The rumour mill went into overdrive and blame was apportioned to everyone from SM Entertainment to the group and Jung herself. What followed was a plethora of statements released by SM and Jung in the span of a year (as appended here.)
September 29, 2014
Jessica Jung’s post on Weibo on claims that she was asked to leave Girls’ Generation.
September 29, 2014
Jessica Jung’s second post on Weibo.
September 30, 2014
SM Entertainment releases an official statement on Jung’s Weibo post.
October 1, 2014
Jessica Jung releases a statement to clarify her position in the dispute.
August 6, 2015
SM Entertainment releases a statement on Jung’s departure.
August 6, 2015
Jessica Jung releases a statement on her departure.
TOWARDS THE GOLDEN SKY
In pockets of Korean society, typically for elders, the idolisation of a higher being continues to be prevalent. One of these goddesses is Chach’ongbi who is seen as a figure of independence, love and courage by the people from the Korean province of Jeju. Legend has it that Chach’ongbi was born under difficult circumstances. After making offerings and praying for 100 straight days, her ageing mother gave birth to her. She was so beautiful that it was said that she had the sun on her forehead, the moon on the back of her head, and stars on both of her shoulders.
The goddess went on to face a slew of challenging tasks while trying to gain higher education and to marry the son of the Emperor of Heaven. After quelling a riot between Gods in the Garden of Heaven, she was gifted with five grains and returned to Earth. Every New Year, till this day, the farmers from Jeju province sing to Chach’ongbi to bless their next harvest. In the introduction to the book An Illustrated Guide to Korean Mythology, author Choi Won-oh considers myths as short stories told through generations. “In one way or another,” he posits, “life tends to influence the myths we create.”
Jessica Jung’s destiny is a selffulfilling prophecy carved out by her own desires and informed by the millions who idolise her. Her fans respect her approach—one of independence, love and courage that have gotten her in trouble with the Gods of Korea’s entertainment industry. It’s a modernday love story—too real to be mythical but too fantastical to grasp. It has been two years since Jung embarked on a solo career. Between May and June this year, her mini-album, With Love, J, peaked at number one on Korea’s Gaon Chart and number four on the Billboard World Album chart.
Esquire: Did you know that Tiffany [Hwang, a member of Girls’ Generation] released a mini-album in the same week that you did?
Throughout our conversation, Jung has been giving me the typical answers. She’s charming and her replies are matter-of-fact. I am expecting nothing less from an artist whose life is as private as her steely gaze. We are not running a 60 Minutes programme here. But for the first time in our conversation, Jung looks at me dead in the eyes, bares teeth for a good second and, in an instant, returns to her mannered posture and studied expression.
Jessica Jung: That’s great. I wish her all the best.
Hwang’s mini-album, I Just Wanna Dance, peaked at number three on the Gaon Chart a week before Jung’s hit number one. If comparisons are the weapons of choice between warring followers, much has been said about Jung and her former group mate, Kim Tae-yeon. Both are considered the only lead vocalists of Girls’ Generation and that Jung’s song parts have been difficult to replace. Jung waxes dry on her former group, preferring to be as diplomatic as possible. And why shouldn’t she be? Except that healing from a breakup is like removing a rusty nail from a fence. The mark will always be there, but enough has been said if Jung has her way.
Esquire: What has changed for you since?
Jessica Jung: A lot. Now I have this freedom, this time. It was really nice to be in a group. But here I am by myself and nothing is impossible.
I thank her for her time. She asks if I have more questions and mentions that the interview was easy. It is painless because, for Jung, the mark of a great woman isn’t from her words but her work and influence—a path that she willingly takes even if the odds are stacked against her. I peer out the window to see her exiting the building where she meets a wave of followers. They dash across the street and jump out of cars with a complete disregard for safety. A minder directs her to a parked SUV, a modern-day carriage on the main road, insisting that she gets in. She has her shades on, as the summer sunset gives Taipei its golden hue, and spends a minute to accommodate her followers. From her previously mannered posture and studied expression, she is now smiling and waving goodbye in all directions. One final bow and the Ice Princess is gone.
First published in Esquire Singapore's November 2016 issue.