K-pop, Mandopop and other Asian pop

Irene from Red Velvet: the first feminist icon in K-pop?

The lead singer of Red Velvet has performed for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and her band is hugely successful, but it is being a role model for young women that matters the most to her

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 June, 2018, 8:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 June, 2018, 8:33pm

The band’s members and their music are cheerful and vibrant, but Red Velvet are more complex than the average K-pop outfit. With a sound best described as pop-infused hip hop, Red Velvet are also unafraid to dabble in the darker side of the K-pop sound.

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One of their most popular music videos, Peek-A-Boo, shows the members at a gothic mansion hunting a man around with a crossbow, while Russian Roulette shows the girls living in a pastel-coloured world as they sing about competitiveness between women.

In the past few months, Irene, the group’s leader and main vocalist, has been under the spotlight, and not just because she stood beside North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in a photo taken during April’s historic K-pop concert in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang – she is also a reader of feminist literature.

In March, when Irene told her followers that she was reading Kim Ji Young, Born 1982 – a feminist book which addresses the patriarchal nature of South Korean society – many male fans were angered. Despite some backlash against her perceived feminism, Irene stood her ground and ignored the controversy.

With South Korea coming to terms with its own #MeToo movement and young people becoming increasingly aware of the need for gender equality, here’s more about Irene, possibly K-pop’s first feminist icon.

Early life

Irene, born Bae Ju-hyun, is a native of Daegu, South Korea’s third-largest city after Seoul and Busan. She grew up speaking the local Daegu dialect, which is quite different from the standard Seoul dialect, and spent much of her time as a trainee trying to master her Seoul accent.

Inspired by BoA, arguably South Korea’s first international female K-pop star, Irene first auditioned to become a trainee in the K-pop system in 2009. After training for five years, Irene made her debut with Red Velvet in 2014.

Her role in Red Velvet

Irene is the leader and main vocalist in Red Velvet, as well as a rapper, and she has said she feels close to all her bandmates. While she is often teased by the other members, as the oldest member of the group, she is also something of an elder sister to them.

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“Instead of giving them advice or saying general things like ‘Cheer up’ or ‘Everything’s going to be OK’, I try to listen carefully, sympathise, and share what I have been through in the past,” she said during an interview with Dazed magazine.

Her image

While Irene hasn’t commented on her choice of literature since the controversy over Kim Ji Young, Born 1982, she has acknowledged the influence she wields over Red Velvet’s sizeable female fan base.

“I try to be careful with what I’m saying or doing as the fans are watching and following us. But I think this pressure is good since it actually guides me to develop better,” she said of her image as a role model for young women during the interview with Dazed.

Her solo work

In May, Red Velvet’s parent company, SM Entertainment, released a VR app that takes fans on a date with Irene. Entitled Star Date #Irene, the Android game allows players to walk the streets and even watch fireworks with their idol.

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Irene also appeared as herself in an episode of the hit 2016 drama Descendants of The Sun, and played a lead role in web series Women at a Game Company. She is a spokeswoman for brands including Maxwell House coffee, and contact lens maker Cooper Vision.

In her words

“I’m into myself. It’s been fun to see how I change. A person can’t stay the same forever. I’ve seen myself become closer and closer to what I wrote about myself in my [diary], and although I liked myself before, I like myself even more now,” Irene said when asked what she was into by South Korea’s High Cut magazine.

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“I still think there is more to learn and much to improve upon, as it hasn’t been long since we made out debut. I still feel dazed and thankful for the love and support we have received,” she said in a 2016 interview with Dazed magazine.