K-pop idols
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HyunA and Dawn, who released their album, and single Ping Pong, in September. They are a rare example of a K-pop star couple making their romance public, and putting it at the centre of their musical careers. Photo: @hyunah_aa/Instagram

K-pop stars making affairs of the heart public isn’t career-ending any more – look at HyunA and Dawn releasing an album together

  • Bobby of iKon, Chen of Exo and Changmin of TVXQ said they were marrying, yet kept straight on in pop, unlike Sunye of Wonder Girls or Super Junior’s Sungmin
  • Still, lovers HyunA and Dawn putting out an album together is unusual. Fans get upset about a star’s affair because they take it personally, an expert says
K-pop idols
Tamar Hermanin United States

On September 9, K-pop lovers HyunA and Dawn released their first album collaboration, 1+1=1, fronted by the single Ping Pong.

The pair’s romance taking centre stage in their musical output underscores a shift in the South Korean entertainment industry that has seen some performers ignore the taboo that romantic relationships are career-ending.

The couple, who parted ways with their former label Cube Entertainment in 2018 after their romance became public knowledge, are among a handful of K-pop stars to have publicly declared their love and continued to work in the music industry.

The release of 1+1=1 came just a few weeks after Bobby, a member of K-pop boy band iKon, announced in August that he was getting married and would become a father in September. Since then, he’s remained active in the band, and recently appeared during a live-stream celebrating iKon’s sixth anniversary.

Other K-pop stars such as Chen of Exo and TVXQ’s Changmin have also got married yet remained active in their musical careers.

That K-pop stars can continue their careers after making public their relationships – even if few as yet have done so – shows the days when a romance could threaten a performer’s career are probably over.

For some, such as Sunye of Wonder Girls in 2013 and Soyul of Crayon Pop in 2016, getting married essentially ended their singing careers.

In 2001, the then 32-year-old Joon Park (born Park Joon-hyung) was nearly kicked out of the K-pop vocal group g.o.d for being caught in a relationship.

More recently, Sungmin (born Lee Sung-min) went on long-term hiatus from boy band Super Junior after getting married in 2014.
Bobby from iKon recently announced he was getting married and was about to become a father - and fans seem to have accepted it.
Exo’s Chen was able to continue his career despite getting married. Photo: SM Entertainment
Fans adjudged Changmin from TVXQ old enough to get married. Photo: @LoveTVXQ_/Twitter

For others, a relationship becoming public knowledge is less detrimental these days, such as when Jennie of superstar girl group Blackpink dated Exo’s Kai for a time.

Of the handful of stars who have made their relationships public in recent years – rather than hide them from the public, only for paparazzi to expose them – some have been supported by fans and the South Korean public, while others have faced a backlash that impacted their careers.

Gyu Tag Lee, a professor of cultural studies at George Mason University Korea, doesn’t believe these instances reflect a complete overhaul of industry norms or a cultural shift; each is judged on its merits.

When they … become successful, fans believe they should repay the loyalty they received from them. This ‘repayment’ includes not having any issues
Gyu Tag Lee, professor of cultural studies at George Mason University Korea

“Changmin from TVXQ now, he is ‘old enough’ to get married,” according to Lee. “Also, fans did know he had an official partner. However, Sungmin from Super Junior or Chen from Exo were considered not ‘old enough’ to get married.

“Also, fans showed their disappointment because they were not frank with them – their marriage announcements came all of a sudden, in some cases with their partners already pregnant, which made fans more angry and disappointed.”

The reason for this, Lee says, is that K-pop stars are specifically targeting a market bolstered by a parasocial relationship between artists and fans – meaning one in which the latter have the illusion they enjoy an intimate relationship with the objects of their fandom.

“Still it is very contradictory, as you can see,” says Lee. “It is related to the unique sentiment of K-pop fans who believe they support and even ‘raise’ their stars since they were not famous and needed help.

“So when they make their debut and become successful, fans believe they should repay the loyalty they received from them. This ‘repayment’ includes not having any issues – such as drug use, violence or love affairs – that fans can’t accept.”

Lee says how fans react to news of a star’s romance depends on three factors: the popularity of the star, their age or the longevity of their pop career, and how they and their partner are perceived.

HyunA and Dawn. While her career suffered less from disclosing their relationship, Dawn had to leave boy band Pentagon. Now they are making music together. Photo: @hyunah_aa/Instagram

“They can accept their stars’ relationships, for instance, when they get old enough, such as the mid-30s or older, when they become successful enough, when their partners have a great figure or an agreeable one.”

Based on these factors, a star’s career and support may be bolstered or harmed by revealing a relationship. HyunA, for instance, was a soloist with an artistic identity who had long enjoyed popularity, and so suffered less than Dawn, whose entire career was derailed – he had to leave boy band Pentagon after their relationship became public knowledge.

“I know it may not be clear, but that’s how K-pop fans feel and react towards these cases – they are not always consistent,” says Lee.

HyunA is a rarity, however; most female K-pop stars still keep their romances close to their chest when promoting their pop careers, or wait until later in their career when their fandom is already dedicated. And they don’t typically make their romance the basis of a single or album release.