Rising K-stars

South Korean singer-actor Seo In Guk performing in the TV reality singing contest show, Superstar K.

Korean pop music has long come under fire for manufacturing cookie-cutter teenybopper boy bands and leggy girl groups, who emerge on the scene after years of rigorous, systematic training that all but rules out individuality.

Well, the stars from Seoul are getting more real, and maybe even have more of a soul.

In recent years, a different breed of aspiring South Korean singers are eschewing the conventional route to stardom. They are the reality show contestants who have won the public vote.

The creme de la creme of TV contest shows such as Superstar K and K-Pop Star have successfully graduated from their contest days to become bona fide alumni of the Hallyu.

Seo In Guk is perhaps the top performer of this new K-pop cohort.

After flunking the auditions to get into entertainment agencies, he earned his entry pass into show business by becoming the first winner of the inaugural season of Superstar K (2009). He is now a recording artist and an actor taking on leading-man roles in dramas and movies.

His looks are "okay", says Ms Genevieve Lee, 24, an administrator assistant who rooted for him on Superstar K. "But his real edge lies in his voice."

Another reality show alumnus on the honour roll is the pint-size singer Lee Hi with a deep soulful voice, who snagged the runner-up spot on the first season of K-Pop Star (2011).

She is now signed to YG Entertainment, one of the big three agencies in South Korea, and has released chart-topping hits and won various awards.

K-pop fan Lyrenna Loh, a 19-year-old student, says: "Lee Hi is quite real as a character. She's not your typical female K-pop idol who is tall and slim. She has real talent."

Unlike the long-drawn coaching at entertainment agencies that wannabes undergo without guarantee of making a debut at all, "these TV talent reality shows provide aspiring singers with a fairer and faster opportunity to make their debuts", says Mr Yoon Jaewoong, press and culture counsellor at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Singapore.

Superstar K had, in fact, set in motion a change in the Korean entertainment scene.

Mr Michael Jung, head of channel M, Fox International Channels, says its ratings success for cable channel Mnet kickstarted "the boom of audition or talent reality shows" in the Korean entertainment industry.

Professor Shim Doobo, from the department of media communications at Sungshin Women's University in Seoul, adds: "Before Superstar K, a cable channel programme which reached the 1 per cent-rating mark was considered a success.

"The final episode of the Superstar K Season 2 in 2010 achieved 19 per cent. Shocked by this, the terrestrial broadcasting companies launched shows with the same idea."

For instance, Seoul Broadcasting System's (SBS) produced the first season of K-Pop Star (2011). The third season is now airing in Singapore on cable television channel One (StarHub TV Channels 124, 820 and 823; and SingTel mio TV Channels 513 and 604).

The bumper crop of contestants from a number of audition shows on the airwaves has diversified K-pop offerings.

Mr Jung says: "Talents such as indie band Busker Busker, the runner-up for Superstar K3, are given a chance to be made known to the world and to build up a fan base."

One such listener who was sold on Busker Busker's music alone is Ms Natalie Long, who

heard the band's carefree tune If You Really Love Me while shopping on a holiday trip in Seoul two years ago.

Ms Long, 28, a media relations executive, says: "I wanted to know who sang the song. I hummed the tune to a Korean friend, who then told me it was a song from Busker Busker. Their songs are delivered simply and feel sincere.

"They don't have to be packaged like idols. That's why I think they are different because it's the voice and music that count. Their first album was on my play list for a very long time."

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