[Trigger warning: Depression.]

[UPDATED 10/4/12: Before commenting or sharing, please read the note at the bottom of this post.]

I’ve noticed that Onew has become a perpetual favorite for fans to observe from a distance, metaphorically picking his brain with whatever fancam-derived evidence that they can find. He’s an interesting guy, but to an extent I think that this behavior can be a little bit misguided. After all, it’s not as if we actually know these people — like really know them, to the point where we can interpret their every offscreen action and guess their every thought. Of course, this is somewhat acceptable purely on a fandom-based level (otherwise fanfiction would suck immensely), but it’s dangerous for us as fans to impress our own hypotheses on a person’s character and relationships and convince ourselves that these hypotheses hold true in reality.

I find Onew interesting, but I run heavily on the side of caution when it comes to watching him and trying to figure him out because, well, there’s a good chance that I’m wrong and I have no right to tell a person who think they actually are. Nevertheless it’s tempting, because trying to figure out how a person works from a distance is fun. There’s lots to analyze and lots to think about.

But sometimes you see something and your mind just goes blank.

I don’t usually make a habit of getting emotional over K-pop, but I could feel my heart twisting as I watched this. K-pop idols cry on stage all the damn time, to the point where public emotional displays by idols have become trivialized if not fetishized, but never like this. You don’t cry like that when you’re sad, or when you’re happy, or when you’re particularly moved by something. You cry like that when you’re exhausted to the point when you can feel the life draining out of you and it hurts.

I think I’d be significantly less worried if Onew were the type to be open about his feelings and acknowledge his weaknesses despite the risk of being labeled as “emo” or “weak.” It’s not to say that idols who talk about their depression openly are any better off than those who don’t, but there’s a big difference between those who acknowledge and accept their depression and those who suppress it. It’s a difference that could mean life or death.

Now more than ever, K-pop depends heavily on personal relatability between idol and fan. Idols are encouraged to express their “real emotions” (though never opinions!) on variety shows, and instances of idols crying on music shows become hot news articles within hours. We pay for idols to make themselves human to us; we want to hear about their struggles and we want to see their tears, if only so we can express close, personal empathy for those with whom we have no real personal connection. But as far as reality is concerned, it can make us uncomfortable.

There are times when Leeteuk really rubs me the wrong way as a person, but I cringe every time someone knocks on him for being “emo” or self-absorbed when he talks about his own problems on television. Leeteuk’s revealed enough of himself publicly to make it painfully obvious that he has issues, and it’s almost cruel for us to say that he’s doing it solely for the attention. If anything, it says a lot about how the public really thinks of celebrities: if they choose to reveal any imperfection, any sliver of humanity, anything that paints them as less than perfect, they are not being genuine about it. If they were really being genuine about it, they would be so ashamed of it as to not let anyone see it. Pity is the currency of cheap fame.

In many ways, Onew is not even allowed to be open about his depression. For one, it’s not expected of his quirky, silly on-stage persona, nor of his characteristically “angelic” voice. It’s not expected of him as the leader of SHINee, a group that is old enough to own the stage but not old enough to show any signs of fragility or weakness. It’s not expected of him as the oldest hyung in his group, the emotional cornerstone of four other boys that are only younger than him by mere months. It’s not expected of him, the student who graduated second at the top of his class, with no personal tragedies or difficult family situations to complain about. Even if Onew did have depression, it is not the kind that presents itself as a battle wound from a difficult life. Rather, Onew’s depression would not be called depression. It would be called “being chronically sad for no reason,” and as a leader and a person with many responsibilities, he cannot openly admit to being chronically sad for no reason because that is the worst kind of publicity stunt you could ever pull.

So you hold it in until you burst.

While many choose to be private about their depression, few recognize that “going public” with one’s depression is a way of coping. Leeteuk does this. I do this — not because I want people to feel bad for me, but because saying it out loud is the only way I can keep myself from thinking that my illness doesn’t really exist and that the only reason why I am depressed is because I brought it upon myself and I deserve it. I am public with my depression because it’s my only way of acknowledging a big part of myself, which then gives me the means and the willpower to get better. I, like many others, need to be vocal about how I feel in order to prevent myself from falling back into the pit of numbness and non-existence — a hole that I’m constantly trying to cover up, trying not to let the dirt escape from my fists.

As I watched Onew, my heart hurt so much because I knew, firsthand, the kind of exhaustion that was pouring down his face. At the same time, I felt so guilty that I have the privilege of speaking up freely about my depression while Onew probably can’t even acknowledge his depression privately to himself, for fear that merely acknowledging the existence of weakness would give way to a greater, unforgivable downfall. K-pop idoldom is no stranger to depression and mental illness — the array of celebrity suicides in South Korea within the last decade should have been reason enough to start asking questions. Indeed, there have been numerous academic studies on civilian suicides in Korea, but it seems as if tragedies wrought by celebrity deaths are good for nothing more than a news article and maybe some short-lived political action — and these are only seen in the cases of well-respected, nationally-adored actors and actresses. Idols, on the other hand, don’t even have that — they don’t have enough respect outside of their fanbases for anyone to care about them, their working environment is inhuman, and hate to say it, but their fans are practically useless to them in that many of them contribute to the mental trauma of these idols, and if oppa is crying it’s only because he loves his fans so much.

Which puts me in a difficult position because, as much as I like and care about Onew, semantically speaking I am nothing more than his fan. I can’t help him in any way that could be considered meaningful. I can’t even claim to understand what he’s going through because I do not know him. Even as I see him suffering in a way that rings so painfully familiar to me, I do not know him. Idols depend heavily on the fans for their own happiness and personal validation; it’s the only thing they can stand to take when the industry demands that they give and give. But the fans are helpless, useless, powerless to the path of destruction that these idols are walking on. It’s almost as if we need to wait for [another] tragedy in order to even have the slightest hope that change will finally happen.

진기씨, 피곤하더라도 자학하지 마세요. 혼자가 아닙니다.


NOTE (10/4/12): I’m aware that this post has been floating around the K-poposphere lately. Firstly, thanks for your interest and for reading; I had no idea that this post would reach so many people. I’m glad to see that there’s been some great discussion going on in the comments section, but in light of recent events, I also feel the need to ask for some discretion when sharing or commenting on this post.

I originally wrote this post as a piece of K-pop commentary, but there are elements of this post that are highly personal. While the idea that sparked this piece was the video embedded at the top of the post, the reason why I felt the need to write it is stemmed in my own personal experiences and struggles. This post is every bit as much about me as it is about Onew.

I write about K-pop often, and my posts on K-pop are almost always up for discussion and criticism. But with this post (as with any other post on this blog that has been filed under the tag “heart to heart”), please use your discretion when commenting or sharing. Please also understand that depression continues to be a very real and very difficult struggle in my life, and while I have chosen to make it public by posting about it on my blog, I ask for your respect and sensitivity, human being to human being. Moving forward, I will be screening comments on this post and will remove any insensitive or triggering comments at my discretion.

Again, thank you for your interest, and I hope some of y’all continue to stick around :)


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  • jazmin

    I like Shinee, but I’m not a big enough fan to have seen them outside of their performances and “Hello Baby,” but why do you think he’s depressed? I took the video when I first saw it to be a typical outpouring of emotion at the end of a concert, but looking at it again, the way he clings to the stand does seem to indicate exhaustion at the very least.

    But this does not necessarily add up to depression, as you mentioned yourself. So outside of this video, is there any other indications of depression?

    And I think there is something you, I, and all fans of SM artists can do. And that is to picket the company, boycott or do whatever necessary to get SM to allow their groups more input on their schedules and determine regular vacations. They have that already to some extent apparently, (indeed it seems CCM is even worst then SM in lack of vacations), but I think fans need to make a conscious and concerted effort to bring such items to the attention of the media.

    I’m a fan of Big Bang, and while I think they overwork occasionally, it seems like it is mostly due to their own desires, not the company’s. YG seems to really care about his groups and have a personal interest in them and that helps. Probably because of their variety show, radio show appearances are infrequent, they seem to have enough downtime even in the midst of their concert tour to pick up new hobbies (aka skateboarding, wakeboarding GD & Taeyang).

    SM and other companies seriously needs to follow YG’s lead in this area.

    • I don’t think it’s a matter of playing psychiatrist and saying that Onew is definitely depressed as much as it is a matter of knowing that if Onew was indeed depressed, there would be precious little that he could actually do about it. In an environment that’s as stress-inducing as K-pop, there’s a big chance that a good chunk of celebs involved in the business are suffering from emotional and mental illnesses like depression. But even though virtually everyone acknowledges that the idol lifestyle can have damaging effects towards the idols’ psyches, it’s almost as if the industry itself works against allowing these idols to get help if they need it.

      It’s difficult to pick out specific instances where Onew’s shown “depressive” symptoms, because depression as a whole is difficult to spot as an outsider. On top of that, the PR-friendly facades that idols have to keep up make things all the more difficult to gauge. The reason why I think Onew might be depressed is built upon a combination of his circumstances and personality. For one, he’s not a particularly confident guy to begin with; you can see this in the way he speaks, the way he carries himself in public, and, to some extent, the way he performs on stage — which is arguably Onew at his strongest. His brand of humor is rather self-deprecating, to the point where it’s excessive. He always seems to play second fiddle to virtually every other member in SHINee, and while he doesn’t seem to really mind, I can’t imagine that there’s a single idol who would go through years of training, only to have the spotlight repeatedly stolen by his fellow group mates (unintentionally or otherwise).

      Most importantly, Onew doesn’t have an adequate support system within SHINee — not just as a person with depression, but as a human being. SHINee did an interview a while back where everyone basically said that Onew’s the go-to guy whenever the rest of the SHINee members have personal issues. Onew is the leader, he’s the oldest hyung, and he’s in a position where his job practically demands that he constantly put himself aside for the sake of others. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing and it’s something that should be expected from a leader of a group, but Onew doesn’t boast the same kind of confidence and solidity that most other group leaders have (e.g. Leeteuk, Yunho, G-Dragon, etc). Onew’s closest friends are outside of the entertainment industry, and while that’s a good thing, his friends aren’t going to understand the amount of pressure and stress that Onew has to go through on a daily basis. The people he needs to be closest with are the people he spends the most time with, the people who see firsthand what he’s going through, the people who live with him for chrissakes. Those people are the members of SHINee. But the relationships between the members aren’t tight enough to be an adequate enough support system — for any of the members, but particularly for Onew, who bears the most pressure and responsibility and has the least amount of people to turn to.

      I’m not talking about these rumors where people are saying that Onew is being “bullied” — I’m talking about the fact that this group doesn’t seem to know that sometimes you need to be a hyung to the hyung. The fact that SHINee refers to each other as mere colleagues doesn’t help. Some people say that the whole “brotherhood” thing that K-pop groups constantly push is nothing more than a publicity stunt, but you need that constant sense of fraternity in order to survive in this industry. Groups like Shinhwa are a testament to that. SHINee doesn’t have that sense of fraternity, and while the other members are visibly stronger and more confident, Onew just isn’t.

      The combination of these circumstances almost make it unsurprising that Onew would be having a difficult time, even if he doesn’t actually have depression. But things like him crying on stage like that as well as his “just give up” tweet (and other, more ambiguous things like his facial expressions and interactions with other people off camera) should serve as red flags. The reason why I say outright that Onew has depression is because the whole idea of “depression” has become so arbitrary, especially in a place like Asia where mental illnesses don’t actually “exist” in the minds of many people. Some fans have speculated that Onew might be “depressed,” but the fact that most of the discussions of Onew’s “depression” online that I’ve seen take the form of fanfictions than actual legitimate concern makes me so mad. Furthermore, I think it’s pretty selfish of fans to think that whenever an idol cries, it’s only because he’s moved by the “support” given by the fans. This mentality in itself turns idols’ emotions into a commodity for fans to chase after and to claim as their own, turning the idols’ feelings into something trivial.

      SM isn’t at fault for this; the entire structure of the entertainment industry is. While I appreciate YG for being more visibly “chill” than other entertainment companies who don’t keep it a secret that they work their idols to the bone, it doesn’t make them exempt from the general unhealthiness of the idol environment. They’re still subject to sasaeng fans, to unreasonable critics, to underhand industry tactics, to coping with the fact that the people who fight for the position of being their “closest friends” — their fans — don’t actually know them at all. The reason why K-pop is so dangerous on a mental health level is because the most genuine, vulnerable thing that an idol possesses — his emotions and feelings — has become something that can be marketed.

      Onew looked so broken in that video that people ought to doubt that his tears were just “for the fans.” Even if Onew isn’t actually depressed, there’s something clearly wrong there and it cannot be overlooked or appropriated solely for the emotional satisfaction of the fans.

      • jazmin

        Ah, I see what you’re saying. A number of idols like Leeteuk, Daesung, Joon from MBLAQ have come forward and been pretty honest about their depression, I think it would Onew as well, if he is indeed depressed. It’s too bad he isn’t that close to his teammates, as they can definitely be means of support for him.

        I wish I knew a little more about the context of the video, what was going on before or afterwards. And as for the “just give up” tweet, I never heard about that either. As I said before, I’m not a big enough fan to hang onto Shinee’s every movement.

        I think you’re right about the kpop industry being an unhealthy environment in general, I think most jobs where you can get lots of fame, wealth and the emphasis on looks, youth would be unhealthy environments. The adulation and worship of idols, movie stars, basketball players, etc. is something that in my view should be only directed at God, otherwise as the saying go, absolute power corrupts…. Very few people can live as decent human beings in the face of such extreme adulation.

  • A+ post. As a fan of SHINee, I’m really heartbroken of what the boys have gone through, and those are the moments that I realize the most that I’m powerless. I can’t help them, I can only watch them through youtube videos.
    I think at the end of the day, as a SHINee fan, I can only hope that they will become happy later on in life, after they retire, and hopefully they will look back on SHINee as a good moment in their life.

    One last thing, I have to admit I always thought Onew (and Minho) was a strong one due to his position as leader, but at times I forget that the one that is the strongest may be the one that is suffering the most.

    • ttokkity1314

      Love ur wordi trust onew n he is not weak person if he was surely he wont go this far. For me I dont noe this article true or not but as fans I could only pray n support our boys if onew decide to stand up so what we need is support him so all his evort wont waste d only person can help him is him self so can we not talk about uncertain stuff so it wont make unwanted rumor about him it hurt badly so

  • elaeye

    Oh Onew…it’s heartbreaking to see him like this. I remember first getting into SHINee and he was the last one I really ‘noticed’ and it definitely is because he’s just not a very ‘loud’ person, for all he’s cheerful on variety shows – just understated and even introverted in that I doubt he will ever voice the things that are bothering him to his fans, members or even to himself.

    You’re right in saying SHINee appears to relatively lack the closeness of certain groups and I chalk that down to there being such a huge gap between each of their personalities leading to not so much conflict as a sort of ‘I like you but I don’t quite understand you’ kind of relationship between certain members. And, like you said in the entry and in your comment to Jazmin below, Onew being distinctly different from the typical ‘leader’ mould doesn’t help because he doesn’t seem like the type to really be authoritative but instead quietly takes everything on and suffers whatever he suffers in silence.

    The idol industry continues to appall and shock me with how little support and consideration is given for the human side of things. When you think about it, here are young adults running consistently on less than five hours of sleep, minimal nourishment, given no time off from their lifestyle and members and constantly being stalked and scrutinised by fans wherever they travel in the world. And that’s the idols – the face and the money makers. I shudder to think how many overworked managers and staff there are behind the scenes.

    I wish the fandom – as a whole – could see that what so many idols (especially ‘well-established’ – so to speak – idols like SHINee) really need at this point isn’t in-your-face proclamations of love and screaming adoration, but respectful and caring distance, ESPECIALLY during their ‘time off’ periods (like touching down at an airport…and being able to leave their hotels when overseas unharrassed). It’s too much to hope the fans will unite and demand better working conditions for their idols at this point, which depresses me so much because I don’t see that changing on their own accord or, heaven forbid, requiring something drastic and tragic to happen.

    Ugh. There are no easy answers and you’re right in saying that we, as fans, are ultimately powerless as long as the industry continues to prioritise profit (which it will) and the fans continue to love without thinking about the person behind the idol as they are wont to do with K-Pop ):

    • Agree with everything. Dude, why do we even still do this K-pop thing? ;A;

      • l ae

        (replying with my gmail account – this is still elaeye)

        I don’t know ;__; Maybe it’s sort of like standing on the shore of a wide lake, watching someone struggle to stay afloat in the middle, the companies telling you to throw money in the lake so they can stay up for longer, but you increasingly realise the lake is actually a bottomless pit. We can’t just leave them once we’ve stopped and realised it’s a /person/ in there…but we stand on the shore helpless all the same. One would wonder whether you should just cut your losses and extricate yourself emotionally from the scene…but that’s where the companies hook you.

        LMAO sorry that was a weird, depressing metaphor =_=

  • I’m not sure about their group dynamic but although they might not be as close as Shinhwa and still believe they are pretty close. I can/do believe that Onew is least likely to open up because of his personality and his age. Also is it just me or do I feel that Minho might be the one that takes care of his members the most. I know that most people probably see him as the most “jock” member due to being overly competitive but I also feel as though he’s quite detail orientated especially toward his members and how in some sense he is definitely one of the more serious members in terms of wanting to be by others side when they need it.

  • Sarah

    On the off-chance anyone finds this article like I did, aka very late, and is curious; the fact that back in ’09, Leeteuk listed him as a member of the “milk club” is another hint that Onew dealt/is dealing with some personal issues. The milk club was a group of people (Teuk lists himself, Yoona, Taeyeon, Yoochun, and Onew) prone to depression that got together to talk and support each other. http://www.dbsknights.net/2009/07/trans-leeteuks-cyworld-entry.html

    • Sarah

      ETA: The last sentence is probably inaccurate. Just ignore, please.:)

      • It’s interesting that most of the people you listed are leaders of a group….

  • B

    Reading this makes me want to cry because it brings back all the feelings I’ve felt throughout the years. Just watching that video hurt because, like you, I’ve been there and it’s a place so dark I’ve been doing all I can to make sure I never go back.
    Your post also brings to light that other side to K-Pop (the side I usually try to ignore because, well, I guess I’m still a bit immature). We, as fans, do not know the idols we claim to love. We know what they let us and that’s about it. Being a fan of these groups is fun and honestly, it was an escape for me. I guess I don’t like admitting that everything we see, hear, etc. is more than likely a perfectly crafted persona designed to appease the fans and line the pockets of their companies. Idols are human; they’re just not allowed to show it to us.
    I can’t claim to love Onew, but I like him as a performer (and on some level a regular person, but I can’t really claim that since I don’t know him…) and it’s frightening to see someone just so exhausted and empty.

    I guess I don’t really know what to say other than thank you for posting this. You’ve really helped remind me that what I see more than likely isn’t real and I need to keep that in mind.

  • eejin

    tbh I think your overreacting a little… did you miss the way Onew sorta smiled (twice) during that perf and while he was crying a little.

    I believe from watching that video he’s simply crying because he’s overwhelmed with emotion and touched by the fans and probably the fact that they are performing in their own country. Also, all of SHINee cried at this point in time – Jonghyun, Kibum, Minho, and Taemin all cried. Did they all cry for depression too or exhaustion too?

    I’m not saying Onew doesn’t suffer from depression (he may,) but who are we (fans, etc) to really know? Like you said – we don’t know him and thus it is wrong to try and figure him out. But for his tears, I don’t see anything you describe at all, I see Onew as completely overcome with emotion (happiness, sadness the concert is almost over) and that’s it.

    And likewise you don’t actually know he’s suffering the same way you do – that is just you analyzing him. So, remember you could be completely wrong and try not to worry so much.

  • I wouldn’t immediately call this depression as in clinical depression. I would certainly say exhaustion and all of the emotions that brings. Kpop is a business, but the idols are worked beyond the point most of us would tolerate from a job. It isn’t smart to work your asset into the ground as you are not able to make a profit.
    I don’t know what prompted Lee Jinki’s breakdown during this song. He looked worn out as well as emotional. If it is true what concerned me recently was his comment on Radio Star. Perhaps it was a commentary on the business he is in and how hard it is to have a relationship. Perhaps it was just for the shock value; to make a headline either by his own volition or prompting from staff. Even the talk shows are scripted we know. But to accept cheating three times indicates a lack of self worth and self love. To accept and forgive once is commendable if you are able to work to get back the trust and to move the relationship forward and hopefully stronger. But three times is just sad.