When Jihyo gets home after completing yet another grueling day of being Jihyo — international pop superstar and main vocalist of South Korea’s best-selling girl group, TWICE — she changes into her coziest pajamas, ties her hair up, slips on her wire-frame, blue-light-protection glasses, and delves into the world of League of Legends. In the game, players join an ensemble of misfit “champions” who battle to dominate a map.
But that’s after this interview. Jihyo still has 45 minutes left today to be Jihyo, the leader of an ensemble of gorgeous idols singing and dancing in hopes of conquering the world. We’re inside a windowless photo studio on a tranquil, residential hill in Seoul’s fastest-paced neighborhood, Gangnam. Around us, the windows of plastic surgeons’ offices and home-decor stores glitter into the evening. In the process of un-becoming Jihyo, the idol is peeling off her custom crystallized Unistella stick-on nails one by one and stacking them like tiny pancakes. Just 15 minutes ago, those nails coordinated with lilac, geode-like lids and a printed seafoam organza high-low blouse that Jihyo swirled in like she was filming the promo for flamenco night on a Korean version of Dancing With the Stars.
The moment she entered the public eye, Jihyo became the inter- net’s focal point, her life constantly being picked apart: her word choices, weight, facial expressions, relationships. She is probably aware I’m doing it to her right now. Soon she’ll be in her happy place: at home with League of Legends. Online gaming lets the 23-year-old return to anonymity, even if it’s only for a few moments a week. “I’m always tense and cautious about how people see me. But when I’m playing online games, I can feel the truest to myself,” she says through an interpreter, sinking back into her chair and clasping her hands. “Nobody can judge me through [the screen]. That’s why I feel most comfortable.”
She hasn’t been herself for years. TWICE debuted in October 2015, after an arduous five-month competition process brought together nine girls from South Korea, Japan, and Tainan for all to see on a reality show called Sixteen. Nayeon, Jeongyeon, Momo, Sana, Jihyo, Mina, Dahyun, Chaeyoung, and Tzuyu beat out seven other trainees to be in the group. All were from JYP Entertainment (JYP), one of Korea’s most prominent entertainment companies, and took part in intense practice days for performances judged by the JYP of JYP, Park Jin Young, the company’s founder (and an idol himself). Trainees, for those unfamiliar, are adolescents signed to a company in hopes of one day being picked for a K-pop group or solo debut. While they wait to be chosen, they sharpen their pop-star skills every day after school. Jihyo, of all the Sixteen contestants (and most other women in K-pop), had been in the trainee system the longest.
TWICE’s songs, which lease a spot in your brain as soon as you hear them, instantly started breaking global records not only in Korea but also on YouTube. Just after its first anniversary, TWICE racked up best new artist awards and South Korean President Moon Jae In used their song “Cheer Up” as his presidential campaign jingle. In 2018, TWICE won song of the year — for the third year in a row — at the Mnet Asian Music Awards. (The group that ended that streak: BTS, who, even if you’ve never heard of K-pop, you surely have heard of.)
“Because I started so young, I felt like this [was] the only thing I could do.”
It is not an overstatement to say that the girls are everywhere: onstage, on their new YouTube Originals series covering backstage, alongside tens of thousands of fan-made videos, and right there on the window of Lotte Duty Free, a major department store outside of my hotel in Seoul. The next day, I went to the Sephoraesque Chicor, and there were the girls again, soft-smiling back at me behind the display for an Estée Lauder cushion compact. (They’re ambassadors for the brand in Korea.) This wasn’t one of those situations when you finally meet someone you’ve lived down the street from for six years and suddenly start seeing them everywhere. I might have been attuned to TWICE, but the members’ faces are unavoidable around South Korea’s capital.
No matter where you encounter them, Jihyo, as the leader, is always the nucleus of the group, with Nayeon, Jeongyeon, Sana, Momo, Mina, Tzuyu, Dahyun, and Chaeyoung by her side. Born Park Ji Soo in Guri, a city half an hour’s drive from Seoul, Jihyo had never taken singing or dance lessons before she became a trainee at eight years old (she was scouted by JYP after placing in a child-actor competition). Instead, she spent her pre-fame years hiking up Achasan, a nearby mountain, with her fitness-focused parents.
Approximately 99 percent of what Jihyo tells me is emphatically in Korean. The remaining 1 percent is a bashfully whispered “sorry” after revealing she was genetically blessed with clear, luminous skin and didn’t experience breakouts grow- ing up. Maybe the purpling freckles under my foundation gave me away, but it’s like Jihyo knew I had been given about 300 shallow injections of vitamins, Botox, and hyaluronic acid in my face by a dermatologist in Gangnam four days earlier — an attempt to achieve a porelessness I didn’t inherit from my parents.
“Because I started [performing] at a very young age, I felt like this is the only thing I could do,” Jihyo says. This doesn’t come out as existentially loaded as it may seem.
If Jihyo is tired after a long day of shooting, I can’t tell. Her voice is consistently lined with the same animated, melodic bubbliness of a TWICE song. She sounds just as bouncy when she nonchalantly discloses that she’s been on a strict diet for most of her life: “I almost starved myself.”
Jihyo notices my eyes widen at least two centimeters and quickly clarifies: “I didn’t really starve myself, [but] I had a hard time staying at a certain weight.” On Sixteen, the show that chronicled TWICE’s training process, Jihyo was repeatedly called out on her weight. These days, she doesn’t feel compelled to fit an unrealistic body image. “I’m happy making money to buy delicious food and eat it with my friends,” she says. “I don’t think I have to look skinny.”
When Jihyo was named leader of TWICE after an anonymous vote by the other members — a position that comes with about as much responsibility as being the president of a small country — she took on new duties. Eight of them. In K-pop, holding such a position doesn’t necessarily mean you’re given the most lines or constantly put in the center of choreography.
Instead, you act as the group’s spokesperson and chief decision-maker. Jihyo conducts votes on what meals the girls will have, parts of their choreography, and living arrangements. (They’ve roomed together for years.) She gathers everyone’s opinions and gives JYP staff the majority vote. “Since we’ve been together for five years, it takes less time to gather one opinion,” Jihyo explains.
Her charges include Mina, the Texas-born, Japan-raised group member. Her voice lilts like a Disney princess’s, but she’s far from timid with her words. There’s Tzuyu, the youngest, who was added to the group by popular demand. There’s Jeongyeon, who would go onstage bare-faced if you gave her the chance. (I can see my reflection on the apples of her cheeks.)
But back to Jihyo: What’s the best part of being the leader?
She stares off at the eggshell wall behind me and raises her eyebrows, breaking into a laugh: “I think this is the kind of question you’d have to ask the other members.”
It occurs to me, that’s exactly what an excellent leader would say.
Photographed by Jooyoung Ahn. Fashion stylist: Kyoung Choi. Hair: Eunhee Son. Makeup: Dalae Jeon. Manicure: Eunkyung Park (Unistella). Production: Visual Park.
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