Top, trousers, belt, bracelet and boots, SAINT LAURENT

Some people are just born performers.

As a viewer, you can, somewhat, get the sense when the on-stage persona vastly differs from their IRL personality. The unapologetically magnetic stage presence versus a modest, amiable character is often a duality afforded by those who revere their craft. TEN undoubtedly falls under the category.

Naturally introducing himself without pretension, TEN carries himself unlike someone with a celebrity status. The answers issued come across as gentle and sincere, regardless of how accomplished he is in his respective fields and regions.

Even the unprompted birthday surprise when, during the photo shoot, the crew comes out with a cake, the chorus of “Happy Birthday” sounds with equanimity. His birthday, if you must know, is 27 February; a recent entrant into a new turning around the sun.

Suit, top and boots, SAINT LAURENT

TEN is talented, clearly. You can’t help but buy into the calling that as he had shared about knowing that this is what he wanted to do since the early age of 14. Since his days as a trainee finding foundations in South Korea, the goal was to release his own solo album. Now, years of practice have culminated into one multi-faceted articulation of who he is as an artist.

But is that an accurate depiction?

This is different from his past solo singles. The elation of presenting a full album is real, but so is the pressure. And that’s the thing about high-contrast performers; you just know the level of perfection they demand of themselves is far from the average. But perhaps attributing it to being in his late 20s, lacking no tenure in the industry, or simply personal ethos, TEN’s perspective on what matters to him now has changed a little.

Somewhere between the hopes of acting in a thriller and winding down with a cold one after a busy schedule that typically ends at midnight... somewhere amid album preparation and promotion, quiet self-reflection, and newfound inspiration... There, at the nexus of passion and creativity, is where you’ll find him, charting along an ongoing passage of growth and expression.

T-shirt, trousers, belt and boots, SAINT LAURENT

ESQUIRE: You’ve been part of NCT, WayV, and SuperM; how do you navigate your identity among the different groups versus as a soloist?

TEN: When I work in a team, I try to adapt to the style that was given to me. Whereas as a soloist, you get to represent yourself and do what is right for you. You’re behind the wheel now; you’re the one creating the concept with your team, so I try to understand more about myself to better represent myself.

ESQ: Is there any belief that you feel is essential to your success?

TEN: (ponders) I think I have the mindset of “Being Humble”. If you think you know too much, you will stop growing. So knowing how to educate yourself is very important for me. If I feel like I’m not being humble today, I sit down to reset my mind. You have to [tell yourself], “Don’t be arrogant. You’re assuming but there are so many things you don’t know, you have to learn more. You’re not perfect right now.” So I’ve always had this like... good negative thoughts? It helps me feel grounded again.

ESQ: Is it hard to know where you stand in terms of humility with all that surrounds you?

TEN: Since young, my mom told me to be humble. Be kind. If you’re kind and have positive thoughts, good things will come your way. I’d always keep that at the back of my mind all the time. These days, I’m more into a positive working environment. I feel that if you’re in a good environment, the outcome is way better than when you’re not in a good mood.

ESQ: Could you talk us through your creative process?

TEN: For this album [TEN - The 1st Mini Album] my team and I sat down to share ideas, photos and listen to multiple tracks of various genres. Then I’ll add my two cents and we’ll put these songs up for a vote. This process is more accurate than me saying, this is a good song. It’s interesting to see how everyone has their take and different talking points on why certain songs should be the title track or part of the tracklist.

For the dance, we received demos internationally but we took the good bits and improved on them. So there was a lot of discussion about this album.

ESQ: You’ve been in the scene for close to 10 years now, how much input do you have in what you wear for performances and appearances?

TEN: I always give my opinion on the outfit because I need to feel comfortable to perform. If I don’t feel relaxed about the things I wear, I’m not representing myself on stage. But I do listen to other people’s [feedback], I think that’s very important.

Shirt, trousers and belt, SAINT LAURENT

ESQ: What do you look out for when it comes to fashion?

TEN: Fashion! Nowadays, I want to see something new because when I go shopping online or offline, there’s this standard where everything kinda looks the same. I want something that can be very simple, yet stands out. Saint Laurent for example, any of its suits may have the same look as every suit but there are little details that make it look unique.

ESQ: What’s your earliest memory of the Maison?

TEN: Oh, since my debut in 2016, my stylist always gave me Saint Laurent outfits to wear for performances and music videos. I just want to stress that this isn’t scripted or anything. I’m not paid to say this; this is as real as it gets. It’s fun to see how Saint Laurent’s styling has changed since then.

For Spring/Summer 2024, all the colours and materials are very simple, but how they are used and the way they are worn just make the clothes stand out. I’ve attended two Saint Laurent shows and the collections look totally different.

Top, SAINT LAURENT

ESQ: What about your relationship with art? Is there a chance your artwork can be shown to the public one day?

TEN: Art really helped me express the side of me that I couldn’t really show at work or to my peers. Since my trainee days, I would express myself through drawing whenever I felt depressed or stressed out. If someone were to ask me why I haven’t been drawing lately, it’s mainly because I don’t feel any stress currently. But I also draw when something inspires me, like a quote from a movie. I’d start drawing what could represent it. Yes, when the time is right, I want to open my own gallery and welcome all my fans to come see it. I want to be sincere and tell them the true meaning of every piece of my artwork.

ESQ: Aside from being an artist, is there anything that you were always interested in developing but did not have the time to pursue?

TEN: Ah, to go to university (laughs). I want to know how university life feels like because that’s once in a lifetime. Ok, you can enrol into university when you’re 30, but the feeling is different. It’s not regret... just curious as to [what it’s like] going wild in your early 20s in university as opposed to attending university when you’re 30.

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ESQ: If you could go to university now, what course would you take up? And do you think it’d be easier or harder to cope when you’ve been in the spotlight?

TEN: Business or art. I think it’s going to be ok. I don’t think I’ll feel the difficulty in enrolling into university because of my fame because I’m always up to meeting new people.

ESQ: Is there anything you’re grateful for in your career?

TEN: When I debuted, I had a leg injury. I went to get my operation after and had to rest for two years, [which is when] I started to focus more on my vocals. The doctor told me I might not be able to dance again, and that picture got me fired up. Like, ok TEN, if you can’t dance, what could you do in this career? Let’s try developing my singing skills. So during the recovery, I went to the practice room every day practising my vocals and the result came out very nicely for me. And those two years just made TEN become who he is right now.

ESQ: Do you ever think about legacy?

TEN: I’m a person who doesn’t think too far into the future. I’ll just focus on the present. Right now, I just want to have fun. The reason I wanted to do a solo album was that I wanted to open up that part of me that I couldn’t show when I was in a group or too afraid to when I was younger. It’s about time that I get up to face my fears on stage, understand the person I am and feel free.

Top, trousers and bracelets, SAINT LAURENT

ESQ: Is it easier now or is it always frightening?

TEN: I’m still learning, right? It’s not easy. I had my first solo fan-con [fan concert] and it was very nerve-wracking at first. I may seem fluent but I worry all the time about what I’m going to say or whether my fans would enjoy watching my performance; do the songs sound good?

But... I figured I’d just... go with it (chuckle). Don’t think about it too much. Because the fans love you just as you are. They don’t want to see perfection; they just want to see the artist and his story. I feel like I tried too much to be perfect in the past but [ultimately] you just need to be real with yourself. Just take it slow and people will end up loving you.

ESQ: Do you feel put in a box as an idol, regarding people’s perception of you?

TEN: For now, I won’t say everybody knows who TEN is. As a soloist, this is the year when I’m representing myself as TEN. There will be more things to reveal in the future. I must keep a little suspense, otherwise, it won’t be fun to watch, right? I’m going to slowly reveal myself [bit by bit]. It’s like reading a novel or playing a video game; if you complete the game in an hour, it’s boring; you don’t want to know the climax. You have to walk one step at a time; you’d want to be on the journey of that character.

Photography: Jungwook Mok
Fashion Direction: Asri Jasman
Art Direction: Joan Tai
Styling: Sihyuk Ryu
Hair: Daeun Nam
Makeup: Hyebeen Kim
Producer: Daniel Teo

For international orders of the Esquire Singapore April 2024 issue with TEN, email ordersg@heart-media.com.

Parka, overshirt, trousers and sneakers, HERMÈS

_It’s hard writing about a celebrity who [sic] international press dub “Accidental K-pop Star” and Korean media affectionately call “Nation’s Boyfriend” without rehashing facts.

These nicknames alone encompass what you need to know about the singer-songwriter. The former clues you in on his professional trajectory; from getting scouted off YouTube to placing in the finals of a Korean singing competition, subsequently kickstarting his presence in the music industry. The latter tells of his personality that has earned the collective good sentiment of fans, no doubt thanks to his bright and humorous disposition.

_What could I tell you about his recent headspace that his song “House on A Hill” doesn’t already express?

The very lyrics centred by a chorus of “what ifs” spell out his apprehensions about the pursuit of happiness. Taking after a potential property he was eyeing, the title represents the existential crisis it sparked in him about why we were taught that buying a home, among other relative “necessities”, were qualifiers for our happiness. As well as the unreliable metrics behind a sense of accomplishment, or even the motivations driving our daily grind.

“For me, it’s been as long as I’m healthy, feeling challenged and finding fulfilment in the work I’m doing, being respected and surrounded by people I love. What more do we need?” he asks rhetorically.

Sweater and denim jeans, LOEWE

“Am I exhausted? Yes. Do I want to take a break? Yes. But that doesn’t mean I’m unhappy. I’m not Oh-my-god-life-is-wonderful-this-is-the-best-thing-ever overjoyed. It would be a little bit weird to be consistently like that. I might have taken some time but I’m getting to the point where on average, I’m always like, I’m good.”

One thing he fluctuates with, though, is his ADHD. An adversity his parents always regarded as a youth’s excuse rather than an actual condition. “It’s something I’m always trying to get a better grasp on. And I wish I had known better earlier. I wish I had sought help earlier. Cause when your parents say it’s not real, you think, oh maybe I’m just lazy. But I literally cannot focus on things. I cannot do very simple tasks sometimes. Many times. Very often,” he laughs.

He acknowledges that it didn’t necessarily exist the same way for a generation that survived war, absolute poverty, and making ends meet with backbreaking jobs. There’s no resentment, but it’s only at this point in his life that he can have that discussion with them on the realities of mental health.

_So is there diving deeper when the Atlanta-born artist has already shared similar, immensely personal stories on his mental health app, Mindset?

Tunic, trousers, scarf and loafers, BOTTEGA VENETA. Socks worn throughout, stylist’s own

The platform he founded tackles difficult topics by celebrities in a real and open way, encouraging listeners to take heart in kindred struggles and normalise what would otherwise be taboo conversations. He leads by example with his own experiences of feeling vastly displaced twice in his lifetime.

Once as a child of immigrants in America, who spoke no English and was bullied for being different. The second time returning to Korea as a foreigner, navigating its culture when he had since lost his native language. You can hear the slight weariness in his voice as he recounts becoming an outsider yet again after having tried so hard to fit in.

This social-cultural recalibration, on top of attempting to carve out a living on unfamiliar ground, marked a murky season. Oddly, seeking help was not an option. It all came down to optics. Should the public find out, he was told, they’ll think he’s lost it, and his career would be over.

“That was such a weird perspective to wrap my head around,” he exhales, expounding on mental health in a way that echoes his fervent speech at the TIME 100 Impact Awards last year. “It is at our core. It is the beginning of who we are and how we react and how we socialise and how we love and how we are. So it’s something that everybody has to deal with.”

Jacket, shirt and shorts, LOUIS VUITTON

“And there is no one right answer. It’s finding what works for you as an individual,” he explains, raising how it’s not easy to find a good therapist, plus the cost doesn’t exactly make it a service accessible to all.

“It’s more than saying get therapy, be on this medication, meditate. I immediately fall asleep when I do meditations, so it doesn’t benefit me. But if I talk to a trusted advisor, friend or family, walking it through with them is my form of therapy. And every song that I write now. It comes from real-life encounters and what I’m going through.”

_Where do I begin mapping out the evolution of the 35-year-old’s over decade-long vocation?

He went from mimicking sounds because he barely understood the language he was singing, to finding his voice and colour as a musician. He describes it as an eye-opening process where he has witnessed growth, especially in lyrical content.

“Where it was previously young and playful, or I may not even fully know what I’m saying, everything now very much has intention,” he affirms. “Also, the confidence in my approach. Because the hardest thing about being a creative is that you’re creating stuff that’s not there, there aren’t really guardrails on what’s good or bad. Everything’s very subjective. And it’s always been nerve-wracking.”

The next steps will probably put him in a comparable situation. Having hosted/podcasted at the helm of DIVE Studios with his brothers, he foresees the next chunk on time going into acting, writing and producing. While something may or may not already be in the works, releasing a consumer product (maybe skincare, maybe wellness) is another venture he often ponders.

Jacket and shirt, LORO PIANA

_I could perhaps tell you how Eric Nam is like on a Zoom interview at 6pm LA time instead.

How he’s casually in a green hoodie and his house is in disarray because he’s leaving on a flight to his ensuing world tour spot the next day. But his skin looks amazing (so yeah, he should drop that skincare line).

How he gets a little more serious than what you had expected from prior appearances. How he considers each question sincerely, with no qualms leaving pockets of silence to reflect before commenting. How these responses run long, and how he apologises for them midway. How words are chosen carefully when broaching delicate subjects, not out of distrust but in acquiescence that positions can always be misconstrued. How these spiels ultimately return to what was asked, and how he peppers endings checking if they make sense.

How he lately enjoyed a film called Didi because it made him feel seen. And amid the excess entertainment we’re inundated with, properly demonstrated what good content is supposed to do. How while it was fun, poignant, and made him laugh; its quality also served as a sobering reminder to do everything with purpose.

Jacket, shirt, trousers and loafers, ZEGNA

“I’m thankful that I’m able to do what I do right now, but honestly, there are moments I don’t know how much longer I’m going to do this,” he admits. “So we really have to enjoy what we do. We’ve been conditioned to be hypercritical so that we don’t receive criticism, and so when we see something we don’t like in or about ourselves, we tend to be very mean to ourselves, which is unfortunate.”

“There should be a practice of being grateful and complimentary of yourself. Not arrogant, not complacent. Just recognising effort and when there are things that you cannot control. Having a good head on my shoulders is something I strive for, and when I do make a mistake or something doesn’t work out, it’s fair to be disappointed.”

“There are several other factors beyond my resolve that determine whether something is successful or not. There’s timing, luck, trend; with all that’s going on in the world, anything can happen. It’s now about holding myself accountable to make the best possible decision and put my best foot forward. Whatever comes after, I must live with and have grace for myself because there’s no point in beating myself up over things I cannot control.”

_Perhaps I could explore why Eric Nam still wants to do what he does.

Why despite counting himself blessed with the opportunities he’s had, it doesn’t mean that they came freely. Why some may think everything was handed to him because they are not privy to the hurdles and the way he had to grapple behind the scenes to get to where he is today.

Vest, shorts and loafers, DIOR MEN

“Those who know, know that I was one of the first tours to go to these markets and open them up. I’ve seen people who literally do exactly what I do, and I’m more than happy to help guide them when they hit us up, but being that first one to do it was so tough,” he shares.

“So even if I don’t become the number one artist in the world who has a bajillion streams, it doesn’t matter. It’s about being as trailblazer-y as possible. To be bold and make something that seems incredibly impossible happen.”

“That’s what I want my legacy to be. It could change completely because this tour, these acting gigs and start-ups, there’s so much going on that I’m like, how do I do this? So that’s kind of where I’m at now. I hope that giving it as much as I have with the intent of doing things right, it will be to people a point of empowerment and inspiration.”

There’s a split-second Nam seems to be at peace with his answer, before he characteristically goes, “Does that make sense?”

Photography: Shawn Paul Tan
Styling: Asri Jasman
Hair: Christvian Wu using KEUNE HAIRCOSMETICS
Makeup: Kenneth Chia using YSL BEAUTY
Photography Assistant: Xie Feng Mao
Styling Assistant: Chua Xin Xuan

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