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

From BTS’ Jimin and Jungkook to every single member of Blackpink, Korean celebrities and idols are being recognised by luxury fashion houses and installed as brand ambassadors.
(DIOR)

The year 2023 was significant for many reasons. There was the rise of artificial intelligence with ChatGPT gaining traction (I assure you this story is written by an actual human). A new King was crowned in the United Kingdom. Twitter was rebranded to X under Elon Musk. Meta launched Twitter-, I mean X-adjacent, Threads (is anyone using this?). The Israeli-Palestinan conflict resurged with fierce aggressions of genocidal proportions. And a host of other life-altering events.

On the much lighter side of things, 2023 also saw a tsunami of Korean entertainment as it was effectively embraced as part of mainstream culture. There was no escaping the torrent of K-dramas and -movies released on streaming platforms, as well as K-pop songs that became part of TikTok dance challenges, all breaking through to the psyche of even the most casual of followers.

Luxury fashion brands appeared to have announced Korean celebrities as ambassadors in succession at one point. K-pop group Stray Kids' Felix and Hyunjin were officially tied to Louis Vuitton and Versace respectively, while Dior locked in TXT as well as Haerin of hit group NewJeans. As well, BTS members V, RM, Jungkook, J-Hope, Jimin and Suga all gained new brand ambassadorships in the same year. There have been at least 30 such announcements made, adding to the growing number of Korean celebrities and idols internationally recognised by luxury fashion brands.

It’s not unusual for K-pop idols to be decked out in some of the latest fashion threads, especially once they’ve been officially embraced by the brand—like Felix of Stray Kids, with Louis Vuitton.
(LOUIS VUITTON)

Brand events came out of the woodwork too, tapping on the popularity of Korean celebrities, whether or not they were official brand ambassadors. In Singapore, it became more common to witness dedicated fans camping out in malls and outdoor event spaces for hours before their favourite Korean celebrities were scheduled to make an appearance. From catching their idols gracing the launch of a new product, a new store opening, even a one-night-only private staging of a brand activation, fans welcomed the flurry of events that the brands have organised.

And like well-oiled machines, Korean celebrities know the things to do or say to get their crowds going. That's not to say that there's a tinge of insincerity in their actions or that they're simply going through the PR motions, but rather, these entertainment pros are used to the concept of fan service—an essential part of the Korean entertainment scene.

Actor Jung Hae-in's first fan meet in Singapore was part of his tenth anniversary in the industry.
(VIU)

The term “fan service” is said to have originated from Japanese anime and manga fandoms. It relates to the addition of certain scenes and imagery designed to pander to the desires of fans, often based on collective feedback. These can range from a romance-led narrative between two popular characters that fans have been clamouring for, or even the inclusion of a violent fight scene erupting from an underlying tension fans have deduced. The term has been used in a wide range of instances since—including Hollywood-related fandoms—but in the Korean entertainment scene, it's almost a de facto job requirement.

On constant watch

Ardent K-pop fans will be familiar with the number of weekly music shows where comebacks—a K-pop term that refers to new era-defining music releases by a unit—are performed as part of a scheduled publicity push. As with every K-pop performance (at least at the very beginning of a comeback), the dance choreography is kept synchronised with no deviations between each performance as a way of reinforcing the correlation between movements and song. The outfits and aesthetic concepts, however, vary every time. And fans notice everything.

Every facet of a performance is scrutinised, but largely for candid moments that main camera shots are likely to miss. And if you think K-pop groups have it easier because they technically could hide behind—other members in the line-up—it's common for groups to be made up of more than 10 individuals—you'd be sorely mistaken.

Fancams ensure that nothing escapes the fans. There are typically two main types of fancams. The first is a still camera setup that captures the entire onstage performance with zero edits and cuts. The second is a camera that's trained on each member of a group throughout the entirety of the performance, including when they're out of the main camera frame. Consider the latter as a fan service to those wanting an even closer focus on their bias (a fan's foremost favourite in a group), giving them access to every moment within a performance.

While it does seem intrusive, it isn't that much different from the hordes of phone cameras these artistes are faced with while performing a concert set. Fans often make use of these close-up shots to be better acquainted with their biases—noticing their performance quirks, facial expressions and more. It's the opportunity to also separate an individual from the unit, and in turn, further deepens their affection for an individual member. And of course, these are then shared on social media platforms with like-minded individuals.

Fancams are employed for solo artistes too. It's unlikely that a K-pop idol performs without backup dancers because the scale of even the simplest of productions in K-pop is rarely small. At my first K-pop concert by singer and rapper B.I. in March last year, I witnessed the whole phenomenon unfold. Seated among a visibly younger crowd, I could see through their phone screens just how tightly they zoomed in to capture the biggest and clearest view of the performer.

The VIP experience

I have attended a fair share of concerts in my lifetime, yet nothing could have prepared me for B.I's L.O.L.: The Hidden Stage concert. I was offered a set of VIP tickets by a friend, not realising that it afforded me more than just the usual concert experience.

Typically, VIP ticket holders are given access to a soundcheck session hours before the start of the actual concert. Idols tend to be more laid back in both attitude and appearance as they perform a select number of songs, both as a way of prepping the sound and an opportunity for a vocal warm-up for the main event. At times, it's a set list that's completely separate from the concert, and coupled with some banter. I was unfortunately unable to make it for B.I's (it was a really last-minute ticket offer) but heard really good things about it after.

The frenzy caused by the appearance of a Korean celebrity at any event is arguably unlike that of Western celebrities.
(ALEXANDER MCQUEEN)

VIP packages vary from artiste to artiste, and can range from anything that includes meeting the artiste as a select group, to more intimate after-show backstage sessions. At B.I's, we were given the opportunity to take a group photo with the performer after the concert. Each row of the VIP section was called up to the stage where chairs were arranged in a similar manner one would find in a school class photo. We were arranged in order of our seat numbers, sat down on the chairs or stood behind them, and B.I would position himself wherever he felt comfortable. All this was done in full view of the other VIP ticket holders who were either waiting for their turn or have completed the experience.

After all the rows had been called up and had their photos taken, the final part of the VIP experience was a last glimpse of B.I. As we walked out of the event venue, he sat casually slumped over a desk and waved goodbye to every single one of us.

The entire experience spanned almost four hours—a three-hour-long concert that included performances, pre-recorded video intervals, casual crowd interactions, a closing video made by fans that was watched together by the man himself, and the hour-long VIP experience—excluding the soundcheck. In contrast, a concert by a non-K-pop artist rarely goes beyond the two-hour mark.

A whole new world

To complete my 2023 Korean entertainment immersion, I attended a fan meet. It was a concept that's completely foreign to me. You see, a concert by a musician makes complete sense because it's a showcase of their repertoire of musicality and is pretty much what a musician does. Actor fan meets, however, seemed a bit strange. Was Jung Hae-in—an actor I personally adore and whose mug has been featured several times here on the pages of Esquire Singapore—going to be acting in a skit? Or perhaps reenact scenes he's known for? I was intrigued.

Fan meets with Korean actors are like mini variety shows where lucky fans get opportunities for close-up interactions.
(VIU)
Fans come in the droves and complete with signs homemade signs.
(VIU)

Presented by streaming platform Viu, Jung was in Singapore for his “The 10th Season” fan meet in October last year. It was a touring series of fan meets in celebration of a milestone 10th year of his career. Singapore was scheduled to be his last overseas stop before heading back to Korea for an encore, and then it's off to the United States and Canada.

The cherub-faced actor filled his fan meet with numerous games and interview sessions, as well as a few musical performances (Jung mentioned in one of the chats during the fan meet that he hopes to be able to sing more, having done so in a number of shows).

It was akin to a variety show. A host drove the conversations and helped transition from one segment to the other, while Jung was accompanied by his translator. In one segment, fans were told to vote, before entering the venue, for their favourite scene out of the many dramas that he's been a part of. Jung then regaled with behind-the-scenes anecdotes and divulged some of the processes that he had to go through before filming a certain scene. Lucky fans too were given the opportunity to get even closer to the actor as seat numbers were called to either participate in games or win merchandise—and of course, an opportunity to snap a selfie or two, which were mostly initiated by Jung. Fan service, people.

For someone who wasn't as familiar with these fan experiences that have become integral parts of the Korean entertainment scene, they do seem a great deal to expect of the artistes. But for the industry, the artistry is but a smidge of the public obligations that the artists are beholden to. Fans are what drive the industry; their dedicated fervour is what expands the reach of these celebrities beyond the Republic. They invest not only in the music, dramas and films, but also in the merchandise, exclusive experiences, and undoubtedly, the lives of these idols.

Perhaps it's an intrinsically Asian trait for Korean celebrities to feel the need to be indebted to fans for their continuous passionate support. And that's not a bad thing, especially when Korean celebrities have become bigger than Western ones in many ways. The fact that they're still as accessible—despite the screams from the crowds that gather to catch even a glimpse of them at everything from fashion week appearances to in-store events—edges them further ahead of their Western counterparts.

Jung talked about his various roles through set props and costumes. (VIU)
In one of the more serious segments of the fan meet, Jung read out letters written by a select number of fans in the audience. (VIU)
Before entering the venue, fans voted for their favourite scenes from Jung's filmography. (VIU)

I wouldn't say I'm completely taken by all of this—the demands of fan service have led to some terribly unfortunate circumstances within the industry too—but there is a lot to be admired and learnt from individuals who take their time to be of service to their fans, in recognition that these fans are who have helped create the unprecedented international frenzy of today.

B.I was noticeably tired as he made his final fan service at the exit of his Singapore show, and that's understandable. As much as the fans are passionate about their idols, the idols too have the same passion about giving back the same kind of energy that, for all we know, could change someone's life. It may sound dramatic but for someone who paid quite a sum for such a relatively intimate experience, any form of validation is a reward.

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