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When you have a face that’s recognizable by an entire continent, you have zero room to make mistakes.
I gazed into the screaming crowd, lights blinding me and the sound of my voice faint through the headset. The nonstop roar made it impossible for me to hear my own voice.
Once during a performance, when I threw my body into the outstretched arms of my backup dancer, the tiny microphone had shifted under my curtain of hair, and my voice cracked during the most dramatic moment of my hit single “Heartbeat.”
It was the crack heard around Asia. Endless video loops of that moment were played on the Internet—some superimposed with cartoon rabbits and added screechy sound effects. My favorite one showed an animated pane of glass shattering at the exact moment of the voice crack. It was so masterfully done, I laughed every time I watched it.
My management label didn’t find it funny, though. They saw it as a lapse, an imperfection on an otherwise perfect K-pop star.
That lapse was what I was thinking about as I stood on a stage in Hong Kong. The final stop on my Asian tour.
There was something about the vibration in the air, though—the currents of excitement filling in the spaces between me and the crowd. It was why I did this. Whatever I had been feeling days or seconds before I stepped onstage—like worrying about messing up again—all of that disappeared when the crowd’s energy slipped under my skin and into my bloodstream.
Ferocious adoration by way of osmosis.
My silver stiletto boots were planted firmly in a wide stance, and my feet were killing me as per usual. I had this recurring nightmare of my boots chasing me around a parking lot. They were human-sized and ran after me in never-ending circles. My managers insisted on me wearing the same boots when I performed—my “signature look.” Over-the-knee boots that stretched up the long expanse of my legs.
I was tall. Five foot ten—a veritable giant in Seoul. But there was no such thing as “too tall.”
As I went through the familiar steps of the choreography for “Heartbeat,” I managed to ignore the pain shooting up from the balls of my feet, the perpetual wedgie from my booty shorts, and the long strands of my pink wig sticking to the sweaty sides of my face.
Because I could do this choreography blindfolded, with two broken legs. I’d done this performance hundreds of times. At a certain point, my body moved on its own, as if on autopilot. Sometimes when I finished performing “Heartbeat,” my head hanging at an odd angle because of how the dance ended, I would blink and wonder where I had been for the last three minutes and twenty-four seconds.
When my body took over like that, I knew I got the job done. I was rewarded for the absolute precision with which I executed my performances.
And today was no different. I finished the song and looked out into the crowd, the screams of the fans piercing through me as I returned to my body with a whoosh.
I was finally done with this tour.
Backstage, I was immediately surrounded by people: my makeup artist, stylist, and head of security. I plopped down into a chair while my wig was adjusted and teased and my face dabbed with oil papers.
“Don’t get rid of that dewy glow, though,” I cracked to Lonni, my makeup artist.
Lonni pursed her lips. “You’re seventeen, you don’t need to be dewier. Also? Oil slick is not ‘dewy.’”
Hmph. I let her continue mopping up my grease-face.
The back-up dancers stumbled backstage, a group of men and women in nondescript, sexy black outfits. I jumped up from my chair—making Lonni tsk in exasperation—and bent at the waist.
“Sugohaess-eoyo!” I said as I bowed. “Thank you so much.” I always made sure to thank them in both Korean and English because the dancers came from all over.
They had suffered with me during every single practice and stop and never got any of the glory. My appreciation was genuine, but it was also expected. K-pop stars always had to be gracious.
They bowed and thanked me in return, sweaty and exhausted. “You killed it, Lucky,” one of the dancers, Jin, said with a wink. “You were almost able to keep up with me.”
I flushed. Jin was cute. He was also off-limits, as were most boys in my life. “I’ll land that turn one of these days,” I said with nervous laughter. They all shuffled off, going to their hotel together. I watched them with envy. Would they be hanging out in someone’s room, eating cup ramen together?
No matter. My feet were going to crumble into dust. I plopped back into the chair.
A hand patted my back. “Hey. You too. Sugohaess-eo,” my manager’s assistant, Ji-Yeon, said. Ji-Yeon always told me I did a good job after performances, like a proud but stern older sister. She was a tiny rabbit of a young woman, her full-cheeked face obscured by edgy blunt-cut bangs and giant glasses. But she was a powerhouse who got things done.
She scrolled through her ever-present phone. “We’re going to do a meet and greet for about an hour, so be sure to drink some water.”
“What? A meet and greet?” I had stopped doing those a couple years ago. They were more for beginner pop groups. Once you reached a certain level, it got unwieldy.
“Yeah. Since it’s your final show, we thought it would make a good photo op.” She handed me a bottle of Evian.
“So, I’m going to be here for another hour?” I tried to keep the whininess out of my voice.
“It’ll be fast. In and out. Do you not want to do it?” Ji-Yeon asked, peering over her glasses.
Don’t be lazy. I shook my head. “No, it’s fine.”
“Okay, good. Now, let’s get you out of this outfit and into something more comfortable for the fans,” Ji-Yeon said with a slight twitch of her nose, making her glasses shift up and down on her pale face. “Except the shoes, of course. Gotta keep those on.”
Minutes later, I was sitting behind a table signing albums, posters, whatever the fans had brought with them. And even though I had wanted to crawl into bed mere minutes before, the excitement of the fans zapped me with a familiar energy. Interaction with them was so rare lately.
“Can I get a selfie?” I looked at the girl with braces and a pixie cut and was about to say yes when my head bodyguard, Ren Chang, stepped in front of me and shook his head.
I threw the girl an apologetic look before the next fan approached me with a poster to sign.
In the early days, I had wanted to give a hug and speak to everyone who had waited in line to see me. But the bigger my fan base grew, the more nebulous and faceless they became. I battled the instinct to give canned and wooden responses. “Thank you for coming,” I said with a smile at the older man as I signed his poster with a fat black Sharpie.
He nodded, not making eye contact with me. But his hand grazed mine when I returned the poster, and he got in close. I could smell the meal he’d had, feel the heat of his body. Without missing a beat, Ren pushed him back with a firm hand. Again, I smiled apologetically at the man, even though my entire being recoiled. Most of my male fans were perfectly fine—but there was an overeager, sweaty subset that approached me with an intensity that frightened me. In those moments, I still had to act gracious. Always grateful for what I had.
The line was cut off eventually and I stood up and waved and bowed to the crying and cheering fans. They roared when I threw out a peace sign and I was whisked away through the back door.
The second I stepped outside, the paparazzi and fans descended.
Camera flashes, voices yelling out my name, a crush of humanity.
Ren and a few other bodyguards closed in around me like a protective membrane. When people pushed against them, the force made the circle of security undulate as we moved through the narrow alley toward the van.
“Lucky, I love you!” a girl screamed. My instinct was to look toward the voice, to say, “Thank you!” But doing that would open the floodgates. I learned my lesson a long time ago.
Instead, I looked down, watching the steps of Ren in front of me. Keeping my eyes on his firm footsteps slowed my racing heart, gave me focus. I liked having something to focus on. Otherwise, I would spiral into sheer panic at the thought of being trampled, enclosed by a million people who all wanted a piece of me.
My guards slowed down, and I glanced up. The car was near, but people were blocking it. The police had arrived and the energy was feeding on itself—that stage of mania where absolutely no one had control. Where grown men with huge arms fought back teenage girls with dazed expressions, helplessly watching as the girls climbed over them as if they were trees, feral and hungry.
My heart raced, my palms grew sweaty, and a wave of nausea came over me.
“Stay close,” Ren said in a low voice, stretching a thick arm across my torso.
“Like I have a choice?” I asked, my voice raspy from overuse. Feeling annoyed at Ren for no reason.
“Or you could get trampled,” he replied mildly. Ren was my dad’s age but had the fitness level of an Olympian. And the sense of humor of a Triscuit.
So I kept close—and within seconds, fresh air burst through the circle, breaking through the wall of bodies to reach me.
My heart resumed beating back to normal and I lifted my face up to the bright Hong Kong skyline. It flashed at me for a second before I was tucked safely into the van.
The first thing I did was take my freaking boots off.
Text copyright © 2019 Maurene Goo