Jong-hyun of boy band SHINee, who died on Monday in an apparent suicide, joined talent management agency SM Entertainment in 2005 to train as a performer when he was just 16.
A bass guitarist for his high-school rock band, Jong-hyun was talent-spotted at a song contest and put through three years of grueling training until the band's debut in 2008.
In his suicide note, Jong-hyun said, "It wasn't my path to become world-famous."
His suicide at the age of only 27 has prompted many in Korea's crowded entertainment industry to reflect on the pressures suffered by young entertainers.
One 24-year-old who also went through a grueling training program at a large talent agency said, "Aspiring performers live in a jail without bars." They get up every morning at 6 a.m. and practice singing and dancing until 1 a.m. The regimen continues for years without knowing when the agency deems them ready for their debut. The 24-year-old quit the program two years ago.
Members of manufactured bands like SHINee live according to a strict set of rules imposed by their talent mills. These include no social media activity, no dating and no night-time snacks. Failure to abide by any of those rules can get them kicked out.
One staffer at a large talent agency said, "All talent agencies in Korea invest money in making stars. If the stars cause problems that get reported by the media, they lose lucrative advertising contracts, while the company ends up paying the price, so it’s crucial to manage their private lives."
Aspiring starlets often suffer from huge pressures caused by the need to succeed and a flood of malicious online gossip, living in constant fear that their private lives will be exposed.
They are practically guarded around the clock from the time they sign up and often fail to cope with social pressures because they have to skip classes due to training or other schedules, ending up without experience of associating with their peers in school.
Jong-hyun quit high school when he became a trainee at SM Entertainment. Known for his vocal skills and song-writing talents, he also maintained close ties with his mother an older sister. But in his suicide note, he said, "I hated myself. I felt utterly alone."
Ha Sang-hun from LifelineKorea, a private organization running a suicide prevention hotline, said, "Famous people have two identities. One is a rich and popular person and the other is a lonely and weak person. Jong-hyun seems to have been unable to reconcile these two identities."
SM Entertainment has admitted that Jong-hyun suffered from depression. "He was in a particularly risky state where he specifically planned his own suicide," Ha said. "He should have been given treatment."