|Sera, a former member of disbanded K-pop girl group, 9MUSES, speaks during a recent interview with The Korea Times at a studio in Mapo-gu, northern Seoul. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min|
By Dong Sun-hwa
Video by Lee Min-young, Kim Kang-min, Yun Da-been
There are some moments in life that change people profoundly. In the case of Sera, 34, a former member of the now-defunct K-pop girl group, 9MUSES, one of those moments came when she was 19, and it mysteriously led her down her current career path.
In Canada, she met a boy at a private educational institute where she worked part-time. Everyone, including his teachers, deemed him as a troublemaker, who did not get along with anyone there. But one day, apparently fascinated by her knack for the piano, he approached her and asked: "Can you teach me how to play the piano like you?" At that moment, she realized the power of music, which can connect people who otherwise would not talk to each other.
Despite being a high achiever at her school, she deviated from her initial plan of getting into a prestigious college and debuted as the leader of the girl group in 2010 with the track "No Playboy." Although the group did not rise to meteoric stardom, it still rolled out a string of hits such as "News" (2012), "Dolls" (2013) and "Wild (2013)." Only four years later, however, Sera was forced to leave the team. And during a recent interview with The Korea Times at a studio in Mapo-gu, northern Seoul, the outspoken former idol explained what happened.
"I was kicked out of 9MUSES, because I openly vented all my grievances about our excessive use of sex appeal," Sera said in a composed manner. "In hindsight, I was a bit immature to do so, but back then, putting on skimpy outfits was extremely distressing to me. I could not help thinking that I was what I wore."
This is the reason that she picked 9MUSES' funky dance track "Dolls" as her favorite.
"Thanks to Dolls, I realized that 9MUSES could also pull off a different style without highlighting sexiness," she said. "The popularity of the tune ― which rose to the top spots on multiple music streaming charts ― made me think about why we had been clinging to a sexy image."
Her obsession with beauty also troubled her: She thought she was not "pretty enough" to be part of the group. As a result, she could not focus on improving her musical prowess, and instead, spent much of her day thinking about and complaining about her looks.
"I shed tears in front of my mother every day, asking her why I was born this way," she revealed. "I asked her why I was neither tall nor skinny… I even grumbled that my head and bones were too big. My mother also cried after hearing all these."
Even after quitting 9MUSES, Sera could not find peace. In fact, her departure triggered even more serious problems ― depression, panic and sleep disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, widely known as ADHD, as well as financial problems.
"After leaving 9MUSES, I could not even turn my TV on for a while," she added. "Since the pains of the celebrities on the shows were visible to me, I could not watch any program. In particular, in the case of music shows, I thought about how some girl group members would be scolded after their performances and how they would be nagged at for being 'overweight.'"
|Sera, third from left, performs 9MUSES' "Wild" in 2013. Korea Times file|
But in the end, Sera decided to work up the courage and face her fears. So she began seeking ways to offer assistance to young female singers who are undergoing tough times like she did in the past. She started to upload reaction videos with warm messages on her YouTube channel ― which has more than 180,000 subscribers ― after viewing the performances of budding stars. To date, she has released hundreds of such videos for K-pop newcomers such as "MAJORS" and "GIRLKIND."
"I came to develop empathy for them, so I could not leave them alone," she explained. "As a former K-pop girl group member, I thought I could help these rookie groups and exert a positive influence through my content. I have a lot of things to tell them, too. For instance, they often either underestimate or overestimate themselves… But I think being objective and keeping a balance is the key. I also believe there should be mutual respect between the singers and their management companies and no one should fall victim to unfair practices."
For Sera, her appearance on MBN's reality show, "Miss Back" (2020), marked a turning point in her life. At first, she hesitated to open herself up to the public by participating in the program, which is intended to bring female K-pop stars, who have fallen off the public's radar, back into the limelight. It featured singers such as After School's Raina, Crayon Pop's Soyul and Stellar's Gayoung, among others, with veteran singer Baek Ji-young, TV personality Song Eun-i and composer Yoon Il-sang appearing as hosts. The program not only offered a glimpse into the singers' private lives, but also pitted them against one another in a series of singing competitions.
|Sera performs on MBN's reality show, "Miss Back" (2020). Courtesy of MBN|
"I decided to take part in the show, as I thought I had nothing more to lose," Sera said after a pause. "But at the same time, I thought singer Baek Ji-young would be able to bring some kind of comfort to me… And I was also close to the other participants."
On the program, Sera fueled people's worries after revealing how much she had suffered from depression and other health problems. Due to the side effects of medications, she was unable to sleep or eat properly. But fortunately, she is in better shape these days.
"In the past, I never showed my weaknesses to people around me," she said. "But after doing so on Miss Back, I ironically made a breakthrough in my life and now I am feeling much better."
As she said, on the day of the interview, she looked bright and healthy. She also created a friendly mood with jokes.
"After Miss Back wrapped on, I met a good doctor and since then, my condition has improved significantly. I am still receiving some treatment, but I believe I will be over it soon," she said. "I think it would be great if my recovery story can send a message of hope to people undergoing challenging times in their lives."
These days, she uploads Korean-language education videos for K-pop fans overseas and spends a lot of time with her dog. She is also studying English education at a college.
"As of now, I am not sure what my dream is," she said. "I will take some time and just go with the flow. Maybe I will work to enhance the current conditions of the K-pop industry."
Although Sera has a deep affection for singing, she says she has no immediate plans to release a new album.
"In my past interviews, I often told the reporters that I would soon return with a fresh album, but honestly, I cannot tell when it will hit the shelves," she said. "When I put out my first solo album, 'SeRen:Ade' in 2015, some critics and producers said it was not worth listening to… I still cannot forget those remarks. But one day, I will overcome this wound and come back with a new album. In fact, singing is an inseparable part of me and, if there is another life, I would become a singer again."