During roughly a one week period at the end of July and towards the beginning of August, the K-pop world was subjected to an onslaught of coverage on the T-ara bullying controversy, related to the mistreatment and ousting of the group’s ostracized member, Hwayoung. Coverage was so dense at the time that there were probably those who wondered whether the media’s overindulgence in the affairs of a second tier girl group was at all justified. News outlets were indeed highly incentivized to cover the topic as intensely as they did because of the public’s high level of interest in the topic. After all, media exists in servitude to its consumers. They cover topics that they know their consumers will ingest and thus their coverage was largely reactionary to the number of views, likes, and/or comments the story received.
Meanwhile, it was unquestionable that all parties involved suffered a significant momentary setback as a result of the controversy. Let’s begin by examining T-ara. Due to the negative image that became associated with certain T-ara members, countless sponsors pulled the girls from their advertising campaigns, Eunjung was booted off of the drama Five Fingers right before it began filming, T-ara’s largest fan community was shut down, an online petition called for the group’s disbandment, and even an anti-fan organization was formed calling for the truth. As a result of the backlash, T-ara was forced to call a quick end to its promotions for “Day by Day” and cower in the shadows until the coast became clear enough to release its follow-up single.
Things quieted down for a bit. There wasn’t much word from T-ara for almost the entire month of August. Then suddenly, out of the blue, Hwayoung tweeted her condolences for having caused concern to her former group members, mainly due to them losing advertising and acting deals. Again, the K-pop world gravitated towards the story, commenting, speculating, commenting, lashing out, commenting, trolling, commenting, and yes, further commenting and giving the media even more incentive to dig up further dirt to reignite the whole thing in an endless cycle in which the fans fed the media and vice-versa.
Several days later, “Sexy Love” was released and while it wasn’t necessarily a chart-topper, it did surprisingly well for all the ambivalence T-ara was experiencing at the time. Who knows how well “Sexy Love” could have done had the comeback not been tainted by the scandal? But despite some awkward performances in front of disapproving crowds, the girls survived the ordeal and fled to Japan to continue their promotions.
As for the future of T-ara, many question its ability to rebound and regain the momentum it possessed pre-controversy. While its comeback with “Sexy Love” was indeed premature, its future promotions can definitely fare much better given that it’s handled in an appropriate manner and that enough time has passed for this summer’s scandal to exit the public’s collective memory. Make no mistake, T-ara will overcome this if it continues to be one of the hardest working established idol groups. By making regular comebacks with hook song after hook song, constantly promoting overseas in between its comebacks, and overbooking its members with extracurriculars in acting and endorsements, T-ara will continue to stay in the limelight.
Most importantly, history has shown that if a group is popular enough, has an established track record, and a strong fan backing, it will rise from controversy stronger than ever. Block B’s comeback, after disappearing for roughly half a year after its Thailand controversy, was very well received to say the least. Although a serious hit to the group’s perceived image at the time, Block B’s scandal did very little long-term damage. After the success of Block B’s “Nanlina” promotions, its long hiatus only caused its diehard and newfound fans to anticipate its latest comeback even more. And the boys did not disappoint, receiving much acclaim and recognition from our readers and writers for their work in “Nillili Mambo.” Given that T-ara is not Block B and the scandals are vastly different from one another, the Block B model is one which tells us how time and anticipation is a remedy that can soothe any controversy.
As for T-ara’s management label, it played the role of clean-up crew for the damage that was caused by the controversy, at times diverting blame onto itself so that the girls may remain as sparkly clean as possible. As much criticism as Core Contents Media (CCM) receives for its poor management of T-ara and other acts under its management, one thing it does amazingly well is that it ensures quality comebacks each and every time for its star girl group, shooting mini-drama and multiple version MVs for each promoted release. Moreover, in the current universe of K-pop where relevancy is the name of the game, it has certainly done all that it could to ensure that T-ara constantly stays in the spotlight, for better or for worse.
With that in mind, CCM’s CEO, Kim Kwang-soo, might have been secretly gloating in all the extra media coverage caused by the scandal. Kim Kwang-soo single-handedly ignited and added fuel to the fire by acting as a highly controversial figure, portraying the role of a power hungry tyrant before and during the crisis. Abiding by the notion that any news is good news in today’s world of K-pop, he was the one responsible for escalating the situation from a simple matter of misinterpreted Twitter messages into a story of epic proportions by getting rid of Hwayoung, the apparent bullied victim.
Much of the ensuing frenzy was caused by his doing as he fed the enraged public (and the media’s need to insatiate them) by making contradictory statements and abusing his power. First, he released a statement claiming an unlikely scenario that all of T-ara’s Twitter accounts were simultaneously hacked. Next, he terminated Hwayoung’s contract citing reasons of her not getting along with the crew and staff. Then, in an unpopular move, he went into specifics of Hwayoung’s misbehavior and described an event where she allegedly refused to perform on Music Bank and threw a temper tantrum in front of press members. Undoubtedly, these statements were clouded by suspicion as Hwayoung in response to his initial reason for removing her from the group tweeted the line “facts without truth,” leading many to believe that much if not all of Kim Kwang-soo’s statements were indeed fabrications.
Other than making unsupported and highly inconceivable accusations, Kim Kwang-soo’s reputation was also at an all-time low because of his decision to add two new members to T-ara for the alleged purpose of increasing competition amongst the girls at a time when they were citing exhaustion from being overworked and not having enjoyed a vacation since their debut. Thereby when it was announced that Hwayoung was to leave the group, many considered this to be what he meant by the “competition” that the girls will be undertaking with the addition of the new members. He had made the members of T-ara seem expendable, which is really bad PR.
As poor of a public image Kim Kwang-soo has created for himself, it’s still plausible that he and CCM may recover from all this bad press over time. A big comeback from T-ara and a breakout hit with Co-ed School’s male sub-unit, Speed, in the coming months would do a lot in changing our perceptions of the tyrant rather quickly as our minds focus on CCM’s appealing idols and gradually wander away from the wrongdoings of its CEO. Things may just work out for everyone that was impacted by the controversy, including Hwayoung.
Thanks to Kim Kwang-soo’s role as a ruthless boss, Hwayoung was able to win over much of the public by playing the role of the victim. Supported by her twin sister Hyoyung (who is part of T-ara’s sister group, 5dolls) via timely tweets, Hwayoung managed to draw the public’s sympathy by mostly being quiet on the matter and speaking out when it was necessary. Despite solidifying her image as the true victim of the controversy, Hwayoung still received some undeserved backlash from the blame that was being thrown her way. Therefore, on August 28th, almost a month since her departure, she tweeted in support of her former group mates and lent her sympathies and support to the struggles they’ve had to endure because of the scandal. Since then, for a 19 year old whose time in T-ara only lasted a short 20 months, Hwayoung has been making all the right moves to ensure that she too will rise from the ashes stronger than ever.
It was quite certain that the person with the most to lose from the scandal was Hwayoung, who many thought we would never hear from again, but she’s marketed herself well since her termination from T-ara and has thus put herself in position to make a grandiose return possibly within the coming year. She made news on September 6th by tweeting that she wishes to return to the industry and releasing a rap clip with self-composed lyrics. She followed through on her intent a couple days later by making an appearance at “Freestyle Day 2012,” a hip hop festival consisting of Korea’s best underground rappers engaging in freestyle battles, to reportedly study rap. Other than that, she’s been keeping herself connected to the industry, being spotted with Dasom of Sistar, and is rumored to be dating Zico of Block B. Then just last week it was reported that Hwayoung intends to sign with MS Team Entertainment. Albeit it’s with an acting agency, this signifies that her return to the entertainment industry will be sooner than most expected.
We’ve seen this before – group members who were either forced out or willingly withdrew from a big name idol group only to resurface elsewhere to outshine their former selves. A controversy that was somewhat similar to the Hwayoung controversy was the Jay Park controversy where he was forced to resign from 2PM due to unfortunate circumstances which again were blown well out of proportion by a media frenzy. Similarly, Jay Park was ultimately depicted as the ill-fated victim and his return to the scene was undoubtedly well received. In the long run, Jay Park’s solo career has probably gained him much more attention and popularity than he would have gotten as a member of 2PM.
Likewise, HyunA’s run with Wonder Girls was rather brief but who can argue that she’s not better off now as the face of 4Minute? Even though Hwayoung is nowhere as popular as Jay Park was, nor is she as skilled he, or as marketable as HyunA, the sympathy Hwayoung gained by being portrayed as the victim of her circumstances is definitely a factor that will aid her transition back into the public eye. While her potential to reach the heights of Jay Park or HyunA is highly questionable, her determination is certainly worth applauding.
Due to her strong and resilient maneuvering during the scandal and its subsequent aftermath, people aren’t asking, “What ever became of that former member of T-ara?” but they’re wondering, “What will we see next from Hwayoung?” What are your thoughts, Seoulmates? Will Hwayoung return bigger and better than ever, or has her time to shine already come and gone? In addition, what are your feelings about T-ara’s impending comeback (rumored to be as early January)? Will T-ara’s popularity come back as well?