Every group has at least one star, the one that the agency pedals as the group’s main selling point. While in many cases a group may have multiple members who stand out, most groups have that one member who casual fans can point to and say “I like X, s/he is the only person I know in this group.” It’s not luck of the draw that these particular group members become so individually popular. On the contrary, it’s by design.
Idol groups are constructed so that each member plays a particular role or serves a particular purpose, but that does not mean that each member is equally liked – far from it. Out of the many prominent roles an idol may undertake in a group (Vocalist, Dancer, Rapper, Leader, and Visual), some are meant to be more liked than others. Certain members whose repertoire of skills allow for them to fulfill more likeable roles as a result become more popular than other members of the same group. As we’ll see, the roles and traits which dictate a member’s popularity are completely different for guys than they are for girls.
Starting with the men, the one trait which is most celebrated is leadership, and so those who are branded as the leader of the group immediately stand out. Yet being the leader alone does not automatically guarantee one’s popularity. It is when leadership is combined with musical talent that we see true superstars come to outshine their group. The most explicit example of this musically talented leader is Jung Yong-hwa. He is the leader, the lead vocalist, and a songwriter of CN Blue. He is the voice, the face, and the mind of the group. Very much like how most people associate Adam Levine with Maroon 5 (and for our older readers, Justin Timberlake with ‘N Sync), being the lead singer on a popular group by design assures an immense elevation in popularity – also known as “Lead Singer Syndrome (LSS).”
A second beneficiary of LSS is Yong-hwa’s FNC labelmate, Lee Hong-ki. Although the two are very similar in that they are the voice and the face of their respective groups, and they’ve both demonstrated a knack at composing their group’s music, Hong-ki surprisingly isn’t considered the leader of FT Island. Nevertheless, having been in the entertainment scene much longer than Yong-hwa, Hong-ki has also established himself as an actor on dramas and as a strong variety show personality. As a result of his multiple strengths in different areas of entertainment, Hong-ki is not only considered the face of his group, but arguably the face of his label.
Variety is another talent that can vastly propel a group member into stardom. Variety idols have the potential to shine above other group members despite not being known for their musical or leadership abilities. Although it certainly doesn’t hurt to be a leader and a lead vocalist, as Jo Kwon occupies these roles for 2AM; his popularity largely sprouts from his wacky persona which has made him a highly sought after guest on variety shows. Best known for his antics at imitating female artists and being a wildly outgoing personality, he is considerably the most renowned idol in today’s variety scene.
Jo Kwon’s closest rival in idol variety is perhaps Lee Joon of MBLAQ. While all members of MBLAQ generally do well on variety appearances, Lee Joon stands out for his sense of humor and beloved personality. His likeable character has also scored him memorable guest appearances in Rain’s American showcase Ninja Assassin and Hyuna’s “Bubble Pop!” MV. Following closely on the heels of Lee Joon is Kwanghee of ZE:A whose variety ability is showcased through his character’s compatibility with Secret’s Sunhwa on We Got Married, but more on that later. It’s quite evident that possessing a strong variety personality is a key trait that can launch individual idols into immense fame regardless of the role they play in their group.
Other than being talented in singing and variety, male group members are also held in high regard for their rapping ability. As with skilled vocalists, when legitimate rap talent is combined with a leadership role, popularity tends to heavily shift in favor of this second type of musically talented leader. In order to be considered legitimate, however, rappers must first earn their stripes from the underground. After beginning his career as a relative unknown and later becoming an innovator of bringing hip hop into the mainstream, Tablo is widely regarded as the heart, mind, and soul of Epik High. As the lead rapper, lead singer, and one of the lyricists and composers of the hip hop trio, Tablo is the face most people associate with Epik High as he is the one who also gets the most camera time. Having also established his own record label (temporarily) and released a solo album, he is a true innovator whose accomplishments have not only outshined that of his group, but have also defined and evolved the genre we know as K-pop.
Honorable mentions in this category go out to Zico of Block B and Bang Yong-guk of B.A.P who are both underground rappers turned leaders of an idol group. They contribute both musically and lyrically to their group’s songs as well as providing stunning rap verses. As leaders of their group, their popularity is largely dependent upon the success of their group. Look for big things to come from these two as Block B and B.A.P climb up the industry ladder.
While talent in either music and/or variety seems to be the main variable in determining the popularity of male group members, the same cannot be said for the ladies. Not that there aren’t exceptions. CL falls under the description of a musically talented leader as the main rapper and “baddest female” of 2NE1. She too sprung to immense popularity with the success of her group. But as we’ll see, she is quite a rarity. In fact, talents which heavily determine popularity amongst male idols such as vocals, rapping, and leadership weigh in much less significantly for female idols.
It turns out that the role which carries the most weight for determining a female member’s popularity is that of the visual. Many new (and old) to K-pop are confused by the meaning behind the role of visual, but as explained here, visuals actually contribute gigantically towards the successful marketing of K-pop. Visuals are often the ones who generate the most revenue for a group because of the money they pull in from doing CFs. While groups may have multiple visuals and rotate the role, there is usually one member who occupies the unofficial role of the main visual – the face of the group. This member is likely the visual who has gained the most popularity over time due to receiving the majority of fan bias within the group.
So what’s the most important characteristic of being a visual? If it wasn’t immediately obvious, it’s the ability to be visually appealing! Note that this trait is completely independent of an idol’s musical abilities and a factor that most idols cannot control or for the most part improve upon (that is unless they pay a visit to the surgeon’s table). Not to say that being the main visual necessarily implies a lack of talent or that actual talent isn’t a necessary component in gaining popularity, but talent is surely measured less significantly than looks in determining the popularity of female idols.
An excellent combination of talent and looks is Hyorin of Sistar. While much of Hyorin’s high esteem is deservedly credited to her unparalleled vocals, dominating performance on Immortal Song 2, and starring role on Dream High 2, her immense popularity is certainly supported by her lusciously bodacious physical assets. As one of the two members on Sistar lauded for their looks, Hyorin is by far the most well known. In terms of popularity, Bora comes next as the group’s typical sexy dancer and untalented rapper. Living in the shadows of the group’s more visually appealing members, Soyu and Dasom have recently gained ground by appearing in other artists’ work. Dasom has been featured in MVs by Vixx and K. Will while Soyu was featured on Geeks’ recent title track. Due to the mounting success of her group, Hyorin’s popularity needs to be even higher to outshine the mighty Sistar.
Like Hyorin, Uee of After School is also a highly popular face on a well established group. She is well known for her MC abilities on Music Bank and starring roles in dramas. Her title as After School’s most popular member can be realized quantitatively through her earnings. She has confessed to making the most money in her group and that she makes significantly more than the next highest earning member. On the other hand, other than being one of After School’s many visuals and generating a ton of extra revenue for the group, Uee provides very little musically. Her popularity is largely based on her looks which have undoubtedly aided her in gaining extracurricular roles and endorsements outside of After School. If it weren’t for the popularity of After School’s former leader Kahi and the rising popularity of its Orange Caramel sub-unit, Uee would certainly be considered amongst the top tier of spotlight stealers.
Closely treading upon the status of those who have transcended the popularity of their group are miss A’s Suzy and Secret’s Sunhwa. These two outclass the likes of those previously mentioned because not only are they the unanimous face of their respective group, but they’ve also become respectfully talented in an area outside of music. Suzy is a budding actress with a ton of potential, having earned a handful of rookie actress awards and the title of “Nation’s First Love” through her roles in the drama Dream High and the movie Architecture 101.
Meanwhile, Sunhwa has gone the variety route, gaining enormous popularity through demonstrating her charming personality in Invincible Youth and We Got Married. Her partnership with Kwanghee on We Got Married is a variety match made in heaven. The show has propelled the hilarious variety couple into the spotlight, further escalating Sunhwa’s status as Secret’s variety extraordinaire, leading revenue earner, and main visual. Because of their incredible talents outside of music, Suzy and Sunhwa are the financial and marketing staples of their respective group, and thus their meteoric gain in popularity has also greatly contributed to their group’s success and rising recognition.
Before we move on to the female starlets who have completely outshined their groups, let’s acknowledge a few honorable mentions who have established quite the reputation for themselves as the face of their group. Sohee is a renowned member of Wonder Girls who is much beloved for the many reasons listed in this article. Sulli, the precious maknae of f(x), has established her acting career, earning the lead role in the popular drama To the Beautiful You. Lastly, Minah is an amazing vocalist and the prized star of Girl’s Day, an up and coming group which puts her voice and cute features on constant display. Expect big things from her as Girl’s Day attempts to claw itself out of the quagmire of redundant girl groups.
Finally we come to the heavy hitters who have outslugged all other members of their group combined. They are the superstars, the showstoppers, and the group goliaths whose popularity have risen much higher than that of their group. And unlike others on this list, their popularity does not necessarily come at the benefit of their group. Who are these attention hogs who have stolen their group’s spotlight and refuse to give it back?
After realizing adequate amounts of success with 4Minute, Cube Entertainment decided to try HyunA as a soloist and to promote her sexuality in a very aggressive manner. From a marketing standpoint, Cube has made the right moves with HyunA, fetishizing her in “Bubble Pop!,” featuring her in “Gangnam Style,” further fetishizing her in “Troublemaker,” and endlessly sexifying her in “Ice Cream.” At the same time, she receives a bulk of the face time in her promotions with 4Minute. While Cube is lackadaisically attempting to popularize the other members of 4Minute (with hints at a “Double Yoon” project), HyunA has already established quite the name for herself on a global scale due to her brand of sexual innuendo music, her racy dance moves, and the soaring number of views racked up by her MVs. 4Minute will forever be playing catch up.
The goliath amongst group goliaths though is no other than Eunji of A Pink, and rightfully so. Firstly, she has the vocals to carry her under-talented group. Like Hyorin and Minah, she is the featured face and voice of her group that is put on loud display. Secondly, like Suzy and Sunhwa, she has enjoyed accomplishments in areas outside of her group’s activities. She has proven to be a talented actress in her debut role as the female lead in the immensely popular drama Reply 1997. Further rocketing her popularity, she’s earned the title of the “satoori idol” through the character she played in Reply 1997, and she’s been featured on two chart-topping OSTs with fellow cast member Seo In-guk. Most importantly, Eunji has virtually no competition from her group, even more so than HyunA. While her group-mates have made television appearances here and there, none of them can hold a candle to her in terms of popularity. A Pink as a group is far from being a household name and until they get better, most fans of the group will be fans of Eunji, not A Pink.
In summary, male and female group artists who tend to outshine their fellow group members contrast in the traits which allow them to do so. For males, talent and leadership are the main components of fame, along with strong personalities developed through variety. The popularity of these male goliaths tends to accompany the rise and success of their group. For females, talent is also important, but it’s not as much of a determinant of fame as visual appeal. Female members who establish themselves as the face of the group and also excel in areas outside of their group’s activities are likely to become their group’s undisputed heavyweight. Unlike the men, female goliaths have shown that they can gain massive popularity independent of the success of their group.
Whether these group goliaths actually help or hinder their group’s rise in the industry, let’s not forget that the industry giants all contain multiple superstars in their ranks. Male groups Big Bang, Beast, and Super Junior possess many musically talented members who are also popular in areas other than music. Female super group SNSD features several popular visuals who are also multi-talented. This shows that groups can’t go wrong when focusing on marketing all of their members instead of relying on their one prized possession to do all of the heavy lifting.
With that said, are there any gargantuan group members I neglected to mention? Who gets your vote for being the biggest spotlight stealer? As always, leave your comments below!