Recently, the SB team sat down to discuss the purpose of having a lead visual in each K-pop group. The concept is baffling to those coming into K-pop for the first time, as it seems a strange ‘skill’ to be in possession of. In a group full of genetically blessed people, it seems bizarre to pick just one as the supreme beauty.
These members labeled as ‘visual’ will depict one of two types of beauty, which each have different impacts on audiences. The first is that of traditional beauty, flaunting fair skin and small features, like 4Minute’s Hyuna and SNSD’s Yoona. These visuals embody Korea’s beauty ideals, and therefore manage to dazzle audiences by actually fulfilling seemingly impossible standards of beauty. Alternatively, the visual can also capture people’s attention by being a little bit different, perhaps even strange in appearance. These types of visuals tend to divide audiences, with some finding them ethereally beautiful and others finding them strikingly odd. These divisive visuals include the likes of Jaejoong and Exo’s Kai, who sport sharply unique features that are either loved or hated.
The visual’s role is to bring attention to the group, luring potential fans in with their stunning features. The visual stands front and centre in every group photo, proudly advertises skincare products and beautifying health drinks, and is invited to model in some of Korea’s most prestigious fashion magazines. Being the face of the group also often means that this particular individual is invited to plenty of variety shows, effectively acting as a spokesperson for the group. Their actions, behaviours and of course, physical looks, become representative of the whole group, which is why it is so vital to uphold appearances.
Generally, the roles of lead visual and the face of the group tend to overlap, although it can be argued that there are some important distinctions. The lead visual is the person that is generally known to be the best looking member out of all of them. Their role is just as distinctive as the other typical roles of lead vocal, lead rapper and lead dancer, as well as the actual leader. However, a common accusation that lead visuals face is that they contribute nothing substantial to the group (whether or not this is true is debatable.)
In contrast, the face of the group is expected to do a lot more than simply be beautiful. This is the person that cracks witty jokes on live broadcast when the other members falter, or is always appearing on variety shows to flaunt their loveable personality and great looks. This is the person that can be named by non-fans as being representative of the style and personalities of the whole group. Sometimes this person also doubles as the lead visual or leader, hence their prolific involvement in the public eye.
Examples of the differences between these two roles can be seen by taking a look at some of the most popular groups out there. At their original group size, Exo was known to have a few visuals, primarily Sehun, Luhan, Kris and Kai. However, ask anybody to name an Exo member, they are likely to say Kai, due to the fact that he is always showcasing his dancing and has a memorable look. This is what takes him from being a visual to being the overall face of the group, especially when the group first debuted. Another example is that of A-Pink, where Naeun is the group’s lead visual, but Eunji is widely recognized as the well-known face of the group.
Although the point of a lead visual is to draw attention to the group, it’s possible that it may do the opposite. Instead, the lead visual may create a personality cult surrounding just them. To test this, let’s play a word association game. Miss A? Suzy. Orange Caramel? Nana. Infinite? L. The risk of this is that the general public only becomes aware of the visual, and is not prompted into discovering more about the group. The visual then becomes nothing more than a model, recognized by the public in advertisements but not managing to create a solid fan base for the whole group.
A prime example of this is Suzy, as mentioned above. The internet exploded when it was announced that Suzy and Lee Min-ho are now a happy couple. Conveniently announced shortly before Miss A’s comeback, some began to worry that the public spotlight has once again been pointed to Suzy rather than the group as a whole. Whether this will encourage people to pay attention to Miss A’s comeback or, instead, only draw attention to Suzy is yet to be seen.
Not only is the rest of the group potentially disadvantaged by having a lead visual who gets all the attention, but the visual themselves may also suffer. Jaejoong has a killer voice, but spent the early part of his career sitting pretty as the mannequin for the group. Shinhwa’s Eric has also had to deal with this, routinely being labelled as nothing more than a pretty face. The years of blood, sweat and tears as a trainee could ultimately just be reduced to their appearances, which must be a frustrating and disheartening experience for these individuals who are dying to showcase their talents.
When it comes to designating a lead visual, a few factors clearly need to be considered. The main issue is whether the individual is contributing something useful to the group. Perhaps they have great performance talents that appear when they are actually given a chance to showcase them, rather than just being pigeonholed as the pretty one and put aside. This would mean that people would actually take a second look at the group, and likely pick their bias due to their great looks and accompanying talents.
Or, alternatively, a visual should pack a huge personality and therefore successfully become the face of the group, enticing the public to become avid fans of the group. Situations where a group simply revolves around the lead visual and the other members effectively become back up dancers need to be avoided. Although good looks are celebrated in all forms of popular media, fans themselves must also be careful not to obsess over an idol purely for this fact, as it opens up an entirely new can of worms. We should, instead, appreciate everything an idol has to offer.
Readers, who is your favorite visual?
(Images via SM Entertainment, Ceci Magazine, YG Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, Starship Entertainment, Pledis Entertainment)