N.Flying made their comeback earlier this month with the second part to their Fly High project, “Rooftop.” The comeback marked their first as a 4-member boy group following the departure of bassist Kwon Kwang-jin in December 2018.
Kwon left the group after a post uploaded to SNS alleged he had sexually harassed fans at fan sign events and dated the owners of fansites. N.Flying’s agency, FNC Entertainment, denied the sexual harassment allegations but admitted he had interactions with fans outside of his official schedule. FNC labelled his conduct “improper for an idol” and indicated Kwon was voluntarily leaving the group.
Whilst idols dating other idols is still generally considered a scandal, it is not wholly uncommon. 2019 started with Dispatch’s annual dating scandal report which revealed Exo’s Kai and Black Pink’s Jennie were in a relationship. As reactions go, Kai and Jennie’s dating scandal has been received broadly positively.
On the other hand, idols dating fans is much rarer and is considered more taboo than your usual run-of-the-mill dating scandals. It is also an area where the Korean and Western entertainment industries are more similar than they are different. There are only a few examples of Western celebrities dating fans: actor Jake T. Austin was revealed to be dating a long-time fan who had publicly expressed her adoration towards the actor on social media.
Meanwhile, there are some American artists who have confessed to meeting their spouses at concerts, including Hanson members and Green Day’s frontman Billie Joe Armstrong. Similarly in K-pop, Seo Taiji and his ex-wife, Lee Ji-ah, met when she attended his concert in Los Angeles; they later married in secret.
The concept of an idol dating a fan is probably frowned upon because it can be viewed as an abuse of power and trust. In cases around similar topics, such as student-teacher relationships, there is deemed to be a power imbalance between the two individuals involved in the relationship. In the case of an idol, the fan’s attraction predates the relationship. There are likely to be concerns that this imbalance could potentially lead to an exploitative situation, for example the idol using their power to extract certain benefits.
This situation could arguably be exacerbated in the case of an idol dating a fansite owner: the idol could, intentionally or unintentionally, have greater influence over how their image is promoted within the fandom and beyond. This could mislead fans and diminish the healthy distance that ought to exist between idols and fans.
From a K-pop entertainment agency’s point of view, dating in and of itself goes against the fantasy that agencies actively market: idols are promoted as the ultimate boyfriend or girlfriend. K-pop idols are supposed to be a blank slate for fans to project their own fantasies on. Dating interferes with this image, reducing an idol’s utility for the agency and his or her desirability among fans.
From a fan’s perspective, an idol dating another fan could be deemed discriminative. Dating a fan could be perceived as the idol expressing preference for one fan over others, and therefore spurning the devotion of many others. Idol groups are reliant on their fans, hence the strong fandom culture and identity found in K-pop, so artists are often unlikely to undertake any activity which could damage this relationship.
Nevertheless, one area where idols dating fans seems to be less taboo is when that fan is also a celebrity themselves. In the Western entertainment industry we saw this with Tom Cruise marrying self-confessed fan, Katie Holmes. In Korea, basketball star Im Hyo-sung was a hardcore fan of S.E.S.’s Shoo before they married. More recently, the dating news of Running Man’s Lee Kwang-soo prominently reported that his actress girlfriend Lee Sun-bin had professed to be his fan on multiple occasions prior to their embarking on a relationship.
This nuance appears to make all the difference in the public psyche, with the power imbalance thought to be less pronounced. For this reason, idols dating fans who are also famous may not be outside the realms of possibility. On a superficial level, celebrities dating other celebrities could give both individuals publicity whilst dating fans is unlikely to offer the idols, their agencies or their fandom any similar utility.
Dating for idols even in the simplest of cases is a reputational and social minefield and can, in the worst cases, halt or ruin careers. With allegations of dating fans being at the centre of Kwang-jin’s departure from N.Flying the taboo around idols dating non-celebrity fans is unlikely to disappear any time soon.