Photo credit: Laura Renfroe
The world of the Korean pop industry undoubtedly appears to be all shine and shimmer: large concert speakers that seem to reach the rafters accommodate the bold expanse of fans flooding the arena. The center idol on stage, haloed by blinding spotlights, pushes her brightly colored hair over her shoulder and offers one last grin to the camera as the televised performance comes to an end.
From her LA home, a young bushy-tailed teen shuts off her TV, the impeccably beautiful idols snapping to darkness, and half-listens as her mother continues to chastise her on how she should avoid bright-colored clothes, eat less, be ashamed of herself.
A sudden flare darkens the teen’s face, and in that moment, she decides she will prove her mother, and the world, wrong.
Skye Shin is not your typical idol-wannabe among the flashy, vibrant fanbase that is K-pop, the industry that is the spotlight of sweat-breaking choreographies, mobs of starstruck fans, and stirring performances tailored to sublimity.
As euphoric as it may seem, the industry dictates perfection, a pressure that weighs above every performance and paparazzi camera shot. It’s an industry that demands synchronicity, unparalleled energy, and fiery determination to succeed.
Taboos against varying sexual orientations and body sizes loom beneath the industry’s spangled surface, and Korean-American teen Skye is determined to break this unbridled discrimination.
The young adult fiction book I’ll Be the One, written by debut author Lyla Lee, was published June 16, 2020, as a free-flying success with its rose-tinted romance and eye-opening insights to important topics including body positivity, destructive parental expectations, and bisexuality.
The deliciously endearing novel, recommended by The Today Show, prospers as one of Barnes & Noble’s Top 100 Books of Summer for Teen & YA and a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2020.
For as long as she could remember, protagonist Skye grew up with dance. Surrounded by the blooming evidence of K-pop penetrating the U.S. thanks to big-hit groups like BTS, Skye takes it upon herself to apply for a national reality-show competition for aspiring K-pop trainees called You’re My Shining Star.
Bursting with confidence, Skye joins the competition with hopes to make it big, overcoming fat-phobic judges and parental pressures all urging her to drop her dreams. Conflicts ensue nonstop over the course of the competition, but Skye’s resilience against society and the media’s bias remains unmatched.
The diversity in I’ll Be the One tastes like a refreshingly sweet tea on a scalding summer day. The novel combats the unrealistic ideals mainly showcased in mainstream Korean media, making for one inspiration of a read.
Skye, plus-sized and bisexual, feels suffocated by societal standards of what a K-pop star should be. She soon finds her comfort crowd among her new competition friends as they support her journey. The book features lovabley relatable characters from dreamy insta-famous model and love interest Henry Cho to the adorable sapphic side couple Lana and Tiffany.
Together, these rookies develop an unbreakable bond as they navigate through the relentless stages of the competition’s selection process, conquering numerous exhausting practices, performance disasters, and competitor drama incidents.
The courtship fluff of the novel between heartthrob Henry Cho and spirited Skye serves as enough to make readers swoon while the underlying themes of detrimental cultural constructs and prejudice represent a cry for change in the Korean pop industry.
“It’s important to have more LGBTQ+ representation in entertainment/etc. because the more representation there is, the more queer people (kids and otherwise!) can realize that they are 100% okay being who they are and aren’t as big of an abnormality as society may lead them to believe,” Lyla Lee, author of I’ll Be the One, eagerly told me.
“Every time a celebrity comes out as queer, I’m so happy and proud of them, since I know there are millions of people who are probably inspired by their bravery. And many closeted (or even out) kids can be inspired by fictional queer characters in media as well,” Lee continued. “I think there has definitely been an improvement from earlier decades but I think we could always have better and more widespread representation.”
I’ll Be the One truly opened my eyes to the immense impact of a generally homophobic and “perfect body” idealized music industry. The theme of the novel proves the destructivity of media standards, causing Skye to almost lose herself to the immense discouragement she receives because of her body, from both her mother and social media.
Society tends to employ plus-size or queer aspiring idols as “weaker” than the rest, establishing a toxic environment that has witheld many prospective K-pop idols from pursuing their dreams. Skye teaches us through I’ll Be the One to never conform to societal pressures and to reach for the stars, no matter how high.
During our interview, Lee shared some of her most cherished memories when writing I’ll Be the One.
“I have two favorite memories,” Lee stated. “One is interviewing my friend who works in the K-pop music industry in his studio in Seoul on one hot summer day in South Korea. He actually grew up in LA and competed in an international K-pop competition like Skye and became a K-pop star, so he was able to provide me a lot of insight about his experiences, etc.”
“Another was when I wrote the scene when Skye and her friends were in the Korean spa while relaxing at a Korean spa in my neighborhood myself. It was a fun little experience I did for myself, and I always smile when people tell me they like that scene,” Lee concluded.
Alongside multilayered thoughtfulness, I’ll Be the One is simply joyous to read. Its universal positive energy and coming-of-age romance makes for an addictive page-turner. This novel is equally immersive and inspiring, featuring dynamic relationships and fun competition elements.
The novel reinforces the needs for a more accurate media representation. While we have come a long way, the entertainment industry continues to showcase unhealthy standards of what stardom should look like.
Just as Skye tells herself in I’ll Be the One, “You are beautiful. Don’t let anyone, not even yourself, tell you any different.”