A K-Pop star’s lonely downward spiral - The sad life of Goo Hara, once South Korea's pop princess


A portrait of the K-pop star Goo Hara, who committed suicide in 2019, is displayed in a room at her brother’s house in Gwangju. - PHOTO: NYTIMES

SEOUL (NEW YORK TIMES): The K-pop star looked utterly drained. Her face scrubbed of makeup, Goo Hara, one of South Korea’s most popular musical artists, gazed into the camera during an Instagram livestream from a hotel room in Japan.

In a fading voice, she read questions from fans watching from around the world.

“You going to work, fighting?” one asked.

In halting English, she gave a plaintive answer: “My life is always so fighting.”

By the time she climbed into bed at the end of the livestream in November 2019, she had reached a low point after a lifetime of struggle.

As a child, she was abandoned by her parents. Her father at one point attempted suicide. After grueling training, she debuted in a K-pop group at 17, early even by the standards of the Korean hit-making machine.

With the group, Kara, she found international fame, and Goo became a regular on Korean television, eventually anchoring her own reality series.

But with celebrity came ravenous attacks on social media from a Korean public that is as quick to criticise stars as it is to fawn over them.

Following a sordid legal fight with an ex-boyfriend, the harassment only intensified, as commenters criticised her looks, her personality and her sex life.

On Nov 23, 2019, less than a week after her Instagram appearance, she posted a photo of herself tucked in bed, with the caption “Good night.”

The next day, she was found dead in her home in Seoul, South Korea.

Goo’s suicide, at the age of 28, shocked South Koreans. But it was just one of several among young Korean entertainers in recent years.

Weeks before Goo’s death, one of her best friends, a fellow K-pop star known as Sulli, 25, also died by suicide. And last year, two performers – Jung Chae-yull, 26, an actress at the start of a promising career, and Moonbin, 25, a member of the K-pop band ASTRO – were found dead within days of each other.

The deaths have exposed a darker side to South Korea’s entertainment industry, a cultural juggernaut whose crushing demands often fall on the performers who fuel an insatiable assembly line of pop bands and streaming series.

The industry represents an extreme version of a pressure-packed South Korean society pummeled by educational, economic and other stresses. The country has the highest suicide rate among the world’s wealthiest nations, with the gap especially stark for women.

In the K-pop world, the squeeze starts early. Many young recruits are isolated from their families and deprived of the socialisation that is essential to adolescence.

They are often told what they can and cannot do in public – down to what they can eat, whether they can date and how they can interact with others.

Acknowledging the heavy strains, Hybe, the agency that represents wildly popular acts like BTS and NewJeans, recently began allowing trainees to take extended mental health breaks, and in February 2024, it announced the industry’s first in-house psychiatric clinic.

It is impossible to know whether such measures could have helped Goo.

Before she died, she had already attempted suicide at least once. On top of the online harassment and troubles with her ex-boyfriend, she was having difficulty as a newly solo artist replicating the skyrocketing success she had enjoyed with Kara, which disbanded in 2016.

“Her work as a K-pop star got a lot of love and attention from fans,” Mr Goo Ho-in, Goo’s older brother, said in an interview in Seoul.

But once she went solo, “she worked less and less, and she spent more and more time alone at home. So she received less and less love and attention from other people, and she struggled, because she is someone who needs a lot of love and attention.”

The portrait of late K-pop star Goo Hara is seen surrounded by flowers at a memorial altar at a hospital in Seoul on November 25, 2019. - AFPThe portrait of late K-pop star Goo Hara is seen surrounded by flowers at a memorial altar at a hospital in Seoul on November 25, 2019. - AFP

‘Who else can understand us?’

Goo Hara’s life was precarious almost from the start.

When she and her brother were in elementary school, their mother left them to be raised by their father in the southwestern city of Gwangju.

Not long after, Mr Goo found his father passed out and foaming at the mouth after he had swallowed more than 20 sleeping pills.

“What made her so broken is her environment growing up,” Mr Goo said of his sister.

The siblings moved in with an aunt, an uncle and younger cousins, but they always felt like a burden, Goo said.

Their father, who survived the suicide attempt, left to work construction jobs around the country and visited his children only three or four times a year, Mr Goo said.

Through Mr Goo, the father declined a request for an interview.

When Mr Goo moved in with another uncle, his sister stayed with their aunt and enrolled in a local dance school for students who aspired to K-pop stardom.

As she recounted in a TV documentary, she would often practice until 11pm. “I went to classes even when I was sick and had nosebleeds,” she said. “If I didn’t practice, I got nervous.”

Their father reappeared suddenly when the siblings were in their teens, telling them to pack up for a move to Seoul, where they met a new stepmother, Goo said.

It had been years since they had heard from their mother, who is named only as Song in redacted court documents. She could not be reached for comment.

Goo Hara began to audition regularly in Seoul, and within two years, she was signed by an entertainment agency. Three months after she started official training, she debuted as one of five members of Kara, which became a top girl group.

A frequent guest on variety shows, she competed against other K-pop stars in boxing, arm wrestling or ssireum, a style of Korean folk wrestling. Some fans called her “Goo Barbie”.

In 2014, she starred in her own reality TV show, “Hara On & Off: The Gossip,” which gave the illusion of peering into her private life.

There may have been more than a hint of truth in an episode in which she hosted a group of makeup artists, hair stylists and production assistants at her home to cook a meal. These were her closest friends, she said.

Because of her work and fame, she could trust few people. “Who else can understand us, even if we talk to them?” Goo Hara said.

On social media, she seemed to subscribe to the theory that any attention was good attention.

“What matters is how many comments and how many views,” she said in another episode of “Hara On & Off”. “What they say in the comments is not important.”

Her detractors could be cruel. When she had plastic surgery on her eyelids and uploaded a photo, commenters mocked her.

After Kara disbanded in 2016, Goo released a solo album that did not sell well.

But she still appeared regularly on TV variety shows. On one of them, in 2018, she met Choi Jong-beom, a hair stylist with a strong social media following in his own right. They began dating, and he moved in with her.

They broke up after three months. When Choi returned to Goo’s house to collect his belongings, he entered late at night while she slept, using a door passcode – numbers that corresponded to their first date – to let himself in.

Goo woke up, and the two began fighting, leaving them both scratched and bruised. Choi posted pictures of his injuries on social media and sent a message to a celebrity news outlet, suggesting he had a salacious tip about Goo.

He also sent Goo a sex video recorded on his phone and threatened to release it publicly, according to lawyers who represented Goo in a criminal lawsuit against Choi.

Against the initial advice of those lawyers, who thought she would suffer a backlash, Goo decided to report to the police both the altercation and what she said was a blackmail attempt.

“She was actually risking her livelihood as a celebrity by taking or making it known that there was this sex video,” said Mr Michael Chang, a lawyer with Shin & Kim, a large firm in Seoul that represented Goo.

Once the media learned of the video, the incident escalated into a full-blown frenzy. Choi told one news outlet that Goo had recorded the footage herself, and told another that she had an “explosive personality”.

Goo tried to tamp down the spiraling hysteria, telling an internet news daily that she wanted to apologise and halt the “ungainly war of attrition” in which the two ex-lovers were “slinging mud at each other like little children”.

K-pop girl group Kara performs in Seoul in 2013. Goo Hara (second from right) had died by apparent suicide. - AFPK-pop girl group Kara performs in Seoul in 2013. Goo Hara (second from right) had died by apparent suicide. - AFP

Retreating into isolation

Before Goo was scheduled to testify in the criminal suit accusing Choi of blackmail, she posted a message on Instagram in May 2019.

“I am tired of pretending that I am happy and everything is OK,” she wrote. “I don’t want to cause concern among other people.” Five days later, another post appeared with a cryptic caption: “Goodbye”.

Her manager found her unconscious in her home and rushed her to the hospital. When her brother visited, she was still being administered oxygen but immediately wanted to check her phone. “She was looking for articles about her,” he said.

In response to news about the fight with her ex-boyfriend, commenters online had criticised her “terrifying personality”.

Even in mundane selfie posts, people called her “low quality” or sniped that “her previous face was better”.

Choi was eventually found guilty of assault and intimidation. A judge sentenced him to one year in prison. Through his lawyer, he did not respond to requests for comment.

A court in Seoul ruled in a separate lawsuit in 2022 by Mr Goo and his father that Choi must pay 78 million won (S$78,700) in a settlement to the Goo family.

During this period, Goo Hara seemed to shut herself off from the few people she trusted.

“She was the kind of person who wouldn’t express her struggles very much, and she kept things inside,” said Ms Choi Ran, a makeup artist who knew Goo from her earliest days in Kara and even lived with her at one point.

But in the months leading up to Goo’s death, she had isolated herself, and Ms Choi only read about her famous friend’s troubles in the news.

In November 2019, as Goo prepared for a tour in Japan, where she had built a fan base during her time in Kara, she seemed to rally, inviting members of her retinue for dinner, Ms Choi said.

Days later, disaster struck. Sulli, an outspoken K-pop star who had drawn her own fierce social media criticism for appearing in public without a bra and discussing her social anxiety, was found dead at her home.

Goo and Sulli had long bonded over their shared experiences dealing with a zealous and at times unforgiving fan base. In a tearful farewell posted online from Japan, Goo vowed to “work harder and live harder”.

After her tour, Goo went back to her home in Seoul, a two-story brick villa in the upscale neighborhood of Cheongdam surrounded by luxury boutiques and restaurants. She had recently invited a former classmate to stay with her because she was afraid to live alone.

The house was so spacious that sometimes they would text each other – “What should we eat for dinner?” or “Let’s go to sleep at 9” – from different parts of the villa, the friend, Ms Goo Da-hae, who is not related to Goo, said in a telephone interview.

Mr Goo knew his sister was depressed but thought she had stabilised upon her return. “She looked better than I thought she would,” he said.

She was encouraging her brother and sister-in-law to have children and had even helped pay for visits to an obstetrician. It seemed as if she was looking ahead to a new phase.

The weekend she died, Mr Goo offered to visit, but his sister told him she was going to a party.

A maid discovered Goo’s body on Nov 24. Police found a handwritten note “lamenting her personal situation” and declared the death a suicide.

On the day of Goo’s funeral, her brother learned that his wife was pregnant. Goo’s mother emerged from her long absence to claim half of her daughter’s estate, her legal share.

Mr Goo, his father and his aunt filed a lawsuit arguing that Goo’s mother should receive nothing.

A judge reduced her share to 40 per cent, and Goo Ho-in filed a petition to change the law so that parents who abandoned their offspring in childhood would be banned from inheriting any part of their estate. The National Assembly has yet to act on what sponsors are calling the Goo Hara law.

Goo’s brother said he had mostly made peace with her death. “I decided that if she died because there was nothing else she could do, and that choice would make her feel comfortable,” he said, “then I would respect her choice”.

For fans, the memory of Goo lingers. At a K-pop awards ceremony in Osaka, Japan, her former band, Kara, reunited to debut a new single. Two concertgoers brandished paper fans imprinted with the faces of the band members, including Goo.

“When she passed away, every day was so painful, and I was crying every day,” said one of the concertgoers, Ms Natsumi Yatabe. “When the day of her death comes around, I think about her and start to tear up again.”

A video montage shown onstage included footage of Goo. Her name went unmentioned.

“Move again, we waited for this time,” the band sang. “Roller-coaster ride, strong survive.” New York Times via The Straits Times/ANN

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South Korea , K-Pop , Goo Hara

   

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