K-pop has still never truly broken in the States. Just 12 albums and five songs have ever charted here, and the only one you probably know is Psy's "Gangnam Style."
We’ll certainly be able to recalibrate K-pop’s American success when Korean rapper CL of the K-pop group 2NE1 drops her Diplo-assisted debut solo album. But if anyone’s on CL’s heels as K-pop’s ambassador, it’s Jeon Somi, the 15-year-old firecracker who fronts the group I.O.I., playing Staples Center on Saturday night as part of KCON L.A.
“I don’t have any pressure,” Somi says in a rare interview over Skype. “Is that a good thing? I just love to be in front of people, and I love to be onstage. Maybe it’s because people feel closer to me, because I’m biracial, but maybe not. I don’t think much about it.”
Somi is impossibly poised for a 15-year-old. On TV, her demeanor is warm and easy, and that might be in part because she’s been training to become a pop star for years as part of Korean superlabel JYP (named for charismatic owner Park Jin-young, a major pop star in his own right). She won the reality TV show Produce 101, in which 101 trainees from different entertainment companies (think someone signed to Sony squaring off against someone signed to Universal) competed for 11 spots in I.O.I. (or Ideal of Idol) through a series of singing and dancing challenges.
Similar to American Idol, the viewing audience voted online, picking their favorites based on how they did from week to week. When Somi won, raw emotion tore through her, that same emotion that drew the fans to her. And now, with I.O.I.’s single “Dream Girls” (released by YMC Entertainment) a certifiable hit, Somi is already a big star in South Korea and beyond.
Somi also has a secret weapon. Other K-pop stars have been born in North America — Sunny and Tiffany from arguably K-pop’s biggest girl group, Girls' Generation, were born in California — but Somi is biracial, and her Korean and Dutch-Canadian sides allow her to move between language and culture seamlessly. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to be Canadian to achieve global pop domination (see Bieber, Drake).
“Some people don’t know this, but I actually have three nationalities,” Somi says. “Korean, Canadian and Dutch. I am very proud of all three of them. I think it also helps me to understand the world more. And well, I’m very thankful and proud to be Korean, I’m very thankful and proud to be Canadian and Dutch. My dad says this to me a lot of times, but I’m not an apple or an orange; I’m just something a bit different. It’s hard to explain exactly, but it’s good.”
Here in the United States, it’s not always relevant to talk about race as a contributing factor for an outsider’s success. We have a completely different history with race compared with Korea, which has a very homogenous population. But Somi's white father, Matthew Douma, was able to use that to his advantage in his own career — and it's possible his biracial daughter might be able to do the same.
A former underwear model and makeup artist, Douma moved to Seoul to study taekwondo; there he met his wife, Jeon SunHee. They moved to Canada and had Somi, whose real name is Ennik Somi Douma. But when SunHee became homesick, they returned to South Korea, where Douma worked as a photographer for the L.A. Times and later built a successful career as one of the country's few go-to white actors, landing roles in Korean film and television including Descendants of the Sun, one of the most popular TV shows across Asia.
While her father was getting roles written specifically for white actors, Somi, being biracial, had to contend with being different from the other kids, particularly when she transferred from an international school to a Korean school.
“I was teased sometimes about my looks,” she told me. “They called me japjong, which means ‘mutt’ [literally, ‘mixed breed’]. And they called me jjampong, which means stew with a lot of different kinds of seafood. That means ‘mixed.’ I wanted to blend in. I told my mom and dad that I wanted to dye my hair black, I wanted to change my eye color, I wanted to [have surgery on] my eyes, change my nose. I think it made them surprised, and a little bit depressed.”
Douma, knowing what it's like to be obviously different in the place where you live, empathizes. “Yeah, I felt sad that you had to go through that,” he says to his daughter, sitting next to her during another Skype call.
Even after Somi was signed to JYP, after her second time auditioning for the company, she had doubts about making it in K-pop as a biracial girl.
“I heard a lot of things a long time ago, where they had this thought that, ‘Only Koreans — no foreigners,’” she said. “So I had this thought, ‘Well, maybe I can’t be a K-pop star, because I’m biracial.’ Well, I think the time changed, and the people's minds, they changed too.”
Somi's first experience in K-pop was on the show Sixteen, a similar concept to Produce 101. Unexpectedly, Somi made it to the finals of that show before she was cut in the final round, mostly because she was too young.
It was an emotionally draining experience; Douma wonders if other girls might have quit the business after being handed such a defeat. But for someone like Somi, it was an opportunity to grow and to engage a following. When JYP gave Somi a week to decide whether to be on Produce 101, she jumped at the chance, and that following she built on Sixteen backed her up hard. Now, it’s easy to quantify Somi’s appeal; Somi received 380,000 fan votes, twice as many as the second-place contender, Kim Sejeong.
“When Somi was in Sixteen, she was a dark horse,” says Douma. “No one expected her to go far, but she made it to the finals. One of her best friends was selected for the final nine. The way she accepted not being selected was really well-received by a lot of people. When they had 101, that really caught on. People voted in from all over. There was a campaign in Vietnam that had over 50,000 members. I don’t mean to talk about her notoriety, but she has fans in Honduras, she has fans in Peru, Brazil, like all over. There’s one person who has cancer in Portugal who says they were fans since Sixteen, and one of the reasons they were able to receive treatment and feel good is because they watched Somi on TV.”
DR, a Canadian songwriter and producer behind some of the biggest hits for mega-groups EXO and Girls' Generation, sees Somi as having an appeal beyond the Korean audience. When I.O.I.’s contract ends with YMC Entertainment, Somi will go back to JYP, but instead of being a trainee, she will now be considered an artist.
“If she was here, and she was a Canadian artist, and she put out an album and did her own thing, she would have a chance of making it here,” says DR. “So with what she’s already doing on the Korean side, I definitely think she’s got an open lane to being an ambassador, and pushing not only the K-pop genre but maybe even breaking down the genre and [just] saying, ‘It’s music.’”
Somi isn't K-pop's first biracial star. A K-pop group launched in 2011 called Chocolat was specifically comprised of members with mixed Korean and European or Latino backgrounds, and a Korean/Welsh singer named Shannon has been active in the industry since 2013. But so far, no biracial K-pop artist has achieved success on the level of a Girls' Generation. Somi appears to be on the cusp of changing that.
It’s not easy for her. Because of her professional way of speaking, it’s easy to forget she’s only 15, and she wasn’t even allowed to go onstage when KCON went to Paris in June. She gets up at 3 in the morning every day, and she only sees her family once every few weeks. Plus, there’s the difficulty of being together with 10 other girls at all times.
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“The hardest thing for I.O.I. is waiting for my turn to do something,” she said. “It takes, like, 30 minutes to order food. They all want to eat different menus.”
But like any 15-year-old, she still enjoys the simple pleasures in life. Is she nervous to come to L.A. for KCON and play before tens of thousands of adoring fans? Is it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that she sees as a way to showcase her talent in front of an American audience? Does she feel pressure to represent Korea?
If she does, you wouldn't know it from her answer. “I’m very excited,” she says. “I want to buy a lot of stuff, I want to eat a lot of stuff in L.A. I’ve never been to Disneyland before.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Jeon Somi's real name. We regret the error.