Alongside the four other doll-like, pitch-perfect women in her K-pop group, Amber Liu is out of place. She hails from Los Angeles, for starters. Her parents are Taiwanese.
More than anything, though, it's her look. While her chic counterparts wear matching skirts and dresses, Liu sticks to shorts, muscle shirts and T-bird–style men's jackets. Her hair is short, boyish. She does pushups with her fans and plays basketball with male K-pop stars. She wears baseball caps, and raps.
During a magazine shoot in which she and another member of her group, f(x), posed as a couple, Liu played the boyfriend character, and rumors continue to circulate that she's secretly a dude posing in an elaborate Victor/Victoria ruse.
She's a one-of-a-kind figure on the increasingly global K-pop scene, in which a hegemonic, factorylike infrastructure churns out carbon-copy pop stars who are expected to look and act, well, perfect. Many obtain invasive plastic surgery to fit expectations, and any deviation from conformity is stamped out behind the scenes.
“I hear that I dress like a boy and that I should be more girly, which I can understand, but I just focus on what I want to do and enjoy my time with fans who love me for who I am,” Liu writes, diplomatically, in an email.
But Liu has not just integrated herself, she's prospered, becoming a huge star in one of the most popular girl groups in K-pop and a global celebrity in her own right.
Liu, who recently turned 21, was raised in West Hills and is fluent in English and Mandarin. “I grew up playing a lot of sports, [and] thus tying up your hair and wearing comfortable clothing was a must,” she says, adding that she was particularly passionate about skateboarding. “I finally chopped off my ponytail at the end of middle school, and it was the best decision I made.”
Still, in high school bullies teased her and told her she looked like a man, sometimes making her cry.
She discovered K-pop while on a middle school trip to Taiwan with her family. By the time she entered high school, she had fallen in love with a genre she couldn't even really understand — considering she didn't speak Korean.
But that didn't stop her in 2008 from auditioning, with a friend, in Los Angeles for a recording deal with S.M. Entertainment, one of the largest Korean music labels and a driving force behind K-pop's internationalization.
Before trying out, Liu memorized her audition songs and studied up on their meanings. Although her friend didn't make the cut, Liu was one of two hopefuls scouted, and at age 15 she moved to South Korea to train full-time in a genre her friends had never even heard of, for a spot in a yet-to-be-named girl group.
Her family suspected her style would make things difficult for her, but Liu was determined: “Something always told me it was going to be fine and to continue to be myself without changing.”
When f(x)'s management company told Liu she could keep her boyish look, she was relieved. “There was always a concern in the back of my mind about how I would fit in visually with the other girls.”
The beginning was rough. She felt like she didn't belong, and she could barely communicate, though her new bandmates — Victoria, Luna, Sulli and Krystal — helped her transition.
Even today, the group members, whose ages range from 19 to 26, eat, sleep and shop together. During the promotion of new material, they wake up as early as 3 a.m. and finish rehearsals as late as 2 a.m.
But their hard work paid off. A year after Liu's move, S.M. introduced the quintet as f(x) — a play on the mathematical notation for function, and their X chromosomes.
Dubbed “Asia's pop dance group,” f(x) features Chinese, Korean and Korean-American members, and Liu's Taiwanese heritage is considered an essential part of their international appeal.
Although three of the members were born outside of Korea, all five are fluent in Korean — Liu most recently.
Today their music videos get millions of views, and their latest album, July's Pink Tape, hit the No. 1 spot on South Korea's Gaon music chart. Ten of the album's 12 songs have reached spots in the top 40.
In person, Liu is calm and confident, though she still sometimes betrays a hint of shyness when speaking to fans. Well-known for pranking her peers, she cracks jokes in a deep voice.
As a somewhat androgynous female K-pop star, she is as out of place as she was in high school — and looks at times more like the male stars of the genre, who are somewhat feminized, at least by American standards.
Not in spite of this but because of it, Liu is enormously popular with fans, who seem to have been clamoring for someone who wasn't a cookie-cutter K-pop angel. Or perhaps they've even been clamoring for something more; many of her followers muse online about her coming out, or craft fan fiction that portrays her as a lesbian.
Liu has become a unique brand in the candy-colored, choreographed world of K-pop, where dozens of barely distinguishable groups debut every year. This has undoubtedly helped her — and f(x)'s — international appeal as well, as the next frontier of hallyu (Korean wave) culture appears to be Liu's native country.
In August, the group joined a handful of K-pop idols in Los Angeles for KCON, which looked to capitalize, in part, on the K-pop inroads here that Psy's “Gangnam Style” helped establish.
For Liu, the convention was a return home, and at a press conference she summed up f(x)'s ethos in English: “We are not just cute and little and soft. Our music is powerful and strong.”
Although f(x)'s EDM-influenced earworms are infinitely hummable, full of soprano melodies and looped choruses with an occasional rap from Liu, the act might be best known for their fluid, stylish dance routines, which sample everything from Bollywood to hip-hop.
At their KCON performance at the Sports Arena, Liu and her bandmates started their set in a sports car, fanned themselves for emphasis during “Hot Summer” and vogued hypnotically during “Electric Shock.” Her bandmates wore short dresses, tiny skirts, butt-clutching hot pants or pleather bootie shorts, but Liu stuck with baggy board shorts and a roomy tank.
That hasn't been the extent of their American invasion: In March, f(x) were the first K-pop group to perform at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and later that month, they starred in a Funny or Die video in which they taught Pitch Perfect's Anna Kendrick how to perform K-pop moves (after viciously mocking her, of course).
Other Americans have infiltrated the genre as well; Vice magazine's music site, Noisey, called Bradley Ray Moore, a U.S. native in the group Superstar K, “probably the most famous white guy” in Korea.
“Many people think just because they don't speak a certain language, they wouldn't easily relate to it,” Liu says, although she calls K-pop a “universal language.”
As for her own language skills? Thanks to years of practice, performances and an emcee gig on Korean television, she's now, finally, fluent in Korean.
The only problem? “My Mandarin,” she jokes, “is slowly getting worse.”