A few years ago, none of the Wonder Girls spoke English; today they are all nearly fluent. Formed in 2007, the five woman K-pop group was on the forefront of the cultural crossover phenomenon with a string of hits. All in their early twenties, the Girls -- Sun, Lim, Sohee, Yenny and Yubin -- have opened for the Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber and were the first South Korean group to have a song on the Billboard chart, with their '50s girl group-influenced "Nobody" reaching #76 in 2009.
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The group formed via an audition process and have led the highly-structured lifestyle of K-pop stars ever since, including rigorous training in singing, dancing, style and language. They're managed by Korea's JYP Entertainment, one of the largest management firms in the K-Pop arena, and are the company's most successful female act.
But behind the sequins, makeup and slick music videos, there was turmoil in Wonder Girl world. In late November, JYP issued this statement:
"Sun, who debuted in 2007 and led the Wonder Girls as their leader for six years, recently informed the agency as well has the Wonder Girls' members about her intentions, and understanding that her decision has come after much thought, we have decided to respect her decision. Sun will be focusing on her marriage and family life for the time being, and the other members of Wonder Girls will be concentrating on individual activities such as acting, producing, solo albums, and broadcast activities. We hope for many messages of congratulations and encouragement. Thank you."
None of this was spoken of when the Wonder Girls assembled at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills a few weeks before their hiatus announcement. Instead, with the preternaturally polite demeanors of well-trained pop stars, they talked to us about life as K-pop idols.
What is a typical day like for The Wonder Girls?
Yubin: For example, today we woke up at 5 am to get our makeup and hair done.
Sun: That takes three or four hours because there are five of us. We have one stylist, one hair artist and one makeup artist. After that we'll have some interviews, like TV or magazine, and maybe one show. If we have enough time, we'll go practice.
What's your travel schedule like?
Yenny: On this trip, we came to New York first and performed "What the World Needs" at the U.N. with Stevie Wonder. Then we went to Orlando, then Houston and then L.A. It happened all in the last ten days, and we're leaving back to Korea tonight.
How do you keep up that pace?
Yubin: We've been doing this for six years now so we're kind of used to it. So if we get a chance to have free time to go out, we're a little bit shocked.
Yenny: We try to enjoy every moment traveling and learning new cultures. We try to be excited all the time.
What was the process like to get into the Wonder Girls?
Sun: We all auditioned. Some of us were trained in an academy. We went to a regular school and after school we trained in vocal and dance lessons. We learned singing, dancing, acting and language. Once a month there would be a test, like a talent show.
Yubin: Sun was in the academy for six years and then I joined and the Sohee and Lim joined in. We all met in the academy. Sun appeared in a TV show that was like an American Idol in Korea. She got picked out of thousands and thousands of people.
What do you remember about visiting the United States for the first time?
Yubin: It was all new for us. Especially New York. We were amazed by that city.
Yenny: The very first thing we did was study English, because none of us knew how to speak English back then. We came to New York in 2009 but before we came we studied English for a year with a tutor that we lived with.
Your 2012 song with Akon, "Like Money" hit number 22 in 2012. Did you learn anything while working with Akon and touring with the Jonas Brothers?
Yenny: First of all, we were just so happy to be able to work with them. We always listen to their songs and Akon was huge in Korea too. It was very surreal, but we also learned that we should be ourselves. They're very humble. You might think they'd be stuck up, but people like Akon and the Jonas Brothers are very down to Earth.
Lim: We also realized that what we're doing right now isn't just for us. There are a lot of people who are influenced by us, and we're kind of responsible about that. We know that what we're doing is not just for us to get fame. We should give it back.
Nick Cannon produced the movie you guys did for Nickelodeon. What was it like working with him?
Yubin: Nick is really super cool and he actually knows some Korean. He's very friendly and humble, and a family guy, although we haven't met Mariah and the twins yet.
Is there a difference between American and Asian audiences?
Yenny: Audiences are always very passionate, but their reactions are a little different. Americans are more active and dance more and sing along. Korean and Asian audiences will chant and root for us like cheerleaders. We'll sing "Nobody, nobody but you!" and they'll yell "WONDER GIRLS!" But sometimes they're off and we lose our rhythm.
What's your favorite thing about LA?
Yubin: I love The Grove. It's beautiful.
Lim: I love In-N-Out.
Sohee: I like French fries here.
Sun: I love Santa Monica Beach.
Yenny: Korean food here is the best. In some places it's better than in Korea.
What are your goals?
Sun: We just realize that it's important to enjoy every moment in the moment. And we do our best, all the time.