In the lobby of New York's Best Buy Theater on a night in mid-January, 100 fans are getting ready for some high fives from their favorite boy band. They're there for a "high touch" session, a type of meet-and-greet popular in Asia where — in lieu of a standard autograph session common in the States — artists hold out their hands to give high fives to a passing line of stunned, crying superfans.
As the group enters the room, the screaming starts. The thought of hand-to-hand contact with six pristinely made-up, extremely attractive young guys sends the fans into overdrive; the noise level skyrockets.
These are KissMes — fans of U-Kiss, a K-pop boy band in town for their first-ever concert in New York City, the start to a short three-city U.S. tour. The fans' moniker is a spin on the group's name, which is an acronym for Ubiquitous Korean International Idol Super Star. U-Kiss debuted in South Korea in 2008 and are known for their English-speaking members, as well as their catchy mix of tunes that perfectly encapsulate both Korean ballad pop sounds and equally slick American R&B. Like other group acts in Korea, U-Kiss incorporate visually compelling dance moves and aim to please with their fan service — little gestures and interactions that get fans squealing.
But despite the crying fans and a sold-out New York show, this is not the frenzied reception U-Kiss get back in their home country. They've released five full-length albums and dozens of singles, but have only 10% of the YouTube views that rival acts like Big Bang boast. Compared with peers who debuted around the same time and have catapulted to top-tier success, their profile in South Korea is slight.
Their fan base overseas, however, is especially strong — strong enough to sustain a group that would have otherwise shuttered early on. But KissMes are a particularly devoted bunch, with fans like 19-year-old Anauli Paulino flying in to New York from Florida to line up at 6 a.m. the day of the concert that cold January morning.
What sets U-Kiss apart from others — and helped the group gain their fan base overseas — according to member Kevin Woo, was that they had "international" members, which is K-pop shorthand for those who speak multiple languages. At the group's inception, there were two Korean-American members — Woo from California and Eli Kim from Washington, D.C. — and Alexander Lee Eusebio, born in Hong Kong to a Korean mother and a Macanese father, who has since left the group. Most of the U-Kiss members are also multilingual and have spent time living outside of Korea.
"That's our concept: We like to promote that we do speak your language," Kim said. "That's our main point, our main goal — to be international."
U-Kiss, like a lot of other boy groups in Korea, like to say that they treat their fans as they would treat their girlfriends, which sometimes gives fans license to invade a group's privacy. Still, it's effective in cultivating an artist-fan relationship that leads to steadfast support.
"Because we can speak most of their languages, we like to talk to our fans in their language. We don't like to call our fans our fans; we call them like our friends…or like, our girlfriends," Kim said. "We always try to think of them as our girlfriends [when it comes to] how we express ourselves."
In Paulino's devotion to the group, whom she's followed for four years, she's mastered "sleeping on Korean time" — sleeping during the day in order to be up at night to watch the group's show appearances live when they aired in Korea — a very specific kind of suffering only a K-pop fan can empathize with. "There were no subtitles or anything, so I literally couldn't understand them. I was just watching for their faces."
U-Kiss currently consists of six members: Shin Soo-hyun; Lee Ki-seop; Eli Kim; Kim Jae-seop, who goes by stage name AJ; Kevin Woo; and Yeo Hoonmin, who goes by stage name Hoon. All are in their early twenties, Shin being the eldest at 24. Most members joined the group by auditioning, similar to their Western counterparts from the '90s, but the journey to becoming an "idol" — as artists who train for years are called in Korea — is quite different than how groups like the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC were formed.
After making it through auditions, trainees, as they're now called, practice with agencies, learning vocal and dancing techniques and how to be camera-ready onstage, on TV, and for the press. Many boy band hopefuls never complete training, sometimes because it doesn't lead to a debut, and other times because trainee life is too tough.
From left: Shin Soo-hyun, Yeo "Hoon" Hoonmin, Lee Ki-seop, Kevin Woo, Kim "AJ" Jae-seop, and Eli Kim hang out in their hotel in NYC.
The group is bubbly and kind when I meet them in January. My interview with the group at their New York City hotel room is the last in a jam-packed schedule, but despite that, the group is upbeat. While talking about some of their crazier fan experiences — an overenthusiastic and "passionate" male fan who greeted them at an airport in L.A. once — Shin, the resident joker of the group, does an epic imitation that has the room doubling over.
Woo, acting as main translator, helps facilitate a lot of the conversation. Along with Kim and AJ, who went to international school in Korea and can speak English, the three glide between languages effortlessly. Many of the non-English-speaking members understand English, even if they can't speak it. Years of living and working together have helped them jell as a group and made them cohesive and seamless.
In a cutthroat pop market like Korea's that's filled to the brim with more acts than the public cares to remember, it's no small feat that U-Kiss is still promoting extensively. U-Kiss is signed under NH Media, one of the smaller agencies in Korea, whose music market is dominated by major labels such as SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment.
When enough companies do this, the market becomes oversaturated and Korea's music market is already small: According to the IFPI's 2012 numbers, South Korea was the 11th-biggest music market in the world, with $187.5 million in sales, paling in comparison to the U.S.' $4.5 billion.
The market relies heavily on music released by big agencies, so combined with limited growth opportunity, turnover rates for Korean artists are high. Most groups that don't see enough recognition from the public don't stay around. They either disappear or disband, with some members then signing with different agencies or different groups years later.
Signing with a new agency while a group is still signed with another is a rarity in Korea, and getting out of a contract is often a messy affair that leads to protracted lawsuits and in-group fighting, hence why U-Kiss doesn't have the option to just up and leave NH Media if they wanted to. With so few options, the group keeps trucking on.
Meanwhile, KissMes recognize that their favorite group is more beloved overseas than they are in Korea.
"They're wildly popular internationally, and I don't think they understand the magnitude of how popular they are," said Victoria Holzbauer, a fan at the concert. "Even with Kevin and Eli being from America, I think it's just like a foreign concept to them, because they're so used to being in South Korea and Japan."
That's a U-Kiss fan's way of rationalizing the group's lack of awards, significant in an industry obsessed with winning and how often awards are doled out. Korea boasts several music programs, and when artists do promotion, they perform on almost all the shows weekly. Imagine MTV's TRL in its heyday. Now imagine that instead of a countdown of the most popular music videos, there are four to six major music shows that air each week that contain nothing but artist performances. A group actively promoting a new single would hit all major stations, performing the same song dozens of times in just a few months. As was the case with TRL, most of the programs end with the top-charting artist being crowned for that week, determined by a combination of social media votes and digital and physical sales. Theoretically, then, any promoting artist has a chance to win a number of awards every week.
This all makes U-Kiss' lack of statues even more frustrating to fans who value the group's tenacity. When Holzbauer's asked why she prefers U-Kiss over other K-pop groups, she says, "Their dedication." Are other groups not as dedicated? "We can't ever say that one group is more dedicated than the other since they all work equally as hard, but we just feel like they don't get as much recognition as other groups."
After six years of performing as a group, the topic of U-Kiss' lack of awards goes beyond just fans' murmuring. On Korean variety talk show Strong Heart, Bang Eun-hee, the wife of the NH Media's CEO, talked about the group's lack of wins, and how heartbreaking it is to watch them release music to little fanfare. U-Kiss made a surprise appearance on the show after Bang finished talking, and then, in an uncomfortable turn, another guest on the show suggested that U-Kiss pretend like they just got a music show award and had to give a mock thank-you speech (at the 13:27 mark). The group did as they were told, but things got a little too real and some members started crying:
K-pop agencies are notoriously tight-leashed with artists, and idols are often complicit with agency demands. But U-Kiss are one of the more "relaxed" groups, their fans say — maybe because they aren't signed with a massive agency under tons of scrutiny and have several personable English-speaking members, so it's easier for the group to banter with international fans, and harder for their agency to track every little thing they say.
And because U-Kiss do have to rely more on their international fanbase, they spend more time communicating with English-speaking fans that other groups may not prioritize, and fans appreciate the sincerity.
"This sounds so psychotic," Paulino said, "but when they're talking, they're talking to their fans and they really care. It's not like, 'Oh, you're going to get us money.' It's more like, 'Hey, we really care about you guys, so please be safe' or 'Please have fun.'"
U-Kiss frequent Southeast Asia, and they have a big following in South America, where they became the first K-pop act to visit Colombia, and eventually held their first Latin American tour last year.
"It's an honor for us to bring the K-pop scene to Latin America," Woo said. "A lot of K-pop artists go now, but just seeing how the K-pop fans react when they see us is really fascinating. There were a lot of love calls from Latin America," he says, using the K-pop jargon for when companies try to get celebrities to endorse a product or appear on a show.
Mnet America, a TV network that produces Asian pop-culture programming for U.S. audiences, brought the group over for their first U.S. tour as part of their music series. A three-show U.S. tour is small compared with U-Kiss' recent 16-show Japanese tour, but it proves that there's definitely interest in the group with U.S. K-pop fans.
"We know and like the boys from U-Kiss very much and were quite surprised to find out they had never had a U.S. show, since they are such an international group," said Angela Killoren, CMO of Mnet America. "We were thrilled that U-Kiss agreed to participate."
At their NYC concert, U-Kiss spend a portion of the show answering questions from fans, another bit of fan service that most groups visiting the U.S. often don't bother with, since translating back and forth can kill some onstage momentum. But U-Kiss oblige, because they recognize the rarity of meeting U.S. fans and are perfectly capable translators themselves.
The night's set list, which was prepared with fans' input, keeps the show under two hours, and by the end, each member thanks the fans for their support. The mood grows somber as some of the members cry, communicating without saying how rocky the road has been, but how grateful they are for all of it anyway.
"I just want to thank every single one of you guys — even in the back, we see you guys!" Woo says. "You guys are our inspiration, and we love you from the bottom of our hearts. Thanks for sticking with us through our ups and downs, and we'll be back for you guys." Fans cheer, and Woo ends with an "I love you" in Korean, which they don't need a translation for. Then, fitting for the group, he blows the KissMes a kiss.