By DEVON ABELMAN
He opens the door and pads inside. A dozen people rush to greet him — producers, directors, stylists, assistants. With a soft smile, he leans his body forward to shake hands with each of them. When his tousled hair, middle-parted and raven black, falls into his face, he doesn't pause to brush it away, letting it be his shield from the flock of sudden attention. His voice is low and steady, and almost quiet enough to miss. Each “hello” and “nice to meet you” is uttered just decibels above a whisper. He never says his name, but we all know it: Lim Jaebeom or, as he’s professionally known, JB.
As quickly as he arrived, he disappears into a dressing room. Just 30 minutes later, he reemerges, wearing a seaweed-hue leather jacket and black leather pants, his hair slicked back and a sooty mauve eye shadow blanketing his lids. Photographer Ahn Joo Young snaps a quick test photo. The flash instantly illuminates the soft-spoken, 26-year-old as the star he is.
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JB: a performer with nearly a decade of experience under his belt. JB: an entertainer with the charisma to command sold-out stadiums. JB: leader of internationally renowned K-pop group GOT7.
He whips around, improvising choreography that puts the fringe hanging around his neck in motion. A step, a strike, then a spin — all explosively executed, just as they are in his performances, each move more intentional than the last. Every ounce of his energy flowing from his heart to the tips of his fingers and toes. It’s hard to believe this is the same reserved person who first walked in the door.
Later, as we sit in the dressing room for our interview, JB describes his approach to performing, speaking in third person like an actor might describe a longtime role they’ve played. “I think ‘JB’ is an idol and a superstar,” he explains. “I make up my mind that I’m a special person. Onstage, I’m the best version of myself.”
But weeks have passed since JB and GOT7 have taken the stage. It’s hard to guess when they, and thousands of other musicians, will be able to return.
I think ‘JB’ is an idol and a superstar. I make up my mind that I’m a special person. Onstage, I’m the best version of myself.”
By now, everyone is familiar with the flood of cancellations and vital social distancing measures due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. At the time of our interview, though, the threat was less omnipresent: New York City’s bars and restaurants were open, international travel was possible, and the words “social distancing” had yet to become part of our vocabulary. But signs of a changing world had started to trickle in, particularly in South Korea: Just days before our shoot, JYP Entertainment, GOT7’s management company, announced the group would be canceling or postponing all remaining stops on their Keep Spinning world tour. They, and most other artists in the K-pop industry, had to clear their schedules amid mounting concerns over COVID-19.
The street clothes are back on. A yellow smiley-face charm dangles from his neck, mirroring the warm smile that’s replaced his icy, on-camera gaze. The rust-brown pigment that rimmed his eyes for our portraits has since been wiped away, though a thin layer of foundation remains. JB tucks his feet up on the makeup chair, hugging his knees.
Trying to discern whether I’m speaking with JB the K-pop star or Jaebeom the regular guy proves to be difficult. At times, he is frank and honest and vulnerable, as if we’re two old friends catching up. In other moments, his answers come off as vague, evasive, and disarmingly optimistic in a way I’ve grown familiar with through years of interviewing K-pop stars. But JB seems well-aware of these contradictions.
“I’m usually the type to steer away from the typical ‘star’ character, but my job is to fulfill that,” JB admits, running his hands through his hair. “I contemplated a lot about, What should I do? What should I do? I came to think it would be interesting to show myself as a character.”
“I am myself, but I’m expressing one side of it,” he adds.
For a moment, I get a mental image of JB cutting off a slice of himself to serve on a silver platter for public consumption.
No matter what tweaks he makes to his presentation, JB delicately weaves together conventional representations of masculinity and femininity — a hallmark of male K-pop stars that has always intrigued me. JB, in particular, blurs the typical binary, pairing suits with smoky eyes and baseball caps with glossy raspberry lips. He knows makeup and masculinity are far from mutually exclusive, and his status as an internet boyfriend — and the object of countless fangirls’ affection — proves that indulging in traditionally “feminine” things doesn’t nullify a male celebrity’s ability to be a sex symbol. But he’s just sharing the way he sees JB with the world.
“[Rather] than thinking in two separate categories of masculine and feminine, I just express [the things that I like] in the way that feels like me,” he explains. “Of course, [my definitions] change from time to time.”
JB begins recalling when his views evolved, followed by his aesthetic. He once thought manicures were feminine, he says, but now likes them. “And when I was growing my hair out,” he continues, “at first, I thought I would look feminine. Then, I realized there’s no masculine or feminine way of doing things. And after trying it out, I felt like the look is just like me in my own style.”
Rather than thinking in two separate categories of masculine and feminine, I just express the things that I like in a way that feels like me.”
“How would you describe your style, though?” I ask. He sighs, drawing out the words “JB’s style” as he ponders my question. He finally says he hasn’t thought about it in detail.
I’m not sure I believe him, given the almost astrological set of defining traits JB has ascribed to the idol character he’s created: sleek, stubborn, disciplined, and sharp, all of which are illustrated through everything from his outfits and actions on camera to his hair and makeup. Thinking of him in these defined terms is easy because K-pop stars are often seen in confined situations. Their social media is strictly monitored. Their schedules are tight, limited to performances and TV appearances. Fans rarely see what they do in their free time, perhaps because they are not as constantly followed by paparazzi the way celebrities are in America and much of Europe. (I’ve personally seen far fewer cameras circling around South Korea’s famous faces than in New York City and Los Angeles.) But GOT7 fans can tell you this: JB is no-nonsense, stoic, loyal, and assertive.
“I’m surprised so many people like us,” he says in English, so sheepishly that I know he genuinely means it and is not just being a humble idol. “I feel so nervous and happy. So many feelings come to my heart.”
Most K-pop idols don’t share JB’s level of autonomy over their look, a fact that might surprise those unfamiliar with the genre. Most of the time, they’re willing canvases, but JB is more discerning. And though Americans might associate all-male K-pop acts with the boy bands of the 1990s, JB’s aesthetic inspiration veers far more toward Kurt Cobain than to *NSYNC. It is edgy and dark, not glittery and bright, though JB stipulates he finds nothing wrong with the latter; rather, he prefers to provide alternate representations of what a male K-pop star can look like.
“I wanted to get out of that box of K-pop style,” JB says when I ask what prompted him to grow out his hair. “When you look at pictures of other guys, they usually have the same [stereotypical], two-block hairstyle (K-pop’s take on an undercut). Because it’s part of our jobs as idols to look impressive, I wanted something different — a new look with more texture. This is my own way of expressing that.”
And the gradient of onyx, crimson, and cocoa often seamlessly blended onto his lids, and the foundation evening out his complexion and giving it a glow is just for JB, he notes. When he isn’t working, JB hardly puts anything on his skin. Even when his skin is breaking out, he skips moisturizer because he believes drying out his skin helps clear it up. I wince at this revelation, and he quickly adds in English, “That’s only my tip, only for me.”
“I wanted to show people that [piercings] aren’t a bad thing or good thing, but it’s a new cultural thing,” he explains, referencing the changing mindsets Koreans have about tattoos and facial piercings as accessories more than gang affiliations. Unlike tattoo artistry, piercing is more widely found in South Korea. Still, getting pierced anywhere other than your ears can make many South Koreans cringe, though this certainly isn’t an uncommon attitude in much of America either. My own parents freaked out when I pierced my septum — a story I recall to JB.
I wanted to get out of that box of K-pop style. When you look at pictures of other guys, they usually have the same two-block haircut….Because it’s part of our jobs as idols to look impressive, I wanted something different.”
“Same,” JB remarks. (K-pop stars: They’re just like us.) He continues, “But I wanted it, so I got it. It's my body and my life. So I just did it.” (Same, JB.)
“Do you feel that getting piercings gives you more control over yourself?” I ask.
“Yes, I get the feeling that I'm responsible for my life when I get piercings,” JB says.
The subject of tattoos comes up. “I want one, but I change my mind [too often],” JB shares, releasing a long sigh. “I have thought about the design, but then I think, Would this be better than this? Because of that, I haven’t been able to get one.”
This aesthetic antsiness seems to trickle down into JB’s everyday life. He told me he took out his anti-brow piercing because he got tired of it three weeks prior to our interview. And one month after our meeting, he dyed his hair petal pink just because — a color choice he hinted at when we spoke and which struck me as unexpectedly vibrant for someone who has carved out such a dark aesthetic for himself. For once, JB seems to be matching his multichromatic music.
Over the past four years, JB has helped pen GOT7’s title tracks like “Eclipse” and “You Calling My Name.” He’s also written and composed beloved B-sides, like my personal favorites “Teenager” and “Page.” Each is more synthesia-inducing than the next. Under the alias Def., JB also drops moody, meditative songs on Soundcloud (without his face attached), as well as in a crew with friends who call themselves Øffshore.
Because JB is constantly making music — for GOT7, for Def., for Øffshore — I wonder aloud how he has anything left when he’s giving so much of his creativity to others. JB doesn’t make music when he feels unmotivated, he reveals. Instead: “I rest, write for myself, draw, or walk around town,” he adds.
And if JB ever loses steam onstage, “I put on both in-ears and turn up the volume. Then I kinda go crazy as if I’m at the karaoke and tell myself, I’m having fun.”
Looking down at my recorder, I notice our time together is running out. (If his manager had his way, we would have been done 30 minutes ago. I know because he had asked me to wrap it up. Fortunately, JB cordially reassured him that it was okay for us to continue.) I decide to ask a question I’ve been wondering throughout our interview: “Are there things that you want for yourself in the future?”
JB thinks for a second. “How far into the future?”
“How far can you see?” I return.
Although he’s a big-picture person, JB says he hasn’t given the future much thought. “I just want to do what I want to do. I just want to keep constantly working” he adds. “I tend to have a big disappointment if I get greedy and have expectations.”
This cover story is a part of ishonest’s “Beauty of K-Pop” project, where we explore how K-pop came to define more than just the global music scene.
STYLIST: YERIN JEON
HAIR: NAEJOO PARK
MAKEUP: HANSERA CHO
PRODUCTION: VISUAL PARK
SPECIAL THANKS TO THE KOREA TOURISM ORGANIZATION AND ASIANA AIRLINES
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