From Lee Hyori to Hwasa, celebrate women with these female K-pop idols who took the genre by storm, all on their own terms.

If you’ve ever engaged with K-pop, you have had the same subliminal realization as the rest of us: it’s a tough industry to be a woman. While backbreaking diets and uncomfortable clothing is largely past, thanks to the active and constant intervention of fans, the struggles female idols face today go much deeper. From getting boycotted for reading “feminist” literature to being slut-shamed for not wearing a bra, K-pop has a double standard that needs addressing. 

But where there is a will, there is a fierce woman who refused to play by the industry’s rules and became an icon. On the occasion of Women’s Day, get to know some female K-pop idols who conquered the industry on their own terms. 

Lee Hyori

Fans today seldom know the power Lee Hyori held on the general public at one point. Often termed as the ‘original unnie’ (the Korean term for big sister), the 41-year-old debuted in 2003, and eventually went on to become one of South Korea’s “fairies” (a term of endearment also denoting the massive popularity of an idol). The outspoken Hyori, however, took a break from her career to get married. 

The decision came during the heyday of her career, prompting people to speculate if it was the right choice. Hyori, however, could care less about what people thought: “In order to take a leap, you need to step back a little. I didn’t have the energy to just keep walking.” 

Hwasa

Ah, the very embodiment of well-behaved women seldom make history. MAMAMOO’s Hwasa is famous not just for unique vocal tenor, but also for making it clear that she’s got no time for people who will police the way she lives her life. 

During the 2018 MAMA Awards, the singer performed clad in a red leather bodysuit, which sparked criticism for being “too sexy” and not fitting the “Korean standards.” Some, with a different kind of audacity, pointed out that the outfit would have looked better on a “thinner idol.” That same year, she was also pulled up for not wearing a bra under her airport outfit. 

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Hwasa, however, chose a very opportune moment to clap back: in MAMAMOO’s song ‘HIP’, Hwasa referred to the airport incident through a mock headline that said: ‘President Hwasa dressed ridiculous at the airport,’ alleging that people were interested in criticizing her, but still couldn’t deny her influence. 

Jessi

Jessi took Korea by storm in 2020 with her viral hit, ‘NUNU NANA’, but one can’t help but notice how long she was denied massive popularity because the general public often didn’t agree with her outspoken ways. 

In her own words, the American-born rapper tried to fit into the idol mold when she first moved to Korea, until she realized that the shy, demure demeanor and self-policing was not for her. Whether she is cursing her way through a family show or owning her sexuality, what you see is quite literally what you get with Jessi. 

HyunA

When you’re at the top, the pressure to keep the graph steady would normally make artists reluctant to take chances. Not HyunA: at some point, she decided that being happy and true to herself was more important than pleasing people. HyunA sets a high standard for artists willing to take chances, whether it’s persevering in the face of criticism for being “too provocative”, or choosing to walk away from her agency of 11 years to protect her relationship. The last one? Queen shit. 

Soyeon

The last entry on this list is also the youngest, quickly becoming a beacon for the new generation with her no-nonsense attitude and immense confidence in her talent. In her own words, Soyeon was once deemed “too ugly” for the screen, often being told that she wouldn’t be able to make it.

Well, I hope whoever told her that is now crying and eating their own words as they watch Soyeon emerge not only as one of K-pop’s most talented and gifted rappers, but also breaking precedent and taking charge of the artistry for her group (G)-IDLE, setting them apart for their concept and sound.