Chapter One ONE
Smile, they say. You’re living the dream countless girls would die for! Besides, you look so much prettier when you smile. Come on now. Softer. Sweeter. You don’t want to be an Ice Queen, do you?
“Rachel! Over here!”
“Give us a smile!”
Cameras flash in my direction before my champagne-colored stilettos have even touched the ground. I subtly smooth down my outfit—a glittering wrap dress with a strapless sweetheart neckline—as I step onto the red carpet. Mina is close at my heels, and seven girls emerge from the limo behind us, lifting their hands in queenlike waves. Fans scream when they see us, clamoring to get closer through the wall of paparazzi.
“How about a group shot?” a photographer yells.
Like we’ve done a thousand times before, the girls assemble for the photo—each of us instinctively knowing where to stand so that our best features are shown off. We balance each other out, the tall girls and the shorter girls finding their spots in the formation so no one looks out of place. As we pose, the cameras start clicking in a frenzy, catching us from all angles. There’s something about having all nine of us together that makes a certain kind of energy radiate. I once saw someone share a group photo of us on social media with the caption, This is what power looks like!! I think about that sometimes. Power. It’s such a far cry from how I felt around these girls for so long, but a lot has changed in the past five and a half years.
The girls and I take our time walking down the carpet, pausing to pose, lips glossed, hands on hips, literally sparkling like the sun in brilliant rose-gold outfits. As we reach the glass doors of the Peninsula Hotel Shanghai, I look over my shoulder and wink at a camera flashing in my direction, giving them one last dazzling grin.
I’ve come a long way from the trainee girl who used to freeze like a deer in headlights at the first sign of a flash bulb. The cameras don’t scare me anymore.
Now I own them.
The first time a fan told me that I changed her life, I cried.
It was a year after I debuted with Girls Forever, and we were promoting our comeback single, “Sweet for You.” The music video hit fifty million views on the day it released, and the pastel bucket hats and pearl-frame sunglasses we wore in the video were sold out everywhere within a week. The fan was maybe eleven years old—the same age as me when I first started training with DB Entertainment—lanky and a little self-conscious, but all smiles to meet me, her eyes sparkling like the rhinestone studs on her T-shirt that spelled out my name: RACHEL KIM.
“Thank you so much, Rachel,” she said softly, holding out a homemade poster for me to sign.
“Of course!” I smiled back, fumbling with my gold signing pen as I scribbled out my name in what would become my well-known autograph (big R—ACHE—and finally a loopy L with a star on the tail).
I handed the poster back to the young girl, and a yellow-vested usher began to guide her down the line, but she called out, “Wait!” The usher rolled his eyes but allowed the girl to say her piece. She took a breath and looked at me with serious eyes. “I just moved to Seoul from America—just like you. It’s been hard,” she admitted, “but when I watch you perform and see you doing what you love, I feel less alone. Like maybe someday I can find my own way to shine. You really changed my life.” She smiled and thanked me for my signature. “Ahh!” she squealed, looking at it again. “You have no idea how much this means to me!” And with that, she hugged the poster to her chest and walked away. A big fat tear rolled down my cheek as I waved goodbye, swallowing the lump in my throat. Really, it was the other way around: she had no idea what her words meant to me.
Five and a half years in, I don’t cry at the fansigns anymore—I’ve learned how to keep a pleasant smile on my face through the events, to keep my emotions in check. Even so, sometimes I still want to pinch myself because it doesn’t feel real. How did I manage to get here? To say that training wasn’t easy would be a huge understatement. It was ruthless, demanding, and made me question my life choices more than a few times. And when we finally debuted, the pressure only amplified. Intense rehearsals, back-to-back live performances, and early-morning wake-up calls for music video shoots that lasted for two days straight, all with my eight Girls Forever groupmates, who I suddenly found myself with 24/7 (which, let’s be real, was a whole other kind of challenge).
But at the end of the day, it’s all been worth it. There really is magic in the music, and there’s magic in meeting the people who connect to it. Being a K-pop idol means being part of something bigger than myself.
The energy from tonight’s crowd was wild. Shanghai was the last stop on our multicountry Glow Asia Tour. Months of being on the road, a new city every couple of weeks. It’s been a whirlwind, and there were times when I found myself missing my own bed. But up onstage tonight, I realized just how much I’ll miss this once we’re back home in Korea. It’s January and we won’t tour again this year until the fall, so this is our last big group performance for a while. And you could feel that in the air. We gave 110 percent tonight, and the fans gave it right back to us. Now it’s time to celebrate.
I look around the Peninsula Shanghai’s ballroom. The promoters have really gone all out on this one. Brilliant teardrop-crystal chandeliers line the ceiling, shining down on the waiters in glossy tuxedos weaving through the crowd with silver trays of champagne flutes, music pulsing against the walls as people dance and mingle. They’ve converted part of the ballroom’s dance floor into a miniature roller rink. Electric pink and fluorescent yellow cocktails surf by me on glow-in-the-dark platters—an homage to the title track off our latest album, “Glow.” It’s a true bop, and it dominated the charts this past summer. For the party tonight, they’ve rigged a projector to display themed images from the music video against the walls: glow-in-the-dark bowling alleys; fields of fireflies; a Ferris wheel riding to the top, with the twinkling city lights spread out below like candles on a birthday cake. Honestly, it’s enough to make you forget that it’s the dead of winter and currently a whopping three degrees Celsius out tonight.
Just as I’m reaching for a champagne flute, a voice behind me calls out my name.
“Rachel Kim!” A wiry man with red square-rimmed glasses and a warm smile walks toward me, extending his hand for a handshake. “I’m Park Hyunbae, VP of programming at SOAR Drama and Entertainment. I was hoping to run into you tonight.”
SOAR is one of the biggest media broadcasting companies in Korea. We’ve appeared in a few of their TV programs, but DB always handles the business side of things, so I’ve never met one of their executives in person. “So nice to meet you,” I say, shaking his hand.
“I hope you don’t mind.” He reaches into his pocket and sheepishly produces a pen. “My daughter is a big fan of yours and she’d kill me if I didn’t at least ask. Could you sign this for her? Her name is Park Miyoung.”
“I’d be more than happy to.” Even after the thousands (could it be millions?) of autographs I’ve signed over the past few years, I still have a hard time saying no.
He smiles as I hand my signed cocktail napkin back to him. “I’ll be guarding this with my life tonight.” He folds the autograph and places it in his breast pocket, patting it securely. “You know, Rachel, Miyoung’s not your only fan. My wife and I are big fans too. You have a fantastic voice.”
Now it’s my turn to smile gratefully. “Thank you so much, Mr. Park.”
“You’d be great on radio.” He raises his eyebrows curiously. “Would you ever be interested in hosting? SOAR is launching a new radio show that focuses on one-on-one conversations with artists from all different walks of life. You’d be a great host.”
I immediately perk up. “That would be amazing,” I tell him with another smile. “If you connect with DB, I’m sure they could set up a meeting for us,” I add with more confidence than I actually feel. But why shouldn’t DB be interested? SOAR’s radio shows have a huge audience, and if I can use it to promote Girls Forever while also enjoying deep, intimate conversations about the creative process, isn’t that a win-win?
“Excellent,” Mr. Park says. “I’ll be in touch!”
We toast and then he’s swept away by a group of other media folks eager to speak with him. I’m debating between checking out the dessert bar or hitting the dance floor when Mina sashays toward me, grabbing my free hand.
“There you are!”
Mina must have a radar system that alerts her anytime someone else is getting special praise or attention—I had barely finished my toast with Mr. Park when suddenly she was at my side. But she’s bright and beaming, her eyes shining with the high of the music, exuding charismatic energy, the kind that makes you want to join in on whatever she’s doing. So when she says “Come on, let’s dance!” I take a quick swig of my drink and then let it melt away onto one of the many passing trays as she leads me to the dance floor, spinning me under her arm.
She looks chic in her shimmering wide-leg pantsuit, her ash-brown hair twisted away from her face in a loose, elegant updo. We dance, laughing, me following along with her moves. She’s undeniably magnetic and even more so when she dances, totally effortless and buoyant, and all the cameras in the room have already started pointing in our direction.
For a second, I let myself believe that they’re capturing something real, a moment of true friendship between girls who used to be enemies. Look how far we’ve come, I imagine myself saying. Remember how much we used to hate each other? How about that time you drugged me at the trainee house and filmed me dancing drunk on the table? Ha! Doesn’t that feel like a lifetime ago?
But then, some things don’t change, even in a lifetime.
It took ages for the rumors about our so-called love triangle with DB Entertainment’s most popular K-pop idol, Jason Lee, to die down. In reality, the “love triangle” was nothing but a publicity stunt pulled by DB themselves before Mina and I debuted. They wanted to boost Jason’s solo career after he left his group NEXT BOYZ, and we were the perfect promotional tools. After all, what could make the already-adored Jason Lee seem even more desirable than having two up-and-coming K-pop stars fighting for his love? Of course, Mina knew it was a setup the whole time. I was not clued in to that little piece of information until after I had already fallen in actual, real, head-over-heels love with the guy.
As for me and Mina, after our debut DB decided they’d gotten all they could out of our love-triangle feud and decided to stage a reconciliation between the two of us. We hugged and cried in a “leaked” video and swore we’d never let a man come between us again. Since then, we’ve had nothing but good press, and I’m determined to keep it that way.
Still. In moments like this, I can’t help but enjoy playing make-believe, pretending that the fun we’re having isn’t just for show or publicity but because we really, truly like each other.
“That dress is so brave of you, fashionista,” Mina shouts over the music. “Look at those cute thighs!”
Yep. Moment shattered.
The night passes in a happy haze of dances and champagne glasses. The ballroom is filled with familiar DB faces and hosts of new people I’ve never met before, all of them eager to greet me.
“Wonderful job at the concert tonight, Rachel!”
“Your voice keeps getting lovelier and lovelier.”
“Absolutely phenomenal! You were born to be a star, there’s no doubt about that.”
After hours of dancing and mingling, I’m ready to call it a night. Some of the more introverted girls of the group like Youngeun, Jiyoon, and Sunhee have already made their graceful exits to their hotel rooms, while Mina, Lizzie, and Eunji have somehow found themselves on the roller rink, squealing and laughing as they spin around in their skates, shimmering outfits fanning out like sparkling parasols. Ari and Sumin are sipping cocktails by the dessert bar and, as usual, are arguing about something or other. Being the same age and having started training at the same time, the two of them are constantly jumping back and forth between being best friends and roasting each other until one of them cries. Honestly, they’re like a dysfunctional old married couple. It’s actually kind of adorable.
I’m dreaming of going up to my hotel room and soaking in the Jacuzzi tub. As much as I love these strappy Jimmy Choo stilettos, I’m dying to take them off and sink my toes in a bubble bath. Ahh yes. An aromatherapy soak plus a face mask sounds like the perfect way to end this tour.
Just as I’m heading out of the ballroom, I hear my name called again. I turn and spot a figure leaning up against the wall where our music video is being projected, colors and lights dancing playfully across his face.
“Jason?” I say in surprise.
His lips curl up into an impish smile, and he cocks his head to the side. “Has it been so long that you don’t recognize me?”
Of course I recognize him, in that slick white suit and those bright-green and gold sneakers. How could I not?
After the love-triangle debacle with Mina, Jason and I had a falling-out. I just couldn’t trust him anymore. But slowly, over time, the ice between us started to thaw. A text here, a secret coffee date there. Eventually, we were able to make up and pick up where we left off. Or at least, we tried. But between Girls Forever’s launch, and his successful career as DB’s hottest solo artist, we barely had time to sleep, let alone date. Eventually, things fizzled between us because of our busy schedules. And Jason doesn’t know it, but it was also a little bit because of the secret video Mina had threatened to leak of Jason and me kissing backstage. With her threat looming over my head, I could never quite relax when I was with him.
The thing is, Mina never did end up leaking that video. And even though the threat of it was often on my mind during the year and a half Jason and I dated, ultimately, we had the chance to give our relationship a fair shot without any tabloid frenzy. Maybe Mina never intended to hurt me as much as I thought she did.
“The Orange Music Awards six months ago,” Jason says, snapping his fingers. “That was the last time we saw each other, wasn’t it?”
“I think you’re right.” These days, our paths only seem to cross at crowded events like this one or some award show. I notice that he’s grown his hair out in the last six months. It’s long enough now that he could tie it in a mini ponytail, but he has it slicked back, looking like the epitome of a fresh-faced K-pop idol, all smiles and twinkling eyes. “I wasn’t expecting you to be in Shanghai,” I tell him. “You look great.”
He smiles. “You do too. And are you kidding? I wouldn’t miss a party like this.” A waiter walks by with a tray of pink champagne and Jason grabs two, passing one to me. “Have a moment to catch up with your old friend?”
My feet protest, but it is nice to see Jason. Not that I have any romantic feelings for him anymore, but I do still care about him and I’m curious about what he’s been up to. I take the champagne and let him lead me out onto the balcony. The January night air makes our breath puff out in little clouds, but there are heaters placed around the deck for warmth, and anyway, the coolness is a welcome change from the heat of the crowded ballroom.
“I heard that the tour was a big success,” Jason says, leaning against the balcony railing. “That must feel great.”
“Thanks,” I say with a smile. “It was our best yet.” Around anyone else this might seem like bragging, but I know Jason gets it. I take a sip of champagne, feeling nostalgic. “When we first debuted, everything was so exciting and new, but half the time I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. Training is one thing, but when you’re really out there with all these eyes on you…”
“It’s different,” Jason finishes for me. He laughs. “Yeah, I remember.”
I look up at the moon, thinking fondly back to the days when Jason called me “Werewolf Girl.” God, the butterflies I felt around him then. Is there anything more intoxicating than first love?
“I’m happy for you, Rach,” Jason says, squeezing my shoulder. “So what’s next for you? I saw you talking to that exec from SOAR—do we have a new Rachel Kim–hosted quiz show to look forward to? Launching a new side gig as a presenter? Must be about time you started working on whatever’s next, right?”
I laugh and tell him about the radio show opportunity. Girls Forever is still in its prime, with hopefully many years still ahead of us, but we all know that this career doesn’t last forever. What will my life be like after K-pop, I suddenly wonder? It seems like too big a question to ponder right now, as the music from the ballroom blasts on, filtering out through the balcony entrance.
“What about you?” I ask Jason, deflecting the conversation away from my minor existential crisis. “What’s going on in your career?”
He grins, straightening his shoulders. “Well, since you asked, you happen to be looking at the second male lead in Kim Haeyoung’s newest movie.”
I gasp. “Are you serious? Kim Haeyoung’s movies always make me sob! She’s like the best screenwriter in Korea. That’s amazing.”
“Thanks,” he says, shining with excitement. “Sena has been helping me prepare for the role, but I’m still nervous. It’ll be my first time acting in a production this big.”
“You’ll be great,” I say. “Will Sena be in the movie too?”
Jason and Won Sena publicly announced their relationship over a year ago. Being a popular K-drama star since she was a teenager, she has just as much star power as Jason, if not more. They’re a cute couple with a great, supportive fanbase, and the media has basically dubbed them “Korea’s Sweethearts.”
It’s been a while since I’ve felt that way for anyone, and even though I know it’s just as well—my life as an idol does not lend itself easily to romance—I can’t help but miss it.
“No. She’s already been tapped for a new drama,” Jason says, breaking my reverie. “They’re still looking for female leads for this one, actually, so if you’re interested…” He raises his eyebrows meaningfully.
I laugh. “I’ll keep that in mind. I’m sure my third-grade teacher would give me a glowing recommendation. Did I ever tell you I played a piece of toast in the school play about food groups?”
“A piece of toast? Whew, Rachel, I don’t know. I think you may be too qualified for a Kim Haeyoung film.”
We both laugh, and I feel a wave of emotion come over me. After everything we’ve been through, I’m grateful that Jason and I can still be friends. It could have ended in so many other ways, but I’m glad it ended here.
As if he’s thinking the same thing, Jason says, “I’m so happy I caught you tonight.”
“Same. But it’s time for a foot bath—these heels are killing me.”
Jason chuckles. “How about we cheers to end the night? Since I hear you’re an expert on all things ‘toast.’?”
I roll my eyes at his cheesy dad joke but hold up my champagne flute. “To the next heartthrob of Hallyu.”
He smiles and raises his glass. “To both of us. And whatever our futures may hold.”
We clink our glasses and drink.
A fresh wave of determination courses through me as I return to my room to pack for the trip back to Seoul. When I get home, I’m going to start thinking more deeply about what I want and make some plans. Jason was right about one thing. It is probably well past time to start thinking about what comes next. With any luck, I can build a career with DB’s help that lasts beyond Girls Forever, though at the moment, it’s hard to imagine anything following forever.