Stephan Lee on K-pop culture and his debut YA novel, K-pop Confidential

"I might look like a mild-mannered cis male author on the outside, but in my dreams, I’m the Center of a K-pop girl group."


If you’re a K-pop fan looking for your next YA read, look no further than Stephan Lee’s fantastic new debut novel, K-pop Confidential. Following Candace Park, a Korean-American girl as she navigates the complex world of K-pop stardom, this contemporary rom-com will give you all the feels and we were lucky enough to get to chat to Stephan all about it.

Using just one sentence, how would you entice readers to pick up a copy of K-pop Confidential?

K-pop Confidential blends everything a K-pop stan would want—glamour, hairography, swoon-worthy boy bands, friendship, rivalries, MV shoots—with one teen girl’s journey to discover her true self-worth and gain the courage to use her voice, not just to sing but to speak out for herself and others.

What was your biggest inspiration behind the story for K-pop Confidential?

This might sound weird, but the biggest inspirations for K-pop Confidential were The Wizard of Oz and The Hunger Games. I say The Wizard of Oz because it’s very much one girl’s “hero’s journey.” As a trainee at a K-pop company, Candace Park has to go through a series of three “Assessments”—where executives pick apart everything about her and her fellow wannabe idols—and each is a challenge that leads Candace closer to discovering her authentic self. And The Hunger Games, because being a K-pop trainee is one of the highest-pressure experiences that a teen can go through, and it’s all about teens defying a system that adults created for them.

What drew you to writing about a K-pop girl group in particular?

Writing a novel about K-pop, it never occurred to me to focus on anyone other than a female narrator or a girl group! Ever since I was a little kid growing in Atlanta, Georgia, whenever I day-dreamed about who I wanted to be like when I grew up, it was always fierce female pop stars. I idolized Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child, Christina Aguilera … to this day, I don’t think I regularly listen to any male acts other than BTS. Now, putting a bunch of aspiring K-pop stars in a group?! That’s just heaven to me. Girl groups are so special because they put together women with such different talent and personalities—which are basically like superpowers—to form an unstoppable dream team. I loved exploring the conflict and rivalries among the girls in K-pop Confidential, but I loved writing their developing sisterhood even more. I might look like a mild-mannered cis male author on the outside, but in my dreams, I’m the Center of a K-pop girl group.


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What do you think draws people from all over the globe towards K-pop so passionately?

I think what draws people all around the world to K-pop, even if they don’t realize it, is the Korean spirit. Being innovative, hardworking, and sincere is important in the culture, and that comes through in K-pop — look at BTS, always coming up with groundbreaking music and visuals while also staying humble and forming remarkably authentic bonds with their millions of fans. As a Korean-American, embracing my love of K-pop over the last several years have made me appreciate my Koreanness in ways I maybe didn’t when I was younger. Candace goes through a similar transformation in K-pop Confidential, and that was really important for me to convey in the book, too.

Which element of K-pop culture did you find the most enjoyable to write into K-pop Confidential?

Oh gosh, so many! I loved writing about all the super-polished glam aspects—the makeovers, the costumes, the choreography—and juxtaposing those with the insanely hard work that goes into making it all look so effortless.

As well as being an author, you’re also a journalist and travelled to Seoul for three weeks to write a feature about Korean entertainment, where you had the chance to interview K-pop idols. Did anything specific you experienced whilst there make it into K-pop Confidential?

It was such an adventure to visit K-drama sets, go to music shows, speak to talented Korean creators, and take in so much knowledge. I was devastated when I never even got to write the piece—there was a changeover in editors at the magazine literally while I was flying back—but I used so much of what I learned from that trip in K-pop Confidential. I got a sense from that trip of why K-pop can be so high-pressure for the artists—they’re representing a country—and a strong feel of the epic-ness of the K-pop world.

For those who may not already be deeply entrenched in the K-pop fandom, do you have any artist recommendations for readers wanting to start listening?

Well, BTS, obviously! But I of course want to encourage more people to explore girl groups and female soloists as well. Blackpink has become huge in the States, and there are so many more groups to explore. Just to name a few of my favorites: TWICE, Red Velvet, Itzy, Mamamoo, (G)-IDLE, Everglow, 2NE1, and so many others. I also recommend listening to female soloists like Ailee and IU, who have unreal voices.


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Did you do much research whilst writing K-pop Confidential and if so, what was the most surprising fact about K-pop you came across?

The really intense training schedules! My editors thought the rehearsal schedules I wrote about were made up, but when they researched it themselves, they were shocked that they were pretty accurate. I did a ton of research about the K-pop trainee system, but I also used a lot of my imagination. I didn’t try to depict any particular idol or music company’s actual reality, because every experience is different. It was more important to get the emotional experience right, and reading fiction and non-fiction about other types of competitive environments—elite gymnastics, college cheerleading, the race to get into top colleges—was super-helpful in putting me into that headspace.

K-pop Confidential very much showcases the highs and lows that come with, not K-pop stardom but also the pressures of having your life all figured out as a young adult. With that in mind, what is one message you hope readers will take away upon reading K-pop confidential?

No one gets to decide what you’re worth. Candace gets thrown into a world where her goal is to become more perfect in a short period of time, whether it’s her talent, appearance, or behavior, but she needs to learn how to discover her inherent value, outside of what managers, label executives, or fans tell her it is. There’s more pressure than ever on young people to succeed, and the odds against them have never been greater. K-pop star or not, I think anyone can relate to Candace’s journey.

Love the sound of K-pop Confidential? Simply follow the instructions in the tweet below for your chance to win a copy:

Get your copy of K-pop Confidential by Stephan Lee here

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