Cover story: Girls Generation’s Yuri Kwon going from trainee to superstar fame
June 1, 2018
Yuri Kwon is, quite simply, K-pop personified. Her group, the now-eight-member Girls’ Generation, are global superstars who have sold more than 30 million digital singles and 4.4 million albums in South Korea, making them one of the country’s best-selling artists of all time. From her start as an SM Entertainment trainee (for nearly six years) to her hard-earned international fame today, she reveals the building blocks of her life, her current obsession and her thoughts on what’s really important.
What are a few words you’d use to describe yourself?
Yuri Kwon; born in 1989; Korean. I want to be a person of utter uniqueness. I don’t know if I’ve gotten there yet, but it’s a long journey. When I was young, it all seemed so easy and effortless, but now things don’t seem so straightforward. Maybe it’s because I have a lot on my mind lately.
How would you describe your time with Girls’ Generation?
It’s quite complex. I’d rather not look back on our time together, since it’s an ongoing journey. It’s an entity that can’t be separated from me. It’s like the air I breathe – a precious presence, sometimes taken for granted. It’s hard to explain my relationship with Girls’ Generation in specific words. In the past, I have referred to it as an existence closer than my family, or sometimes as a friend or a colleague. There have been many changes over that period of time – and it’s still changing. Some changes are difficult, some are dramatic. Change is never easy, but this is who we are and I accept it all as “us”.
It couldn’t have been easy making your entertainment debut at such a young age. Were there any points that were especially difficult?
I don’t like to dwell on the past or the specific episodes that were difficult. I have actually succeeded in blocking out the negative memories. However, when I do look back, I realise I only vaguely knew about the world I once thought to be so vast and diverse. I always approached everything with curiosity, from a pure standpoint. In reality, when I made my debut, the world felt much smaller. My life as a trainee started at 13, and since then every moment has been simultaneously happy, joyful and difficult. It has proven arduous to confront myself every time I start something new. However, with the depth of my experiences and the more I confront myself, my world seems to get more organised. It’s not about any specific occurrences in life, but about the depth at which I am in a constant struggle of confronting my own self.
It seems like you’re a very introspective person. What’s your overall philosophy in life?
In the past, my motto was a piacere, ma non troppo – musical terms that express tempo. A piacere means “play as you wish, freely”, while ma non troppo means “but not too much”. Together, it means do what you want – but don’t overdo it. This is indeed the hardest of all. The organisation I am part of is sensitive to trends and constantly changing, but my own rhythm and tempo are very slow. Hence, for me, my journey is both tough and delightful. I think it’s important to find balance in life and this message carries the words of balance for me. In recent years, my motto has been “wander alone, like a rhinoceros horn”, from a Buddhist sutra.
What’s one thing you’re obsessed with right now?
Meditation. Of course I had heard about it before, but I only tried it recently – and I found it to be extremely eye-opening. Meditation allows me to be completely alone. Even though I love yoga, I never felt the need to practice meditation before. But I began to meditate to lighten the heavy flow of time and never-ending desire. We live in a generation of information overload – and meditation allows me to meet myself without disruption.
Anything you haven’t done that you want to try for the first time?
A reorganisation of my dreams. I want to take time to realign myself. My curiosity has always allowed me to try new things and challenge myself. By rekindling my enthusiasm, I’d like to find something to go crazy over, disregarding all the things that hold me down. Things change and they get lost in translation; that’s just part of the process. However, when I put my mind to something specific, I never look back. And I miss that.
You’ve just come back from Spain. What was your impression of the country?
I enjoyed every bit of it. I took delight in learning about Gaudí’s work, and seeing it and touching it in real life. The weather was simply amazing. The days are long, and sometimes I found it mind-boggling to see the sun setting at 10 or 11 at night. Here, I see the sun set at six in the evening, and even that isn’t easy at times because it’s simply too long. I ask myself: “How do I fill up an entire day?” In Spain, however, I saw locals taking naps for siesta around two to three in the afternoon. Even the shop owners in the most touristic spots would take naps, minding their own business. Like the horn of the rhinoceros, they would just sleep away. I thought this was wonderful and so admirable. I love that people could find time to recharge during the day – it’s sort of like getting two chances at a day.
You’ve been to Hong Kong quite a few times. Do you have any particularly fond memories of the city?
I recall our Girls’ Generation concert in 2012, where I performed a solo of Janet Jackson’s song If in front of my fans. I also remember the Burberry event I went to with [fellow Girls’ Generation member] Sooyoung. I toured the city like any other tourist – I believe that was the first time I was able to truly take in the spirit of Hong Kong.
More recently, I flew to Hong Kong with [another fellow Girls’ Generation member] Seohyun for an event hosted by Pantene. Every time I’m in Hong Kong, my fans somehow seem to magically know every bit of my itinerary. They wait for me at the airport, always greeting me with presents and events. My image of Hong Kong as a place isn’t overly grandiose, but my fans make it so. One time, a fan gave me a teddy bear; it was special because the teddy bear was customised with all the different outfits I wore in the drama Defendant. I hold this memory close to my heart.
Obviously you’re an icon to your many fans around the world. But who are your own biggest idols?
There have been countless artists who have been my idols since I was young. Even now, my idols change every once in a while, depending on my mood or the season. However, the most influential people in my life are definitely my parents. As a woman, my mother’s aura of life, thoughtfulness, enthusiasm and brightness are aspects I regard highly. She reminds me that age is just a number and she never ceases to let go of her passions in life.
Recently, I’ve become very curious about my father’s past. To be honest, I haven’t been that observant, as I was so busy with work since I was very young. However, in recent years, I’ve become aware of my father’s artistic talents, and his love for music and art. I owe a lot to my father for who I am now, because his love for culture and the arts has had a great influence on me. I would like to meet someone like my father one day. My parents are the people I want to take after – they are my ultimate idols.
Tell us more about your ideal type of person.
I have come to the realisation that there’s often a big gap in reality between the person I hope to meet and who I actually end up meeting. Having a connection is important – and it should be natural. I want to encounter someone naturally and hope to maintain that spark of interest. And I wish to be that kind of person to someone – ceaselessly curious, natural and easy-going.
What does your wardrobe look like? What do you enjoy wearing?
On a daily basis, when I’m working, I always dress comfortably. When working, I even find jeans uncomfortable. So, I usually put on sweatpants, sneakers and a high-performance T-shirt. You’ll find a lot of these types of clothes in my wardrobe. However, when I’m not working, I like to dress up. The people I often work with think I always wear extra-comfy stuff. But for me, it’s more important not to have a specific individual colour when working. I love the process of the team and I creating colour collectively in the workplace. I arrive at my workplace much like an empty hanger.
You recently participated in a global campaign with UNICEF, focused on children’s vaccinations. How did that come about?
At first, I wasn’t the type to look around and step out into the world to help those in need, so I didn’t know how to begin. But at one point, I realised that having too much didn’t equal happiness. The more you have, the harder it is to hold on to everything. The minute you close your hand and squeeze tightly to hold on, the sand trickles through your fingers. I began to hear about different opportunities to help others. I knew about UNICEF as an organisation, but I didn’t know what to do to help; I thought maybe I could help the charity by donating.
But I began to realise that there were other forms of service, and that it could be a good opportunity to make use of my influence and fame. Sure, I could give away money, but I thought it would be great if I could be someone who uses her fame with a positive platform to let others know they can help, too. Step by step, I am just starting to teach myself what it means to truly help others. This small ripple can create a huge wave along the way and I want to be an individual who can have this type of positive influence on society.
What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?
[laughs] Questions like this require me to confront myself! Every time I do that, I laugh. Honestly, I’m completely okay with being right where I am 10 years from now. I want to continue to do what I do. I never once worried about whether or not I like what I do. I just always appreciated it. One desire, though, is that I want to keep spending valuable time with my loved ones, as I do now.
What areas do you want to focus on in the future?
Acting and music. I want to be able to act for a long time. And I have been creating music for a long time now, but I want to do it in a more sincere manner in the future by investing more time and effort. I asked myself the same question 10 years ago, but one thing I’m sure of is that I want to continue working, doing what I am passionate about.
Photography / Zoo Yong Gyun
Styling / Kieran Ho
Hair / Kim Gwi-ae
Make-Up / Lee Young
Styling Assistant / Hwang Hae-jung for Intrend
This feature originally appeared in the June 2018 print issue of #legend