Crazy Rich Asians meets Gossip Girl by way of Jenny Han in this knock-out debut about a Korean American teen who is thrust into the competitive, technicolor world of K-pop, from Jessica Jung, K-pop legend and former lead singer of one of the most influential K-pop girl groups of all time, Girls’ Generation.
What would you give for a chance to live your dreams?
For seventeen-year-old Korean American Rachel Kim, the answer is almost everything. Six years ago, she was recruited by DB Entertainment—one of Seoul’s largest K-pop labels, known for churning out some of the world’s most popular stars. The rules are simple: Train 24/7. Be perfect. Don’t date. Easy right?
Not so much. As the dark scandals of an industry bent on controlling and commodifying beautiful girls begin to bubble up, Rachel wonders if she’s strong enough to be a winner, or if she’ll end up crushed... Especially when she begins to develop feelings for K-pop star and DB golden boy Jason Lee. It’s not just that he’s charming, sexy, and ridiculously talented. He’s also the first person who really understands how badly she wants her star to rise.
Get ready as Jessica Jung, K-pop legend and former lead singer of Korea’s most famous girl group, Girls’ Generation, takes us inside the luxe, hyper-color world of K-pop, where the stakes are high, but for one girl, the cost of success—and love—might be even higher. It’s time for the world to see: this is what it takes to SHINE.
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Chapter One One
Head up, legs crossed. Tummy tucked, shoulders back. Smile like the whole world is your best friend. I repeat the mantra in my head as the camera pans across my face. The corners of my lips turn up in a perfectly sweet “don’t you want to tell me all your secrets” pink-glossed smile.
But you probably shouldn’t. You know how they say three can keep a secret if two of them are dead? Well, that couldn’t be truer for my world, where everyone is always watching and your secrets can actually kill you. Or, at least, they can kill your chance to shine.
“You girls must be thrilled!” The interviewer is a middle-aged man with oily, slicked-back hair and fair skin. He might have been handsome if his garish hot-pink satin tie and red shirt combo weren’t so distracting. He leans forward eagerly, his eyes gleaming at the nine girls seated before him, a sea of perfectly tousled beach waves and unblemished faces glowing from years of skin-brightening face masks, choreographed down to the angle of our sleekly crossed legs and the descending order of our pastel rainbow-hued stilettos. “Hitting number one at all the music shows, and with your debut music video no less! You’re one chart away from an All-Kill! How do you feel?”
“We couldn’t be more excited.” Mina jumps in eagerly, flashing her perfect teeth in a beaming smile. My face muscles ache as I stretch to match her.
“It’s a dream come true,” Eunji agrees before loudly popping her gum and blowing a huge strawberry-scented bubble.
“We’re so grateful for the opportunity to do this together,” Lizzie chimes in, her eyes practically glowing under layers of silvery eye shadow.
The interviewer’s eyes light up, and he leans in conspiratorially. “So you all get along? I mean, nine incredibly beautiful girls in one group. That can’t always be easy.”
Sumin gives a soft, effortless laugh, pursing her flawlessly lined bright-red lips. “Nothing is ever ‘always easy,’” she says. “But we’re family. And family comes first.” She links arms with Lizzie sitting next to her. “We belong together.”
The interviewer flutters a hand over his heart. “Just precious. And what do you love about working together?” His eyes travel slowly over the group, finally landing on me. “Rachel?”
My eyes immediately shift to the huge camera sitting behind the interviewer. I can feel the lens zooming in on me. Head up, legs crossed. Tummy tucked, shoulders back. I’ve been preparing for this moment for years. I smile wide, turning the interviewer into my best friend. And my mind goes completely blank.
Say something, Rachel. Say anything. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. My hands have gone clammy, and I can sense the other girls start to shift uncomfortably in their seats as my silence fills the room. The camera feels like a spotlight—hot and prickly on my skin—as my mouth dries up, making it almost impossible to speak.
Finally, the interviewer sighs and takes pity on me. “You’ve all been through so much together—training for seven years before making it big! Has the experience been everything you hoped it would be?” He smiles, lobbing me an easy question.
“Yes,” I manage to croak out, a smile still plastered on my face.
He continues. “And tell me a little more about what life was like as a trainee before your big girl-group debut. What was your favorite part of living in the trainee house?”
My mind spins around for an answer as I discreetly wipe the sweat off my hands and onto the leather seat beneath me. An idea pops into my head. “What else?” I say, lifting a hand, awkwardly wiggling my perfectly manicured fingers, all white and lavender stripes, toward the camera. “Eight girls to do your nails for you. It’s like living in a 24/7 nail salon!”
Omg. What is wrong with me? Did I really just say my favorite part of training was having eight girls to give me free manicures?
Luckily, the interviewer’s laughter booms loudly throughout the room, and I feel relief coursing through my body. Okay, I can do this. I giggle along with him, and the other girls quickly join in. He flashes his greasy smile at me. Uh-oh. “Rachel, you’ve received high praise for your talent as the lead vocalist. Do you find your talent inspires the other girls to do better, work harder?”
At this, I blush, putting my hands on my face to cover up the color rising in my cheeks. My head starts buzzing again. I’ve practiced answering these questions a million times, but every time I get in front of that camera, I freeze. The lights, the interviewers, the knowledge that millions of people out there are watching me. It’s like my brain disconnects from my body, and no amount of practice or preparation can make the two come together again. My throat fills with a lump the size of a golf ball, and I notice the interviewer’s smile growing more and more frozen on his face. Crap. How long has he been waiting for me to answer? Quickly, I blurt out, “I mean—I am talented.” Out of the side of my eye I notice Lizzie and Sumin glance at each other, eyebrows lifted. Shit. “Wait, but not the most talented. I mean, well, the group—all the girls. We all—”
“I think what Rachel means to say is we all love what we do, and we inspire each other every day,” Mina cuts in smoothly. “Speaking as lead dancer of the group, I know I learned a lot from my father about a strong work ethic—”
She’s cut off by the sharp ringing of the class bell over the speaker system. The cameras click off and the interviewer’s smile wilts off his face. He takes his time, slowly peeling off his suit jacket to reveal huge sweat stains darkening the satin under his arms as the nine of us—some of the top K-pop trainees at DB Entertainment—wait for our mock-interview media assessment. “I’d like to see a little bit more energy for next week—remember, the only difference between a trainee and a DB K-pop star is how much you want it! Eunji...” She looks at him, eyes wide and scared. “How many times do I have to tell you, no bubble gum during mock interviews! One more violation and I’m sending you straight back to newbie classes.” Eunji’s face turns pale, and she bows her head low. “Sumin! Lizzie!” Their heads snap up. “More personality from both of you! No one’s paying two hundred thousand won for a K-pop concert full of stars who use makeup to hide the fact that they have nothing interesting to say.” Lizzie looks like she’s about to cry, and Sumin’s bright-red lips match the blush blooming on her cheeks. Finally, he turns to me and in almost a bored voice says, “Rachel, we’ve been over this before. Your singing and dancing is some of the best we’ve ever seen, but that’s only part of the job. If you can’t even sell yourself to me during a training interview, how do you expect to perform in front of huge crowds every night? Or do real interviews with live audiences? We expect more from you.” He gives us a curt nod before walking out of the training room, shaking a cigarette from his front pocket.
I practically melt off the tiny stool I’ve been sitting on for the past hour, my smile fading away as I massage out the stiletto-induced cramp in my right leg. I’ve heard it all before. Do better, Rachel. Get comfortable in front of the camera, Rachel. K-pop stars must be lovable, eloquent, and perfect at all times, Rachel. I let out a grunt of pain as I twist around to pull on my Converses. Mina glares at me from her seat.
“What now?” I sigh.
She lifts a hand, showing off her perfect French manicure. “Eight girls to do your nails for you? Seriously? We’re not your servants, Rachel.” She rolls her eyes. You would know, I think to myself. Of everyone at DB, Mina’s the most likely to have servants. She’s the eldest daughter of one of Korea’s oldest and most powerful chaebol families, the Choos, also known as the C-MART family. There are thousands of orange-and-white C-MART stores all over the country, selling everything from kimchi and Yakult and freshly made japchae to neon-yellow sweatshirts with knockoff Sanrio characters spouting ridiculous Konglish phrases like “Your mom is my hamster”—meaning Mina is richer than rich and a huge pain in my ass. “You know you’re the reason we have so many of these media training classes, right?” My insides heat up. It’s true. I know it’s true. But that doesn’t mean I want to hear it from Mina. “Can you at least try answering like a K-pop star and not some starstruck little girl at a slumber party? Or is that too much to ask from our poor little Korean American princess?”
I stiffen. It’s no secret I was born and raised in the States (New York City, to be exact), but between my dance trainer screaming at me for being three minutes late to class this morning and my failed interview performance, I’m in no mood to deal with Mina and her attitude today. “I don’t remember the interviewer asking you any personal questions, Mina. Maybe you’re just not as interesting as you think you are.”
“Or maybe I don’t need the practice,” Mina says.
I sigh. I skipped breakfast this morning, and the effort to keep up this verbal sparring with Mina requires at least one meal, if not two. I turn away, scooping my heels into my old white leather tote bag.
“What, you think you’re too good to talk to me now? Didn’t your umma teach you any manners?” Mina says.
“What do you expect from her?” Lizzie says, checking her mascara in her monogrammed compact mirror. She snaps it shut and narrows her eyes at me. “Sweet little Princess Rachel, whose mom won’t let her step foot in the trainee house. Maybe that’s why she thinks we all have nothing better to do with our time than each other’s nails.”
“It must be nice to be Mr. Noh’s favorite,” Eunji says with a loud sigh. “You know, some of us actually have to work hard to get where we are. You don’t see us getting any favors from the head of DB.”
“I hope you don’t think you’re some of us,” Sumin says, whipping around to face Eunji. “I can’t remember the last time I saw you break a sweat over anything.”
“Speaking of sweat, you might want to freshen up a bit, sweetie,” Eunji says, drawing a circle in the air around her own face. “You’re looking a little... shiny.”
“Well, your nose is looking a little plastic,” Sumin bites back.
“The two of you are giving me a headache!” Lizzie whines to Mina. “Sunbae, make them be quiet!”
Mina smiles. “Of course, Lizzie, sweetie. Why don’t we just turn the camera back on? That will shut them right up! Oh wait... that only works on Rachel!”
The room dissolves into giggles as my face flares in anger and embarrassment. I should bite back, but I don’t. I never do. I like to pretend it’s because I’m taking my mom’s advice to heart—you know, be the bigger person, always take the high road, never let them see you sweat, the mantras of strong, American-minded feminists everywhere—but the huge lump that’s returned to my throat knows that’s a lie. I finish lacing my shoes and stand. “If you’ll excuse me,” I say, winding my way out of the room.
“Oh, you’re excused,” Mina says innocently. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her motion to the other girls, whispering wildly as sly smiles start to spread across all their faces.
DB Entertainment’s training campus is exactly like the K-pop stars it churns out: flawless, sparkling, and pretty much impossible to look away from. It’s prime real estate in the heart of Cheongdam-dong, the capital of K-pop. In the summer, trainees gather for yoga and Pilates on the rooftop garden, fighting over the coveted umbrella-covered spots to avoid even the hint of a sun blemish. Inside, giant fountains with spring water flown in directly from Seoraksan grace the teakwood and marble-clad lobbies. The DB execs claim the fountains are there to help us channel our inner peace in order to achieve our highest potential—but we all know what a joke that is. There’s no inner peace to be had here.
Especially not with the yearbook staring you in the face every day.
The yearbook (so named because most of the trainees here never get the chance to have an actual high school yearbook) is what we call the walls surrounding the fountain in the central wing lobby, decorated with framed photos of every single K-pop star who’s debuted out of DB’s training program. Their picture-perfect smiles and glossy hair remind us mere trainee mortals of what we aspire to be every day as we scurry from class to class. And smack in the middle of the wall—the one place we all hope to see ourselves someday—is a gold plaque with the names of every DB solo star or group who’s had a song debut at #1 on the Seoul music charts.
As I walk past, I stop and stare, my eyes blurring as I go over the names I memorized years ago. Pyo Yeri, Kwon YoonWoo, Lee Jiyoung... and the most recent, NEXT BOYZ. I feel a familiar squeeze around my heart, that patented K-pop trainee combination of stress, panic, and dehydration, as I flash back to my disastrous interview performance. Wincing at the memory, I quicken my steps, hurrying toward the independent practice rooms that line the west side of the building.
The hallway is full of random toys and props used by the best of the best stars in worldwide concerts. Half of the paraphernalia has the insignias of Electric Flower and Kang Jina (a gold-plaque legend and the leader of the biggest and best girl group in K-pop for the last few years). They debuted at the top spot and never left it. When I joined DB, I worshipped those girls—Jina especially. I admire them even more now, knowing what they had to go through to get to where they are. But part of me wonders about the girls they left behind. The ones that didn’t make it in the group.
Will I be the one on top or the one left in the shadows?
Bass reverberates into the hallway as I peek inside one room and see a second-year trainee practicing Blue Pearl’s iconic “Don’t Give Up on Love” dance. She flubs the side-to-side arm movements and wilts, dragging herself over to the speaker panel to start the song from the beginning. My whole body aches just watching her. From the sweat dripping off her forehead to her bright-red cheeks, I can tell she’s been in there for hours—a typical day for a young trainee. At the end of the hall, I run my finger over the electronic sign-up screen that dictates practice room availability. It’s still pretty early on a Saturday, so I’m hoping for some afternoon times to work on my dance moves, but... Ugh. Unbelievable. Every single slot is filled.
My hands clench as I feel my body temperature skyrocket. Lizzie wasn’t wrong—I’m not like the other trainees who are here 24/7, singing and dancing in practice rooms until 4:00 a.m., sleeping at the nearby trainee house, and waking up and doing it all over again, every single day. Back when I first got recruited to DB, my mom almost didn’t let me come. It meant uprooting our family from New York City to Seoul, my sister giving up her school and her friends, both of my parents giving up their jobs. But more than that, she couldn’t understand why K-pop meant so much to me, and she definitely didn’t understand the trainee lifestyle—the intense pressure, the years of training, the plastic surgery scandals. Then, about three weeks into begging my mom to change her mind, my halmoni died. I remember how sad I felt, how I cried with my mom and Leah for hours, how when she was alive, Halmoni would sit me down every morning during our visits and braid my hair, whispering old folktales into my ear, telling me in her soothing voice how I would grow up to be beautiful, wise, and very wealthy. My mom wouldn’t let us miss school for the funeral, and when she got back from Korea, I had practically decided to let go of the whole trainee thing, but to my surprise, Umma made me a deal: We would move to Seoul and I would go to school during the week, get an education, keep my prospects for college open, and every weekend (starting Friday night), I would train. (Once, a few years ago, I asked her why she changed her mind after Halmoni died, but all I got was a blank stare followed by a quick smack on the back of my head).
The DB execs didn’t really go for Umma’s arrangement at first, but for some reason, Mr. Noh decided to bend the rules for me. Umma thinks it was because of her “American female empowerment” (as she calls it), but I know I’m just one of the lucky few Mr. Noh favors—one of the lucky few he has decided to pluck from trainee obscurity and pay extra attention to. (Although in the trainee program, extra attention really just means extra pressure.) Still, the situation was pretty unheard of, and it wasn’t long before I was known as “Princess Rachel,” the most pampered trainee at DB; the full-blooded Korean whose American passport (and American attitude and American dislike of Spam...) put more distance between me and the other trainees than the entire Pacific Ocean had. Now, six years later, even though I’ve been here longer than almost all the other trainees, the nickname still lives on.
You’d think they’d judge me based on how hard I train. How I work my body to the bone at DB headquarters on the weekends. How I sleep four hours a night during the week because of the hours of practice I put in after finishing my homework. How I begged my school to give me an independent study in music so I can have fifty minutes alone every day in the music room, practicing scales to keep me sharp. But instead, they judge my clean clothes, my neatly brushed hair, and the fact that I get to sleep in my own bed at night.
And the worst part is? They’re right. Every single one of them puts in twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Most of them live at the trainee house and go home once a month (if that). They eat, sleep, and breathe K-pop. No matter how you look at it, I can’t compete with that. But that’s exactly what I have to do.
Digging the heels of my palms into my forehead, I try to take calm, even breaths. As I got closer and closer to debut age, I begged my mom to let me train full-time, but all I ever got back was a resounding refusal. How can I tell my mom that it’s almost unheard of to debut in a girl group if you’re out of your teen years? How can I explain that I’m two years away from being past my prime? It’s been almost seven years since DB debuted Electric Flower, right before the last big DB Family Tour. They haven’t debuted another girl group since. Rumors that DB is looking to debut a new girl group—and soon—have been swirling for months, and I can’t afford to wait another seven years. I can’t afford to wait seven months. By then it might be too late for me. Debuting is everything I’ve been working toward, and there’s no way I’m going to let myself be passed over. No matter what Umma says.
I jerk my hands away from my face and plaster on a pleasantly neutral expression, bracing myself for another confrontation with Mina. I exhale and smile, however, when I see Akari bounding down the hall, her thick black ponytail streaming behind her.
Akari Masuda moved to Seoul with her parents when she was ten years old, after her father, a Japanese tech genius, was recruited to work at the Osan Air Force Base. She had been on the short list to start training at L-star Records, a huge J-pop label in Tokyo, but her parents didn’t want her living on her own at such a young age. Instead, her dad pulled some strings to get her into the DB program. Maybe it’s because we both understand what it’s like to be an outsider in Seoul, but we’ve gotten along since the day we met. It’s not easy making friends when everything here feels like a competition, but Akari is one of the few people at DB I can really trust.
“Where have you been?” she asks, linking her arm smoothly through mine. She has the natural grace of a dancer, having been in ballet since she was four years old.
“Media training,” I respond lightly. Akari takes in the dark circles under my eyes and my red, splotchy face and gently starts to ease me away from the practice rooms.
“Well, I’ve been looking everywhere for you. I was worried you might miss the newbie bowing ceremony!”
I groan, stopping in my tracks. “Um, no. Please don’t make me go to that. You know I hate it.”
“Hate it or not, ‘the bowing ceremony represents family—and at DB, family comes first.’” Akari giggles, her face contorting into a disturbingly accurate replica of Mr. Noh, DB Entertainment’s CEO—or, as he would say, the head of the tight-knit DB family. Ha. She wiggles her eyebrows. “Plus, I heard there’s catering.”
My stomach rumbles at the thought of food, and I remember I haven’t eaten anything all day. “You should have led with that,” I say, letting her drag me down the hall. “You know I never say no to free food.”
“Who does?” Akari shouts as we step out into the main lobby. It’s teeming with people—trainees rushing to classes and staff rushing to their offices, prepping for the big Electric Flower concert in Busan next weekend. We pass the cafeteria—famous for being the only Michelin-starred corporate cafeteria in all of Asia. Even international superstars like Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner have come here just to eat the food. Too bad it’s wasted on most of the trainees and idols who are actually repped by DB, as we’re meticulously weighed each week. Can’t afford to pop out of our costumes onstage (sarcasm intended).
The auditorium is one of my favorite places on campus, all gleaming blond wood and faux-industrial iron chandeliers dangling from the ceiling. The stage rises dramatically in the center of the room (to more accurately reflect the experience of a stadium tour, of course) with plush, velvet-covered seating surrounding it.
Mr. Noh is already standing onstage with the new trainees lined up behind him as we slide into the first row of seats. I look at the kids onstage; they are fidgeting and smiling with the excited, nervous energy that other kids might feel on their first day of school. Mr. Noh, tacky as ever in head-to-toe Prada, looks the way he always does: narrowed, critical eyes hidden behind mirror-tinted glasses, able to spot an underperforming trainee from a mile away, but with hands resting gently on the newbies’ shoulders in a failed attempt to seem fatherly.
As he drones on about the challenges that await this fresh batch of future K-pop stars, my eyes wander over to the food set up on tables at the side of the auditorium. It’s a lavish Western-style spread of prosciutto and fig sandwiches, rosewater doughnuts, and fruit platters bursting with fresh mango and lychee. A small group of DB execs and senior trainers have already set up camp around the banquet tables, stuffing their faces. I see a familiar flash of neon-pink hair among them and wave at Chung Yujin, DB’s head trainer. Yujin was the one who first scouted me while I was singing “Style” inside a noraebang in Myeong-dong. I was eleven years old, and Leah and I were visiting our halmoni in Seoul for the summer. I’m eighteen now and Yujin’s still the person at DB I look up to most—she’s my mentor, my unni. No one but Akari knows about our history, though, and how close we really are. Yujin always says my life as a K-pop trainee is already hard enough (what with Mr. Noh’s interest in me and my special schedule), that she doesn’t want to pile on by telling everyone I’m her favorite. She waves back discreetly, pretending to look interested as a wrinkled old exec grabs her by the arm and starts gabbing in her ear. She catches my eye from across the auditorium and mouths, Help.
I giggle to myself, my eye sliding to a big orange-and-white sign displayed on the table: ON BEHALF OF CHOO MINA AND HER FATHER, WE ARE PROUD TO BE PART OF THE DB FAMILY. BON APPÉTIT! My grin vanishes. Maybe I can say no to free food after all.
“I think I just lost my appetite,” I say flatly.
Akari follows my eyes to the sign. “Oh,” she says. She laughs, trying to lighten my mood. “Come on, Mina’s not that bad.”
“Remember what happened at my bowing ceremony?”
Akari smiles, eyes crinkling. “Ooh, yeah, I love this story.”
On my first day as a DB newbie, I had no idea I was supposed to bow to the senior trainees at this ceremony. I was fresh off the plane from New York City—and even though both my parents are Korean, bowing isn’t really something you do all that much in the States. When I was a kid, it was just something we did when we visited my parents’ friends from church during the new year, and that was the full formal Korean bow (and it was worth it too, for the crisp twenty-dollar bill they always handed to us afterward). I thought the ceremony was just a welcoming event, a chance to meet the other trainees. Yujin-unni, knowing I wouldn’t know what to do, whispered in my ear that I should bow to the elder trainees. So I did—to the older teens standing in a row. But when I got to Mina, a girl my own age, I just stuck out my hand to shake hers, thinking it was the right (and polite!) thing to do. I might as well have kicked her in the stomach and spit in her hair for the tantrum she had.
By now Akari has taken over the story, mimicking Mina’s world-class meltdown. “‘Who does this bitch think she is?’” She crows with laughter. “‘She thinks she’s some kind of hotshot because she’s from America? Learn some manners, newbie.’” I roll my eyes, recalling how she immediately tattled on me to Mr. Noh, demanding I be punished for my lack of respect to a sunbae (literally anyone with more experience than you, even if that person is your same age or younger). Thankfully, Yujin put a stop to that. But since then, Mina has basically made it her goal in life to destroy me.
“God. The temper she has.”
“But you still didn’t bow, did you?” Akari says.
“It’ll take more than some rich daddy’s girl with a god complex to make me bow to Mina,” I say.
“That’s my girl.” Akari pats me on the back. “Young Rachel would be so proud of you.” I flash her a quick smile, but inside, my heart starts to sink. If I could go back in time, knowing the proper etiquette, would I really do it the same way? I want to say yes, that obviously I would put Mina in her place, but even I don’t know if I’m being honest with myself. I think back to the way I ran out of the training room this morning, the way I avoid confrontation with all the other trainees—Yujin’s always telling me to rise above, to focus on training, and I play those words over in my head constantly. But... would eleven-year-old Rachel be proud of me? Or would she call me a coward?
Akari and I join the ceremony onstage, waiting our turn in line with the other senior trainees to receive bows from the newbies.
“Excuse me,” Lizzie snaps at us. “Princess and her pawn to the back of the line.” The girls around us gasp in shock.
Beside me, Akari whirls around to face her. “Excuse you,” she snaps back, her face inches from Lizzie’s, her eyes narrowed in anger. “We’re more senior than you. We’re not going anywhere.”
Lizzie’s eyes nervously dart over to Mina, who’s looking at us with a smug smile on her face. But there’s nothing she can say—they both know Akari is right. “Whatever,” she huffs, clearly defeated. “You’re still foreigners.” All around us, trainees are staring and giggling. I’ve had enough.
“Come on, Akari,” I mutter, my cheeks bright pink. “It’s not worth it.”
I can tell Akari is seething by the way she walks, back tall and stiff, but she follows my lead. It’s not worth it, I tell myself. It’s unprofessional to throw down at the newbie ceremony. I’m no Mina.
Instead, we make our way over to the banquet table. Yujin grabs my hand, squeezing it hard. “Everything okay up there? It looked... tense.”
I give her a tight smile. “It’s fine. Nothing to worry about,” I say as I ignore her arched brow and grab a plate. Distractedly, I reach for a sandwich, intent on eating away this shame spiral that’s started to grow in my stomach, when Akari pulls my hand back, shaking her head.
“Cucumber,” she says, pointing to the sign.
“Gross.” I shudder, plopping a white pizza bacon grilled cheese on my plate instead. “Thanks. You saved my life.”
“What are friends for?” She smiles. “Plus, I’m never reliving the horrific cucumber catastrophe of 2017. I still get nightmares thinking about you vomiting all over the cafeteria after one tiny bite of cucumber salad.”
“Don’t blame me! Cucumbers are like the jogging exercises of the vegetable world! People pretend to like them because they’re supposed to be healthy for you, but really, they’re the worst. And they leave a horrible taste in your mouth. And they should be illegal.”
“Sorry, but I believe cucumbers are technically a fruit?” Akari laughs, and I throw a crumpled napkin at her face.
Walk into any K-pop trainee lesson and you’ll find some of the most talented teens in the world—expert dancers, accomplished singers, and of course, world-class gossipmongers. “I heard he dyed his hair orange,” Eunji says.
“Not just any orange, but the exact same custom shade that Romeo from BigM$ney has,” a first-year trainee in silver pants chimes in, his voice barely past puberty.
Looks like class is in session.
All the gossip, of course, is focused on one thing: Jason Lee, DB’s newest K-pop star and the latest addition to the coveted plaque on the yearbook, after his group, NEXT BOYZ, debuted at #1 with their single “True Love.” You couldn’t take a step onto campus—or anywhere in Seoul, really—without hearing Jason’s brooding tenor singing about finding his one true love. Mr. Noh had never looked happier. But now, apparently, sweet, humble, loyal Jason and the execs are in a big fight and no one knows why. I sip a can of Milkis, happy to forget all about my day and listen to the theories swirl around me.
“I heard he stole from Mr. Noh’s vinyl record collection,” a third voice whispers, hiding behind thick reddish-brown bangs.
“Angel Boy? Stealing? He would never!”
“Would Mr. Noh even notice? He has, like, a thousand records.”
“Are you serious? He’s obsessed with those records.”
“Who cares if he’s a thief? He’s too cute to be fired!” Half a dozen trainees all start nodding in agreement.
I shake my head slightly in disbelief. Stolen records and dyed hair? That’s the worst the vicious DB rumor mill can come up with? A few months ago, when a female trainee, Suzy Choi, was suddenly let go in the middle of a training cycle, rumors had run rampant that she had a drug problem and she owed thousands of dollars to her dealers, who sold her to one of those North Korean–themed restaurants in Cambodia. (Akari, on the other hand, claimed she had seen Suzy on the street holding hands with some cute boy, but I don’t believe it. There’s no way Suzy would have ever broken DB’s strict “no dating” rule—in this industry, illicit drugs are more believable than an illicit boyfriend.) Another time last year, my mom and dad were both working on a Sunday and asked me to bring Leah to training with me—the rumors that she was my illegitimate child and that I took care of her during the week and that was the reason I didn’t train during the week have only just died down. Of course, the fact that I’m only five years older than her didn’t seem to matter to anyone.
“What we should really be focusing on is training harder, not gossiping,” Mina says primly, stretching as she stands up and glances in Mr. Noh’s direction. I resist the urge to roll my eyes. Could she get any more obvious?
Zeroing in on me, she saunters over, smiling brightly at the plate in my hands. “Rachel. So sorry you couldn’t participate in the bowing ceremony. It’s probably better left to those of us who know what we’re doing, don’t you think? But I do hope you’re enjoying the food.”
That’s it. I’ve had enough of Mina for today. “Yes,” I say brightly back, plucking a piece of bacon off my plate and crunching down on it. “I’m lucky to be so naturally thin that I don’t have to watch what I eat.” I let my eyes linger on her plateful of peeled celery and dotori-muk while a group of younger trainees swivel toward us, eyes agog and giggling.
Mina’s eyes narrow in shock and anger—she’s not used to me biting back. I’m sure she’ll make me pay. Raising her voice several decibels, she says, “If you and Akari are free tonight, why don’t you join us for vocals practice at the trainee house? We do it every Saturday night, and I wouldn’t want you to fall behind.”
The trainee house. Yeah, right. Umma would never let me go and Mina knows it.
Before I can respond, Mr. Noh strides over. Mina’s loud voice has obviously paid off. At least she’s getting something out of all those extra singing lessons; the girl knows how to project.
“What’s this I hear about a late-night practice?” His eyes move across the group, landing on me. “Rachel, was this your idea?” he asks, smiling. “Our most hardworking trainee!” His eyes focus in on me as all around us trainees have gone silent, everyone sitting up as straight as they possibly can, alert and ready to be called on and impress at a moment’s notice.
Beside me, Mina looks furious that Mr. Noh has singled me out yet again. I force a smile onto my face and open my mouth to respond, but Mina cuts me off at the last moment. “I’ll be there, sir!” she practically shouts, a few pieces of celery flying off her plate.
Mr. Noh’s eyes widen in shock, but he quickly recovers. “Wonderful attitude. And good for you, Miss... uh...”
“Choo. Choo Mina. My father is Choo Minhee....” Mina’s face falls. “You two are old friends....”
“Right, right, of course, Minhee’s daughter!” Mr. Noh chuckles, a look of relief in his eyes. “Thank you for reminding me.”
A smile bursts across Mina’s face. “Thank you, Mr. Noh,” Mina says, simpering. “Will the two of you be getting together anytime soon? Father’s always saying how much he enjoys your company at the annual Choo Corporation’s Christmas party....”
“Yes, yes, I’ll have to give him a ring.” He chuckles before turning his attention back to me. “And what wonderful taste in friends you have, Rachel! You and Mina are fine examples for the other senior trainees. You should all be making this late-night session a top priority.” Mr. Noh’s eyes lock with mine, and I can see myself in the reflection of his glasses. “Especially those of you who wish to debut soon.”
My insides are on fire, but I don’t waver. I can feel Mina’s smug expression burning a hole in the side of my head, but I take another sip of Milkis and smile.
“Count me in,” I say. Mr. Noh nods in approval, and I raise my can to him as if making a toast. To family and to being utterly screwed. “I can’t wait.”