It’s a bright September afternoon in Seoul, and singer-songwriter Wonho is talking to me about his abs. He’s wearing a gray muscle shirt and laughing as he pats his stomach, joking that highlighting his chiseled abdomen was the main reason he chose the album art for his debut solo EP Love Synonym (#1): Right for Me. I can’t help but laugh along with him — he has an infectious, ebullient giggle that takes over his entire body. And he’s not lying — a version of the album cover is basically an artsy collage of the singer with an open shirt. For a celebrity, Wonho is refreshingly self-aware.
It’s safe to assume that any conversation about Wonho, née Lee Hoseok, will eventually include a mention of the singer’s impressive physique. It’s been a major calling card of his ever since he auditioned for the singing competition show No Mercy in 2014, and he lifted his shirt mid-performance. During his tenure in the K-pop group Monsta X — who Koreans call “beast idols” for their intense style — fans could count on almost every ferocious performance culminating in Wonho ripping off whatever doomed piece of fabric he’d chosen to wear that day. His first performance for his lead single, “Open Mind”? Straps and abs all day.
It would make sense, then, to imagine Wonho as a giant, hulk-like caricature offstage, too; one whose fervent hunger for Fruit of the Loom and protein shakes is matched by a high degree of narcissism. But, nothing could be further from the truth. As soon as the music finishes and the stage lights dim, the 27-year-old completely transforms: His shoulders drop, his brown eyes soften, and all the unbridled energy that roars out of him like a roiling sea retreats as quickly as the tide.
The Anyang, South Korea native is actually remarkably shy when he’s not on stage, and he’ll be the first to admit it. “My strength as a performer is that I’m energetic and physically powerful; I can express myself with lots of strength,” Wonho tells Refinery29 over video call, habitually running a hand through his bleached blond hair. “When I’m on the stage, I’m showing something that I’ve practised a lot for a long time. That makes me feel like the true me, and I can express it the way I want to. But in reality, offstage, I can’t express it in quite the same way.”
It took Wonho a while to find his voice. He had a difficult upbringing; he came from modest means — he’s said that his entire family lived in one room — and was bullied so much in school that he latched on to an older, wayward crowd. But in discovering the entertainment world, and being surrounded by people fueled by achieving a specific goal, Wonho found his purpose, and it set him on a new path. “Training has made [me] who I am now,” Wonho says. “I’ve been so influenced by how hard people work to achieve their dream. I wanted to do only this, so that made me concentrate. I just loved it that much. The idea of becoming a singer became my everything.”
While at first Wonho seemed to lean on his striking looks, he soon became one of the strongest dancers in Monsta X, and his light, breathy tenor added a unique character to the group’s discography. He also realized how much more comfortable he was expressing himself onstage, once he donned his idol armour. Despite first gaining success through dancing and singing other people’s songs, Wonho later began to realize that he, too, had something to say.
When Wonho recalls the first song he ever wrote, his face turns the faintest shade of pink. He rubs his eyes as he chuckles, and shrugs his shoulders slightly as he lets out an amused grunt. “The first song I ever wrote was very upbeat. It was like background music for a video game, so I named it after one: ‘Maple Story.’ People suggested that I send it to gaming companies in Korea, and I did.” Wonho pauses, shaking his head as he seems to be transported back to that time. “Yeah, I got ignored. The other songs I wrote at the time were bad, but I still think that game music was good enough for the game companies to buy it,” he says cheekily.
He soon started writing for Monsta X, and now takes credit for a handful of popular songs by the band over the years, including the airy “From Zero” and emotive ballad “Mirror.” As a solo artist, he’s had a hand in nearly every song on Love Synonym. He wants aspiring songwriters to take his lead — don’t let your failures keep you from persisting. “Sit tight and don’t give up. Forever,” he says, crossing his arms faux-sternly, his wide grin giving him away.
It’s telling that his favorite lyric he’s ever written is the hook from his lead single, “Losing You.” “It’s very meaningful to me: ‘Cause losing me is better than losing you,’” he says. “I can’t start [writing a song] unless there’s a specific theme, line, or title. I need to have a core. There was a time when I saw some fans suffering, so, every day, I wished that they wouldn’t have to be that way. That’s when I thought of those words, because the fans were too exhausted.”
It’s clear what time he’s referring to. On October 31, 2019, Wonho and the band’s management, Starship Entertainment, announced he was leaving Monsta X after four years, shocking the K-pop community and fans. Amid the public’s surprise at his departure, answers as to why he’d had to leave the band surfaced. It seemed several accusations had been launched at Wonho in quick succession: the first from a former friend from his pre-debut days who claimed he owed her a lot of money; another from a Seoul newspaper that reported that he’d used marijuana (very illegal in Korea); a third that he had been on juvenile probation.
The beloved idol’s public shaming and professional punishment — especially given that these were simply allegations — felt hasty, and unfair. But it didn’t go unanswered. Monsta X’s fandom, Monbebe, relentlessly and fiercely protested Wonho’s treatment for nearly half a year, advocating for the singer on social media using hashtags such #FightForWonho, and starting an online petition to keep Wonho in Monsta X that garnered nearly half a million signatures. Monbebe even stuck handwritten Post-It notes on the Starship building and crowd-funded more than $25,000 to commission a billboard for the singer in New York City's Times Square. Five months later, on March 10, 2020, the Seoul authorities cleared Wonho of all charges. He didn’t rejoin his former group, though, instead deciding to start a new chapter on his own. Now, his new music harnesses and synthesizes all the awe he had for the global fanbase that refused to give up on him. He appropriately named his fans 위니 (“Wenee,” short for We Are New Ending).
I used to think about whether I’m worthy of the fans' love. Now, I think I deserve their love and I want to give them back the same amount of love.
“Last year, I had support from many good people around me and from my family, but the fans are the ones that kept me going forward,” Wonho says. “I was able to bear everything because of them. I’m just amazed every time I think about it. The fans always bring results that I can’t even imagine for myself. It’s not like I ask them to — some fans always go beyond my expectations. I feel their dedication every moment.”
His first message back to them, “Losing You,” is one of deep gratitude and reverence. While the singer has a penchant for sparkly EDM synths and and lush R&B flourishes, the title track is a simple piano melody, so the lyrics (written in English and Korean, as a nod to his diverse fandom) take center stage: “Baby I would go to war for you / Build an army if you need me to /'Cause losing me is better than losing you.” While seen as a man of few words, give Wonho a pen and a microphone, and he paints illustrative pictures that need no explanation.
Chanel, a longtime Wonho fan from Chicago, cried when she heard the song for the first time. “It meant so much to me, and I was just so overwhelmed thinking about the place he was in when he wrote it,” she said. “And then all of the time and energy me and the other fans went through hoping this day would come. It’s hard to explain, but on top of everything, the fact that all these people from all over the world who didn’t necessarily know each other — young women, older men, Black, Latinx, Brazilian, Alaskan, everyone — coming together because we believed in Wonho and his heart. I lost it. I still do.”
The love that he feels for and feels from his fans is just one aspect of the emotion that Wonho has been pondering over the last year, as he’s contemplated the larger meaning of love. That’s what Love Synonym is — an exploration of all the different shapes and demeanors of love. But what does love mean to him? Quality time. “Rather than devoting yourself to giving and receiving, love is more about the time you spend with each other or just being there for one another, because we’re able to support each other even though we’re physically apart,” he says. “I don’t think there’s one definition of love.” He doesn’t say this somberly, nor does he look away. He seems assured, gesturing in order to get his point across, like someone who has turned over this idea enough times to know its grooves and ridges.
“This is what I’ve learned about myself,” he continues. “I can work very hard, and I used to think about whether I’m worthy of the fans' love. Now, I think I deserve their love and I want to give them back the same amount of love.”
Besides, well, abs, the Love Synonym art bears another unique characteristic — the Os in the album name are made up of two parentheses. On some versions of the album, there are wide gaps between them. He’s creating space for listeners to fill in the blanks. “Different things can be inside the pair of brackets. For instance, my fans can come inside the brackets. I wanted the time we spend together — when you’re listening to the songs I’ve written for you — to feel undefined. Infinite.”
Is that how he’s felt in the past few months? Undefined? Infinite?
Wonho tilts his head at an angle and looks up, thinking deeply. His mouth makes a hard line and then lets in a sharp breath. “It’s more like hope,” he says, finally exhaling. “Hope that we have for the future — something that we will make together.”