Dressed in all white, the band just performed their newest tropical-pop single, “Wave,” to the live audience of the popular Korean music program M Countdown, and are teeming with nerves as they wait to see if they won enough fan votes to beat the other performances, earning them the coveted golden trophy.
Their name is called, and confetti cannons explode as deafening cheers fill the room. Leader Hongjoong grabs the mic and thanks their staff and management, KQ Entertainment, before shedding a few happy tears; blue-haired Yunho sinks to the ground with his hands covering his face; main vocalist Jongho grabs the back of his neck in astonishment; Wooyoung, clutching his close friends San and Yeosang, bites his lip and covers his mouth as tears roll down his cheeks. All the while, rapper Mingi bounces up and down in a state of delighted shock.
For a K-pop group, winning a major music show isn’t just about a trophy. It’s a huge career milestone. It means that among the dozens of new groups emerging every year, they stand out to fans. They’re starting to get legitimately recognized. And since so many idols have spent years (sometimes a full decade) in the rigorous, trainee pre-debut process, securing a win finally feels like their hard work is beginning to pay off.
Within ATEEZ, many members put in work behind the scenes for years before finally debuting. Hongjoong, in particular, began working on music in high school, and became KQ's first and only trainee for six months Before he was joined by his fellow members.
After finally debuting just last October, ATEEZ went on to win for a second time on The Show five days later. And while their popularity is growing at home, it's so far been somewhat less explosive than their international success thus far. Their sold out world tour earlier this year with MyMusicTaste had already confirmed their popularity abroad, as well as their highly-anticipated performance for thousands more at KCON New York in Madison Square Garden in July. But even with all this initial success, staying top of mind in the highly-saturated landscape of K-pop groups is essential. Hongjoong, Seonghwa, Yunho, Yeosang, San, Mingi, Wooyoung, and Jongho have therefore been going full-speed ahead in the short time they’ve been together, releasing three EPs, touring around the world, signing with RCA Records — making a name for themselves as a group to watch out for.
Amidst this whirlwind, Refinery29 sat down with the group a few days ahead of their KCON NY appearance to talk about that defining moment on the M Countdown and to reflect on the journey that led to it.
Refinery29: You already proved with your world tour that you’re beloved abroad, but now with your first win you’re also seeing your popularity grow at home. What does that mean to you?
Yunho: "I'm very grateful that we got to perform around the world, but this win is an exciting new progression for us. We can continue to grow together with ATINY."
Mingi: "It really felt like a gift to me. Individually we each worked very hard as trainees. But then being able to debut and getting recognized like this is such an incredible reward for everything we've been through."
Many of you got emotional after that win. What was going through your heads?
Wooyoung: "Like Mingi said, it was an extremely rewarding experience for us. It honestly felt like I was watching a video or a film of my life — everything that I and we as a team had been through in the past just flashed in my memory. I was thinking about how my parents might be watching and crying themselves, so it was an extremely emotional moment for me."
Jongho: "I trained for a pretty long time. I also had this flood of memories of all the hard times I went through as a trainee. That's why I personally felt emotional — it all hit me at once. And then at the same time I felt this huge amount of pride too, so that's why I started to tear up."
Mingi: "I really wasn't expecting the win, to be honest. And like the other guys I became filled with memories too, but because I was so caught by surprise I just felt hit with total happiness."
And as a leader, Hongjoong, you had to keep it together while you gave your thank you speech before you could break down.
Hongjoong: "I had no choice but to do that! We had so many people to thank and to shout out."
Why did you decide to pursue music? And then specifically to become idols professionally?
Jongho: "I listened to a lot of different music growing up, and I realized that I wanted to be the person delivers the same feeling to others that I felt listening to artists. And then when I eventually trained to become an idol, and put the pieces of singing and dancing together, it just felt so right to me — it clicked into place. It's a job that truly brings me so much joy."
San: "Whenever I would listen to music growing up, it helped me emotionally and brought me happiness. In the future I hope that I can bring that happiness to other people."
Wooyoung: "Music is a powerful thing, and once it gripped me it never really let go. It's really the people surrounding me who supported me and cheered me on to pursue it professionally. It’s that, along with the determination of achieving my dream of becoming an idol and the happiness that comes with that, that I’ve kept as my motivation to get through the difficult times."
The trainee process is a very foreign concept to the West. What are the biggest challenges of being a K-pop trainee? What are the biggest joys?
Yeosang: "The most challenging part of being a trainee is that your future isn't promised to you — there's no guarantee that you'll debut at all. And the biggest joy that I had during my trainee days was when I found out I'd be put in a group that would get to debut."
San: "So many people don't make it — it's scary."
Seonghwa: "The biggest challenge for me during the trainee process was my inner struggle, to be honest. I was trying to develop my skills and figure out what my position and place would be within a team. As for the joys, I'm happiest walking the streets and exploring with my members."
What advice would you give to fans looking to harness the same fearlessness and confidence that you lead with in your performances?
Seonghwa: "Through our shows and concerts we try to remind our ATINY that they 'shine brighter than the stars in the universe.' But I think it's very important that fans first love themselves, so that their self-love and overflow to others. That love radiating to others can help connect you and help you build confidence."
Where did you learn that from?
Hongjoong: "My mom has really inspired me, because she's always told me that you can do anything you set your mind to if you love it. I always think about that — if I have a passion for something, I can make anything happen. It's proved to be true with ATEEZ: [performing and making music] is something I love in my life, and we've made it this far together being able to do it. I think we got our first win because of this kind of mindset, and I have my mother to thank for it."
Wooyoung: "Something I learned from my parents was that I should try to always convey my real, earnest feelings and thoughts towards everyone. I think treating everyone sincerely and being authentic is the best way to touch others and have a positive influence. I learned this from my mother and was able to grow up with a more positive mindset because of it."
San: "I often used to wear my heart on my sleeve and take out my frustrations at home after a long day. But I was influenced by how my mother was always very consistent; no matter what hardships or struggles she faced, she tried to always be strong for me. Because of this, I try not to show my struggles or difficulties to my members too much because I want to be considerate."
When you’re on TV and your parents see you, do they give you any feedback or comments?
Wooyoung: "My mother does say stuff to me like, ‘Why does your expression always look the same when you take pictures?’ Our company regularly gives us constructive criticism, but sometimes our parents are the ones who show us really tough love through brutally honest feedback like, ‘Why did you answer the interview question like that?’ or ‘Why does it look like you gained some weight?'’’
Mingi: "Every time my mother calls me, the first thing she says is that I look very scary and intimidating all the time. (Laughs)."