On the day his worlds collided, Roy Kim was sprinting across campus.
Georgetown was a blur as he bolted toward class, nearly late for his Chinese lecture again. Backpack over his shoulder, head down, he turned the corner — and that’s when he heard the screaming.
“Roy Kimmm! Roy Kimmmmm!!!”
A little boy and a woman were jumping up and down and waving at him from across the street.
He knew what they wanted and stopped to chat, but only to tell her she was “over the line.” He felt ambushed.
In his other life, the sight of a woman lingering on a corner for a glimpse of him would have been less startling. In his other life, people were constantly screaming his name, elbowing to get close enough to take his picture, reaching out their hands to catch his onstage sweat.
But here? Here, he is a student. Here, he can spend all morning stretched out in bed watching “House of Cards” on his laptop. Here, he can eat Domino’s pizza in the basement of the library and go shopping for spring break clothes on M Street. Here, he can be, in his own way, normal.
Two and a half years have passed since Sangwoo KimSangwoo, his given name, won South Korea’s version of “American Idol,” “Superstar K.” It was every bit as dramatic and grueling as the Western show : Roy, then a guitar-loving 19-year-old, saw entering the competition as a little adventure before he left for college in the United States.
The show’s producers fell for him, or rather the image of a wealthy, well-groomed son of a CEO, camera-ready for their teenage heartthrob-seeking audience. The dramatic voice-over introducing him in early episodes called him an “umchinah,” Korean slang for a perfect son.
Out of more than 2 million applicants, 12 made the show. They spent three months training their voices, getting their eyebrows plucked and their acne washed away, eating salad for every dinner and, once a week, performing for a TV audience that texted in votes for their favorites. In the end, viewers chose the perfect son.
At the time, more Americans were discovering K-pop, Korean pop music. “Gangnam Style” had gone from a YouTube sensation to a mainstream anthem that no one knew the words to but everyone danced to at weddings. Psy, the song’s artist, had to leave his spot as a “Superstar K” judge to go on tour.
Like Psy, Roy wasn’t the product of the K-pop “factory,” in which children as young as 12 are conscripted by major labels, trained and perfected for years, then grouped into girl and boy bands.
Roy is not that kind of K-pop. If there were a thing called K-folk, that’s how Roy would describe his music. With names like “Spring Spring Spring” and “Love Love Love,” his songs are sweet and catchy. (“Spring Spring Spring” topped the Billboard Korea K-Pop Hot 100 for three straight weeks.) To compare him to an “American Idol” winner, he’s like a Phillip Phillips, who followed his 2012 victory with the hit single “Home” — which happens to be the name of Roy’s second album.
When he won, he had already been accepted to Georgetown, an achievement he had been working toward since middle school, including a stint at a prep school in Asheville, N.C. But he put off his freshman year in order to record an album and go on a countrywide tour. He wondered whether to postpone school longer.
It was not a dilemma for his parents, whose initial misgivings about Roy’s music career the “Superstar K” producers exaggerated for dramatic effect. By the time the show was over, his father, a former university professor, no longer expected Roy to join the family liquor company. But he still saw the value of a college education. Roy ultimately did, too.
“I’ve spent more of my life trying to get into school than trying to be a musician,” he says, “so it would be a waste if I stopped now.”
On a slushy March morning, Roy strolls through the door of “Intro to Sociology,” outfitted in a Georgetown sweatshirt, and a Hoyas flat-brimmed hat. He pulls a Georgetown-labeled spiral notebook out of his backpack and takes a seat in the back row.
The lesson today, his professor says, is about “representation of the self.” She plays a music video about taking selfies, then dives into sociological theories that have intrigued Roy so much he’s thinking of switching his major from business to sociology.
“Erving Goffman’s theory about ‘front stage’ versus ‘backstage’: Who can tell me about that?” the professor asks.
A student in the second row offers a restaurant analogy. Front stage is tableside, where servers are on their best behavior for tips. Backstage is the kitchen, where they can relax and curse.
Roy stays quiet even though he could write a treatise on what it is like to toggle between front and back stages, between fame and obscurity.
After his first tour, he set off for Georgetown for two semesters, then returned to South Korea for another album and tour. In January, he came back to Washington for his sophomore year. He plans to shuttle back and forth until he graduates.
When Roy is in South Korea, he performs at 3,000-seat venues and appears with other artists in arenas that fit 45,000. When he’s not recording his next album, he is a guest on talk shows and models for magazines. His face has appeared in commercials for TV-streaming apps, a British fashion line and a yogurt brand. He constantly has to deal with K-pop tabloid Web sites issuing public “apologies” when they report he has a girlfriend or plagiarized a song. Even when the accusations are proved to be untrue, he still apologizes for worrying his fans.
When Roy is in Washington, he doesn’t have to shave the stubble off his upper lip. He can go on dates and no tabloid will write about it. With the exception of the woman who stalked him in the street last year, he rarely gets stopped by students who recognize him. But Roy shares none of that in sociology class. He doesn’t want to call attention to himself. He sees school as more than a refuge from celebrity. It is also a check on his ego.
“I want to come here before I get used to a celebrity life,” he says. “If everybody treats you like a celebrity for a long time, you become full of yourself, and that’s the last thing I want to be.”
At the end of the lecture, he paces nervously as he waits for the professor to return an assignment. Grad school may not be on his immediate horizon, but good grades still matter to him.
They also matter to his fans. Tabloids back home have threatened his agency with bad press if it didn’t share Roy’s grades. Last summer, the K-pop site Koreaboo ran an item with the breathless headline: “Roy Kim Receives Straight A’s in Recent Semester at Georgetown University.”
After collecting his assignment, Roy retreats to the dorm room he shares with a friend he knew in Korea before he entered “Superstar K.” It’s so tiny that his wooden bed and tan-striped bedspread take up a quarter of the room. He’s on episode nine of the third season of “House of Cards.”
Roy is 21 but says he doesn’t do bars. There are two dozen empty bottles of red wine, Jack Daniels and Bombay Sapphire on his bookshelf to prove it.
At one point, he joined one of Georgetown’s many a cappella groups, but when it started to remind him too much of his other life, he quit. He keeps a small group of friends, all Koreans who make him feel as though he’s not being used.
“Anyone who would tell you, ‘I’m friends with Roy Kim,’ is probably not my real friend,” he says.
When he meets new people, he’s always trying to filter out the ones who want to be his friend just because he is famous, says his roommate, Ryan Jang. “They always tell him, ‘Oh, I watched you on the show.’ And then all they want to know is about other celebrities. What is this person really like? Who is secretly dating who?” Roy listens but always dismisses their questions with, “I don’t know anything about other celebrities.”
He says he wants to perform for American audiences more and maybe put out an English-language album someday. But he has a few more things to do before that can happen: make a few more Korean albums, fulfill his 21 months of mandatory service in the Korean military and finish college.
Before settling in for “House of Cards,” Roy flips from Netflix to YouTube, where he has seen every video of himself on the site: the TV interviews where his face is caked in makeup, the homemade acoustic sessions he recorded on his laptop, the live tapings of his concerts with crowds screaming, “Roy Kimmm! Roy Kimmmmm!!!”
It’s the kind of screaming he likes. Especially in this moment, when it’s a half a world away.
Jessica Contrera is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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