Squatting in the upper corner of Holland’s music video for his early 2018 debut, “Neverland”, is a bright red dot with the number ‘19’ in it – the Korean age rating for its depiction of two fully clothed men exchanging a kiss. In a song about struggling for self-acceptance, this kiss risked rendering the then-21-year-old K-pop idol invisible. In his home country, no mainstream broadcast media would air the video when it came out in January. Homosexuality is legal in South Korea, yet members of the LGBTQ+ community are still social pariahs, routinely shoved into the shadows by unpunishable discrimination, public protests and large-scale petitions to the president’s office.
A little over a year later, on a quiet Saturday morning, the summer sun streams into Holland’s family home just outside Seoul, where he’s make-up-free and wearing a rumpled, black Rolling Stones t-shirt over his thin frame. The day before, he’d sent me a warm greeting over the KakaoTalk app and when, several days later, I email an extra question that’s been in the back of my mind, he promptly responds. It’s far removed from the standard K-pop interview where idols – with pristine hair and make-up – are closely supervised by publicists and managers, their interview answers screened and their phones confiscated.
Unlike many of his K-pop peers, Holland isn’t interested in smoke and mirrors. Prior to his self-titled debut mini-album, released in March, agencies advised him to stay in the closet. He refused. “During my school days, if there’d been no (international) artists representing LGBTQ+ rights, it would have been even harder for me,” he tells me. “I know how significant their influence is and Korea also needs that kind of artist. For me, lying to fans and not being able to receive love for my true self would have made me uneasy. If my generation (goes by) without any such movement, the future generation will also (never experience) change, so the goal of proving I can receive love regardless of whether I love a man or a woman was big.” On Instagram, where his electric-platinum haircut was debuted, Holland looks just as liberated, taking selfies in acid-washed Harajuku streetwear, emblazoning his face with peach-bum emojis, and captioning a stroll along a railway track with “There is no more you”. One top, a high-sheen vest by Korean brand More Than Dope, spells the words “Psychedelic Summer Trip”.
Despite queerness being used as a marketing tool routinely in K-pop (from choreography to fan-service games, where same-sex idols pass thin sheets of paper mouth-to-mouth), LGBTQ+ performers are shunned in actuality. As such, Holland, who started making music when he was studying for an art degree at Seoul Institute of Arts (he’s since put his studies on hold to focus on his career), was unable to secure a deal at an entertainment agency, and lacked the money and connections needed to appear on the country’s variety and music programmes, which play a major part in the careers of idols.
Through the internet, however, K-pop performers can resonate with millions beyond Asia, and the “Neverland” kiss ricocheted loudly around the world. On Twitter, #HollandDebutDay trended. The song hit #3 on the US’s K-pop iTunes chart. On YouTube, despite the age restriction, the view-count rose to 1.6 million in 24 hours. It currently stands at more than 12 million.
The outpouring of support caught Holland (whose real name is Go Tae-seob) up in its whirlwind. Since then, he’s crowdfunded over £80,000 to record and release his eponymous mini-album, been championed by international media, won 2018’s Dazed 100 list, and amassed more than a million social-media followers (known as Harlings), with whom he primarily communicates with in English. “I was surprised by the interest, but there was no time to be happy,” says the 23-year-old. “Rather than being in the moment, the first thing that came to mind was what I was going to do next.”
The artist – who took his stage name from the first country to legalise same-sex marriage – isn’t the first openly LGBTQ+ Korean pop star, but, as K-pop continues to grow in global popularity, he is the most visible gay performer the country has produced. Before him there was Harisu, the group Lady, and girl-group member Choi Han-bit, all of whom are trans women. Despite this, K-pop’s conservatism has meant that Holland’s presence is a very big deal. He has become a queer poster boy, the one with a megaphone in a country full of whispers, and he’s unwittingly – riskily – been tasked with speaking for the whole community.
“Korea is a country that grew very quickly economically but (because of that) we didn’t have as much energy to focus on culture,” Holland says of the slow road to acceptance. “There are people who question whether gay people even exist! The fact that I debuted (as an artist) is a small change in itself. Other K-pop idols will talk about supporting LGBTQ+ (people) on their live-streams or at concerts, but it’s not on broadcast TV. When those people are able to say such things on TV and I’m able to promote very freely, maybe a lot of people will talk about this topic much more.”
Holland’s most vocal supporters are international; he isn’t even sure how many fans he has in South Korea. “People are careful when supporting me publicly or following me online,” he says. In other words, the implication follows, if you support a gay pop star, you, too, must be gay. He hasn’t even yet held fan meetings, as idols often do to help build loyalty. There are, he says, “many religious or homophobic people that threaten to hurt my fans if I hold one. But I do get a lot of private messages (of support).” Often, people ask for his advice – “It can be small, like, ‘This thing happened to me today, I’m really upset,’ or, ‘I really like this person but I don’t know what to do’” – and he does his best to respond.
In fact, Holland’s profile in Korea may soon blow up. In early June, the musician announced on Twitter that he’d found an entertainment company to sign with. Although he still can’t give out details, the clincher for signing, he says, was the agency’s focus on maintaining the artistic freedom he’s now accustomed to. Until now, he’s done everything on his own, and that’s proved to be a double-edged sword. Communicating with fans, building a network of industry allies, and his maturation during that process are what he calls the “precious” moments.
“There are people (in South Korea) who question whether gay people even exist. The fact that I debuted (as an artist) is a small change in itself” – Holland
The run-ins with less salubrious members of the entertainment industry did make him anxious, however. “They’d approach me in order to use me for their advantage. There were a lot of proposals of having a sponsor relationship in exchange for exposure on TV,” Holland says matter-of- factly, although his gaze slides away. Sponsored relationships are usually sexual, either physically or through webcams, and both female and male entertainers in the Korean pop industry are frequently offered them. He smiles ruefully, “There were times like that, so it was a bit hard.”
Holland never went through the idol training process, which in Korea averages from three to five years and can start when performers are as young as 11, with idols generally aged between 15 and 21 when they debut in a group. He grew up an only child, shaped by the popular music his mother loved. “My mom is very good at singing,” he recalls. “Since I was young we’d go to karaoke. Whenever she was happy or sad she would hold my hand and sing. I’m still influenced by those songs, like Park Hye-gyeong’s ‘Rain’. I get teary-eyed when I hear it. I think I started singing after I heard that song.” The love of wrenching ballads is a distinctly Korean trait – the unbridled outpouring of emotion embraced by a society scarred by a political history of occupancy and dictatorship. Singing at a noraebang (song room) is seen by many as a stress reliever, a way of sharing feelings and a bonding activity at work, but also time to spend with friends and family.
Holland’s perspective is radically different from that of his parents, he says. He loves new challenges, yet they seem fearful of them. “(But) when seeing me do things on my own, like (making music) or going to college, they would feel so proud,” he says. “They’d always put their trust in me and help as much as they could. It’s something I really appreciate.” Nevertheless, coming out to them (as he did around the time of his debut release) was a fraught experience. Although Holland had been through several traumatic years of homophobic bullying at school after confiding in a friend, who then told his classmates, his parents were unaware of their son’s sexual preference. Holland announced it in an interview, which they read, and he then wrote them a letter. It was a choice made out of uncertainty over how they’d react to the news, a feeling compounded by the stress of making music and “finding a way to make ends meet. I didn’t want to stress about my family as well. At the time, that was the best I could do. If it was me right now, I think I’d be OK just being honest about it.”
Holland worked two jobs to be able to release the midtempo, piano and string-led “Neverland”, pulling favours with his art-school friends to make its video in which he moves from darkness to light, solitude to a loving relationship, confusion to understanding. His goal has always been to tell his own stories – the only change, he says, is that “Neverland” was “a story I wrote for myself not knowing that the fans would hear it, (whereas) now I have fans I can tell my stories to. That’s probably my biggest development.”
In between the uplifting “I’m Not Afraid” and bouncy house of “Nar _C” (short for ‘narcissism’) lies the dirty EDM of the EP’s third single, “I’m So Afraid”. The track demands pyrotechnics on huge stages as much as being danced to alone on the way home at 4am, with an airy wistfulness and resignation that provide a timeless foil to bold, whirring drops. Earlier this year, Holland revealed that the song is about the fear of losing his fans.
“(That song was written during) a period when I was feeling a lot of emotions and confusion,” the singer explains. “At the time, what I was most stressed about was the idea of being forgotten. I wasn’t able to release any content like other artists. I didn’t have (the same) opportunities to meet my fans or for them to see me. I was scared they would leave. Now I’ve learned to control my emotions better but that worry is something I always have, so I want to hurry and meet them and shed that fear a little.”
His concerns were justifiable: alongside the inability to promote his work in person, Holland’s media presence was focused on his sexuality. The bombshell that was “Neverland” is by far his most played song, although his subsequent tracks are more sophisticated. Google ‘Holland K-pop’ and it’s clear few are talking about the music. Holland, who sought freedom to create and share music as an openly gay artist, has been recast as a symbol and an activist. The artist, the idol portion of his existence, feels like an addendum.
“If I want to do the type of music I’m wholly interested in, I don’t think it’ll be possible until the public sees me as the artist Holland without mentioning LGBTQ+ (issues). But it’s good that I’m the face of the community, (because) I can help out” – Holland
“I can’t disagree with that,” Holland admits. “If I want to do the type of music I’m wholly interested in, I don’t think it’ll be possible until the public sees me as the artist Holland without mentioning LGBTQ+ (issues), but if I continue making music I think they naturally will. Right now my image is very strongly related to being LGBTQ+, but it’s good that I’m the face of the community, (because) I can help out. I know my role and I want to be able to fulfil it.”
Holland is also quick to acknowledge that he has been a “beneficiary” of K-pop’s global explosion. Without stars like Seo Taiji and Boys, who built K-pop from its humble beginnings in the 90s into a multi-billion dollar industry led by supergroup BTS, it’s unlikely he would have been able to “receive this much interest”. But Holland is keen to see the image of K-pop evolve, even as he believes its presence and power will continue to spread. “The image people have of K-pop right now is, like, synchronised choreography,” he says. “But I want to show this isn’t the only form of K-pop, and there are (all types of) artists in Korea.”
Change is something Holland frequently talks about. Sometimes it’s with resignation, as with his claim that the LGBTQ+ community in South Korea probably won’t see any significant social transformation “for at least ten to 20 years”. And sometimes, despite his calm composure and belief in what lies on the horizon for him, it’s with a steeliness that reminds you how far he’s come.
“These days it may seem like I talk about these topics as if it’s nothing,” says Holland. “But it’s still hard for me to remember that past and talk about it. My personality has changed a lot since then. I’m trying really hard to become a person that people can’t look down upon – but that is also raising the bar for myself, which stresses me out… it’s something that I need to fix.”
On his social media, and throughout our conversation, Holland is low-key despite the responsibilities on his narrow shoulders. In his music videos he’s a gentle presence, whether it’s in the midst of a party crowd or being intimate with his on-screen lovers. He’s softly spoken in person, and prone to losing himself in his thoughts. He has a habit of pressing his fingertips to his mouth, jaw and neck as he talks, and tilts his head to the right when he’s thinking hard. He’s charming and warm. It makes you forget how hard he’s hustled to get here, and how much he’s put on the line.
In every interview, Holland returns to a similar point – that if he makes even one small mistake, it will reflect badly on the Korean LGBTQ+ community, who are already fighting a negative image. It’s an unfair pressure, but one he is willing to bear. “When I promote, I’m very careful. I always try to have high expectations,” he explains. “I’m always in a state of anxiousness but I know my role right now and I’m happy. The (queer) community is very special to me. And being LGBTQ+ is something that can be a strength to my fans and people everywhere.”
Hair John Zhang at HairPro, make-up Xin Miao, set design Leslie Zhang, Bei Yuan, f loral set design Sweetpotato Chiu, photography assistants Echo Wong, Feng Xia, Jiabin Shen, styling assistants Tyler Wang, Koi Ning Xue Yan, hair assistant Jiasu Lee, make-up assistant Zoe Zhang, lighting assistant Dongbin Qiao, production Oolong Zhang, Xiaolin Jiao, special thanks Adam Chen Junjie