Sunmi on K-Pop’s Global Expansion, Her Solo Career and ‘Glowing Up’ (Interview)
"Glow up? What does that mean?" Sunmi asks during our interview, an hour before taking the stage at The Town Hall in New York City for a sold-out show.
I first met the K-pop star in the summer of 2009 during a backstage meet and greet at Nassau Coliseum right after her group, Wonder Girls, opened for the Jonas Brothers. Sporting a retro bob and a pink dress that matched with her four bandmates' outfits, Sunmi, 17 and relatively soft-spoken at the time, wasn't afraid to approach other fans and myself to start a conversation in her limited English.
Ten years later, Sunmi is just as bubbly as before. One might say she's a native at "Konglish," a hybrid of using Korean and English, with a good grasp of internet slang. Her aura is much different, however; these days, she's more charismatic and confident than ever. Donning a multi-colored sequined dress with black Gucci-laced gloves, Sunmi's glow up is evident.
Since debuting under JYP Entertainment in 2007 as part of the Wonder Girls, Sunmi has thrived as both as girl group member and as a soloist. When she released her first solo project, "24 Hours," under the top-selling label in 2013, Sunmi came back into the music industry teasing her duality: a darker and sultry side to her.
But it was when she signed with MakeUs Entertainment in 2017 when the artist fully showed her true colors. Sunmi was all hands on deck in the writing and production process, with bombastic single "Gashina" making the Top 10 on Billboard's Best K-Pop Songs of 2017 and U.S. Digital World Songs chart. Followed by the success of "Heroine," "Siren" and, now, "Noir," she's slowly become one of the most powerful female solo acts in the Korean music industry.
Below, Sunmi opens up about her tour, her role as a woman in K-pop and the "glow up" of her career.
It’s been a while since New York has seen you and you’re back in the heart of Times Square with a sold-out show, how does that feel?
I didn’t expect that [it would sell out]! It’s very meaningful to me, because I used to live in New York, for around 8 months. So, to have my own show here in New York as a female solo artist, it’s very special. I have a lot of memories here.
You’ve been in the industry for more than a decade, what changes have you seen in K-pop?
YouTube views? [Laughs] While we were promoting back then, at the time there was no K-pop section on Billboard. So since we were promoting before K-pop was really known, it was really difficult promoting [abroad]. But now, a K-pop section has been made on Billboard, right? K-pop is in the spotlight now. I think that’s the biggest change. Even Taylor Swift talked about K-pop, saying she likes BTS!
It's also thanks to you and your beginnings! Out of all your solo projects, from "24 Hours" to "Noir," which of your concepts resonates with you the most and why?
I think "Gashina" has the most of me in it. I think it’s the most like me—the song, as well as the video. In the music video, one second I’m laughing and the next I’m crying and the next I’m frowning. My moods are very up and down [and the video shows that].
Whose cover of "Gashina" do you like the most?
Maybe Psy? Psy covered my song at his concert [with] fireworks, his firework bra, and the special effects... A huge thumbs up!
You’re considered to be one of K-pop’s most powerful female solo acts. Who are some of the women you look up to?
When I listen to Sia’s music or watch her music videos, I can understand her emotions really well. Sia’s inner side is also quite chaotic, like me, but her process of finding herself is very impressive. So I guess you could call her my role model.
What is your ultimate goal as a powerful female act in K-pop?
Performing in an even bigger venue in the U.S.!
I believe it can happen soon. You're so popular here.
Thank you! I’m not BTS, you know? Male idols perform in really big venues. And honestly, for a female artist like me to have the opportunity to have a tour like this in the U.S., it’s a really big deal. But male idol tours are even bigger, right? I want to be able to change that for female artists and make it possible to also perform in big U.S. venues like male idols. So I hope so!
What songs are on rotation while you're on tour?
There’s a song called "Borderline"—it’s a song of mine that hasn’t been released yet. It’s about me, but I think it’s a song everyone can relate to when they hear it.
What’s one thing you’d like people to remember you as?
One-of-a-kind. I think when people look at me, I may seem thin and weak, but on stage, I’m a powerful and dynamic artist. I think there isn’t another artist out there with a color like mine, in the U.S. or in Korea. I want to leave behind a new genre of music, a "Sunmi" genre of music. Honestly, in the U.S., there isn’t a character like mine. My music isn’t like Taylor Swift and it isn’t like Selena Gomez. It’s not like Beyonce or Rihanna either. I think there isn’t another character like mine right now.
What’s next for you?
I’m in the middle of preparing for my next album, which I think will be out around the summertime. And then after the new album is out, perhaps I’ll have another chance to come back to the U.S.
Since you’re so active on Twitter and you’ve learned internet slang, do you have a favorite term to use?
On Twitter, people teach me a lot of slang like, "uwu"? I don’t know exactly what the meaning is but it’s cute. I like it. What else is there… Oh! "Spill the tea!" "Queen just spilled the tea!" [Laughs]
Well, here’s one for you to use: "glow up."
What does it mean?
So, for example, twelve years ago you started as a Wonder Girl, and now you're a solo artist who's done so well with so much success. It means you’ve improved yourself as an individual and an artist. So, use "glow up" as you will.
At that time, it was really tough for us [Wonder Girls], you know? We didn't speak English, but we had to talk with Americans. At the time, I was 16 and it was really, really hard. But you and I, we grew up together. So now I’m speechless, I’m shocked. I was just a little girl back then.
So you could say that’s the ultimate glow up for you: from a Wonder Girl, to Sunmi, the powerful soloist.
Thank you so much!