South Korean K-pop star Goo Hara was found dead in her home in Seoul on Sunday, saddening fans of the 28-year-old musician and actress around the world.
Police say the cause of death is under investigation, and have not yet filed an official report about her passing.
Goo was hospitalized in May after what has been reported as an alleged suicide attempt. Last year, she was involved in a high-profile legal battle with an ex-boyfriend who she claimed had threatened her with revenge porn. The case was covered closely by the tabloid press and resulted in harsh public criticism directed at Goo online.
Goo was a former member of the enormously popular K-pop group Kara, one of the first such groups to break through to international audiences.
Her death comes a little more than a month after the suspected death by suicide of 25-year-old K-pop star Sulli, who was a close friend of Goo’s.
On Saturday she posted a photo of herself on Instagram lying in bed with the caption “good night.”
Earlier this year, she said things in Instagram stories that caused her followers to grow concerned about her mental health. “After living all those years with suppression, I look fine on the outside, but it feels as if I am starting to break into pieces inside,” she once said.
Goo’s death has once more raised questions about the celebrity culture and workload that surrounds an industry that has become one of South Korea’s largest exports. Increasingly, issues like sexual harassment and misconduct as well as the pressure industry leaders and the public places on musicians has led to questions about the structure of the K-pop industry, and has created a movement — particularly among fans — for reforms.
The mental and physical wellbeing of K-pop stars is a growing concern
Earlier this year, concerns over Goo’s health caused a stir. She was found unconscious in her home after posting “Goodbye” on her Instagram account.
After being hospitalized, she apologized to fans for “causing concern to everyone and causing a commotion.”
“I’m recovering. Many things overlapped and I had been suffering. But I’ll steel myself and work to show you my healthy self,” she said at the time.
At the time the incident ignited debates about the culture surrounding K-pop — and now her death is kicking off similar conversations again.
Many K-pop stars and industry analysts have argued the industry and its fans place tremendous pressure on celebrities that often push them into mental health crises.
Brian Joo, a former K-pop star, wrote on Instagram that he was subjected to intolerable levels of online harassment.
“Can anyone help with some psycho people, who keep saying I did things to them, when I haven’t even met them in real life? This person has been threatening me, my friends and my family for years,” he wrote.
Pressure also comes from within the industry itself.
“K-pop artists have spoken out about exploitative and strict studio contracts that trap young performers and closely regulate their private behavior, dating life, and public conduct,” Fareehan Elgakhlab wrote for Vox in April. There have also been several reports of predatory behavior and harassment by studio executives.
On top of all this, reports of sexual misconduct earlier this year have further raised concerns about the genre’s stars and the issue of sexual assault in Korea more broadly. As Elgakhlab reported for Vox, leaked text messages earlier this year showed several K-pop stars joking about assaulting women:
The text messages also revealed, however, that [former K-pop star] Seungri was involved in a group chat with other male K-pop idols, where they allegedly shared explicit videos of their sexual exploits with multiple women, without the women’s consent or knowledge.
The chat messages appear to show artists including Jung Joon-young of the band Drug Restaurant, Choi Jong-hoon of the band FT Island, and others joked about drugging and raping women.
In one of the messages, a man brags, “I gave her sleeping pills and did her.” In another conversation, a different male singer jokes, “You raped her, Lol.”
In April, a woman testified that she was one of the victims described in the messages, and said that after seeing the images, videos, voice recordings, and conversations, she believes she was sexually assaulted by five men who had participated in the chat. She said she could not remember what had happened the night of the incident but woke up in the morning fully naked next to one of the men. She has since filed a lawsuit against them alleging assault.
The text messages caused outrage across the country, and led to calls for investigations by the police.
The details of Goo’s death are unclear at the moment, and there could be any number of factors that played a role in her passing. But her death and the statements she gave before it are once again leading to discussions about celebrity culture both in South Korea and around the world.