[Interview] Ex-SME trainee Neil Hannigan on auditions, contracts, and trainee life


Hello, lovely readers! KPOPALYPSE is back once again with an interview to entertain you all!

This time, we have an ex-trainee at SM Entertainment, named Neil Hannigan.

Neil Hannigan came to my attention in much the same way that another interviewee, Sarah Wolfgang did — by dropping a Reddit AMA. Neil then followed that up with another AMA on the K-pop sub-reddit, and between the two threads he’s answered a good few hundred questions and left few stones unturned about his time at SM Entertainment. I highly recommend that you check out both threads before reading the interview below, as it will give you a nice overview.

Normally I ignore Reddit threads claiming a K-pop connection as it’s very easy to fake these details, but Neil’s depth in his answers, plus his willingness to provide details and verify himself (using documents that I’m not at liberty to republish here) showed that he was the real deal. Initial enquiries also proved that Neil was not only happy to talk to me, but very much on the same page ideologically:


Clearly Neil is someone who has his head screwed on correctly, and kudos to him for surviving the K-pop experience with his health and sanity intact! What follows is the (only very slightly) edited Skype conversation that I had with Neil about his time at SM Entertainment and what he experienced and observed.

Enjoy … and learn stuff!


What made you want to become a K-pop star in the first place and go down this path?

I always had a kind of aspiration to do something, to be on a stage and perform for people. I’m pretty much white, there’s very little Korean in me, but the Western pop music industry is kinda messed up. I feel like people don’t work enough for the amount of fame they reach, you know. They sing about weird things and the music videos are depraved sometimes. [Laughs] I feel like in the Korean pop industry people work hard and they actually deserve what they get, and I felt like the practice routine and everything was kind of my thing, and I would actually enjoy it, but it changed pretty quickly when I was actually there on the spot! I was expecting it to be tough, but I didn’t expect it to be that strict.


Was there a point where you went from “this is something I’d like to do” to “I definitely can do this, I have a realistic shot at this”? What was it like getting to the point where you were like “I’m definitely going to give this a 100% shot”?

This thought process formed in 2012 when I discovered some K-pop through my friends. I listened to it and discovered how the process goes down, how they do it and become what they are. I felt like I could actually try it and maybe start doing something — but I thought “I’m living in the USA, and this is K-pop, it happens in Korea, how do I do this?” and I Googled some stuff and discovered that they actually hold auditions globally, including New York. I thought I would just go for it; I really didn’t have anything to lose. If they reject — good, I’ll just continue with school and everything, and if they accept me, then yeah I guess this will be pretty cool experience-wise and also in trying to reach what I want. Basically the day came when the auditions went down, the competition was tough because everyone was really talented and I felt like “everyone’s quite more talented than me here!” — it was definitely pretty hard. It was a weird feeling to see how many people wanted to be K-pop trainees or K-pop stars, I didn’t really expect to see so many people who wanted to do that who are born in America and are more exposed to the Western pop music than the Korean pop music.

I know there’s a lot of stuff written about the SME audition process, but it’s generally not from the point of view of a person who has actually been through all of it and gotten to the point of being a trainee. Exactly what did you have to go through?

When you go to the audition, there are a lot of people there, all of them are between the ages of 12-20, but most of then are 14-15 years old like me at the time. Some are good at singing, dancing, rapping, and some are good at nothing really, those ones obviously don’t get through! Obviously some extreme K-pop fans don’t get through too — the judges, they can see people who are really big fans of K-pop so they usually tend to not take them as trainees because they will probably only be there to see their idols which they don’t actually get to see in the audition process!


The first round, you get called up, and you go in front of three judges (or there were three in 2013 anyway). You have to do a dance routine which is 1-2 minutes long. It doesn’t have to be a full song because they just want to get the general idea of if you can dance or you can’t dance. Then you have to sing, which I tried, but after a couple of minutes they just said “we’re going to stick to the dancing because you’re not good at singing!” [Laughs] That’s the truth — I’m not a good singer at all! After that they will not tell you if you’re in or not, they’ll just say, “If you’re in we’re going to let you know in a couple weeks’ time.”

Almost a month after that, I actually got through the audition process and they called me in again for the second audition where they look for potential trainees who have the star quality and potential to get in. Basically I got through because this other guy was a pretty good singer but at the last minute he bailed out of the whole process, he didn’t even come to the audition because apparently he had some issues with his parents or something, and there weren’t really many left! There were only two of us, so we got through. It was kind of lucky, I really didn’t think I would get through. I thought it would require more talent, but apparently the New York City auditions weren’t going that well, but they had to take someone, they have to take at least one person from each region because they were looking for trainees at the time.

So they have a target to meet, they have to take at least one person?

Exactly. Then you go to Korea, they present your parents with the whole option and how it all goes down. In my case, the contract got sent to America to my parents, and translated into English for them, but my friends read it through and there were quite a lot of grammar mistakes in the contract even though it was an official contract! It was pretty weird. My parents read it though, they were kind of reluctant to sign it at first because it was kinda strict, but I said it was my lifelong dream and I really wanted to try this. They signed it, I went to Korea and then it’s the trainee process from there on.

Did they ever suggest that a lawyer look over your contract?

I didn’t have any say in anything there because it was up to my parents. They wanted my parents to go to Korea to sign the contract, but my parents aren’t that good at advanced Korean so they had to translate the contract. My dad had to work, my mum wasn’t really available at the time to go to Korea just to sign the contract…

I guess what I’m getting at is — maybe not for yourself, but perhaps for your parents — was there any room for negotiation perhaps? To give you a picture of how this works in the West; if you were to sign with a major western label they would actually make you sign the contract with a lawyer present, and if you went to sign the contract without a lawyer present, they would refuse to let you sign it. They would actually say to you “come back when you have a lawyer to look over the contract, and then sign it”.

(Note: This practice developed recently in the West not for altruistic “let’s help the poor struggling artists” reasons, but as a way to combat artists being able to nullify unfavourable contracts in court down the track without penalty by saying “I didn’t know what I was signing, it wasn’t explained to me” and/or “I was drunk/high at the time”. Sound familiar?)

No, that was not the case there. Even if you would get a lawyer, if you want to negotiate any of the clauses in the contract, they will pretty much deny the contract, because they…

…they have many other potential trainees to choose from?

Yeah. SME want you to sign the contract how they wrote it, they don’t want to change anything for any individual.

We’re not going to talk about what’s in the contract, I know we can’t — but having a non-disclosure agreement in the contract itself is fairly unusual (for a music industry contract). Why do you think SME might be so secretive about it?

It’s probably … most definitely because of all the drama about “slave contracts” and everything, and when you read it through it actually comes off like that, even though it’s not really, because the trainee contracts are not that bad. They’re so secretive about it because the contract is so different from Western pop music contracts, you’re not allowed to do so much stuff. They are allowed to control the things you eat, they are allowed to control how many hours you sleep … if all that basically gets out, every point of the contract, that will probably cause a stir-up with “slave contracts”. That’s probably the reason why they’re so secretive about it, it wouldn’t be good for the press and everything.

I think that a lot of people these days would have a pretty good inkling already of what an SME contract would be like. It’s interesting that SME don’t want to go down the route of “well the cat’s out of the bag now, why not be really open about it and try to clear our name a little bit”.

I actually hope that other SME trainees who don’t renew the contract would actually get involved in the K-pop community and talk about some of this stuff. I think that would actually get SME to be a bit more open about it, given that so many people already know what’s going on. I think it’s because so many trainees get laid off every year, and so many people don’t renew the contract and they stay silent. They forget about that part of their lives and continue to go to school and get a job and start a family, they don’t really talk about the stuff that’s happened there because 80% of the trainees are Korean-born, they live in Korea, they have a certain level of respect. Even though some stuff is not in the contract — there isn’t a clause in there that says “you can’t do an AMA on Reddit” — Korean people still won’t do it because it’s a matter of respect and secrecy.

They want to respect the people who mentored them and looked after them for those years?

Yeah, and I respect the people who mentored me, but I think it’s not a big deal if I reveal some of the info that’s not that bad, but you get taught the secrecy while you’re a trainee, you can’t even talk about stuff like that with your friends at school.

In terms of streetwise advice, what words would you give to someone who told you that they just got accepted as a trainee?  Not just SME — assume just a big K-pop label of any sort.

Probably I would tell them no matter how hard you work, always remember that there is a chance you won’t get to be on a stage. Don’t live for it, you have other things to live for besides being a trainee. That’s a mistake that some of the other trainees made, they basically thought that this is their life now, completely. They feel “I don’t have family, I don’t have friends, this is all I’ve got”. That’s why there is so much underage drinking there, that’s why some of the girls are suicidal, because they get this idea in their heads that this is the only thing they’ve got and that if they let go of this, there’s no life for them, and that’s not true.

How does one even become an underage drinker at a place like SME where everything is obviously very tightly controlled?

There are many ways to smuggle things in there. There aren’t any guards coming in at night while you’re supposedly sleeping. Obviously when we come from school, or Sundays when we get a day off, we can go to places and buy something and relax. The underage drinking most of the time doesn’t happen in the building, it happens outside.

Do they actually train you in being on a stage, or just in doing dance steps to the inch?

There are weekly evaluations where how you act on a camera decides how you will feel on a stage. There are three judges and all the other trainees sitting there watching how you do the video. That’s basically an audience for yourself and there are multiple cameras from different angles, it feels like a stage because all of the trainees are there and you’re higher than them. If you feel confident there that means you’re ready for a stage, if you don’t feel confident there and you mess up in front of your trainees and judges and coaches it means you’re not ready yet.

And that’s a weekly process?

Yes, every two weeks usually.

When you were a trainee, did you get much of a chance to do any recording? Were you ever in a recording studio?

Yes, of course. They sometimes try your voice for recording. You go into the studio with one or two producers and they give you something to sing. They basically teach you how to sing for a recording, because when you sing for a recording it has to be a lot more controlled. I couldn’t really sing, that’s why I didn’t have those sessions that often, but really good singers had these sessions almost every day, they went to the studio and recorded pieces, figured out how to control the pitch of their voice and everything.

So if you’re a good dancer, they’ll focus more on dance training, and if you’re a good singer they’ll focus more on singing training, rather than the other way around? Rather than try to make you an all-rounder, they try to specialize you, would that be correct?

Exactly. The thing that many people don’t understand is they think if your dancing’s really good they think “yep, they will probably focus on your singing because it’s bad”, but it’s the other way around. If you’re good at something they focus on that so you will be best at that.

It makes sense from the point of view of trying to make each of the members in a group distinct in some way. Why have a multi-member group if the members aren’t different?

Exactly, yes.

Is there anything that you had hoped you would have been asked on the Reddit but that no one touched upon?

Actually, now that I think of it, I think pretty much everything’s been touched on. In both threads there were about 400-500 questions.

Yes, there were a lot! You did a pretty good job of answering them all, too!

I lost a lot of sleep on that, but I’m used to it so what the hell! [Laughs] Pretty much every subject was mentioned and some questions were obviously more stupid than others in the sense of “What does Kai of EXO smell like?” I don’t know, I’ve never met him in real life, so… [Laughs]


The most eye-opening thing for me was finding out about people self-harming. I assume it can’t be hidden and that SME are aware that it happens? Do they have any sort of damage control or help for those people, or is it kind of hidden?

There are therapists at request, but the self-harming types are usually the girls, and the girls really try to hide it because it shows weakness. They do it because they don’t want anyone to see it, they just want to feel it. I don’t know how to explain it really, but there wasn’t any drama over there with that because the coaches and managers don’t really focus on that. Unless it gets too far where they actually bleed to death, then it gets serious, but as long as they are not really disturbed in the sense of training and stuff, as long as they practice the same routine and do everything that they did before, no one actually really cares and that’s a pretty dark thing over there.

What’s the most common method of self-harm?

It’s probably cutting. From what I’ve seen, and I’ve heard about this rather than seen it, it’s usually the legs because you can cover them up really well with sweatpants while training. While training you obviously sweat so you have a top or a t-shirt on and if you cut your arms everyone can see it and then the rumours start: “Oh, this girl is mentally weak, she cuts herself, she’s not worthy of being an idol.”

How aware of the media perception of idols do you think people who are undergoing training are? I understand you have no Internet, would it be true to say you’re completely cut off from all that?

On Sundays we went out and some people got their laptops and phones and stuff. You can potentially update yourself in that kind of sense but no one really did it because no one was really interested in that stuff, everyone was just so self-involved. Only if something big about SME’s going on like the whole EXO fiasco, that usually gets out because we are at one of the buildings, not through the Internet [but when stuff does come through the Internet] it’s usually through the guys who browse Inven, which is like the Reddit of Korea. Some of the guys before they became trainees they enjoyed video games and such, the usual thing in Korea, and Inven was the only thing that could keep them updated in that sense, so if anything was discovered it was through Inven.

I don’t think I have too much more to ask you, I think you’ve covered off quite a lot. I think pretty much anything I haven’t already asked you is already in the questions you’ve answered on the Internet. Do you have anything else that you’d really like to say that you really think should be in the article?

If anyone wants to become a trainee, you shouldn’t really care about your race, SME are open to foreigners being trainees, you’ll see that I’m pretty much white. Of course there’s some favouritism going on for Korean trainees, but it’s not that bad. It’s not like really racism, it’s just that it’s Korea so Koreans get maybe a little more respect. Definitely if anyone wants to try out and you’re from Vietnam or Thailand or America or Europe you should just go for it.

So you would still recommend the path of a trainee for people who really wanted to do it?

Yes, if they are completely sure that they want to do it and try it out, and they’re young enough that they can lose two years of their life for potentially something bigger, I just say go for it. There’s really nothing to lose.


That it for another KPOPALYPSE interview!

Are you or do you know someone who is or was doing something in the K-pop industry and would like to do an interview? If so, get in touch!