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9 Korean Celebrity Success Stories That Prove Perseverance & Hard Work Are The Keys To Success

Korean celebrity success stories

While it might be easy to envy others’ successes, we often are not aware about the struggles that they’ve had to overcome to be where they are today. Here are 9 Korean celebrity success stories behind some of the most iconic names that show that when the going gets tough, the tough gets going.

1. BTS

Korean celebrity success stories - BTS
Image credit: Big Hit Music 

The biggest global sensation BTS came from humble beginnings, rising to where they are today through their grit and determination despite the rough conditions they had to face when they just entered the industry.

Korean celebrity success stories - BTS dorm in the past
Image credit: SBS

Being part of a then-small entertainment company with only one failed girl group (GLAM), BTS’s trainee days were as rough as it could get. Even after their debut, the 7 of them had to squeeze into a tiny 56sqm apartment and sleep in the same room together.

Korean celebrity success stories - BTS
Image credit: BTS Official

They also struggled to get by financially. While Big Hit did not impose trainee debt on BTS like other entertainment companies, they were on the brink of financial collapse and were unable to support BTS as much as they wanted. The members still had to work part-time just to have some income for groceries, and getting meat was reserved only for special occasions.

Korean celebrity success stories - BTS in yoo quiz on the block
Image adapted from: tvN

For example, Suga used to work part-time at a convenience store and do deliveries during his trainee days.

It was during a delivery when Suga got into an accident, but he kept quiet about it as he didn’t want to burden the group and company. He put off the issue for so long that it was only in November of 2019 when he finally took a break from activities to let his injury heal.

Korean celebrity success stories - BTS
Image credit: Namu Wiki

Today, BTS is undoubtedly the biggest K-pop act in the world, bringing the music genre and Korean culture to all corners of the globe. Any song they release is met with immense praise, and any products that fans think they’re using gets sold out instantly.

2. IU

Korean celebrity success stories - IU
Image credit: Namu Wiki

One of Korea’s biggest solo acts, Korea’s Little Sister IU also did not have the smoothest journey to the top. In fact, her early years were tough, and she didn’t grow up in the best environment.

Her parents faced extreme debt and she was forced to live in a 1-room apartment, which was infested with cockroaches, with her grandmother and brother. 

Korean celebrity success stories - IU's jyp audition
Image credit: JYP Entertainment 

With barely enough to eat across the 3 of them, IU still held on to her dream of being a singer and auditioned countless times, even as she faced constant rejection. She even got scammed by a few agencies and lost all the money she worked hard to save up multiple times.

One of the companies that rejected IU was JYP Entertainment. Alas. 

Korean celebrity success stories - IU's mini album lost & found
Image credit: Namu Wiki

In 2008, at the young age of 15, IU made her debut with the mini album Lost & Found and the title song Lost Child. 

Unfortunately, the song and album did not see much success, and IU had to face hate comments from people calling her names and fat-shaming her despite her already-skinny frame.

Korean celebrity success stories - IU
Image credit: @dlwlrma

She finally gained recognition when she released the hit song Good Day with the iconic triple high notes, in her 3rd studio album Real IU in 2010. From then on, IU was invited to various Korean shows such as Yoo Hee Yoel’s Sketchbook, catapulting her further towards stardom.

Korean celebrity success stories - IU
Image credit: Namu Wiki

IU also never forgot her humble beginnings and always gives back to the people who support her. Her generosity and how well she takes care of her staff are the things people who have worked with her complement her on the most. 

In fact, one of the terms of her recontract was for better pay for her staff, which goes to show that stardom doesn’t necessarily change a person.

3. BigBang

Korean celebrity success stories - Big Bang
Image credit: YG Entertainment

Being the first boy group YG launched in their early years, BigBang had to work extremely hard to create the legacy they enjoy today.

Korean celebrity success stories - Big Bang's Haru Haru
Image credit: YG 

Prior to their success, BigBang members had suffered much for 2 to 3 years after their debut, as they didn’t manage to garner much attention before their first mini-album’s title track Lies made a breakthrough.

Their reputation only continued to grow when they released one of their most iconic songs, Haru Haru, and they’ve only released banger after banger since, with era-defining songs such as Tonight and Fantastic Baby.

Korean celebrity success stories - big bang in happy together
Image adapted from: KBS WORLD TV  

During their trainee days, the members had to share 2-3 mattresses in a tiny dorm that was infested with mice and other pests.

Korean celebrity success stories - big bang taeyang in happy together
Image adapted from: KBS WORLD TV  

Being young teenagers and trainees at the time, they relied on their manager for groceries. They also starved whenever their manager couldn’t buy food for them, since he had his other duties on top of managing the members. 

Korean celebrity success stories - big bang TOP in happy together
Image adapted from: KBS WORLD TV 

During that period of time when the manager was too busy to buy them groceries, the 5 of them had to ration out a box of wheat cookies they enjoyed eating.

Korean celebrity success stories - big bang in happy together
Image adapted from: KBS WORLD TV 

One can only imagine how sad they felt when they broke into their manager’s room and found his personal stash of snacks and food – things they did not have access to for the longest time. Taeyang said that he and G-dragon cried and held each other as they looked at the food, since they could not take anything.

Korean celebrity success stories - BigBang
Video adapted from: BIGBANG

Fortunately, their hard work paid off. The group enjoyed an extremely successful career, and even got crowned the Kings of K-pop of their generation. Their work also shaped the industry into what it is today. 

4. Tiffany Young

Korean celebrity success stories - SNSD tiffany young
Image credit: Namu Wiki 

Tiffany Young, also known as the main vocalist of Girls’ Generation, also had a rather rough life, even after the success of her group.

She was born in the US and grew up there. When she was just 12 years old, Tiffany’s mother took her own life, leaving her dad to raise her alone. Despite losing her mother, Tiffany held on to her dream of becoming a singer, which her father opposed strongly against. 

Korean celebrity success stories - SNSD
Image credit: Namu Wiki

Tiffany tried to convince him to allow her to pursue her dreams, but to no avail. She left for Korea to train anyway, which strained her relationship with her father and led to their estrangement.

Korean celebrity success stories - SNSD tiffany
Video adapted from: SMTOWN 

Alone in a foreign land and struggling to speak the language, Tiffany still had to maintain a happy image for her group activities. She also had to struggle alone in Korea for quite a while before she was able to communicate with her group mates. 

Korean celebrity success stories - tiffany young
Image credit: Namu Wiki

Today, Tiffany enjoys massive success with various endorsement deals under her belt and in her music and acting careers too. 

5. Yoo Jae Suk

Korean celebrity success stories - yoo jae suk
Image credit: Namu Wiki

Yoo Jae Suk is undoubtedly one of the funniest Korean celebrities, and every show he’s involved in will definitely have you clutching your belly and laughing so hard you’ll feel like you got an ab workout. 

But this comedic legend definitely had one of the roughest journeys to get to where he is now. He grew up in a poor family, where his father had a small business and his mother was a housewife. Once, his mother had to clean his school because they could not afford to donate money like the parents of the other kids.

Korean celebrity success stories - yoo jae suk as a comedian
Image adapted from: 옛날티비 : KBS Archive 

For the first 10 years of his career, no one knew or cared about Jae Suk. It didn’t help that during this time, he suffered extreme stage fright, which later developed into a camera phobia when his nerves got the better of him on a live broadcast show.

He continued to face financial hardship amidst his then-failing comedic career. He even had to rely on his parents for money because he didn’t even earn enough to fill up his car’s gas tank.

Korean celebrity success stories - yoo jae suk as an emcee
Image credit: Namu Wiki

His career took a turn for the better when Producer Kim Suk Yoon offered him an MC role for a show, but he had to confront his discomfort of his nickname “Grasshopper” by wearing a grasshopper hat to distinguish himself from the rest. 

Korean celebrity success stories - yoo jae suk as a comedian
Image credit: Car Holic 

With a newfound confidence, he performed extremely well on the Seo Se Won Talk show. Despite his nervousness causing him to tremble, he pulled through and delivered one of the funniest episodes of that year.

His stellar performance caught the attention of the PD of Live and Fun Together, who gave Jae Suk the role of the host. 

His next few shows, such as Crash Of MCs, X-men, and Happy Together, all did very well. But none were as iconic as Infinite Challenge, the show that many experts say changed the Korean entertainment industry upon its release.

Korean celebrity success stories - running man
Image credit: SBS

Jae Suk still hosts some popular shows today, such as the long-running (pun intended) Running Man and Yoo Quiz On The Block. He has also remained humble despite his success, as he is known to donate money to various charities anonymously and treats his juniors extremely well.


Korean celebrity success stories - EXID
Image credit: Namu Wiki

With generation-defining bops such as Ah Yeah and Up&Down, EXID’s impact on K-pop cannot be understated, and their success story is as bumpy as the rest of the celebrities on this list.

Korean celebrity success stories - EXID
Image adapted from: 1theK (원더케이) 

The original EXID’s debut, Whoz That Girl, in 2012 gained some attention from the public initially. But somehow, the group quickly lost traction and failed to gain more recognition and fame. Half of the debut lineup – Dami, Hyeryeong, and Yuji – left, and Solji and Hyelin were then added to form the EXID we know today.

Korean celebrity success stories - EXID in knowing bros
Image adapted from: JTBC Entertainment 

Due to the failure of their subsequent releases, EXID went without work or activities for 2 whole years. With no income, EXID members had to resort to eating instant noodles for all their meals.

Korean celebrity success stories - EXID up&down
Image adapted from: EXID_OFFICIAL 

Up&Down was released in 2014 after their 2-year-long forced hiatus, without much support from their company at the time.

Unfortunately, Up&Down flopped once again, and the members had the tough discussion of potential disbandment. 

Korean celebrity success stories - EXID hani's up&down
Video adapted from: pharkil 

What saved EXID from the brink was a fancam from one of the shows of Hani in Up&Down that was released a year after the song had come out, causing the song to belatedly shoot up to the #1 spot on charts.

EXID then started getting invited to music shows to perform the song, and in January 2015, EXID clinched their first music show #1 with Up&Down.

Korean celebrity success stories - EXID solji in king of masked singer
Image adapted from: TV-People 

For 2 years, leader Solji had to sit out of promotions due to her hyperthyroidism and EXID continued on without her. But she announced her return to EXID by winning King Of Masked Singer. It was also then that Solji finally got the recognition for her vocal ability that she so deserves.

Korean celebrity success stories - EXID
Video adapted from: EXID_OFFICIAL

Despite JeongHwa and Hyelin leaving their company after their contract expired, they are still together as EXID, and even funded their own 10th anniversary comeback with Fire

7. Brave Girls

Korean celebrity success stories - brave girls
Image adapted from: Namu Wiki

Following a similar comeback success story is Brave Girls, who achieved astronomical success just as they were ion the verge of disbandment.

Despite being from a company by a famous producer, Brave Brothers, most of Brave Girls’ releases since their debut did not do well. Their original lineup had all left, and the group we now see has a completely different set of members.

Korean celebrity success stories - brave girls performing rollin'
Image adapted from: Mnet K-pop 

Despite its viral status today, Rollin’ did not garner much attention back when it was released. As a result, Brave Girls were not booked for many shows, and they mainly performed for military personnel in bases all over Korea but for little to no money.

Korean celebrity success stories - brave girls' fame in the military
Image adapted from: VIDITOR 

While it did not help spread their name to the general public, their fan base in the military was massive. This was a crucial factor that led to their eventual virality, which happened when YouTuber VIDITOR released a compilation of Brave Girls’ performances of Rollin’ during their military base tours.

This led to the video getting tons of shares and views, and that eventually got more people listening to Rollin’, pushing it to #1 on music charts. Brave Girls found out about the fame on the day they were moving out of their dorm and preparing for disbandment.

Korean celebrity success stories - brave girls performing rollin'
Image adapted from: Mnet K-pop 

Brave Girls then started getting invited to music shows again and won first place at many of these shows. At the peak of the Rollin’ virality, it had beat out songs from K-pop titans such as IU, and even achieved an all-kill, winning #1 at multiple music shows. 

8. Hwang Chi Yeul

Korean celebrity success stories - hwang chi yeul
Image credit: Namu Wiki

Hwang Chi Yeul is another singer whose career was given a boost after being given a chance to showcase his talents. 

He had always wanted to be a singer since he was young. To pursue that dream, he moved to Seoul alone with just $170 and his dreams to debut. 

Korean celebrity success stories - hwang chi yeul
Image adapted from: Again 가요톱10 : KBS KPOP Classic 

However, his management company at the time went bankrupt and closed down, so he had no activities for a long while. To earn money during this time, he taught singing at music schools. These schools were where he happened to have taught many iconic singers, such as Infinite and NU’EST.

His financial situation was so bad that he once had to readjust his dislocated knee himself because he couldn’t afford to go and see a doctor. 

Korean celebrity success stories - hwang chi yeul in i can see your voice
Image adapted from: Mnet TV

Chi Yeul’s career started taking off when he did well on the show I Can See Your Voice in 2015, where he wowed the crowd and viewers with his rendition of Im Jae Bum’s Confession. His performance even gained the original singer’s approval.

Korean celebrity success stories - hwang chi yeul's album
Image credit: Namu Wiki

His first mini album, Be Ordinary, released in 2017, became the best-selling release of the first half of the year. His Weibo account garnered 5 million followers in 3 months. From an unknown vocal coach to an internationally acclaimed singer, Hwang Chi Yeul proves that it’s never too late to keep trying.

9. Lee Hangyul from BAE173

Korean celebrity success stories - lee hangyul
Image credit: Namu Wiki

Conditions for idol trainees today are arguably much, much better compared to the past. Dorms are more often more spacious, and trainees are treated more humanely than before. However, many trials and tribulations still await young idols on their path to success. 

Case in point: Lee Hangyul from BAE173, who had a bumpy journey to get to where he is today. 

Korean celebrity success stories - lee hangyul
Image credit: Namu Wiki

Hangyul was abandoned as a baby, and he grew up in an orphanage until he was adopted by foster parents. His dream of being a K-pop idol was partly driven by his desire to repay his foster parents for giving him another chance in life.

Korean celebrity success stories - group called IM
Image credit: Namu Wiki

Hangyul started his K-pop career in the group IM, which did not see much success before they disbanded in 2019. He also competed in the idol reboot show, The Unit, but he didn’t manage to make it to the final lineup yet again.

Korean celebrity success stories - lee hangyul in produce x 101
Image adapted from: Namu Wiki

It seemed as though Produce X 101 was his big break, as he managed to make it into the final lineup to become a part of X1. But fate was cruel once again when X1 disbanded due to the vote manipulation scandal.

Korean celebrity success stories - BAE173
Image credit: Namu Wiki 

With 3 failed attempts to make it in the industry, Hangyul was once again placed into BAE173, where he is the leader, main dancer and lead vocalist.

Fortunately, BAE173 seems to be doing rather well. Hangyul and fellow member Do Hyun’s prior positions in X1 may have given the group’s fame a boost, but the other members, and the group as a whole, show considerable promise.

Korean celebrity success stories that will motivate you  

Success stories are always inspiring, especially if the person’s journey to where they are now had not been exceptionally smooth. Hopefully, reading about how the Korean celebrities in this list overcame their struggles to achieve success will bring you some much-needed motivation to keep on going and giving your best. You never know when success and opportunity are around the corner.

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Cover image adapted from: Namu Wiki, Nami Wiki, Namu Wiki