Wonho Is Taking Everything In His Stride

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Looking like the leading man out of a John Hughes movie, Wonho stares into the camera, head cocked, in a teaser still for his new single album, ‘Obsession’. On his head is a striped birthday hat, its rim circled with pom-poms; in his hand, a cupcake with a single candle. His lips are drawn up into a resigned smirk—a human embodiment of the shrug emoji.

Through my laptop screen, a much different look plays across his face when I broach the topic of his upcoming birthday. (He turns 29 in March, though he’s already 30 in the Korean age system.) Today Wonho is all smiles and bright white teeth. So, how does it really feel to be reaching the end of his twenties?

“Oh, it’s the worst,” Wonho says, huffing out a laugh. “Just the worst thing.”

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It’s funny, of course, coming from an idol in peak physical form—Wonho might be the owner of the most famous set of abs in the industry, and went viral last year thanks to his many risqué Instagram thirst traps. Now, as he appears to me in a black turtleneck and with rounded shoulders that camouflage K-pop’s most enviable physique, he acts as though he’s on the verge of spouting grey hairs.

But in South Korea, Wonho explains, turning 30 means a shift in the way you’re perceived. “They just start to think you’re really,” he begins in Korean before switching to English for emphasis, “old.” Age-based honorifics and respect for elders are key parts of Korean culture; and, as idols, twenty-something musicians are often valued as much for their youth and beauty as their vocal and performance skills.

South Korean men, too, are required to enlist for mandatory military service between the ages of 18 and 30, yanking artists back from the public eye for two years. The prospect of a sudden recant from the spotlight—the space where Wonho has fully come into his own—would be jarring for anyone in his shoes. This is the dichotomy that informs ‘Obsession’: in ‘Eye On You’, CCTV cameras follow his every move, while b-side ‘Somebody’ frets over lonely nights and dwindling time.

Wonho approaches impending change as he does everything else: with levity. As quick as he is to jokingly fuss over the numbers, Wonho prefers to think of himself as aging with grace. 30 becomes just another stop in his storied career. “If I’m together with fans, growing older isn’t this huge concern for me anymore,” he says, and it feels definitive. After all, if time has proven anything to Wonho, it’s that fans will always await him on the other side.

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In 2019, Wonho parted ways with his former group Monsta X and took a step back from social media. The silence was stark. Before he left the band, Wonho communicated with fans every day through online forums and live streams, Carolyn, a longtime fan from North Carolina, told me over Zoom. As a follower of K-pop since the late aughts, she’s seen idols unfairly cast to the wayside under similar circumstances. Wonho’s story resembles something altogether more hopeful: “I’ve never seen anyone fight for any idol the way that we fought for Wonho,” Carolyn said.

Fans were unyieldingly vocal in their support of Wonho, she explained, emblazoning his name on a billboard in Times Square, camping outside Starship Entertainment’s building in Seoul, trending hashtags on Twitter, and charting songs. When snow thawed and March rolled around, they celebrated Wonho’s birthday, regardless of the circumstances.

Then, he was back. Wonho opened his own individual Instagram, jumping at the opportunity to speak to fans again; he signed with Highline Entertainment, a subsidiary of Starship. Within the year, he returned to the Mnet stage with his sculpted pecs and breathy vocals on display—now, as a soloist.

“I was just so thankful,” Wonho reflects. “I understand so very well that, without the power of my fans, it would have been quite literally impossible to stand up there on my own. And today, I am always conscious of just how much of a source of strength they have been for me.”

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Wonho is often distilled to his looks, but delve deeper and you will find there’s more than initially meets the eye. A vocalist, dancer, and songwriter who has his hand in creative direction, he’s intuitive, conscious of how others view him; more than that, he knows just how and when to play into that image. It’s all his own design. “I do the concepts I want to do, because I have a pretty good sense of how I want to present myself and my appearance, how I look best,” he explains. “I show sides of myself the way I want to.”

In his writing, he likes to put some space between the words on the page and his own life. Not always, of course: last year, he penned an emotional ballad dedicated to fans, detailing how they pulled him up and out of a dark time. But inspiration comes in many shapes—just like love, often his subject of choice.

These days, he tends to flick through streaming sites to vicariously experience the emotion’s full spectrum. “Since I’m not dating anyone, I’ve learned all of these emotions through what I watch on Netflix, and I get all this inspiration from imagining what it’s like,” Wonho says. Music is his playground as he tries on and sheds characters, puzzling out new feelings. Wonho cites coming-of-age films as a muse for 2021’s ‘Blue’, in which he dons the role of a lovestruck high school quarterback. At first glance, his new single ‘Eye On You’ likewise appears to be a love song: “I got my eye on you / I need your love, I need your touch,” he sings over a whirring EDM chorus.

However, the song has a double meaning. Talking about ‘Eye On You’, Wonho flips the perspective, describing it as about him being watched—a matter he knows a little something about.

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A second album visual shows Wonho’s gaze piercing the camera again, this time through one eye, framed within a broken piece of a mirror. “[The mirror] physically doesn’t show everything. It’s not all in one piece as it once was,” he explains. “That’s how people see me. Each through a shard of glass.” Only small slivers are visible at a time.

Put them together, though, and you start to get a fuller picture. There’s sexy Wonho, exposing his midriff every chance he gets; coy Wonho, chuckling at thirst Tweets; gentle Wonho, mindful and kind in interactions with fans. His hypermasculine image in music videos—‘Eye On You’ sees wolves prowling behind him as he rips a sweater clean off his body—is tempered by a softer, subdued side he embraces behind the scenes.

“That sense of masculinity is something that is definitely an aspect of my physical appearance,” he says, tapping his chin like he’s twiddling an invisible beard. “But as for my inner self, rather than being this really ‘tough’ person, I also have these more sensitive qualities.”

Perhaps this is his inner Pisces speaking. Dreamy, yet profoundly aware of those around him, Wonho is attentive even over Zoom. When I ask questions in English, he tilts his whole body toward the camera, pursing his lips and furrowing his eyebrows in concentration. (I’m struck by the uncanny resemblance to Zoolander’s Blue Steel pout.) The language is a work in progress for him, but Wonho doles out compliments with ease. (“Nice question!” “Good catch!”) He’s never as aloof as his good looks might suggest; rather, he’s laid-back and humble.

“When I look at a mirror, I don’t exactly look at myself and think, ‘Wow, I’m good-looking’,” he claims, contrary to just about the entire Internet’s opinion of him. Yet he acknowledges his responsibility as a role model for others, and wears that mantel with pride.

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Wonho’s openness and sincerity come through on his Instagram, which he likens to a diary. His feed documents Van Gogh exhibits, outfits from backstage at music shows, and sunsets over the coastline of his preferred vacation spot, Jeju Island—all in tranquil shades of Wonho’s signature color, blue.

I ask him if one post in particular stands out from the last two years. In response, he whips out his phone and scrolls for a bit, before landing on another favorite destination: Los Angeles. The photo pops against the monochromatic feed for a simple reason—in it, he’s posed before a freezer full of bright yellow boxes of Eggo waffles, hiding his slightly younger face and bleached hair behind a peace sign.

The frozen breakfast aisle is a far cry from L.A.’s scenic backdrops, but it was everything else happening around him at the time that makes the memory: the photo, while posted last August, was taken during Monsta X’s 2019 world tour. For eighteen cities, he and his bandmates took the stage to screams of fans mingling with the pounding music.

“Whenever I look at this picture, I can just so vividly remember the thoughts I was having, how I was feeling at this point in time,” he says. It reminds him of his own recent solo concert—though due to Seoul’s current regulations, the audience was masked and prohibited to cheer.

“I’m convinced that the [COVID-19] virus will stick around for the rest of my life,” Wonho admits, but rather than succumb to pre-pandemic nostalgia, he’s set on adapting and moving forward in whatever way he can. Eventually, things will calm. And the first thing he’ll be doing is hopping on a plane to reunite with fans all around the world.

“The photo reminds me that I want to go back there and meet the fans as soon as possible,” Wonho says. His mouth slowly stretches into a grin as he glances down at the screen. “And get another waffle, just like those.”

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Words: Abby Webster
Additional Translation: Claire Min

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