Being Brian

For more than a decade, Korean American singer Brian Joo has held his grip on fame in South Korea – an impressive feat given the country’s cutthroat industry and ability to churn out scores of new acts yearly. Here, Brian, hailed for popularizing R&B in the mother country, speaks candidly about his unique 12-year career as an “idol,” being the recipient of death threats, and why dating requires going “somewhere dark.”

By Jaeki Cho
Photographs by Eric Sueyoshi
Hair/Makeup by Jane Suh (Kutting Room)
Styled by Chriselle Lim (

EVER SINCE Brian Joo’s successful 1999 debut as one-half of the South Korean music duo Fly to the Sky, his popularity has remained in the upper ranks of the K-pop food chain. Now a household name, Brian, a 30-year-old Korean American singer born in Los Angeles, has continuously churned out new albums, including The Brian in 2006 and Manifold in 2009.

In the notorious scene known as South Korean entertainment, where factory-made “idols” are easily created yet disposable, maintaining such relevance is a praise worthy feat. Despite Fly to the Sky’s first two albums (Day by Day and The Promise) delivering bubblegum pop ballads, or fast-paced techno medleys—already standardized by the group’s distinguished label, SM Entertainment—the duo eventually set out to adopt a genre not yet familiar to the Korean public: R&B.

Though Fly to the Sky, which consists of Brian and South Korean native Hwanhee, was initially billed as a typical K-pop duo that could sing, rap and dance, it is hailed today as South Korea’s first R&B group. Although critics weren’t initially too pleased with the pair’s transition in sound, style or  image, the group went on to release six successful albums and garner numerous awards along the way.

Of course, Brian’s journey wasn’t solely paved with flowers. In 2002, when two Korean girls were run over and killed by a U.S. Army armored truck on a public road, anti-American sentiment was at its peak. During this time, Brian was hosting a radio show and when a guest brought up the issue, Brian, then 21, replied, “While the American soldiers must be brought to justice, I do not want relations between Korea and the United States, my home country, to become strained.” His statement was misinterpreted by press as: “You can’t talk badly about the United States in front of me; I’m an American. Please only hate the American soldiers.” Naturally, the Korean public did not embrace these comments—and for months, Brian received profane, even life-threatening messages.

In this interview with KoreAm, Brian, who lives in Seoul, opens up about this critical period in his career, as well as shares the real story behind his relationship with Fly to the Sky partner Hwanhee—a friendship that has become strained due to misunderstandings piled up over time. In one of his most candid interviews (in English, at least), the New Jersey-reared artist also reflects on his past 12 years in South Korea, helping to demystify the South Korean entertainment industry and shatter pretty-boy idol stereotypes, while musing on what he plans to tackle next.

KoreAm: You’re known as one of the many Korean Americans who moved to Korea to pursue a career in the entertainment business. Why did you make the move?

Brian: When I started off, I realized there was so much racism and prejudice in the States that the U.S. market wasn’t ready for an Asian artist. My vocal trainer at the time was trying to get me a deal, but every label was like, “Nah, we’re looking for a black or white artist.” So I didn’t have a choice.

KoreAm: You’ve now lived in Korea for 12 years. What are some of the difficulties you face as a Korean American in Korea?

Brian: One thing I hate about South Koreans is that everything [a Korean American does] is considered “so Americanized.” Things like that get to you because I’m like, “Yeah, judge me because I’m from the States. Hate me because I speak English.” But they have to realize we didn’t choose to be born in the States. It’s not like I was in my mom’s womb as a piece of semen saying, “Hey, Mom, have me born in America.” But some Koreans judge you for it. That was hard in the beginning, but I’m used to it now.

KoreAm: Discuss the status of your group Fly to the Sky [which consists of Brian and South Korean singer-cum-actor Hwanhee]. Many fans believe you guys have broken up.

Brian: It all started off with some stupid miscommunication. Hwanhee’s friends, who were also my friends, would tell me, “Hey, I heard you guys are breaking up.” And I’ll be like, “I don’t think so. It wasn’t my idea.” And my friends, who are also friends with Hwanhee, would do the same thing. Then a friend tells me, “Yo, I heard your manager and Hwanhee are going to open up their own label after your contract ends.” And that news just threw me off. I thought, “What a punk.”

Eventually, we went on one show where we actually had to confront one another about [our status]. I remember, during the taping of the show, we suddenly realized that we had done something stupid. We let what other people say pretty much ruin our lives. But once you have feelings of animosity towards one another, it’s hard to build things up from scratch again. Still, [we decided to] not break up the group. So when I do interviews, and they introduce me as “Brian formerly of Fly to the Sky,” I correct them, saying, “This is Brian from Fly to the Sky.” I want people to know: We’re not broken up.

KoreAm: Let’s discuss former 2PM leader and Korean American Jay Park (Jaebeom)—whose contract with label JYPE was terminated last year. He was supposedly “kicked out” of Korea and eventually the band for writing negative comments about Korea on his Myspace page, but there were conflicting reports about the real reasons for his dismissal.

Brian: I felt for his situation, [and] it shocked me. At the same time, I don’t really want to get into this because I don’t know the exact story. If he said something on Myspace, whether or not he said it five years ago, you just have to man up, and be like, “You know what? My bad. I did it.” I want to give him some words of advice, but I need to be careful because if I say something wrong, [there will be repercussions].

KoreAm: Right. Like 10 years ago, when a U.S. armored vehicle killed two Korean teenage girls, you were misinterpreted on a radio show.

Brian: That was the only time I wanted to give up music. For about six to eight months, I was getting death threats from Koreans. [South Koreans] were blaming the entire United States [for the girls’ deaths], and I didn’t think it was right to blame a whole country. So people were like, “Oh my God, you’re an American lover. Go back to the States.” I even received an email of my face Photoshopped on top of the girls’ corpses. I saw that email and I cried, and I told myself for the first time, “I want to give up.”

One time, when I was at [Korean television station] MBC for a taping, this little girl comes up to me asking for my autograph. As I was about to take her pen and pad to sign it, her friend goes, “Don’t get his autograph. He’s a white boy, an American lover.” And the little girl who actually wanted my autograph throws the pen and pad at my face and says, “I don’t want your autograph anyway.” That’s what I was living with for six to eight months in Korea. But I fought through it.

KoreAm: How do idols like you date?

Brian:We keep it on the down low. In the States, when a celebrity dates someone, it’s a plus. But Korean fans feel like they actually have a chance to marry you. So once you have a girlfriend, that just crushes their dreams and the amount of fans that support you can easily diminish. I know a lot of  artists right now who are dating, [but in interviews] claim to be single. Because they have to. For some, [a perceived single status] is also part of their contracts. I’m the same way. [My dates and I] would have to meet where a lot of people wouldn’t recognize us, or somewhere dark, like movie theaters. [And if you date a fellow entertainer], if we’re on the same show together, we have to act like we don’t know each other.

Order a copy of the magazine to see what else Brian shared, including his current relationship status, his thoughts on the current K-pop scene, his interest in pursuing acting and potentially moving his career to the States.