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K-pop Star Kim Na Yoon Puts Career on Hold for BU

CAS student says academics trumps performing…for now

Tiffany Kim had never sung in public prior to auditioning for the popular Korean show K-pop Star. She put fame on a back burner to come to BU to pursue a degree in economics.

Tiffany Kim (CGS'16 CAS'18) had never sung in public prior to auditioning for the popular Korean show K-pop Star. She put fame on a back burner to come to BU to pursue a degree in economics. Photo by Michael D. Spencer

Tiffany Kim was a pop star in the making when she applied to BU. At 16, she’d left her home in San Francisco to audition for a televised Korean pop singing competition in Seoul for the new show K-pop Star. She landed in ninth place on the American Idol–style show and was signed by a top record label, where she trained for two years.

But Kim (CGS’16, CAS’18) pressed pause on fame for BU. “I chose to suspend my dreams and aspirations in K-pop for a little bit in order to pursue my academic interests,” she says. “I felt like this was a critical time for me to do that.”

Growing up watching K-pop music videos, she was fascinated by how each song was “a total work of art,” blending choreography, lighting, clothes, and other production elements. From its origins in South Korea in the 1990s, K-pop has exploded onto the international scene with catchy hits like PSY’s “Gangnam Style.” Although she sang only in her room for enjoyment, she sometimes dreamed of becoming a star like BoA, billed as “the queen of Korean pop.”

In 2011, during her junior year of high school, Kim spotted an online ad for auditions for K-pop Star, which was looking for the next Korean pop idol. The ad said that ideal contestants should have strong musical and dance skills and a command of English, to show they could reach a global audience. Kim was a cheerleader and played both piano and flute, but she’d never sung in public. Still, with her parents’ support, she decided to compete. She passed the preliminaries and advanced to a televised audition in South Korea with the three celebrity judges—including BoA. Her poignant rendition of “Fallin’” by Alicia Keys won her a spot on the show.

“I was looking forward to expressing my music in a way that I thought would make other people happy,” she says about the possibility of achieving a K-pop career, “and then my much larger dream was to eventually have enough influence to have a real voice in media and…give young girls hope to achieve any dreams.”

Kim stayed with a distant relative during the taping and adopted the stage name Kim Na Yoon. She says the competition was exhilarating and challenging: “It was pretty difficult competing against people who’d had so many years of experience.” Her sudden fame was a shock. The show exploded in popularity across Asia, and was publicized on buses and billboards.

“Every place I went, it was airing on all the TVs,” she says, “and it was very awkward seeing my face everywhere.” A performance of Percy Mayfield’s “Hit the Road Jack” got her past the semifinals. She earned ninth place and was signed by Starship Entertainment, a South Korean company whose performers include K.Will, Sistar, and Boyfriend.

Although Kim had a packed schedule of acting, singing, and dance classes, she kept up with her studies, and applied to BU. “I didn’t want to be done with my K-pop career at age 30 and go to college as a freshman,” she says. Now an economics major, she doesn’t regret the decision.

“I fell in love with how the theories tie in to real life,” says Kim, who is vice president of marketing for the Undergraduate Economics Association and is considering a career in business, social science, or finance. “I’m not exactly sure when I will return to K-pop. My first goal is to get my bachelor’s degree.”

Family and friends were just as surprised by her decision to postpone stardom as they were by her journey to it. “But I guess once I find a passion,” Kim says, “I pursue it to the best of my ability.”

Julie Butters can be reached at jbutters@bu.edu.

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