By Narae Kim and Jane Chung
SEOUL (Reuters) - Singing a duet in front of thousands of fans with South Korean rapper Psy, a world sensation for his "Gangnam Style" and "Gentleman" videos, would be heady for any singer, much less one who's only 16 years old and has just launched her first album.
But the soulful-voiced Lee Hi, like Psy, has been breaking rules for the K-pop music industry since her discovery in an amateur talent show two years ago, including looking more like the girl next door than a diva.
South Korea's love affair with pretty boy bands and doll-like girl groups may be starting to crack and its music industry is becoming more willing to experiment with talented and less lovingly groomed stars, following Psy's megahit "Gangnam Style," YouTube's most popular song with over 1.5 billion hits.
The song catapulted the sunglass-wearing singer with the garish jackets to global fame and gave an additional boost to the growing K-pop industry, despite his difference from the polished K-pop norms - a change that came just in time for Lee Hi, who sang with Psy at an April 13 concert at a Seoul stadium.
"Other singers are very pretty and tall. I am short, no matter how high my heels are," said Lee, referring to the height and well-groomed slimness of the nine-member Girls Generation, one of K-pop's most famous groups.
"I cannot beat them with looks, so I figured, I need to focus on singing well. That's what I'm good at and like most," added Lee, whose demure clothing contrasts with the long-legged, miniskirted look of Girls Generation.
Lee was runner-up in a national talent show while still in junior high school, gaining a contract with YG Entertainment Inc, the same company that manages Psy. The top song from her debut album, "Rose", surged to the top of the charts after its March release.
By contrast, the vast majority of K-pop wannabes go through years of rigorous training at entertainment agencies, sometimes even 10 years. Many in Girls Generation trained for five years.
These "idol trainees" prepare with lessons in singing, dancing, acting and foreign languages and lives similar to that of military cadets. They live together, stick to a schedule prepared by their agencies, and practice dancing and singing for hours each day, without knowing if they will ever even debut.
Some will go on severe diets and have plastic surgery, aiming for the pale-skinned, slender and double-eyelid looks idealized by Yoona from Girls Generation.
The result is an industry whose overseas sales surged 135 percent in 2011 to $196 million, according to a Music Industry White Paper published by the Korean Creative Content Agency. In 2006, overseas sales were worth $16.7 million.
SIGNS OF CHANGE
But change had begun, slowly, before Lee Hi took the stage.
A handful of singers have now come out of audition and talent shows on Korean television, most notably the indie band Busker Busker. Their single "Cherry Blossom Ending" reigned on the charts after its release and topped them again this spring.
Analysts say growth of audition stars, who have worked their way into the industry through their love of music and sheer talent, may help widen the spectrum of K-pop.
"Such audition programs can contribute to species diversity of Korean pop music," said Lee Dongyeon, professor at Korea National University of Arts.
Cultural critic Bae Kook-nam agreed that the programs have provided a fairer way into the industry for talented individuals, but what K-pop really needs is to improve content, its songs are often slammed as cookie-cutter replicas.
"Quality content is best achieved through diversifying musical genres and performance. Healthy indie music, for example, can imbue a new strength into the mainstream music," he said. "K-pop has to prove that it has more than idols."
In the end, it may just come down to personalities.
"I think what I have in common with Psy is that we both have very strong characteristics of our own that help us define who we are," said Lee. "We both know for sure what we can do well and what we like."
(Reporting By Jane Chung and Narae Kim, Editing by Elaine Lies and Michael Perry)