There’s the saying that you’ve made it into the upper echelons of fame when you achieve single-name status. Monikers like Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, and Billie Eilish ring a bell for they’ve relentlessly dominated not just the music charts, but pop culture, fashion and news in general. Then there’s also Kai. The 26-year-old main dancer of popular K-pop boy group EXO and a member of global K-pop boyband SuperM, beloved for his powerful moves, and experimental style — read: crop tops — that challenges the traditional markers of masculinity.
Today, it’s clear that the space Kai inhabits has only gotten bigger since his debut eight years ago, most recently wearing the hat of Gucci’s first-ever Korean male global ambassador — dismantling cultural boundaries and parlaying the mononym, Kai, beyond the K-pop realm. In this cover interview, the superstar chats candidly about going global, being independent, and why he felt like he needed an Instagram account.
Some time ago you revealed the results of your personality test on Instagram live. With regard to the question “Have you wondered about your existence?”, you answered that you have.
I think I have always thought about the question, “Why was I born?”. Also, I often wonder about questions like, “Why am I not born as someone else but as me; is the world I see through my eyes different from another person’s point of view?”
You revealed that you have an INFJ personality type based on the MBTI — it seems quite accurate.
I don’t really remember my result, so I plan to take it again. My family has taken it too, and after seeing my mum’s result I thought it seemed like a very credible test [laughs]. My mum is a dreamer. Even before I debuted, she said, “You like to dress up, and because I brought you up in that way you are definitely going to have something to do with fashion brands in the future.” Naturally, when I became a Gucci ambassador, she was ecstatic.
Your Instagram feed’s theme is filled with “EXO”, “family” and “Gucci”.
I created my account in 2018 when I was having a shoot with ELLE for Gucci’s Cruise show. I’ve always known that social media was important, but I really felt that even more when a lot of celebrities asked for my account during the show.
You participated in the filming of a global eyewear campaign that was revealed not too long ago in the Amoeba Music store in Los Angeles. Was it a special experience for you as a musician?
Of course, it was supposed to be closed down and so the fact that I managed to take pictures and create memories of that historical place made me feel happy and blessed. The production crew were all non-Koreans, and the atmosphere at the location was different as well so it was all very nerve-racking. I felt like I had gone back in time to when I first debuted.
Even Kai gets nervous. Have you had any other similar experiences when a location you liked disappeared or closed down?
The old SM building I grew up in when I was a trainee and formed so many memories [at] just recently underwent some remodeling works. The rooftop and a few other spaces where I spent so much of my time have all disappeared. Those were places that meant so much to me, so with the new changes made, I was able to actually realise how much time has passed.
There are many people with a good [sense of] style. [Your] outstanding point is that when you try out different styles, it doesn’t seem foreign [to you].
I think that cool and pretty things can be captured easily but capturing a specific concept — in terms of fashion — can be a difficult feat. I use that mentality as an excuse to try out different styles of fashion that I would not have dared to in my daily life, such as the reggae hairstyle that I did in Growl, or the short crop jacket that I wore during my promotions for Obsession. I think two weeks is more than enough to prepare and try out new things [laughs].
You have made appearances in variety programmes such as Knowing Brothers and Radio Star last year. Were these experiences enjoyable?
Thanks to the humorous moments that came about, I actually received many offers from other shows. However, I was worried that the Kai that I portray on stage could be hindered by my different sides shown on TV, and that it might be difficult for anyone to focus on my performances due to the drastic differences.
I can’t not mention SuperM’s group promotions. Three different groups under SM came together to form this sub-unit, as part of a project!
When EXO went on our American tours, we experienced that culturally, races and traditions had been blurred. I could feel that there was less of a “line” separating us. I was able to approach fans more easily; I don’t think there’s a limit to K-Pop. I don’t need to deliberately mention the [global] success of Parasite. The fact that I became the global ambassador of Gucci eyewear proves that race does not matter at all, but it’s more about one’s talents and charisma.
Personally, I felt the progress of K-Pop after watching the safety briefing videos that SuperM and BoA shot together for Korean Airlines.
I am too shy to watch it, but I did receive a lot of video stills of myself from my friends and they didn’t look good at all. They keep sending me parts where I look bad [laughs].
Due to your performances and dancing, I think the pressure on the stage is incredible.
Usually I don’t have much worries, stress, or even anger, but it’s different right before going up on stage. I get so stressed to the point it can be tiring. Honestly, waking up at six in the morning with hardly any sleep just to pre-record our performances for music shows — it sounds impossible. I’m only able to show 20 per cent of my all and that is really sad. Last year was such a busy year, I hardly had any time to recharge myself nor did I feel I was ready to stand on stage, but the show still had to go on. I was not fully satisfied with the performances as a dancer, but it just has to be endured.
What are the reasons that you are able to carry on despite all the difficulties?
The contentment after I get things done, and the comfort that I was able to pull through. On the other hand, I think the sincerity I feel towards everything I do and the constant ambition to do things better is a huge motivation and a relief when I accomplish it. If I don’t feel this way, it will mean that this work no longer means as much as it did to me in the past. Showing my fans the best version of myself, and the comfort and happiness I feel when I’m contented with my performance or work, is really important to me. In the past I couldn’t even sleep after making one mistake, but I sleep really well now [laughs].
And dancing is still something you enjoy?
I’ve been dancing for almost 20 years now. I can’t not dance. Even when I was young, I’d dance everywhere and anywhere, to the extent my mum said, “Stop dancing, it’s embarrassing.”
It’s well known that you have some really special and tight relationships with a few people around you. Do you get any inspiration from their advice, or from their influence?
I’m not the type to ask for advice from anyone first. Even when I ask what’s the better of two choices, I already have an answer [that I’ve] decided on in my mind. I’ve always felt that I needed to be independent; to [think for myself] when I decide, in order to be able to say that it is “mine”.
So, you’re a man of few words around people.
If they want me to be. If necessary, I will say good things, but more [so] the realistic point of view. I always think of the worst possible situation before saying anything [when giving advice], so those who know me well will not ask me trivial questions. When things go south or important decisions to be made, they will look for me. As for myself, I humbly listen to criticism or harsh words.
“Sexy” and “beautiful” are words that you probably hear a lot, but your fans call you “cute”. Which sides of yourself do you think are cute?
None! Even if I have thought of myself as cute, I won’t say it or admit it [laughs].
There are many people who idolise you as they see you as an iconic person. Does [the phrase] “a symbolic beauty of youth” or any other nicknames that you carry, feel a little too exaggerated?
Everyone views me differently, so I can’t say that it’s burdensome or exaggerated. Instead, I’m thankful. I don’t want to think of these nicknames or titles consciously as I live my life. Like, “Oh since they call me this, I should try to behave a little more as such”. I only want to show my true self without having other considerations — always.
What do you consider to be beautiful?
Definitely cool clothes, sculptures, drawings and paintings. When I look at some really good-looking people, I feel that that is beauty too. But personally, I think that true beauty lies in moments. Past memories and ordinary moments that when you look back, [you] realise that what you felt back then was more beautiful and precious than any other happiness that you’ve experienced.
A line from the drama The Miracle We Met pops into my mind — “Memory isnot [just] a record of time, but [is always]accompanied by emotions. That’ssomething surprising we never expect.”
Good memories always bring back rushing emotions, regardless of when you look back at it. That is really beautiful, and that is why I really love watching movies with film static noise, as it seems like I’m looking into someone’s memories.
Your name Jong (鍾) comes from“iron drum bell” and In (仁) comes from “benevolent”. Your grandfather named you that, which means to be as benevolent as the person who rings the morning bell. Throughout your life, have you ever thought about the meaning behind your name?
Hmmm, firstly, I’m not a morning person [laughs], but hitting the bell at dawn means to be of use to someone and to [have] more initiative, so I do want to live up to that and inspire others. Perhaps I could already be doing just that, I’m not sure.
I’m sure you’ve garnered plenty of praise for your dance techniques, but the shoot today focused quite a bit on your looks too. Which feature of yours do you like?
I do like to think that I have my own attractive features, like my small ears or a round bear like nose which most would say is so-so — but I still like them. If I really had to choose, it would be my chin and eyebrows for now. I think these two features make up 80 per cent of my defining look.
What does family mean to you?
Family is family. There may be no one in the world who will be completely on my side, but my family will still accept me as I am. I grew up happily with two siblings, and so if I were to have a family of my own, I always thought three kids would be just nice. But now when I look at my sister struggling with childcare, I realised it’s definitely not something to think lightly of. My family members are also my seniors (sunbae) in life.
Your eight-year anniversary is coming up soon, and you’ve probably been through many hardships. Do you think it is necessary for a person to go through pain to mature?
Looking back now, not all hardships have changed my nature; I personally don’t see the need for a person to go through change and pain in order to mature. But you know there is going to be a tough time for everyone at least once in their lifetime, and it’s not so bad a thing to be positive and think of precious things to get through it. Most importantly, just because you’re going through something difficult doesn’t mean you should hate yourself or be hard on yourself, because the most precious thing in the world is yourself.
Some may look at you and think that you’ve got it all. In spite of this, is there still anything that you wish to have, and is there a further goal you have in mind?
Before my debut, I had a lot of ambitions but the Kai I am today doesn’t have anything else I could wish for. I don’t think the place I am today is my final station but even if it is, I would be okay with that. Even if my debut was the end, I am proud of the life I’ve led, and I would be super proud of whatever I do. I am able to say this confidently because I learnt that the more fixated I am on something, the less happy I am. I learnt that it is better to focus on and enjoy the present; to enjoy doing what you do.
What type of person do you hope to be to your loved ones?
There is only one thing I wish for and that is for them to always be by my side no matter what decisions I make. Likewise, I will do the same.