Interviews with South Korean pop groups are notoriously difficult, tightly controlled events where questions deemed even slightly "sensitive" are instantly blocked out.
Anything that these singers say or do are closely watched over, in case a wrong move should ruin their perfect idol images.
So it is a nice surprise to finally have an interview with a K-pop group where all questions are freely answered, and at length too.
Even though it is via e-mail, all six members of pop group Shinhwa are generous with their responses and clearly unafraid of blurting out anything that could potentially hurt their reputations.
Self-deprecating and game to poke fun at one another, there are no holds barred in their interview with Life!, an e-mail transcript of a real-life group chat that also takes note of their laughs and other reactions.
Member Lee Min Woo, 30, for example, openly makes fun of his old goofy look in the music video Yo!, a song from the band's 1999 album T.O.P.
"I still re-watch that video sometimes and think, why was I so skinny? And why were my facial expressions so exaggerated?" he says with a laugh.
Maybe the reason why Shinhwa can afford to be so relaxed is because these guys are veterans in the industry and have nothing to lose. Min Woo points out: "We're known as the 'original idols'."
After all, the group hold the title for being the longest-running K-pop group, as they have been around for 15 years, since 1998.
Other than Min Woo, the group comprises Eric Mun, 34, Kim Dong Wan, 33, Shin Hye Sung, 33, Jun Jin, 32, and Andy Lee, 32.
It helps, too, that the group now manage themselves, after setting up Shinhwa Company in 2011. Previously, they had been under the management of Korean giant music label SM Entertainment (1998 to 2003) and then Good Entertainment (2004 to 2008).
They went on hiatus for four years from 2008, when the members enlisted for mandatory military service. They made their comeback in 2011 with the album The Return.
Min Woo says: "We're not the type of group that would do anything that isn't representative of our true selves. So there will be times when we're doing or saying crazy things, and that's fine. We always try to see the funny side of everything and we're able to do this because we can laugh at ourselves."
Dong Wan adds: "We want to be celebrities who are charismatic on stage but also friendly and familiar off stage. We want to be a group that defies all expectations."
Their carefree ways are all the more apparent in an episode of Saturday Night Live Korea, the Korean version of the hit American live comedy sketch show, where the band were featured as guests.
The episode that they appeared on - which first aired in Korea in May - was very popular with viewers and the group was widely praised for their animated and spirited performances.
It will air in Singapore on Channel M (StarHub Channel 824/874, mioTV Channel 518) on Saturday at 11pm.
From crossdressing to shameless flirting and prancing about, the band's members went all out to make the comedy work on the show. That means that there was plenty of improvisation as well.
Eric says that the kissing scene he had with comedienne Ahn Young Mi, 30, for example, was completely improvised.
He says: "That was not supposed to be in the script. I was supposed to kiss someone else only on the cheek. But host Shin Dong Yup hinted to me, 'Shouldn't there be more coming after the kiss on the cheeks?'
"So I asked Young Mi whether it would be okay if I kissed her. She said it would be fine so I bit her lips slightly. She was pretty shy about it."
It turns out that Eric is one of the wildest of the lot, as he voluntarily pulled his pants down for a segment as well.
Hye Sung says: "In the segment Night At The Museum, the original script had Eric pretending to have his pants pulled down. But he asked to have it completely pulled down, just to be funnier."
Meanwhile, the crossdressing segment has made a dress into a hugely popular sale item. With a laugh, Hye Sung says: "I pulled off crossdressing surprisingly well. The one-piece dress that I wore got sold out and I became a 'bestselling women's fashion guy'. I don't really know how I'm supposed to take that, but I guess I am quite proud of that news."
Andy adds with a chuckle: "After I crossdressed, (K-pop group) Teen Top asked me to show them this side of me more."
The group had such a good time with the show's sketches that they say it was hard to keep a straight face during rehearsals. Eric says: "It was very hard not to laugh during rehearsals. I think we lost count of the NG ('no good' takes). Even though we are experienced performers on stage, it's been a while since we've done anything live other than singing.
"When I'm watching repeats of the final broadcast episode we were on, I can see that the group was really struggling to hold in their laughter."
As much fun as the group's members had on the show, Hye Sung says he is all the more happier knowing that fans got a kick out of their performance.
He says that he saw someone post the following message on the Internet: "I have been a fan of Shinhwa's for more than 10 years, and I thought I knew everything, but it seems from the show that they are really crazy. There is a side of them that I still do not know. I'm thankful for them being around."
He adds: "I felt a sense of pride reading that. It's difficult to show a new side to us after 15 years. So we will continue to showcase this aspect of us.
"Never say that you're sick of what you're seeing from us because this is just the beginning. This is only the beginning of Shinhwa with its members in their mid-30s."
This story was originally published in The Straits Times on July 22, 2013
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