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K-Pop Idol CL Would Like to Reintroduce Herself | Cover Interview

There are K-Pop idols, and then there’s CL. At 17, Lee Chae-rin debuted with one of South Korea’s biggest entertainment agencies and instantly vaulted to global stardom. Now, at 30, she’s gearing up to release her first solo album. And we can all meet her again for the first time.

BY: Brennan Kilbane

PHOTOGRAPHED BY: Peter Ash Lee

The night belongs to Lee Chae-rin. When she finishes working, hours after sunset, she puts her hoodie on and her earbuds in and begins her nightly drift. There’s a path nearby that winds up and down Seoul’s central peak of Namsan; from the top, you can see the city’s toniest neighborhoods sparkle all the way to the horizon. Or so Chae-rin tells me. “That’s Gangnam, from ‘Gangnam Style,’” she says, gesturing into the distance, but the glamorous black of her jacket sleeve and the absolute lack of sunlight work in tandem to make it difficult if not impossible to see anything via our video chat, despite my best attempts.

You have to imagine that it’s breathtaking, and then you have to imagine Chae-rin gazing over it all, listening to demos of songs she’s working on, or inhabiting the reliable solitude for self-reflection. Whatever happens, here she is: Lee Chae-rin, age 30, in the silence of her own private world, until day breaks, and she becomes CL again.

Across town in Seoul’s chic Mapo District, built of curvilinear sheets of glass and concrete, is the headquarters of YG Entertainment, the company where CL was created. In 2009, hoping to replicate the meteoric success of YG’s handsome foursome Big Bang (but with an all-female twist), the company plucked Chae-rin and three other aspiring K-pop idols out of obscurity and assembled them into 2NE1 (pronounced “to anyone” or “21,” depending on fan preference). CL was born, fully formed, at age 17, her neck dripping with umbilical chains. Chae-rin’s gamine features and natural talent were given a hip-hop makeover, her name was given an edgier-sounding chop, and an alter ego was born. “It’s a switch,” she says. Then, later, she adds it’s more “like a mask, almost, but with the attitude and character too. It’s armor for me.”

Andre Kim dress. Photographer: Peter Ash Lee
Stylist: Ye Young Kim
Hair: Gabe Sin
Makeup: Ji Won Moon
Manicurist: Eun Kyung Park
Set Designer: Hyea Won Yoo
Production: Visual Park

CL is Chae-rin reinforced in leather, steel, and foundation. Her fingernails are honed and augmented into weapon-grade claws. Her hair is a luminescent gray — less like an overcast sky, more like a dusty nebula. Without question, it’s fair to say that CL is the most famous K hip-hop artist alive, an icon of a young genre that refracts the aesthetics of hip-hop for a somewhat distant culture. She’s a byproduct of an increasingly global music culture — a radiant spark between colliding worlds.

According to her discography, she’s both “The Baddest Female” (2013) and the “One and Only” (2019). She dedicates her body of work to bad girls everywhere — “bad meaning good, you know?” she once explained. Her songs are pop poems that riff on themes of wealth, influence, designer fashion, and the relentless pursuit of a good time, usually in alternating Korean and English. In 2NE1, CL was the group’s leader and main rapper, who textured the band’s pop tracks with spitfire verses about how hot she was or the car she was driving. As a solo act, her confidence became her commodity: The year 2NE1 disbanded, CL appeared in a Vogue video, rapping her latest single over the fall collections. The song’s title, “Hello Bitches,” greeted CL’s Western audience. “Hello Kitty getting hella old,” she sang. Her brand of braggadocio, borrowed in large part from hip-hop and then spun into K-pop, emphasized the individual in a genre often defined by sameness.

Much of that sameness is by design. As one of Korea’s “Big Three” agencies, YG cultivates legions of gorgeous, talented performers as its product, which can then be exported around the world. Due to the sensitivity of this process, the K-pop industry shrouds itself in utmost secrecy. The trainee process is widely reported to be a grueling one, as kids are trained to be pop-performance gladiators during some of the most formative years of their lives. CL entered the YG family at 15; her eventual 2NE1 bandmate, Minzy, was 10. The rest of CL’s time at YG is off the table, interview-wise. One day we’ll probably all know, in detail, what a K-pop trainee undergoes during their remaking. For now, we can only see the person who enters the machine and the person who exits it.

“CL is like a mask, but with the attitude and character too. It’s armor for me.”

“It’s all gratitude,” Chae-rin-as-CL says, like a celebrity, of fame and its complications. But she’s eager to talk (in the abstract) about the pressure to undergo double-eyelid surgery, in which an eyelid crease is surgically created where there was none. (This eagerness was relayed via publicist, prior to our interview.) This procedure also, in essence, edits a distinctly Asian eye into a slightly more Caucasian-looking one. “It was a thing back then, where everyone got double eyelids. That was the beauty trend,” CL says now. But she liked her monolids and generally bristled at unsolicited image advice. “I even want to say I was sad and angry. I was like, ‘What the fuck? Why are all these people telling me how I should look? How do I digest this?’” She became more interested in makeup application, in camera angles, in ways that she could manipulate the eyes of the audience without changing herself. Against an onslaught of scrutiny, she projected confidence.

“You really got to tell yourself, ‘You are beautiful the way you are,’” she says. You can tell CL is speaking now: “If you want to go work out or put a bunch of makeup on or do full-body plastic surgery, it’s up to you. And I make sure I constantly remind myself of that.”

“Hey, you, get off my cloud; you don’t know me, and you don’t know my style,” she raps, by way of introduction, on her 2016 single “Lifted.” In an attempt to enter the American entertainment industry, she moved to Los Angeles. “Lifted” was a party anthem celebrating one’s right to experience transcendence by any means necessary, as well as CL’s new co-management by YG and Scooter Braun, who manages the likes of Ariana and Justin. Against the vibrant American hip-hop scene, some reviewers wrote, CL’s brand of hip-hop felt hollow, though nobody in their right mind denies her talent. Her lyrical punches are thrown powerfully but playfully, like those in a cardio boxing class.

She traveled to New York, to film the music video for “Lifted”; the city is “like Disneyland” to her. She made lots of meaningful connections during her time in America, but can’t think of any significant examples off the top of her head. “I know you want to hear names,” she says, “but I’m going to think about it. None pop up.”

“No worries. If you think of any, let me kn—”

“Honestly, I love talking to John Malkovich.”

“John Malkovich, the actor?”

John Malkovich, the actor, with whom CL shared the screen in Mile 22, a 2018 CIA thriller born of her Hollywood residency. CL played an assassin named Queen. (In other words, a bad girl.) “When I was getting out of the label and taking some time off, we met, and he [became] my mentor. He was the one who told me it’s okay to be sad, sometimes. It’s okay to be mad. Whatever I’m feeling, even if it’s not necessarily a positive feeling, it’s okay to embrace it and take my time. He wouldn’t say it like that, but he’d say it through his stories. He’s still my mentor. He played a big part of my L.A. life.”

“You really got to tell yourself, ‘You are beautiful the way you are.’”

Bidanbim top. To create a similar look: 24/7 Glide-On Eye Pencil in Roxy, 24/7 Shadow Stick in Pop Off and Mildew, and Stay Naked Face & Lip Tint in Streak by Urban Decay.

CL spent the lost year of 2020 back in Seoul, where Very Cherry, her “all-encompassing brand,” is now formally headquartered — a symbolic return to her roots. The cherry is something of an icon for Chae-rin, which sounds like “cherry” in Korean. She doesn’t enjoy eating cherries, but she likes what they do for “the fruit world.” (What she means is: They have great branding.) As of this writing, CL is preparing to release Alpha, her first solo album since leaving 2NE1. Alpha’s meaning is twofold, she explains: It’s about the alpha-female character she embodies, but it also suggests a new beginning; the songs will fill out CL’s superlative branding with personal flavor. Early in 2021, Chae-rin’s mother passed away, and CL expressed her grief in a track called, “Wish You Were Here”: a eulogy laid over a back- beat rhythm, and a hint of what’s to come.

“I think to some people I’m a K-pop artist. To some people I’m a pop star, to some people I’m a sister or a friend,” CL says of creating music for a global audience. “I don’t want to correct anything, but also I don’t want to put myself in a box. People could choose, but I don’t want to be one layer.”

CL’s Seoul Cycle

The megastar is, without exaggeration, too famous to appear in public in the city where she lives. But when CL isn’t asleep, recording, or performing, you may be able to spot her at:

Olive Young. 53 Myeongdong-gil, Jung-gu. 

“All the Korean local makeup brands in one place. I love shopping there,” CL says. “I would get all the eyeliners there and test them. I usually end up with two, but I love testing them. When I’m performing, it needs to be waterproof and all those things.”

Her own apartment. Address unavailable. 

“I can’t really go out to public places in Seoul, so it’s tough to recommend beauty spots, but these days we all do at-home care anyway,” she says. “I don’t know if you’ve heard about pigskin? It’s a Korean old-school remedy. Pigskin is pure collagen, so it’s a type of mask Korean people make and do. And when I have a shoot, I’ll mix manuka honey and matcha powder. That really cleanses [my skin]. I also do an aloe treatment on my scalp 10 minutes before I take a shower every night, which is good for people who dye or bleach their hair a lot.” 

Reissue Coffee. 509-29 Yeonnam-dong, Mapo-gu. 

“My friend Oh Hyuk [vocalist and guitarist of Hyukoh] is really into coffee,” CL says. “Last year, because of [coronavirus] and everything, this coffee shop that he loved closed, so he went out of his way and made sure it continued to live. He invited me there and their coffee is amazing.” 

Duomo Books & Cooks. 5 Jahamun-ro 16-gil, Jongno-gu. 

“It’s an Italian restaurant. I go there when I feel like eating a home-cooked meal,” she says. “I know the chef through my aunt. Whenever I feel like good food and good vibes, that’s one of my favorite places.”

Photographer: Peter Ash Lee

Fashion stylist: Ye Young Kim

Hair: Gabe Sin

Makeup: Ji Won Moon

Nails: Eun Kyung Park

Set design: Hyea Won Yoo

Production: Visual Park.

Click here to read CL’s cover story in Korean.

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