By EW Staff
July 22, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT
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The following is an excerpt from K-Pop Confidentialthe upcoming YA novel by author (and EW alum) Stephan Lee, that follows a New Jersey teenager thrust into the highly secretive world of Korean pop groups. 

Floor ninety-nine is much less fancy than the corporate floor. It looks kind of like a college dorm, a hallway of doors decorated with girls’ names and photos.

“You’ll be on Team Two,” says Manager Kong. “You’re lucky. Up until recently, I wouldn’t have been surprised if CEO Sang decided just to make Team Two the final group — everyone knows Team Two has some of the most promising talents and Visuals. But then we lost a member.”

A dark look comes over Manager Kong’s face.

“Lose her? How did you lose her?” I ask.

She brushes me off. “Not important. Anyway, instead of just moving another trainee into Team Two, I decided to recruit a brand-new girl. Team Two knows they’re special, and they’re getting complacent. I wanted to find a girl who’d really challenge them.”

I’m totally confused. What about my audition would make Manager Kong think I’d be a challenge to the top girls?

“You’re in the best hands with Team Two. I manage five of the trainee teams, so I won’t be able to supervise everything. You’re the maknae, so you’ll learn a lot from your unnies. There’s even another American girl on the team.”

Before I can ask anything else, we’ve arrived at Team Two’s dorm. Manager Kong knocks on the door twice and throws it open before anyone responds.

The dorm is smaller than my room at home, but there are two sets of bunk beds plus one other bed, and no windows. It looks like a very girly bomb has gone off, scattering mounds of tops and panties and makeup and skincare products all over. Amid the piles of debris are three of the most gorgeous creatures I’ve ever seen. They jump to attention and bow to greet Manager Kong.

“Girls, listen up,” says Manager Kong. “Welcome your new Team Two member, Park Candace.”

I give a deep bow, hinging my body at ninety degrees. I say “Ahnyunghaseyo,” the formal word for hello.

The girl in the far corner, who looks kind of like a cartoon character, flashes me a twinkly smile. She’s wearing heavy eyeliner and has two bushy pigtails streaked with pink and blue that look like they’re straight out of anime. A girl who’s rocking black lipstick and a black trucker hat that inexplicably says powder pup lifts her chin at me; she has the one non-bunk bed. And the most stunning girl of all, whose long cascading locks of hair have been dyed a delicate strawberry blond, barely even looks at me as she mumbles, “Ahnyung.”

“Candace is your maknae, your little sister, and she has a lot to learn from you. You’re probably thinking of her as your new competition, but it will only reflect well on you to be good unnies to her. Understand?”

“Yes, Manager Kong,” say the girls in unison.

Manager Kong looks around the room. “Where’s Aram?”

“She’s doing her beauty routine,” says Powder Pup Hat with a grin and eye roll, cocking her head toward a door in the back of the room. Manager Kong rolls her eyes, too, and says, “Of course. Anyway, meet upstairs in Practice Room Twenty-Four in ten minutes. Be nice to Candace. And jebal, clean this room!”

Just like that, Manager Kong leaves me alone with my new unnies. I’m so intimidated, I’m afraid to move.

“That’s your bed right there,” says Powder Pup, pointing to the bunk above Strawberry-Blond Princess. I would never have known the bunk was free, since it’s piled with junk. I bow to Powder Pup. It’s weird bowing to girls who are only a little older than me. At home, I only use formal language with Koreans my parents’ age, and even then, they let you get away with not-totally-perfect manners. But Umma and Abba warned me that in a K-pop company, I should always use honorifics and address older female trainees as unnie. No one’s going to cut me slack on manners for being foreign. I step onto the bunk bed ladder and carefully clear a spot on my mattress to put down my guitar. I peek down at Strawberry-Blond Princess.

“Sorry to bother you,” I say in a soft voice. “Is any of this stuff yours?”

She doesn’t look up. She’s sitting on her bed, her glossy milky-white legs stretched out in front of her, hyper-focused on her fingernails, which are shaped into pointy claws, each a different shade of glittery neon.

I clear my throat. “Unnie, I don’t want to move anything if it’s yours.”

Still no response. Next to Strawberry-Blond Princess’s bed, I spot all seven Harry Potter books, plus Daring Greatly by Brené Brown and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. I perk up. This must be the girl from America. She looks like she’d ignore me in the hallways if we went to the same school, but I can’t say how relieved I am that I’m rooming with someone I can speak English with. The fact that she likes wizards and self-help books is icing on the cake. I point to the Tidying Up book.

“I’ve read that one, too,” I say in English. “If it’s not too much trouble, I’m gonna have to ask you, unnie, to ‘tidy up’ just enough so I can put my bag down.”

I giggle nervously at my own stupid joke. Strawberry-Blond Princess’s eyes dart up at me with a look of pure confusion.

“I’m sorry, are you talking to me?” she asks loudly in Korean. She pulls out her earbuds. I didn’t see them under her curtain of luscious tresses.

“Oh, yes, sorry. I was just admiring your taste in books. I’ve read all of these, too. Harry Potter’s dope.”

She leans away from me as if I’m some raving lunatic. “Are you speaking to me in English?”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I stammer, switching back to Korean. “I just saw you had books in English, and —”

“Were you an orphan adopted by Americans or something?” she asks, brow furrowed. “Your accent is so...mixed up.”

“No,” I say, mortification nuking my cheeks. “I’m from the States, but my parents are Korean. And alive.”

Powder Pup cuts in, “Don’t mind Helena; she’s messing with you.” She smiles. So Strawberry-Blond Princess has a name. “Helena’s as American as they come — from a place in California called Newport Beach.”

Powder Pup’s Korean accent is so strong it sounds like she’s saying “Newport B-word.”

“My name is Binna, by the way,” she says.

“And I’m JinJoo!” pipes in Anime Pigtails, who’s been practicing vocal scales. She has a great voice. I don’t know how to express how thankful I am that Binna and JinJoo are being nice to me. I bow for, like, the twentieth time since entering the room.

“I actually don’t speak any English, even though I understand a lot,” says Binna in a distinctively deep voice.

“My parents speak to me in Korean so I understand it pretty well,” I explain. “But I grew up talking back to them in English, so I’m not the best speaker.”

Binna nods. By Korean standards, Binna is the least conventionally pretty girl of the three — her skin isn’t milky white, and she has a sturdy, square jaw — but in a way, she’s the most striking. She has an aura. I instantly feel at ease.

“Well, we’ve been told not to speak any English with you,” Binna says. “Helena is the type to follow rules — when they suit her, that is.”

Just then, another girl emerges from the bathroom, her face glistening. This must be Aram. She says, “So when’s the new Westerner getting here?” Binna catches Aram’s eye, and she realizes, startled, that I’m right here. I immediately go into a deep bow, and when I come up, I get my first direct look at her face. My mouth falls open. This is, hands down, the most stunning girl I’ve ever seen in my life.

About two seconds earlier, I would have said that about Helena, but Aram is from-another-universe beautiful. If Helena would be the prettiest girl in any high school, this girl is a fairy-tale queen, Maleficent’s fairer, younger Asian rival. With her sharp cheekbones, marble skin, and electric-blue Circle Lenses, it’s impossible to guess how old she is — she could be anywhere from sixteen to thirty.

“Aram, this is Park Candace,” says Binna.

Aram sizes me up from head to toe with her Siberian-husky eyes. She lets out a snort as if to say, Oh, so I had nothing to worry about and turns away without a word, her silky jet-black hair swishing in the air. Suddenly, I want to curl up in a ball and call Umma to come pick me up.

Binna sighs and chuckles. “You’ll have to excuse the girls, Candace. The trainee whose bed you’re taking over was like a sister to us for the past two years. She got cut from the company yesterday, which was a shock. It’ll take us a while to get used to the new dynamic.”

“Yesterday?!” I ask, shocked. Manager Kong left that part out. “Why did she get cut?”

“I don’t think any one thing,” says Binna, shifting uncomfortably.

“EunJeong was a great dancer, a great singer—”

“Oh, a really good singer,” adds JinJoo.

“She was really hardworking, too,” says Binna. “She was one trainee every one thought would debut, no question. But sometime in April, she just seemed to get burned out, lost her fire. It was very subtle, but everyone noticed. None of us thought they’d just cut her, though. It was brutal.”

I do some mental math and realize S.A.Y. announced the auditions in Jersey in April. Why did Manager Kong think I could have anything to offer that these girls don’t?

Binna finally comes over and sweeps Helena’s stuff off my bed.

“Hey!” says Helena.

I put down my giant duffel. I’m so thankful to Binna I could cry.

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