The first time Minzy visited Los Angeles, the singer-dancer was in town for a first-of-its-kind K-pop concert with her girl group, 2NE1, as well as some studio time with will.i.am. Her latest trip is equally star-powered with the debut performance of her new solo single at Al Gore's 24-hour-long Climate Reality livestream program, rehearsals with a new dance crew, and more studio time. What's changed, though, is her mindset: She’s gone from a confused, teenaged pop star to a mature young woman who's looking to take what she’s learned from tough celebrity lessons and offer a path of inspiration and guidance.
Before making her mark in the K-pop scene, elementary-school-year-old Minzy, neé Gong Min-ji, was first recruited to YG Entertainment -- the powerful Korean superlabel that helmed acts like BIGBANG and BLACKPINK, and was home to PSY when he broke internationally -- after videos of her dance skills went locally viral. Minzy says the label originally planned to debut her as a solo artist, but the company's forthcoming girl group 2NE1 lacked in the dance department. Despite the K-pop hopeful training longer than eventual band mates CL, Bom and Dara, Minzy was added as the final, and youngest, member for their 2009 debut.
Today, in her room at a downtown Los Angeles hotel, Minzy looks cozy as she sits in a lounge chair in a bright-pink hoodie. She comes across as friendly and approachable -- answering nearly every question with an adorable "eye smile" -- but the star notes that four years of waiting for her professional life to start at age 15 stunted her personal growth and social skills.
"I didn't know how to have relationships with people," she reflects. "Since I was so young in such a controlled environment, I never learned how to socialize. I really didn't have a normal childhood -- I never went out to play with other kids. I was just training and everyone was older than me."
With a fierce, hip-hop-inspired style and avant-garde look, 2NE1 stuck out from peers like Girls' Generation and Wonder Girls, and went on to make a major impact in the K-pop industry. By the time of their 2016 disbanding, the group had accumulated nearly a dozen No. 1 hits in Korea, became the only Korean females to play solo arena shows in America, collaborated with will.i.am and Jeremy Scott, and held a slew of Billboard chart records, including years as the highest-charting and best-selling K-pop album in America. Despite their success, 2NE1's appearances were belittled by a harsh Korean public often critiquing their "visuals," the girls given backhanded compliments and the group once sharing on television that the YG CEO Yang Hyun-suk called them "really ugly" on multiple occasions. She doesn't throw any barbs at her former label, but notes all of this became a major mental weight for a young Minzy who could only read Korean comments despite a growing international -- and more forgiving -- fanbase.
"People, netizens were critiquing the fact that, you know, we were not the prettiest group," she says. "We were the 'ugly group.' I didn't know how to process that, I held that in. It was tough. [As a group], we pretended it was not a big deal and tried to forget about it, but you can't forget about it -- it's tough. I was trying to keep up with the other girls in the group in terms of maturity, but when you're up against these girl groups who look like models and you're doing something different -- cool, but different -- you deal in a different way."
With success came challenges that extended beyond her professional life. Citing a lack of a "natural support system" that only magnified with the increasing pressures of celebrity, Minzy says depression and suicidal thoughts plagued her throughout her teenage years. She hit her lowest points when she was 16 and 17 -- around 2NE1’s "Can't Nobody," "I Am the Best" and "Ugly" era, for fans familiar. What eventually came was a confusion of where her passion laid.
"I would go on stage and everyone was so supportive, they'd love me," she says. "Then when the stage was done, I would be in the hotel feeling so empty. Life felt like just a stage. I didn't know what was my life about; I wasn't sure if life was better as a performer or if life would be better just alone. It was such a contrast, but I never had the time to figure out how to balance both being on stage and being alone."
This was 2NE1's heyday in Korea with five No. 1 singles, one of 2010's best-selling albums via their To Anyone full-length, and the 2011 release of their now-signature single "I Am the Best" that remains their most-watched music video with a quarter of a billion YouTube views. But Minzy also cites professional disappointments throughout: She was preparing and recording a solo album, scheduled ahead of "I Am the Best," but that got pushed back and eventually scrapped due to an issue "with a different artist in the company."
"There wasn't enough focus to finish my stuff,” she says of the management style where every company release required all hands on deck. “They kept delaying it and then when it comes to basically everything else, you don't know the details."
Longer hiatuses in between 2NE1 albums meant less quality time with her band mates. She calls them her "sisters" to this day. "We are all homebodies so really just being at home watching TV were the best moments," she says of CL, Bom and Dara. "Those memories were very cozy and warm, to me at least. Maybe because I was so young? But the world was quite a strange place to me, so those moments are close to my heart. The family feel was more important to me than the fame, but as it took longer and longer for our albums to come out, we would only really meet when it was time to plan for the album. As everyone started doing their own thing, I was having even less time with them."
In South Korean society, mental illness is seen as taboo, though the country suffers the highest suicide rate in the world for children ages 10-19. The country's focus on public image and lack of communication on such issues rendered Minzy unable to find help with her depression. "In Korea [mental illness is] seen more as 'stop being sad,' not something actually acknowledged."
Where she did find a resource was in Teddy Park, who was mainly responsible for producing a majority of 2NE1's discography and encouraged her to hold on to her Christian faith as a positive from her pre-fame life.
"Since I was the youngest, he would try to encourage me," he says. "He would say things like, 'I know you're feeling like you're depressed and struggling with your depression, but you believe in God and you're going to get through this.' I have good memories of him. I'm really thankful for Teddy and see him as a good person in my life to remind me to keep going even when depression was at its worst."
Minzy's breakthrough came by connecting with Christianity in her late teens, which led her to finding resources and, finally, people open to talking about her mental health. "I was struggling most intensely at 16, 17, and no one knew about it," she shares. "There was a point where I would just avoid people. People didn't even really know I was struggling. I was just alone. When I was 17, 18, I basically met God, I found my faith. That was a major change in my life. The people with the same faith and that same encouragement came into my life and were able to speak very boldly into my life. It wasn't like, 'Oh, you just have to get better.' It was 'We understand that it's a struggle. It's OK to struggle and it's OK to feel bad, but let's think about it, deal with it and have faith.' I held onto that."
When she decided to depart 2NE1 and YG Entertainment in 2016, Minzy says it was the first step in figuring out if performing was her true path. "I needed some time to deal with my depression, find my own way and decide if this was something I really wanted to do,” she explains. “It was something I was doing for so long, but it was so hard to maintain. I had to find my own direction, and the only way to do that was by leaving the group and fighting for my own will. I was wondering, 'What is my life about?'"
The next step was putting herself first. She signed with a smaller label, The Music Works, which helped put out her Minzy Work 01 EP that hit No. 2 on Billboard's World Albums chart last year. She surrounded herself with people who support her and her vision like Ashley Choi, whose previous clients include Justin Timberlake and Jay Park, who handles global management and is her "best friend." These changes allowed her space to set new goals, both personally and professionally.
"Leaving 2NE1, it's not about leaving [or] breaking up the group. It's that I fought for myself, my own future and what I wanted," she reflects of her now-solo journey. "I finally chose something for myself. I did feel pressure and [a] burden [when going solo], but it was a good burden."
Looking ahead, Minzy wants to incorporate mental health resources and support for those dealing with similar issues into her upcoming tours in a similar vein to Demi Lovato offering free mental-health counseling throughout her 2018 Tell Me You Love Me tour. "I want to help people who are struggling as someone who has struggled, overcome and taken control of my mind and heart," she says. "I want to share the love I feel from my faith and from my music to let people know they, too, are loved and that there's love for them."
Minzy choosing to speak out about her journey comes when almost exactly a year ago SHINee's Jonghyun died suddenly in late 2017. His passing -- ruled as a suicide -- struck her. "That reminded me of my old self and I could understand why he wanted to escape," she says, before hoping her words can make a difference in K-pop's future. "I want to let the young and newer idols know that success in the idol world is just not as important to what you need to live up to as a person."
With her music embracing a global mindset (latest single "All of You Say" is in English and boasts reggaeton vibes) and seeing a higher purpose in speaking openly about mental health, Minzy says her path is clear and rich with the experiences that have helped her in her battle and growth as an artist, advocate and woman. The longest pause she takes to answer during the conversation comes when she considers who she was then and who she is now.
"As I've come into my own, I am a different person," she confidently declares. "I've experienced pulling through," she says before thinking again back to her past self. "I want to help that woman."
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call a suicide hotline and find resources in your country here.