The powerhouse vocalist has re-shifted a harsh K-pop spotlight to reclaim her career with an ambitious-yet-grateful attitude: "I feel even more thankful."
The first thing Park Bom wants you to know is that she is OK. The next thing she wants you to know is that she's excited about releasing music again for the first time after years away from the scene. But first: The person behind the music.
Walking into a conference room inside the quiet, private Seoul apartment village where Bom has been living now recalls the poignant power of her newly released comeback single, "Spring." In the gospel-tinged ballad's moving visual -- which scored a reported two million views in its first 10 hours -- Bom is the glowing sun in a solar system of backup dancers, commanding viewers' attention not with over-the-top diva antics, but an aura of confidence. She delivers lyrics wondering if, after depression and pain, "spring will come to heart again," lines that mirror an all-too-real story about whether a cultural gaffe would end her decade-long singing career.
After seven record-breaking years as the powerhouse vocalist of internationally beloved K-pop girl group 2NE1 -- the outfit that held a two-and-a-half-year-long record as the highest-charting K-pop album on the Billboard 200 chart, became Korea's first female act to play U.S. stadiums as well as the first Korean group to hit No. 1 on the World Digital Songs chart -- Bom relinquished the spotlight after a controversy rose over alleged "drug smuggling." The star and her former record label YG Entertainment shared that the singer was diagnosed ADHD and taking a prescription that was legal in America, where she studied throughout her middle and high school years, though it's not legal in South Korea. While she was never charged, the issue put the star's career on a sudden halt, seeing her depart a reality show she was filming, and seemingly playing a factor in 2NE1 ultimately disbanding in late 2016.
The 34-year-old doesn't enjoy looking back on the time, but she remembers it vividly. Bom says she was recording a cover of BIGBANG member Taeyang's hit single "Eyes, Nose, Lips," like a slew of other YG artists were as part of a marketing campaign. When the news hit, she and 2NE1's longtime producer Teddy were confused, but felt it was typical tabloid fodder and another jab by an invasive media scene.
"Before all the news happened, I didn't think about it," she says hesitantly but calmly, a crack in her voice only coming when she talks about the media comments about her looks. "Before, whatever was on the news, it was just things that weren't that bad -- things about my appearances -- I thought, 'OK, they're doing it again.' I thought it was just about me being famous and I thought, 'I didn't do anything wrong.' You know what I'm saying? But it became bigger and I was really sad. I had a hard time...but I shouldn't feel guilty about it because I didn't do anything. But here [in Korea], if they say no, they say no."
Adderall, an amphetamine, had roughly 16 million prescriptions written for adults between ages 20 and 39 in the U.S. in 2012, per health-care data company QuintilesIMS. But in 2014, Adderall was not and still is not legal in South Korea, a country where conversations about mental health are evolvingbut still in its infant stages.
"It's the culture," Bom says. "Something like 'going to the mental hospital' is a big thing, they'd think I'm in a straightjacket or something. It's not commonly spoken about yet. Everybody has difficulties and we need to have those conversations about mental health, don't you think so? It should be common and I think it's getting better and becoming more normalized...everybody that I knew was laughing [at the controversy]. My American friends were laughing, they think it's stupid. It's a shame."
But despite her strong beliefs, the following years were tough for the singer, her mental health, and even her ability to sleep. "Once I looked into and watched Britney Spears [and what she went through in 2007]," she says of her time hiding from the spotlight. "But I'm not even Britney Spears and I'm having those kind of feelings! I'm feeling like I want to shave my head, I really felt like that. I was hiding, but they would still try to take pictures." All the more reason why having the right support system was crucial before she could even consider reclaiming her career.
In July 2018, it was announced that Bom had signed an exclusive contract with the newly established Korean management agency D-Nation Entertainment as its sole artist. Led by Korean-Americans Scotty Kim and Ray Yeom, Bom refers to the company employees as "family" and "friends."
Inside the apartment conference room, Bom sits regally at the head of the long table, with four members of her company seated to her right and this reporter to her left. It's a powerful image not only for the starlet many had thought would be forever ousted from the industry, but as a woman acting as the centerpiece for a company essentially created to serve her.
"They're really helpful, like a real family," she says to her team, who occasionally help her find the English words she's looking to say but don't offer advice on what topics she should or should not talk about -- which can be rare in the formal K-pop industry. "I feel like I'm taken care of nicely because the music is great. We're working on concepts, songwriting. I have great writers and managers and, of course, great Bom."
So far, taking care of Park Bom includes not only writing and producing the right songs (she's not interested in songwriting saying, "I think I should focus on the performing side so that I can concentrate on singing"), future collaborations (she's eyeing working with U.S. musicians and producers thanks to her "connected" team, but decides, "I'm going to keep my mouth shut right now" on that subject) and having at least one member of the team with her at all times (as of fall 2018 Bom said someone was with her "24/7" citing, "My sleeping patterns have been really tough, but they were really helpful, they're with me 24 hours, in rotations...I can see they're having a hard time, but they're very helpful").
While an original plan to release the music in early January was pushed back to this March release week, it all seems to be paying off as "Spring" has risen to the top of the real-time music charts in her domestic South Korea as well as selling competitively on U.S. iTunes and should make a splash on at least one Billboard chart next week.
Even months ahead of the eventual release of "Spring" and the two new accompanying songs "My Lover" and "Shameful," Bom speaks with a lightness about her. She wishes well of her former label ("I still have a father feeling when it comes to [YG CEO] Yang Hyun-Suk"), takes comparisons between fellow YG girl group BLACKPINK and 2NE1 with grace ("I don't know if I should be honest or not, but at first I was thinking, 'What is going on?!?' but they are different...and if they're trying to make them be like 2NE1, well, 2NE1's forever") and has lots of love for her former band mates CL, Minzy and Dara, the latter of whom features on "Spring" ("We don't all talk every day, but almost every day. Dara is awesome, she's going back and forth all the time, but then is always getting in touch to give me presents fans give her. She'll call me saying, 'Well, I got this from your fan! I want to give it to you!').
Bom says that she's OK, but she sounds more than OK -- she sounds empowered, confident and most of all grateful to those who have stuck with her. "My singing is getting better, I can say my voice is stronger than before" she reflects. "First of all, I am OK. I'm getting better and that's because I have a new family. Because of my incident, I grew up and I feel even more thankful. I appreciate all the things that fans are doing, what they write on Instagram. Every day, I sit down and I read through it and read the comments. I'm really thankful and think about how I can get back to them -- whether it's music or whatever I can do."
No matter what she does, having the right people around her seems to be a key factor in making sure her spring comes again and again -- those physically there with her and the fans connected with her around the world.