While RuPaul’s Drag Race viewers were able to fall in love with Soju after one episode — thanks to her dead-pan humor and meme-worthy cyst revelation — one of the biggest shames about Season 11 will undoubtedly be the K-pop knowledge and general representation the 27-year-old would have brought to future episodes. The self-described “drag K-pop idol” comes into the spotlight just as acts like BTS, BLACKPINK and more are pushing the scene to new heights, making her brand of performing K-pop covers with Korean-inspired beauty and fashion looks all the more important in today’s pop scene.
Born in South Korea before eventually moving to America, Soju (neé Hyunsoo “Tony” Ha) grew up in a musical family as the youngest child who “had the job of entertaining.” As a Korean kid in the ’90s, Soju says she remembers the popularity of early K-pop idol groups like H.O.T, S.E.S and Fin.K.L, but relocating to the States meant abandoning a lot of her culture.
“When I moved to America, I kind of lost my love for K-pop because I was so focused on trying to live my life in America,” she explains. “I didn’t know how to speak English at all, and I lived in places like Iowa and Illinois where I didn’t have Korean people around me. Basically, I was made fun of if I was celebrating the Korean culture and that kind of harmed my growth with the K-pop world.”
The Chicago-based star adds that she did her best to keep up with the scene, but the technology of the times made it difficult compared to today’s YouTube age. “I would have my parents buy me video tapes of Korean music shows — like Music Bank and Music Core — when they went to the Korean supermarket,” Soju recalls of growing up without immediate access to these K-pop countdown shows that upload performances hours after airing in Korea. “Before DVDs before were popular, it was a big thing to have Korean music shows or Korean dramas on video tapes so I was able to watch the weekly music shows.”
With the growth of the Internet, YouTube’s popularity, and going to college where she met fellow Korean-Americans, Soju fell back into the scene in the midst of the “second wave” of K-pop artists like Girls’ Generation and BIGBANG. Timing was also on her side as the current wave of K-pop stars began expanding internationally as she began her drag career. “I realized this is the kind of music I want to perform: I want to become a drag K-pop idol,” she says. “That’s the vision I had for Soju. When that started, people wanted to know what I loved about K-pop and that’s kind of the fanbase I have now.”
With a dedicated YouTube channel as well as her traveling queer K-pop party Seoul Train — which returns to New York this Thursday, April 16. for a night of K-pop music and drag performances featuring herself and fellow RPDR alum Mercedes Iman Diamond — Soju is here to not only keep the K-pop love going, but educate the children on the history of the scene she holds so dear. In no particular order, get to know Soju’s top 10 favorite K-pop songs to date.
1. Wonder Girls – “Tell Me” (2007)
There are so many good K-pop songs, but when I was getting really into K-pop there are certain songs that, even when I listen to now, it takes me right back to that moment. One of them has to be Wonder Girls‘ “Tell Me,” it just puts me in that mood. I used to know the dance moves. Actually, I filmed myself dancing to it and sent it to JYP [Entertainment, Wonder Girls’ South Korean label] when Wonder Girls came to Chicago to open for the Jonas Brothers‘ concert. For two days, they let me hang out with them and work on their local promotions. Nobody knew who they were, but in Korea they were huge. I was fully gagged.
2. Girls’ Generation – “Gee” (2009)
At this time, I was looking on the Internet and watching everyone doing the viral K-pop dances. “Gee” exploded — everyone was wearing the colorful jeans, everyone was doing the dance. “Gee” and “Tell Me” definitely changed the K-pop game for girl groups. At first, I was Team Wonder Girls but I switched over to Girls’ Generation because Wonder Girls stopped promoting in Korea since they were focused on their American takeover.
3. BTS – “DNA” (2017)
“DNA” by BTS definitely got me into the new wave of K-pop groups. Before, I knew BTS but I wasn’t really popping off with it. When I watched it, I definitely fell in love with BTS. The dance moves, the music, the pastel colors — the whole package. They’re good looking, their voices are really good, they have a really good balance as a group. I think that’s what a lot of successful groups have is a good balance; not one person trying to lead the whole pack. But Yoongi, Suga, is my favorite member because everyone always tells me that I look like him out of drag. And like, well, I like myself a lot!
4. BoA – “No.1” (2002)
BoA, she’s our Britney Spears. I remember buying the No. 1 album with my own money because I had fell in love with BoA. [Laughs] At the time, I wanted to marry her because she was the one everyone was talking about — a little gay boy who wanted to marry BoA!
5. BIGBANG – “Lies” (2007)
This was the one that got BIGBANG really big and I remember I fell in love with G-Dragon and T.O.P — I just thought that T.O.P was so cute. My brother and I, we’d sing it at norebang [a.k.a. karaoke] all the time. That was our go-to song.
6. Lee Hyori – “U-Go-Girl” (2008)
I actually really like when the older girls [continue to] do music and Hyori’s the perfect example. She’s flawless in my eyes. She’s so sexy and has what Korean people call “dark skin,” which isn’t really dark but a glow. She owns it. “U-Go-Girl” was such a fun song. I bought the album with “U-Go-Girl” on it [It’s Hyorish] — K-pop fans, we don’t just download the song, we buy full albums and I totally buy the extra, deluxe package albums.
7. BLACKPINK – “Boombayah” (2016)
I could listen to this song every day. Oh my gosh, when that song came out, I watched the video and saw the dance moves — I was like, “These girls are not playing.” You know?!? But they’re so pretty and, at first, I’m like, “Okay, what are these pretty, skinny girls going to do?” And then I watched the music video I was gagged. BLACKPINK are so pretty and I’m just gagged. I think Lisa is one of my favorite members — she is so charismatic and caught my eye. It’s definitely a pussy-popping song, the gays love it.
8. 2NE1 – “Fire” (2009)
Of course we can’t talk about BLACKPINK without talking about 2NE1. When 2NE1 came out with “Fire,” I feel like it changed the scene. With Wonder Girls and Girls’ Generation, it was about being cutesy, but when “Fire” came out it was all about being fierce and powerful. I think that’s what really resonated with me: These girls don’t care if they’re making ugly faces, they want to rap, they want to sing, they want to dance. They didn’t care as much about a pretty image and I really respected them for it. Afterwards, I feel like a lot of other girl groups tried to also do the same thing and I think setting that trend was really cool at that time. They’re one of those groups you wish could have stayed together forever.
I think we’re falling back to the cutesy, prettiness right now in the industry and I hope someone comes out and mixes it up — I’m tired of seeing all these pretty people! [Laughs] I want to see someone fuck shit up, I want to see another CL. She’s definitely my favorite member, I even remember during an interview for RuPaul’s Drag Race, I yelled on live TV “Justice for CL!” I just want her to keep doing what she’s doing because she’s so good at it and it’s not fair that she’s not able to continue. It sucks. I think she’s one of those girls that the fans will wait for her, but I wish her the best and respect her so much. She’s still my favorite.
9. HyunA – “Bubble Pop!” (2011)
Another song that changed my life. Literally, I play that song for anyone and everyone falls in love with it; such a summer anthem. I was so inspired by it that I’m actually going to kind of represent that vibe in my next single. HyunA was also another artist who wasn’t afraid of going outside the “cutesy” box. She didn’t care what people said, she wanted to do the sexy route, she’s still doing it and she’s still doing great. I really like strong female artists like that that just keep pushing.
10. Brown Eyed Girls – “Abracadabra” (2009)
When Brown Eyed Girls came out, they were not known for their looks in the Korean community. I think they’re gorgeous, but they were more focused on their vocal talent and that is everything to me. All of them can sing and Miryo can rap really well. Any time a group focuses on their talents over their looks, that is everything. I stan them so hard.
When “Abracadabra” came out, that’s when people were like, “Oh my gosh, they’re really sexy.” They weren’t as young as the other girl groups so they owned that part of their image. And when the dance came out, oh my gosh, I do that dance all the time! I did it during the RuPaul’s Drag Race premiere. That’s a song that when people know, they know.
Tune in to Season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race every Thursday at 9/8c on VH1.