Back in November, a friend of mine got in touch and asked if I’d be interested in filming something for MAMA (the Mnet Asian Music Awards), effectively the biggest k-pop awards in the world. Despite knowing next to nothing about what it would involve, I leapt at the chance, because as a k-pop fan (and someone who says yes to every unimaginable and ridiculous thing Korea throws their way), why wouldn’t I? My friend Nieves had been asked by her friend, who knew someone at Mnet looking for foreigners to film some material for the awards. Somewhere along the way, I was led to believe that this would be a kind of interview or similar, used to promote the awards by showing the international popularity of k-pop. I’m still not entirely sure where this came from; it’s possible I reached this conclusion alone, making deductions from the information I had been given. And I’m sure you can imagine where this is going; I would later discover just how wrong these deductions were.
I was put in touch with my friend’s friend, and then their contact at Mnet, and we messaged back and forth in a mix of Korean and English. I was told they would be having a ‘simple’ filming that weekend, and to prepare a couple of different outfits and let them know which artists I liked; ‘if you can sing a little bit then it will be good’. Neck deep in studying for my finals the following week, I read the messages and didn’t really give them a great deal of thought. It wasn’t until the night before that I was filled with just a small amount of horror at the thought of being filmed singing (no doubt a) Super Junior song, and to then have that used in relation to MAMA in some capacity or other.
I woke up the following morning with something in between a bad cold and mild flu, which is of course the perfect state for a day of filming. I dragged myself out of bed and attempted to make myself look as presentable as possible, optimistically hoping that, if this was a big thing, there might be someone at the shoot who could plaster me with makeup and make me look a little less ill. I headed out to a Paris Baguette near Cheongu station, where I met the two lovely women from Mnet who would be looking after me. They were delighted to learn that I was studying Korean, and immediately stopped any attempts to speak English – which was good practice for me, and I kidded myself that I was kind of revising for my speaking exams the following week. The previous shoot was taking longer than expected, so we had to sit in the cafe waiting for the go ahead from the director, for which they profusely apologised. Eventually, after perhaps forty minutes or so, the phone call came and we were able to make our way to the small studio, which was actually in the adjacent building.
The two-storey studio was a little chaotic when I first entered, with a variety of different sets and props strewn about the place. Looking around, I realised that this was going to be a lot more serious than I had been anticipating, and when I was asked to exchange my shoes for slippers, I silently thanked myself that this was one of the rare days on which I had worn socks that both matched and had no holes in. I was led upstairs and asked to wait in a bedroom set which was effectively serving as a strange kind of dressing/green room. After a couple of minutes, a beautiful Korean model/actress walked in and sat down on the bed next to me, and I slowly began to feel more and more out of place. She asked me in Korean if I was a model too, and I couldn’t help but laugh before kind of gesturing to my general appearance and explaining that I was just a student.
I had to film a short clip with her before she left the set, which involved us sharing headphones; she had to place one of the ear buds in my ear while we both looked at the camera. This is easier than it sounds. Firstly, several different people stood around considering which colour headphones would be most appropriate, rummaging through a bag until they decided on a kind of lime green. The second obstacle was the considerable height difference between myself and the model, who was eventually presented with a few hefty books to stand on. Finally, my perhaps less-than-desirable-for-filming appearance had to be tackled, though much to my dismay this did not involve any extra makeup; instead, my hair – which tends to always be in some state of disarray, no matter how hard I try – was the problem. Though only a short clip, we had to shoot this part several times to get it perfect, and every time, I had to correct my hair (which was tucked behind my ear in order to show the earphones), and then the director had to come and fix it again after the cameraman’s continuous complaints.
Eventually we got it, and I was asked to return to the weird bedroom set and await further instructions. After a little while and my desperate attempt to fix my makeup and apparently unmanageable hair, I was called back into the other room, which was set up as a kind of bedroom/office, complete with a Union Jack plastered on the wall. I looked around, wondering how the interview would be done and who would be asking me questions, before quickly realising that it wasn’t going to be an interview at all. Moreover, no-one on the set spoke any English to me, and of course I didn’t always understand everything that was being said (my foggy, fluey brain didn’t help), so from that point onwards I just did what I thought had been instructed and hoped for the best.
The following hour or so involved the filming of a variety of different short clips, which, to my great horror, involved no talking, but a degree of acting. Acting. This I was not prepared for. First up, I was asked to act as though the camera was my webcam, look directly down it, wave, check my hair, and so on. I had to pretend to buy MAMA tickets – including not managing to get any and then finally securing some, which was a truly horrendous performance on my part. The director found it hilarious that my frustrated response to ‘realising the tickets were gone’ was very Korean – too Korean, in fact; she said I must have been living here too long, and insisted I do it again in a less Korean manner.
I even had to do some product placement for one of MAMA’s sponsors, Hotels Combined, which involved me downloading the app and searching for hotels in Hong Kong, where the awards were being held. This meant a close up of my hands and phone, which, oh god, I soon realised would not be good. Was my phone clean? Were my nails neat and painted? Were they heck. My nails were half-coated in flaking nail polish done a week ago, and my phone and its greying, once-white case left much to be desired. After hotels, I had to act as though I was looking through social media and finding out that all of my favourite artists were going to be at the awards. This took several attempts, because every time the director said something along the lines of, ‘be excited! Your oppa is going to be there!’ I couldn’t help but cringe.
But this was far from the most embarrassing portion of the shoot. Oh no. Eventually, I was asked which group was my favourite – Super Junior, naturally – and then the director explained that I would have to (pretend to) turn on my laptop, watch the Sorry, Sorry video, and dance along. Dance. Dance. I winced and said that I understood, and for the first time began to silently curse by eagerness to do these ridiculous things. I ended up having to film this part several times, most of them without any music. The director could see that this was a struggle, and just kind of laughed, alternating between saying ‘shy’ and ’embarrassed’ in Korean. I wanted to shout that yes, being the only foreigner in a room full of sceptical-looking crew who clearly couldn’t understand why on earth I had been chosen for this, and then having to dance an (in)famous k-pop dance with no music all, by myself, was just a tad embarrassing. As far as I had been informed, this wasn’t what I had signed up for!
Thankfully, it was over shortly after this. I thanked the director and crew as politely as I could before scarpering from the room. While I was collecting my things, one of the women from earlier said that she would be in touch about pay. Those words were music to my ears; I had no idea I would be compensated before I arrived, but after perhaps the most ridiculously embarrassing experience of my life, I felt I was owed a little something. I thanked them and rapidly made my way out of the studio and away from the cringe-worthy performance I had just been forced to give.
As it turned out, I was never paid. Typical. Thankfully, though, a great deal of the ridiculous footage – most notably, the Sorry, Sorry spectacle – was nowhere to be seen during the broadcast of the awards. My clips were used twice, once in a feature about international fans planning to go to Hong Kong for the awards (which also featured the parts Nieves and her friend had filmed at their homes), and once in a segment about getting girls around the world access to education, which I was delighted by. The awards are several hours long, and I thought my face cropped up so scarcely and quickly that no-one would really notice, but I received messages from multiple excited friends with photos they had taken while watching.
The whole thing was certainly an experience, and despite the embarrassment it caused, it wasn’t long before I could laugh about it. I know a lot of k-pop fans would love this kind of opportunity, and I’m certainly grateful that I could be a part of it all. I just hope that, for everyone’s sake as well as my own, the rest of that footage never sees the light of day.
[Apologies for the lack of images in this post. Unfortunately, but understandably, I wasn’t able to take any photos during the shoot.]