By Tássia Assis
“I can’t wait to hear the screams,” the stunning 19-year-old dancer Gaeul, eldest member of the rising girl group IVE, says about performing before a live audience. “We never heard them because of COVID[-19 restrictions].” Since their debut in December 2021, the sextet has stormed charts in South Korea and abroad, swiftly becoming the ones to watch in the K-pop industry. However, as with most pandemic-era groups, all that success has only been experienced virtually — or on a minimal scale, like the intimate showcases and fansigns set up for their debut and the release of IVE’s latest single album, Love Dive, on April 5.
But as the world carefully resumes entertainment activities, for IVE, the screams come from the 65,000 people attending the two days of KPOP.FLEX, Europe’s first mega K-pop festival. Set to take place in a stadium in Frankfurt the weekend after the group’s late-night Zoom call with MTV News, the event includes the band’s first large-scale, in-person, and overseas performance. “I’m really looking forward to seeing our [fandom] Dive and hearing what the audience sounds like,” the sweet-voiced and modelesque Wonyoung, 17, says ahead of the gig.
She and Gaeul are cozying up around a conference-room table, along with fellow group mates Yujin, Rei, Liz, and Leeseo. Wearing oversized hoodies and light makeup, they look like regular — albeit impossibly beautiful — Gen Zers: wide-eyed, yet a little shy about everything. It’s quite the contrast to the lush, self-assured image they’ll later present at KPOP.FLEX, as well as the aesthetic concept with which they became synonymous all over the internet: chaebol crush.
With only four songs in their discography, IVE have already carved a distinct niche for themselves thanks to that concept. Chaebol crush can be defined as a blend of the overly confident and boisterous “girl crush” sounds (like Itzy’s “Loco” or Blackpink’s “Kill This Love”) and the posh, preppy visuals of chaebol heir tropes in K-dramas (the fancy kids who stem from family-owned business conglomerates). Wonyoung mentions that she had never heard of that definition before, but that “it’s so cute and I love it.” She also adds that Love Dive “is really close to that concept” and that even the B-side is called “Royal.”
During our interview, Wonyoung and Yujin often take the lead when answering questions. They both participated in the survival show Produce 48 on South Korea’s music TV channel Mnet and were part of its resulting girl group Iz*One from 2018 to early 2021. Those experiences and their fluency in English have attuned them to the unrelenting schedules and interactions with media that K-pop idols routinely face, but the other members are not far behind. One of their main goals in prepping for this concert was studying English “very hard,” according to the magnetic leader and vocalist Yujin, 18. All of them put forward their best efforts to speak the language as much as possible. “We’re always practicing more. It can be vocals, dancing, or variety schedules, but we’re always preparing a lot of things,” says Wonyoung.
IVE are tasked with the grand mission to open KPOP.FLEX on day one. Wearing school uniform-inspired outfits and sparkly red shoes, they perform “Love Dive,” “Royal,” and their unforgettable debut hit, “Eleven,” which rose to No. 4 on Spotify’s global Viral 50 chart last year and was the most-streamed song on South Korea’s YouTube for five weeks. On day two, they enter the stage right after veterans Mamamoo and perform the same setlist with even more confidence — this time in classy black outfits adorned with glistening jewels.
“I was so nervous since it was our very first stage in front of international fans,” reveals the striking Japanese rapper Rei, 18, after the concert via email. “But after our two-day performance, it made me want to do more global stages so that I can communicate with Dive in all parts of the world.” Gaeul, Liz, and Leeseo share similar feelings, calling the experience “of overwhelming emotion,” “unreal yet a little nerve-racking,” and “as if I was dreaming,” respectively.
“The moment I saw the full house, I was very surprised to witness how much K-pop is loved by a lot of people. I received incredible energy from the audience,” Yujin says. “Before we got on the stage, there were a lot of things that we needed to check and be aware of, so it did make us all slightly jittery, but once we were up there, we enjoyed [it] to the fullest.” Gaeul also shares that she waved at the audience “through a small crack before going up on the stage, and there was almost an ear-splitting roar from the fans. I was very amazed and happy.” Her secret for calming her nerves before performing is “making eye contact with the members.”
IVE’s synergy is what holds them together while they navigate landmarks such as becoming trainees, debuting, and now performing at a massive event like KPOP.FLEX. Yujin says that IVE’s bewitching essence also comes from their individuality: “We’re all really cool onstage, but we have some different, cute points off stage. I think that’s our attractiveness.” The 17-year-old Liz — who has a “heavenly voice,” according to Gaeul and the sweetest dimpled smile — believes that IVE members “interact well, so we can make up for each other’s weaknesses.”
They all live together in a spacious dorm overlooking the Han River in Seoul, an experience that Wonyoung says is akin to “living with our besties.” When they feel down, it’s the other members who first pick them up, such as when Rei misses her family in Japan, or when Yujin is in need of extra motivation. “I’m very thankful to represent the group [as a leader], but it [can be] burdensome,” she says. “Sometimes, really sometimes, I lose my confidence. But when I look at my members, I get it back.”
Leeseo, the youngest of the group at 15 and whom Liz calls “goofy, bright, and bubbly,” says that her fellow members were essential for her to debut successfully. “Because Wonyoung and Yujin had been to various broadcasting TV shows and stuff [as part of Iz*One], they told me a lot about what goes on behind the scenes and the logistics [of] it, so I was able to get the full picture beforehand.”
“Wonyoung compliments even the smallest things, and she really boosts my confidence a lot,” Rei adds, while Wonyoung gingerly fixes a strand of the rapper’s hair. “Before I go onstage, she often says, ‘Oh, your hairstyle looks nice today, your makeup looks good on you.’ Having Wonyoung by my side helps me to have a happy, enjoyable life.”
“I really like Rei,” Wonyoung notes with a giggle. “I usually give advice to the members, like who can go next and how things go on. I think I’m good at giving advice” — a statement with which all the others agree. The round of compliments doesn’t stop, and Wonyoung then praises Gaeul for always encouraging them: “When we’re practicing, I feel like she’s handling the middle so we can get in the right mindset.” In turn, Gaeul says she loves Liz’s voice, while Liz expresses happiness in that Leeseo’s energy always “brightens up the vibes.” Leeseo looks up to Yujin’s “soft charisma,” and Yujin ties it up by saying she also loves Rei’s rap style.
That’s just how IVE are: on top of the world, but with their feet on the ground. KPOP.FLEX was just the beginning. “The fact that we’re being loved a lot started to sink in after seeing people sing along to our songs,” Liz says via email after their whirlwind showcase. “I felt extremely grateful.”