The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Lee Michelle talks empowerment and breaking down stereotypes

K-pop Star contestant releases debut single album ‘Without You’

By Korea Herald

Published : March 31, 2014 - 20:24

    • Link copied

Lee Michelle was first introduced to the public eye after auditioning for the first season of popular reality audition program K-pop Star in 2011, and has since further redefined racial stereotypes in Korea.

Born to a Korean mother and African American father in the artistic rural town of Paju just north of Seoul, Lee grew up in Korea with her mother and older sister after her parents split. Her father returned to the States before she was born and to this day, Lee has never met him.

Lee has always had fond childhood memories of being in her home with the fan on full blast during the hot, humid summers while she and her sister listened to their mom’s cassette tapes all day of Toni Braxton and H.O.T.

“I remember when I was 5 years old my sister and I would listen to these songs and try to match pitch and we even tried learning all the dance moves at home,” said the singer during an interview at her agency’s Seoul office. “I would listen to these tapes non-stop ... I just fell in love with singing ever since then.”

When first auditioning for K-pop Star, the young singer surprised the three celebrity judges when she spoke in Korean, despite it being her native tongue. As a biracial Korean growing up in a largely homogenous society, Lee needlessly admits to struggling a lot growing up as school kids taunted her. However, despite all the hardships she endured and continues to endure, Lee never let the negativity get in the way of her dreams to inspire people with her voice and music.
Lee Michelle. (Dima Entertainment) Lee Michelle. (Dima Entertainment)

“I looked at K-pop Star as my only chance,” she explained. “Although I knew I would never be able to give up on music, before auditioning I said to myself, if I don’t do well on the show I will just get a normal job to make money and help support my family while I just try to pursue music on the side.”

Lee’s powerful vocals and soulful vibe took her all the way to the Top 5, where she was later eliminated. However, both Lee’s personal story and talent touched the lives of many and even opened the eyes to some of their own prejudicial thoughts.

Now nearly three years since the show, Lee has returned to the public eye with the release of her debut single album “Without You” featuring two tracks: the eponymous ballad single and the R&B pop track “That’s OK.” The album was unveiled on March 21 and its lead single “Without You” ― with the chorus “I’m beautiful without you, I’m meaningful without you,” ― is a song that Lee admits hits really close to home.

“I just wanted to let people know who I am,” Lee said. “The song is very personal to me ... I wanted the chance to be able to tell people my story.”

“When I saw and heard my music for the first time after it was posted in Melon, all these pent up feelings that I’ve had since I was a kid until now just hit me at once and I just starting crying,” she continued. “I was on the phone with my older sister and we couldn’t help ourselves, we just both started crying together.”

Lee also released the music video for “Without You,” which stands as a visual expression of not only her social battles growing up, but also emphasizes her message of strength and overcoming obstacles. The near seven-minute video is more like a short feature with interludes of action clips and starring a young half Korean, half black girl who was intended not only to represent Lee as a young kid, but could be “anyone who’s been in a similar situation.”

The music video is doused with symbolism, showing a graffiti-filled wall plastered with racial slurs such as “dirty chocolate” and “creature,” as well as the child dabbing her face with white powder, trying to give herself lighter skin. As soon as the video was released, a flood of tear-filled reaction videos was uploaded onto YouTube.

“Although through my story I could have just focused on all of the hurt and all of the struggles that I had endured growing up, but the message that I wanted to emphasize with my song is breaking down those barriers and overcoming all of my pain,” she explained. “And for those people listening to the song and feeling as though my story is similar to their struggles, then what I want to tell them is to embrace your inner strength. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, be brave and you can overcome anything.”

Now that she has made her official debut as a solo artist, Lee is looking toward the future and jumping at any opportunity she has to perform and continue with her music both locally and abroad. Not only has the Korean-American artist ― who still struggles at times with English ― never been to the U.S., Lee admits that she has never once stepped foot outside of Korea.

“I am Korean and this is my country,” Lee said. “Although I would love to take my music abroad and share it with the rest of the world, for me, my first priority is right here in Korea. I think that by getting more support behind me locally first, I will be able to thrive better overseas.”

The fervent singer will be performing at various local events promoting her new album and states that her goal for her next release is to include songs written and composed herself.

By Julie Jackson (