Like most folks who stan, I don’t fall for idols who are too much like me, otherwise it gets weird. For me, the idols I’ve loved have always been mirrors casting pictures of what I could be, with the right kind of ingredients. Imperfection and fantasy in one dazzling package.
Touted by his own label as “The Most Likable Male Trainee,” I suppose liking Mark Lee was inevitable. Turns out we’re both Leos, both bilingual. We both grew up Christian, giggle a little too much when we’re nervous, and do we sing Frank Ocean’s praises. We also struggle from a serial case of self-reinvention — my case more self-induced, I’ll admit.
Belonging to NCT or Neo Culture Technology, a K-Pop group under SM Entertainment, Mark Lee is the only idol who’s debuted in his own group four times — NCT U, NCT Dream, NCT 127, and then NCT Dream again. And let’s not forget SuperM, another unit to add to his already limitless itinerary. Just a whole Cinematic Universe of Mark Lee, really. With a penchant for identity hopping myself, following his transformations helped me unravel the tough patterns in my own life.
The first time I saw Mark was in NCT Dream’s debut, Chewing Gum. Strawberry blonde Mark wore round glasses and a buttoned up school uniform with a black bow; his eyes were big and curious. But when he opened his mouth to deliver his rap verse — I was taken aback. This was definitely a pro in the making.
That was 2016, a personal plateau year for me. Also, read: The Year Nothing Happened (except K-Pop, which is kind of sad, but also kind of incredible; how a bunch of strangers held me together when nothing else could). Prior to this I had a terrible depressive episode in 2014, so in 2015 when I recovered, I was determined to make up for lost time. Starting with a fresh cut. A haircut.
It’s strange being in your twenties, especially after spending your teenage years believing your life was low maintenance enough it could reverse-engineer itself into something sensible. A symptom of Classic Asian Upbringing, if you will, where you’re taught to excel at everything except at being yourself. I thought I’d found the secret sauce, but two years later, the self I’d newly-fashioned had grown paralyzing, like a too-tight, starchy blouse. I’d forgotten the very thing that saved me in 2015: evolve or die.
Though I followed Mark’s activities, I hadn’t yet acquiesced to stanning NCT. So, when I stumbled upon NCT U’s debut title, 7th Sense, I was months late — still, the spell’s effect was immediate.
“That’s Mark Lee?” I thought. He wore a beret over his natural dark hair, now styled in a trendy short fringe. His eyes, still wide and taking everything in, had a solemness I hadn’t seen before. In one scene from the music video, when he artfully props his leg up against the tiled wall, over the chorus imploring me to open my eyes, quietly — the transformation was complete. I’m spending most of my time / at a place that’s uncomfortable even after several nights, like an explorer,” he raps the song of my life. And who could forget this cultural reset: “And that’s a long ass ride.”
2017 was a long ass ride, pardon my french. Like a weary traveler coming out of the tunnel, I was beginning to accept the steep mountains of uncharted characters arcs beyond my initial forecast. That again, I needed to pivot. College was ending, real life coming in hot; I stood on the precipice of a rapidly disintegrating existential iceberg, thinking: what now, Andy? And the void whispered back: get a haircut, girl!
(I got micro bangs just days before receiving my diploma; it’s immortalised in all my graduation photos. To this day, my father will not speak of it.)
With Firetruck, NCT 127’s noisy debut track, came Mark’s third transformation. All grunge and smoulder with his two-toned hair and smokey eyeshadow to put current e-boys to shame, he assures me cheekily: “It’s a little like playing with fire.”
Those months I lived in a pressure cooker of my own making, dizzy from all the possibility inside me. I was taught to follow one path — no one likes fickle, especially employers — but something inside me refused to stay put. I fancied detours. And if I had to do a 180, it had to be drastic, or what was the point? Wasn’t that what a comeback was all about?
I stayed in my first job for nine months, before I took a role that made people’s heads turn. With my Bachelor of Arts degree, I joined a Japanese retail company as a manager candidate. “Finally, a real job,” my parents said, and I could ignore the jab as long as I felt that I was optimizing, expanding. Retail demands total uniformity, so I stopped with the hair dye. Instead, I studied supply chains. Pored over store layouts. Learned the art of customer service. And surprise — I got what I wanted! Here she was: Andy 2.0. She’d prove you wrong. She can also show you where the socks are, please wait for a moment.
In my journal, I wrote: “Uncomfortable? Good. You can’t expect things to change if you do the same thing again and again.” I’d successfully inhabited a sharper, slicker, (and better paid) version of me, but at what cost? Please just be happy, I begged, even if each day I slumped into my bed, debilitated.
I knew I’d made a miscalculation. I think of Mark in Yestoday by NCT U, where he grapples with the trade-offs he’d made for his career. In it, he talks about how rap was becoming his new “156 bus” one he took in his youth every day in Vancouver — familiar, but with no new destination in sight. He says: “I remember the time we tossed our lives / like wishing coins / boy, I didn’t know anything / I’m still the same / every day getting more spotlight than sunlight.“
My eyes burned as I watched the music video. The death of a dream — or lack thereof — is always a double-edged pain. I wondered: Main rapper Mark Lee, who originally auditioned to be a vocalist — does he ever want to sing instead? In the blur of all his choreographies and tours and concepts, does Mark Lee ever feel like he’s losing himself too? The thought comforted me. For once I didn’t want fantasy; familiarity was more than enough.
As for current Andy, her retail days are over. I’m not in film, nor am I in advertising. I work for a non-profit now, building sustainable and resilient communities—a recomposed identity far wilder than retail. I’m more at home now. At least, as much as self-awareness allows me to be. And I got here through the same factors that led me to all my different transformations: discomfort, curiosity. An overwhelming desire to meet myself wherever I needed to be.
Still, sometimes, I see glimpses of her — 17 year-old Andy who wanted to make movies. Or that pre-teen who wanted to grow up a surgeon. I wonder how different things would be if I took any of those roads. If I would end up here, too — happy.
Do I regret any of those iterations? Sometimes. But I think we waste too much time over-emphasising the form from which we try to tell the world who we are. The truth? For me at least, the form follows the function, always. The more we try out different selves, the more clarity we’ll find.
I think that’s what drew me to Mark Lee and his transformations so much. Coexisting in different realms is tricky enough; staying the same beneath all the costume changes is a real flex in my book. Seeing him pick up his guitar, just knowing he’ll sing Frank Ocean’s Solo after each new comeback, like his own character song, feels almost like a homecoming.
In 2019, Mark Lee was hand-picked by SM’s founder Lee Sooman to join SuperM, his brand new super-group. At only 20 years old, he stands beside K-Pop veterans Lee Taemin of SHINee and EXO’s Kai. I lost it when I first saw the group teaser: Mark, posing against a dark red sun like a total eclipse. Exuding a slick detached confidence in his monochromatic piece, he seemed to hover above his own skin. As if to say this wasn’t his final form yet.
There’s a clip of Mark somewhere mid-arena tour, looking up at his own massive SuperM banner that gets me all sorts of emo. “Are you happy?” I want to ask him, so badly. That’s the hard part about stanning; how no level of devotion can undo the pure performative component of idol life. “If memories made me / then we make today / I hope you like it where I’m now,” Mark sings to himself in Yestoday.
I hope he’s happy. I know I am. And if that changes in a few months, or years, I know the way home.
Header art by Kitty Jardenil
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