Living the Hite Life With the Cast of K-TownElectus
“The moment I heard you were a reporter, I said I’m not going to answer one more of your goddamn questions.”
Steve Kim may just be another Korean guy at S Bar with a faux-hawk and 400 Twitter followers, but he’s acting the part of entitled reality star remarkably well. We’re at Palm Tree L.A., a little slice of fiber-optic candy-colored Vegas cheese unassumingly hidden on the fourth floor of a nondescript building on Wilshire Boulevard, sitting around a manic, blacklit explosion of fruit platters, Hite beer, and Johnny Walker Black. It’s the final shooting day on the reality television show on which Steve is a primary cast member. The cameras are off for now and the mood is relaxed, if not a little weary, five hours into what constitutes a workday for this crowd. So Steve’s sudden burst of anti-journalist vitriol was a little out of nowhere, especially in response to my offhand inquiry about karaoke plans. This guy can’t possibly be for real, right?
I look on with bewilderment as shots are poured. I’ve already had one drink in the half hour since I arrived here and I’d like to maintain some semblance of professionalism, but at the same time, I’m at a goddamn reality-television shoot and if there’s a first step to understanding the particular flavor of psychosis that inspires legions of young people to sign on for a season’s worth of public humiliation and depravity, it’s probably at the bottom of the shot glass that Steve is handing me. “Listen,” he says, as he holds his own glass out for a cheers. “If you play ball with me, if you drink with me, then I’ll give you something.”
Two hours (and a number of drinks I prefer not to disclose) later, I’m being spun around in Steve’s gym-buff arms as house music blasts and a camera crew closes in, screaming and laughing, not because I found any of this particularly funny in and of itself, but because, like I said, there were a number of drinks and a camera crew involved, and what was I going to do, just sit there?
This is K-Town, or as it’s perhaps more commonly referred to, “The Asian Jersey Shore.” You may or may not have heard of it, but if you cared at all about it when news of its potential existence surfaced back in 2010, it’s probably all flooding back now: the Weekend Update cheap shots (the culmination of a steady, thoroughly accidental hype amplification that started with the blog Angry Asian Man stumbling across the Craigslist casting call), the semi-homemade, “Tikk Tokk”–parodying sizzle reel, the eye-popping photos of former cast member and porn star Peter Le. Yes, that’s right, K-Town has been a supposed thing long enough to have already cycled through two cast members (Le and actress Jennifer Field have both been replaced since the show was first announced). It’s achieved an odd sort of buzz that has come and gone prior to the show actually taking any form at all.
But producers Mike Le and Tyrese Gibson (yes, that Tyrese) are banking on the appeal of drunk, misbehavin’ Asians being evergreen enough to still pique interest. K-Town is now the flagship show for LOuD, the YouTube channel launched by Ben Silverman’s Electus production company, and after years of buildup, it finally premiers today. Electus’s hope is that the show will be enough of a web hit to make the transition to TV a no-brainer — and hopefully make that transition more viable for future pilots and web series. They’ve also stacked the deck with some big-name reality producers (Laguna Beach and The Hills’ masterminds Liz Gately and Tony DiSanto have executive producer credits). The “model minority” stereotype is still as ripe for dismantling as ever, and by some reckoning, K-Town‘s all-Asian-American cast (the first on any show if its kind) and their proclivity for spontaneous girl-on-girl bar fights could be just the thing to do it.
Or at least, semi-spontaneous. Mike interrupts my steadily deteriorating conversation with Steve, telling me there’s something I’ve got to see. We make our way to the central island bar, where a girl I hadn’t seen is sipping on some sort of –tini concoction and signing a release form. Nearby stands Jowe Lee, the self-proclaimed “Prince of K-Town,” a spiky-haired looker wearing a sharp gray suit and a car-salesman smile. This is the plan: Jowe is going to engage in flirtatious conversation with this young woman, and the cameras are going to film it. The young woman is aware that Jowe will appear to be flirting with her, and that their exchange will be filmed for a reality series. What she does not know is that Violet Kim, Jowe’s ex-girlfriend and fellow cast member, has been informed that this conversation will be taking place, and once the cameras start rolling she will swoop in, confront the two, and throw a drink on her face. (That may or may not all be hidden in the legalese that she is now struggling to focus her eyes on.)
But the setup takes longer than expected — long enough for me to grab a second Hite and chat with Joe Cha, another cast member and promoter at the downtown super-club Belasco. At this point, word has got around and everyone in the club who’s attached to the show has their eye on the girl at the center bar, waiting for the shit to go down. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Violet pumping herself up at a booth across the room with her friends and a round of Soju shots. Meanwhile, Jowe does his best to continue talking to the girl, trying to keep her in one place. Joe scoffs.
Joe: That girl is fugly.
Me: Do people know who she is?
Joe: I have no idea who she is.
Me: Were you being serious? Do you really think she’s ugly?
Joe: No, no, she’s fuckin’ ugly. She has a seriously flat face. She looks like a pug.
Me: Wow. Wow. OK. Does Jowe know her?
Joe: They met each other literally five minutes ago.
Me: Right, right. She’s enjoying her 15 minutes …
Joe: Oh, she’s loving life right now. She’s loving life.
Eventually “pug face” gets her comeuppance and, like clockwork, drinks are thrown, hair is pulled, and she chases Violet out into the hall with the camera crew tailing them. The whole club bursts into applause. When Violet returns several minutes later, she’s wearing a big smile and a bruised face. I’d say you should have seen the other girl, except she was nowhere to be found for the rest of the night.
“You know, not even half of us have acting experience,” Steve tells me later, in an oddly stilted voice. “But it’s really amazing to me how we always pull it off.”
“You weren’t really acting though, right?” I asked earnestly. Long pause. Steve freezes, a nervous smile stuck on his face. “OK, be honest,” I press. “How much was acting?”
“100 percent reality.”
“No, it’s because uh …” he says. He’s trying not to laugh now, I can tell. “I mean we don’t have acting experience, but we’re … we’re very animated.”
I nod. “Well, that’s almost more important, isn’t it?”
“100 percent reality.”
K-Town, like Jersey Shore, centers on a cast of eight tanned, muscled, bleached, and yes, animated (mostly) twentysomethings. Cha is the oldest at 31, and considers himself the leader of the group. “All that kid drama I’m not really into,” he tells me (minutes later, I would see him having a very real — and very dramatic — argument with his girlfriend, who prefers not to appear on the show). Steve was the one I pegged as The Ronnie back when those first cast photos popped up, minus the propensity for punching things. Violet is the boy magnet, and apparently, the drama magnet: Mike Le tells me that the addition of her Benz-driving ex-boyfriend Jowe to the cast was done without her knowledge or approval after Peter Le left the show. (“He surprised her,” Mike said with unmasked glee as we watched the catfight unfold.) Jasmine Chang, the bleached blonde, statuesque hairstylist, is probably the funniest and most self-aware of the bunch. In one of the many cast blogs that have been released to the channel leading up to the show’s premiere, she spends most of her time trying to slow down the trailer enough to catch her two seconds of screen time. Cammy Chung is a bartender and another relatively recent addition, but I don’t see much of her as she’s working tonight.
There’s still almost a month before the show premieres, and there’s a palpable feeling of uncertainty among the whole cast of being on the cusp of something that could either blow up or fizzle out. The fact that most of them have been waiting for two years for all this to finally come to fruition makes it even more nerve-wracking.
Later in the evening, while the crew is breaking for lunch, I find myself sandwiched between cast members Scarlet Chan and Young Lee at a booth, trying to figure out if the call button is working (most Korean bars and restaurants are equipped with buttons that magically summon a server to your table), and I ask Young if he’s ready to be Internet-famous. “It’s not going to really feel like it’s happening until it’s happening,” he says, which should make perfect sense to anyone who’s ever hitched their dreams to a long shot.
He tells me the story of how he got cast. “I was the last person who auditioned,” he says. “They were gonna wrap it, and I was on my way from Vegas and stuck in traffic.” (It’s remarkable how many stories I’m hearing tonight start with “I was on my way to or from Vegas.”) “And I called them, saying, ‘Wait for me — one minute, one minute, one minute!’ They were like, ‘OK, this better be good.'”
“How did you win them over?”
“Dance. And be stupid.”
He tells me he’s releasing a “K-pop video” soon, but the details are sketchy — hopefully it comes out before K-Town premieres because “I’m trying to market myself a little bit.”
Is that the end goal here? Becoming a singing, dancing sensation?
Young laughs. “I cannot sing. Dancing … I’m not great at it. It’s just … I just love to entertain. And have fun with it.”
Suddenly shouts of “Gun bae!” fill our corner of the club and I hold up my half-empty can of beer, not really sure what we’re toasting or why, but perfectly happy to go along with it. I glance over at Young. “What is in that?” I ask, pointing to the giant, neon-blue plastic tumbler he’s holding.
He looks at it thoughtfully for a second, as if he’s already forgotten. “Vodka soda.”
“That’s supposed to be the water cup,” Scarlet says. (If you order a water at S Club, you get a giant plastic cup of barley water; supposedly it does something to take the edge off the hangover you will definitely have the next day.)
Scarlet is the resident Sexpot With No Filter on K-Town. I ask her what she did to get cast in the show. “Well, I was in the final 20,” she says in the wry monotone she barely ever deviates from, “and they said, ‘Send in a tape that shows who you are, that describes you,’ and I was naked on the tape.” I burst out laughing. “I mean, it’s actually hard to describe. It’s me, talking about my mom, which is really sweet and wholesome. I’m talking about how I want to make my mom proud, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and I’m doing my nails, and it cuts to me brushing my teeth, talking about how I just want to make her happy, and then it cuts to me girl-fighting, then it cuts to me getting fucked from behind, but I’m still talking about how I want to make my family proud. So that was my take.” She laughs a little. “If you ask Mike, he still has a copy of it.”
It’s almost midnight, and I’m ready to call it a night. K-Towners often boast about the late hour at which the real party starts here (made possible through privately owned clubs and after-hours karaoke spots that don’t necessarily adhere to closing time), but the cast has been posted up here since their 4 p.m. call time and now, with about four more hours left in the booze-fueled shooting day, they’re a little worse for the wear. (“Honestly, my tolerance for alcohol has definitely gone up in the last two years,” Scarlet tells me.)
I gather up my things and say my good-byes to Mike and the cast. In the back of my head I’m thinking the same thing they probably are: The next time I see you, will you have officially blown up? Can a bona fide reality sensation be born on YouTube? And if it can, are these the last moments of innocence before you all turn into snarling, fame-hungry Situation-monsters?
I’m almost out the door when Steve stops me. The music has gotten louder, the lights dimmer. “Are you leaving?!” he asks with a crestfallen look. I tell him I have to work in the morning. He asks to take a picture with me on his phone, and I oblige. Then he starts dancing. We’re right by the entrance to the club, and people politely steer around the dancing guy with the mohawk as they come and go.
“Hang on,” he says. “Put down your bag.” I don’t know why, but I do. Before I know it, he’s scooped me up in his arms, and is spinning me around to the sound of the thumping bass. As the club whirs, I can hear myself laughing, mostly because I don’t understand what’s going on and why, and because I sense that people are starting to stare. I can’t help but feel like a Koreatown Kurtz; journeying into the heart of reality TV darkness. The narcotic lure of EDM and camera-mounted lights is starting to work its way under my skin, and I am genuinely afraid of what might happen if I were to stay another hour.
Finally, he sets me down. I regain my balance and look up only to realize that the entire camera crew has surrounded us. “No, keep going, keep going!” says the AD, but my feet are already firmly on the floor. “Aw, man. Can you do that again?”
Can I? I look at Steve, but he’s already lifting me up again, and this time, fully aware of the lenses trained on me, I find myself laughing and screaming with twice the volume and enthusiasm. As the room once again turns into a blur of neon and Crown Royale and the glint of the lights leaves spots in my eyes, all I can think, over and over again, is: I hope this looks like we’re having fun.