When I chat to Lea Huening over Zoom one word keeps being mentioned over and over again - brightness. “They [my family] always say that I look happy… like a happy virus. I really enjoy giving energy to other people.”
As I chat to Lea – previously a K-pop idol, now model, influencer, web MC and more – for over an hour, it’s easy to see why the people who know her refer to the joy her presence spreads. She’s enthusiastic about everything she discusses, whether that’s her friends and family or her absolute love for Disney songs. Even though she’s chatting to me all the way from Seoul, South Korea, her energy is more than enough to compensate for the English rain pattering outside my window.
The road that takes people into entertainment at a young age is never a one-size-fits-all story. Artistic talent runs in Lea’s family: her younger brother Kai is better known as Hueningkai, a member of boy group TOMORROW x TOGETHER; her younger sister Bahiyyih is a singer and dancer currently appearing on Mnet’s Girls’ Planet 999 and her father Nabil, a German-American actor born in Brazil, worked a significant amount in China when she was a child. She credits a combination of his influence and the support of her mother when it came to her and her siblings learning creative and artistic skills that made her who she is today.
“It looked really fun,” she tells me, when she reminisces on watching performers as a child. “Then my dad wanted me to do something with him. He wanted to make us like… an artistic family. So I learned from him and it was fun, and then I suddenly really wanted to do it.”
Though she’s lived in Korea for ten years now (and she mentions to me how she feels most comfortable speaking in Korean) Lea’s artistic and linguistic influences stem from spending much of her early childhood in China with her parents speaking different languages to her at home. It’s this combination of a rich cultural childhood and an artistic home life that has made both her interests and creative outlook different to some of her peers.
“I went to school in China and [went to] a Chinese school so I can speak Chinese a little. Then I learned English from my dad and Korean from my mom,” says Lea, “But my mom and dad all speak Chinese, Korean and English so I learned a lot of languages from them. So I can speak Chinese a little, English I can speak like this [fluently] and Korean is my first language.
Like, I’ll speak Korean [and use English], like… oh, sorry! Or… thank you! I put in little words, words my friends can understand. Like, my friend will be talking and we’ll use both of the languages together. It’s fun. My friends like it, cause then they learn like that from me. So they really use it.
Some people ask me a lot of questions like this: ‘If you're mixed and you live in Korea, what is it like?’ But I’ve had a really good time in Korea because my friends don’t treat me differently. They’ve always liked me just because of me. I’m really grateful for my friends.”
Any performer that goes through the Korean idol industry finds themselves put through training intended to make them well-rounded performers that can do it all. Between singing, dancing, rapping, producing and even acting, many idols are incredibly multi-skilled, and Lea is no exception. Though her group VIVA disbanded in 2019, her love for art, music and entertainment threads through our entire chat, especially when it comes to her specialities of singing and dancing.
It makes perfect sense that the song This is Me from Disney Channel movie Camp Rock is her favourite. Aside from the fact the movie and song are absolute classics, Camp Rock tells the story of a teenage girl, played by Demi Lovato, striving to make it in the music industry. It’s a story that in many ways parallels Lea’s own journey and the aspirations she and many others in the idol industry also harbour. It’s endearing that even now, many years later, Lea still finds herself attached to that film.
“Singing and dancing are my favourite [things],” she smiles, nodding. “Actually, dancing is my favourite. I like to move a lot… then I [also] learned singing; and that's why my dream was to be a dancer and a singer.”
Though she no longer operates as an idol, Lea still flexes her artistic abilities through the vlogs on her YouTube channel, and the MC-ing she occasionally does for her agency’s YouTube channel as well. As of writing she has over seven hundred and fifty thousand followers across her social media channels, many of which flock to see her answer questions, post song covers or just dance to her favourite songs. Though the channel is only around a year old, she takes us behind the scenes of her life as a model, as well as filming makeup videos and mukbangs (a broadcast of people eating food). Despite the thousands of people who check out her content, Lea tells me that she doesn’t over-plan her videos, choosing to film wherever life takes her. When she talks about her work it’s with a lot of joy, and it’s the combination of her happy personality and the fun variety in her videos that keep people coming back again and again.
“My fans like my dancing covers, and my singing covers… but they also just like seeing how I live in Korea. I like to make videos that I would like, and what I think my fans would like.”
I ask her how different her life is now from when she was an idol. Idol schedules can be notoriously gruelling, beginning in the early hours of the morning and ending very late at night. To outsiders the idol life is sometimes seen as glamorous and becomes the ultimate goal for so many hopefuls wanting to come into the entertainment industry; as someone that’s had a chance to take a step back, I wonder if Lea would ever wish to be an idol again.
“I like my life right now,” she says thoughtfully. “But I still want to be an idol. Though I did it [before], it didn’t work out. So if I have another chance I want to try again. But still, I like my life right now. I have a lot of fans, I have my company and my YouTube channel. I’m doing great right now.
When I was an idol, I couldn’t have my [own] things. I didn’t have my channel, I didn’t have my Instagram, I didn’t have anything for me. But right now I can have my channel! My company helped me with everything and I have my Instagram, so I’m more in control and more free. But when you’re an idol there is a big schedule. I have to dance, sing, practice, eat – but I couldn’t eat a lot, only eat a little – and then [more] singing and [practicing] the same routines. Right now it’s like, I can do what I like. I can do what I want… [I’m] more comfortable right now, than before when I was an idol.”
Despite the opinions of some naysayers who too easily buy into negative stereotypes or clickbait headlines, fandom culture can do much good. Both artist and fan can lift one another up and share art, culture and stories from around the world. Given the isolation many of us have lived through during the pandemic, surely such connection is something to be celebrated.
“Oh, I learn a lot from my fans,” Lea affirms. “Because… sometimes I'm not always happy. Sometimes I’m a little sad, or in a sad mood. Then they always cheer me up: “It's okay. We love you just because of you, not because of other people, just you.” That kind of stuff makes me very happy because they love only me. Because of me. They like Lea. I am really thankful for them.”
Everyone’s lives and industries have been profoundly affected by the pandemic, and Lea tells me about all the other little things she misses as well. As an enthusiastic coffee shop visitor, like most of us she’s missed those simple little visits with friends. Lea’s old high school is near Namsan Tower, and though it’s been several years since she graduated, she muses about going back to the area for the first time in far too long when things get better for everyone.
In Lea’s career the pandemic changed plenty too: suddenly a musical she was preparing for ended up cancelled, there were no more photoshoots or film shoots and her usual artistic outlets as a singer and dancer were no longer possible. Everyone has found a way to adapt their work life to what the pandemic has thrown at them, and for Lea that meant starting up her YouTube channel. In the past year she’s connected with her global audience even more than before, and it’s made up for the fact she can’t see any of her fans in person. Yet despite it all, Lea’s still very grateful that her loved ones have been lucky enough to stay healthy and as we talk it’s clear how her family’s love has helped her feel safe enough to stay open and upbeat whilst living in the public eye.
“My mom, my sister and brother really help me a lot because sometimes I don't contact or message them a lot… but they just message me! Like “What are you doing today?” It makes me happy. My mom always helps me, and my brother and sister help me, and my friends, they help me a lot [too]. The people around me make me happy, so that's why I like to give happiness to other people.”
Many of Lea’s happiest memories go back to times when her family managed to travel together. When the pandemic is over she’d tells me that she’d love to go back to Hawaii, since her brother was born there but she was too young to remember what it was like. Even when unprompted her thoughts jump to her siblings.
“As a sister I think I’m kind but I don’t know what my brother and sister think! I think I’m fine? I do good for them, I always cheer them up.”
These days, any chance for the Huening family to travel together is hard, as entertainment schedules make it difficult for her parents and siblings to coordinate to have such time together. Yet despite their close bonds and overlapping skillsets, Lea and her siblings seem happy to forge their own paths in the industry.
“They say they don't want my advice, but they always ask me!” Lea laughs. “Like [they say], “I’m doing well, I’m doing okay, but… how was I?” Like that! Like they don't want my advice, but they want my advice! But actually, I can’t see them perform. It’s like, business so I can't see them [in person] but they're doing good. I'm very proud. I think they’re doing good stuff.”
As a big movie enthusiast, Lea can talk plenty about action and adventure movies, and the kinds of TV shows and characters she loves or would love to play someday. A drama she mentions a lot is Shadowhunters, and if she got a part in her dream movie it would be to play a strong, confident character, the kind of character that can help people when they’re not okay. She smiles when she suddenly realises she’s been describing superheroes and I ask which famous movie star she’d pick to get their own superhero blockbuster. After a moment’s thought she selects Start Up’s Nam Joo-hyuk, someone that she respects a lot for his skills as an actor, model and singer, all talents she hopes to keep cultivating within herself.
Throughout our entire interview she comes across as someone just happy to talk or connect with others, and the energy she brings as an MC for her own company’s channel shows that there’s more to her than just singing and dancing. Though it’s early days on her path of MC-ing, modelling and vlogging, she hopes she can do even more with her abilities as time goes on, maybe in TV or on other broadcasting mediums as well as her channel.
“I like to talk a lot,” she says. “I really like to talk. I like to talk to people and listen to lot of things. So if I have a chance to be on [something] like radio, it would be fun.”
Gratitude and love keep coming up in our conversation, whether that is to her family, friends or management team. As we near the end of our call, Lea makes sure to mention that she’s grateful to her Leamons (the name for her fans) for always supporting her and encouraging her. Instead of saying she wants to grow her following or become more famous, Lea simply says that she wants to keep making her fans happy to repay them for making her happy in kind. If she could send any one message to anyone following her career –whether closely or casually – I ask her what she would want to say to them.
“Just be who you want and then do what you want to do. Just be you. Do not hesitate and just do what you want. Just be you. That's the best thing, I think. Do whatever you want to do.”
Such is the kind of positive, feel-good sentiment echoed by many in the public eye, especially by those who know that amongst their audience are younger fans who really look up to them. It’s easy to be skeptical sometimes as to whether the celebrities who say such things really mean them.
Yet when it comes to Lea Huening, you genuinely believe she means it. Brightness, indeed.