"Ah, thank you!" says Hwa Sa, when I tell her that she's regarded as quite the fashion icon. She has a smile that somehow sparkles more than the very glittery sequined outfit that she has just hit the red carpet with, and that she will also wear later that night as part of HallyuPopFest London's Saturday lineup. The formidable artist and member of girl group MAMAMOO has just jetted in from Italy, where she was spotted at Valentino Fashion Week alongside Anne Hathaway, Ariana DeBose and Anna Wintour, amongst others. Yet for all that hectic scheduling, she seems more bright-eyed and awake than most others in the room.
For fans of Hwa Sa (real name Ahn Hye-jin) and MAMAMOO, Hwa Sa's strength as a musical and artistic powerhouse is one that they've believed in for years, and the ever-growing wave of brands recognising her influence is well-deserved; still fresh are the days when Hwa Sa, alongside MAMAMOO's other members Solar, Whee In and Moon Byul, were criticised for pushing back against restrictive standards regarding body image and personality in the entertainment industry that still affect both female and male idols alike. Indeed, the Hwa Sa of today finds herself with much more freedom than the Hwa Sa that debuted just under a decade ago in 2014.
"Ultimately I have a say in what I do, what I wear, how the music video goes," says Hwasa, when I ask her about how she incorporates fashion influences into her music videos. "But also sometimes I get confused! I want to show off more, reveal more... but around me the staff say, 'Ah! Don't! No!' When it comes to these sort of hurdles, I appreciate and look for [all] opinions, and listen to the points of view and [pieces of] advice from the staff, of the people around me. So ultimately whilst I have the full say, because I listen to everybody, it is also at the same time, a collaborative agreement."
Beyond her own distinct colours in her solo work, listeners have had the pleasure of seeing her tackle different genres and styles throughout her career: from MAMAMOO's huge discography, to songs with PSY, DPR LIVE, label-mates ONEWE and a remix with Dua Lipa. Beyond her skill as a singer and performer, it seems obvious why she is so in demand, given how popular she also is as a vibrant and fun personality in variety shows.
"When it comes to working with people like PSY the biggest difference [in comparison to working with MAMAMOO] was because since I was only featuring. everything was planned out," she recounts. "So thing that I really had to focus on was ensuring that I gelled with PSY very well on stage."
Yet it is when she mentions Beyoncé and Rihanna that for a moment she isn't the Hwa Sa, but Hye-jin, who adores music and her favourite artists just as much as the many fans that love her; she expresses with excitement how both are artists that she not only looks up to, but ones that she would love to work with one day. It seems only right that she should name such powerhouse superstars as inspirations: ask even the most casual listener of Hwa Sa, and they will readily mention to you how the concepts of empowerment, self-determination and self-awareness are explored at length within MAMAMOO's discography and Hwa Sa's own solo work. As a result, her music often feels like a safe space, one that cocoons you in the sense that your best days are yet to come, but never at the expense of having to deny or suppress the hardships in your past and present.
To that end, constantly learning and managing to overcome difficulties is something she thinks about deeply. When asked about this, she was silent for a few moments before thoughtfully reflecting upon about how achieving ones goals is a never ending task, one that everyone everywhere has to tackle in some form.
"We're definitely all in this together," she said. "...we all need to overcome everything, all the hardships and all the difficulties we face, together; and I think only this mentality is how you really achieve happiness... whenever obstacles or difficulties come to me, I just try to plough on and go ahead straight to the problem itself. Even if I break my knees, and I become ragged, it doesn't matter. I will face it head first. Through this process, I feel I become stronger, externally and internally."
It is this tough mentality that has keeps her steady throughout such a busy schedule, one that sees her shuttled from event to shoot to recording session at a pace that would test even the most passionate about their job. She lights up when she talks about all the energy that she gets travelling from place to place, meeting new people and fans (also known as MOOMOO) that continually give her new things to learn, and new ways to broaden her perspectives and horizons. It is with some disappointment that she mentions how she won't be able to see some of London during this particular trip, as it wasn't possible to push back her flight at all. However, it is the little things that still bring her happiness, and she tells us that she'll go back to her hotel and have a drink with her dancers after the show.
When she finally took to the stage a few hours later to perform her hits 'TWIT', 'María' and 'I'm a 빛' alongside b-sides 'Bless U' and 'Intro : Nobody Else' she certainly more than deserved just one drink in celebration of the brilliant performances she brought to London. Her upbeat pop hits got thousands on their feet dancing, yet during 'Bless U' it was simply her and the crowd, together united in a singular, poignant moment in time. Between her charismatic stages and her deeply emotional, slower tracks, she created a remarkable atmosphere of liberation and self-celebratory fun to all that night.
With students not just in the UK but also in many other parts of the world celebrating the end of exams and school, I asked her for a song she'd recommend to all those finally free and able to enjoy their summer.
"Can I go get my phone?" she laughs. "I have to go get it to look up the the name..."
With her phone not to hand, she instead started singing for us "I can make your hands clap!" referring to the song 'HandClap' by Fitz and the Tantrums, a song that she performed at the 33rd Golden Disc Awards in 2019 and during MAMAMOO's 2018 4season S/S Tour. Ending her short snippet with a little clap and a dance move, she nodded happily.
"That's the song I listen to whenever I want to bring up my mood!" she explained.
Throughout the day, even just a a glimpse of her had people on their feet waving, chanting and singing, a testament to how many people find Hwa Sa and MAMAMOO's music the soundtrack to their own happiness. As we wrap up, she leaves with a hug to both myself and my colleague (and yet another smile), to prep for the amazing show she knows she'll be busting out to thousands later on. A light off stage and light on it, not even the sky seems too high a limit for Hwa Sa.