Mark Tuan is still not accustomed to the limelight. You would think by now, after eight years of being in one of South Korea’s most globally successful boy bands with numerous live stages, world tours and television appearances, there would be a certain immunity with fame. But not in his case. As the 28-year-old K-pop star humorously recollects instances of people recognising him in his hometown Los Angeles, he’s still nonplussed about the weight of his name.
The Got7 member is barefaced, sitting relaxed in a Rhude tee on a couch at home in LA for our Zoom call, to which he admits it’s where he lazes most of the time when not working, watching TV with his dog Milo. “I do the same thing that anybody would be doing—eating junk food, gaming and looking at my phone,” he shrugs in laughter.
“And if you ever saw me, you wouldn’t think much. Oh, he’s just a random person,” he maintains. Also him: a global star that has dominated world-famous stages and a season regular at Saint Laurent come fashion week—a brand he resonates with for its elegant and understated pieces. Well, Tuan would like to believe that he’s inconspicuous most of the time, until he’s not. And for brief moments during the course of our conversation, I almost believe him. His sudden bouts of candour, humble ambitions and sheepish chuckles when pondering a question are very much the antithesis to a well-groomed K-pop idol.
“During that time when we debuted [as Got7], everything happened so quickly that it never really hit. And because it never registered, sometimes I’m still kind of in shock. Yes, we have been Got7 for such a long time and have done so many things, but when I really think about it, I’m like, damn, we did that?” And while it has been eight significant years since the septet was formed, Tuan still beams in pride with any mention of the group. “We’ve accomplished so much together and because of Got7, I’m able to do what I’m able to do right now. When I’m like 60 or 70, I’ll probably be thinking about my career in my 20s,” he remarks.
Born and raised in LA, Tuan’s induction to stardom was a serendipitous affair—a career path he never really considered until the day he got scouted by one of South Korea’s entertainment behemoths as a teen. “I guess I never dreamed about doing music. I did have some interest growing up, as my mum played the piano and I learned that for a little bit. But I never really dreamed about doing this, not as a job and even as a hobby. When I got scouted, I just thought it would be a good opportunity to go to Seoul to audition and see where it takes me.”
A decade ago, the affluence of K-pop wasn’t rabid in the West yet. For the American teen growing up, his brand of music fell on whatever was playing on the radio, during the long drives with his sister at the front wheel and on his way to school. “All people listened to was the radio in the car. I was mostly attracted to hip-hop and rap. But there were people talking about K-pop—I heard a lot about BigBang so I guess I had an idea of it.” Just before flying over a thousand kilometres to a foreign country with a native language he didn’t speak, he looked up some bands and was taken aback by what he found. “The boy bands we knew in America are like the Backstreet Boys; they do dance but it’s laidback and chill. Seeing K-pop and everything being super synchronised, I was like, whoa.”
In Seoul, it was ground zero for Tuan, amongst a sea of hopeful passionate trainees, whom he witnessed fervently vying for a spot to debut. Admittedly, it took him a while to build that fire and he finally found it in the accomplishment of preparing a stage and showing it to the audience. “That made me want to train harder,” he recalls. “As a trainee, you’re there six days a week, 12 hours a day, to learn what you need to learn. Then after, it’s all the free time for you to practise and it’s based on how determined you are.” Picture an American boy dropped in a land steeped in the roots of Confucianism. The language barrier and a distinct cultural difference added up as other roadblocks in his journey to succeed.
He reflects on this: “I guess as a person, I don’t like to show parts of myself that aren’t perfect. So even though I knew a little of the language, I was scared to mess it up when I spoke. That made it hard to communicate with the other trainees at the start. But ultimately, we all got along despite not being able to communicate well.” Nothing like shared experiences and hardships to soothe over vernacular deficiencies, especially when aspiring trainees live and train together in shared bunks.
As someone going in blind with no prior training or experience, Tuan was intimidated by the sheer amount of talent in the game. “I didn’t want to show people how bad I was at like, everything,” he exclaims laughing. But as he looks back on his trainee days, he realises there wasn’t anything to be embarrassed about. “Everyone has to start somewhere at a certain point,” he concludes.
To his credit, there were plenty of things Tuan excelled in. A couple of them being acrobatics and martial arts—his agility in those served as a formidable regard during Got7’s formative years, which also earned him the moniker: the Flying Member. Google the group’s live stages from 2013 and you’ll witness a fresh-faced Tuan stealing the scene with backflips and impressive stunts, alongside fellow member Jackson Wang.
As one of the group’s rappers, his deep, low register became another signature fixture fans were frenzied for. And perhaps it was his stage presence of aloof swagger and panache juxtaposed with his actual personality that drew more attention to the enigma of Mark Tuan. Off-stage, he is known as the quiet, shy hyung (Korean for brother, an affectionate term of respect for someone older). He confirms all that, nodding while biting back a grin. “In the group, yes, I’m the quiet one.”
Granted, a well-formulated K-pop group often yields members of differing characteristics—a good spectrum to capture the hearts of fans while distinguishing each member in their own special way. Tuan’s role happens to be of a silent observer. “The members are all so energetic and at times, it’s really hard for me to throw myself out there to join in on the conversation. So I’ll just let them talk and stay quiet while listening in on what’s going on. But because I’m so quiet, when I actually talk, everyone just goes quiet and listens to what I have to say. Then I’m like, this is a lot of pressure,” he laughs. With this admission, the introvert in Tuan is resounding, and so is his love for his members—especially fresh off a comeback last May, when the eight-year-old group made headlines returning as
"I guess as a person, I don’t like to show parts of myself that aren’t perfect. So even though I knew a little of the language, I was scared to mess it up when I spoke. That made it hard to communicate with the other trainees at the start. But ultimately, we all got along despite not being able to communicate well."
Got7 after their departure from their previous management. It was an unconventional reunion that took the K-pop industry by surprise—with seven members now each signed to separate agencies, while bagging the full trademark rights of Got7. A comeback that proved more difficult than ever before, yet they made happen in a short span of time—with the group on hiatus since January 2021.
This move cemented the septet’s grit to remain as seven, while refuting all rumours that they had disbanded. Their recent self-titled GOT7 album became their most successful one yet—topping the iTunes Charts in 101 countries and being the first fastest Asian act to do so. Behind the scenes, he acknowledges that the comeback process was a learning curve for everyone, since they were all doing this for the first time under separate management. “Despite the promotional activities being short, this wasn’t the way that we wanted it to be—I think we want to be doing a lot more. We’re doing this now because we want to and we still have our fans who are waiting and supporting us. We’re trying to plan ahead and thinking about what we should be doing in the next couple of years.”
Over the course of their two-day fan concert in Seoul ahead of their album release, Tuan admits he was pretty nervous when he got on stage, since it has been so long performing in front of the fans, with their last world tour in 2020 abruptly gridlocked by the pandemic. “Still, I think all seven of us had a really good time, he reminisces. “It’s always a fun time when all of us are together. Even during the preparation for the concert, we had a full month just recording the album and goofing off during break time.”
And while it might have felt like old times coming together as seven again, after a year of the members individually pursuing solo careers, something shifted with this comeback. He takes a moment to collect his thoughts. “Everybody has grown a lot and we’re definitely more mature. The time apart was definitely needed just because we all have certain things we want to accomplish ourselves. For seven years, everything was about the group,” Tuan explains. “And now that everybody could take the time away to focus on what they want to do, that helped the group to fully focus on the group [during this comeback] instead of each member getting caught up with presenting more of themselves.
“But this time, it was: what can we do to make it good for the group? For Got7, I don’t want to say it’s the beginning but it’s a new chapter for us,” he asserts. While solo activities were a sure thing for the rest of his members, Tuan didn’t feel quite the same as he packed his bags to return back to LA last year after the group’s departure from their entertainment agency. The prolonged pauses in his speech speak volumes as he recalls that time of uncertainty looming, as he debated the idea of stepping away from the industry. “Although I knew we were going to continue as Got7, as a solo artist I wasn’t too sure. I wanted to be more private and laidback.”
Two words that basically elucidate Mark Tuan as a person. He pauses for a beat, before commenting on the extent of public scrutiny in South Korean entertainment. “I’m a pretty free-spirited person. Being in that world of K-pop, I understand why there’s a lot of restrictions and things to be careful about since all eyes are on you, with many people that are supporting you. Sometimes, there are certain things you want to keep private and separate but it’s just really hard. Not everyone is going to love, there’s going to be haters and sometimes things get twisted in the wrong way.” While he is at times aware of what goes on online, Tuan deals with the negativity by cutting it off and not worrying about the inevitable.
It’s easy to see how returning back home gave impetus for Tuan to thrive again, where he was uninhibited, free from the iron fist of an entertainment giant and liberated to fall back in love with music. After getting into a better headspace with quality time spent with friends and family, he found an eventual release through music. “It was fun for me to get back into the studio and let everything out through music. And that was the reason why I decided to continue being a musician, as a soloist,” he muses.
“We’ve accomplished so much together and because of Got7, I’m able to do what I’m able to do right now. When I’m like 60 or 70, I’ll probably be thinking about my career in my 20s."
In November last year, he released ‘Last Breath’ under his independent label, the first single off his upcoming album set for release this year. It’s a track that hints at a toxic relationship, with Tuan revealing a raw, vulnerable version of himself. “I really love to make music through my experiences, that’s what makes it more authentic to me instead of imagining something. When I came back to America, I really wanted to tell my story to my fans and connect with them on a deeper level. This is my story that I wanted to tell my fans first. They often see the good side to everything but there are some emotions and thoughts that most of us would have. A lot of the dark memories I had went into the songs [for this album]. It’s my way of venting and cleansing myself of these emotions.”
‘Last Breath’ proved to be the harbinger to the tracks that followed—‘My Life’, ‘Save Me’, ’Lonely’ and most recently, ‘IMYSM’ (or ‘I Miss You So Much’)—each careening into a similar narrative of the musician’s hardships and struggles. But when it came down to the specifics of it, Tuan deliberately kept it open-ended. “I wanted people to interpret it in their own way. The songs I want to write or make, I want people to understand, or relate to in their own experiences.” He also teases: “After this album, I’ll be making music that’s brighter and more fun.”
There’s plenty of sentiment to Tuan’s demeanour at this point—especially to his loyal supporters. He references his recent fan meeting in Bangkok, which saw a sold-out stadium for three days in a row. “I was so thankful that so many showed up to my fan meeting and I couldn’t imagine that I almost gave it all up last year.”
A year that evidently made all the difference, from one of seven to a solo artist who now holds the reins for his music—from songwriting to video production. What’s worth noting is that it’s going according to Tuan’s way, at his own speed and creative discretion. He affirms: “For me, the results aren’t as important right now, it’s more of doing what I enjoy. If I was really worried about certain things, I would be doing things a lot more different. I’m having fun.”
In extended, wistful pauses during his brief walk down memory lane of last year, it’s hard to dismiss the rollercoaster of emotions for Tuan. He took on a new role shrouded in independence, which he refers to as a time of growth. Almost lost in reverie, Tuan continues with a small smile: “I became a little more healthy in my mindset. I just feel like I’m a lot more happy? Happy,” he concludes in amusement, as though he finally found his own poignant revelation.
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Creative DirectorVanessa Caitlin
Fashion EditorGordon Ng
Set DesignSteven Valdez
Photography AssistancePatrick Molina / Evan Duran
Digital TechMaria Noble
Styling AssistanceKsenia Sharonova
WearingAnthony Vaccarello for Saint Laurent
Associate Creative ProducerHazirah Rahman