The back-up dancers stumbled backstage, a group of men and women in nondescript, sexy black outfits. I jumped up from my chair—making Lonni tsk in exasperation—and bent at the waist.
"Sugohaess-eoyo!" I said as I bowed. "Thank you so much." I always made sure to thank them in both Korean and English because the dancers came from all over.
They had suffered with me during every single practice and stop and never got any of the glory. My appreciation was genuine, but it was also expected. K-pop stars always had to be gracious.
They bowed and thanked me in return, sweaty and exhausted. "You killed it, Lucky," one of the dancers, Jin, said with a wink. "You were almost able to keep up with me."
I flushed. Jin was cute. He was also off-limits, as were most boys in my life. "I'll land that turn one of these days," I said with nervous laughter. They all shuffled off, going to their hotel together. I watched them with envy. Would they be hanging out in someone's room, eating cup ramen together?
No matter. My feet were going to crumble into dust. I plopped back into the chair.
A hand patted my back. "Hey. You too. Sugohaess-eo," my manager's assistant, Ji-Yeon, said. Ji-Yeon always told me I did a good job after performances, like a proud but stern older sister. She was a tiny rabbit of a young woman, her full-cheeked face obscured by edgy blunt-cut bangs and giant glasses. But she was a powerhouse who got things done.
She scrolled through her ever-present phone. "We're going to do a meet and greet for about an hour, so be sure to drink some water."
"What? A meet and greet?" I had stopped doing those a couple years ago. They were more for beginner pop groups. Once you reached a certain level, it got unwieldy.
"Yeah. Since it's your final show, we thought it would make a good photo op." She handed me a bottle of Evian.
"So, I'm going to be here for another hour?" I tried to keep the whininess out of my voice.
"It'll be fast. In and out. Do you not want to do it?" Ji-Yeon asked, peering over her glasses.
Don't be lazy. I shook my head. "No, it's fine."
"Okay, good. Now, let's get you out of this outfit and into something more comfortable for the fans," Ji-Yeon said with a slight twitch of her nose, making her glasses shift up and down on her pale face. "Except the shoes, of course. Gotta keep those on."
Minutes later, I was sitting behind a table signing albums, posters, whatever the fans had brought with them. And even though I had wanted to crawl into bed mere minutes before, the excitement of the fans zapped me with a familiar energy. Interaction with them was so rare lately.
"Can I get a selfie?" I looked at the girl with braces and a pixie cut and was about to say yes when my head bodyguard, Ren Chang, stepped in front of me and shook his head.
I threw the girl an apologetic look before the next fan approached me with a poster to sign.
In the early days, I had wanted to give a hug and speak to everyone who had waited in line to see me. But the bigger my fan base grew, the more nebulous and faceless they became. I battled the instinct to give canned and wooden responses. "Thank you for coming," I said with a smile at the older man as I signed his poster with a fat black Sharpie.
He nodded, not making eye contact with me. But his hand grazed mine when I returned the poster, and he got in close. I could smell the meal he'd had, feel the heat of his body. Without missing a beat, Ren pushed him back with a firm hand. Again, I smiled apologetically at the man, even though my entire being recoiled. Most of my male fans were perfectly fine—but there was an overeager, sweaty subset that approached me with an intensity that frightened me. In those moments, I still had to act gracious. Always grateful for what I had.
The line was cut off eventually and I stood up and waved and bowed to the crying and cheering fans. They roared when I threw out a peace sign and I was whisked away through the back door.
The second I stepped outside, the paparazzi and fans descended.
Camera flashes, voices yelling out my name, a crush of humanity.