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Cultural boo-boos, body image struggles: Why this former S’porean J-pop idol quit after 2.5 years

TikToker Estelle Fly shares experiences as a former J-pop idol

Oftentimes, it is difficult to look past the glitz and glamour when one comes across an “idol” — a performing artist in East Asian popular music — online or in real life. Most remain in the dark when it comes to how a person becomes an idol, and what goes on behind-the-scenes.

31-year-old freelance content creator and former Japanese pop (J-pop) idol Estelle Fly recently sat down with MS News to demystify some of the smoke surrounding the industry.

Image courtesy of Estelle Fly.

Having debuted as an idol at 18 years old, the Singaporean musician, actor, streamer, and Tiktoker, whose real name is Estelle Lim, discussed her experience before and during her 2.5 years as part of SEA*A, a now-defunct J-pop girl group, which was active from 2011 to 2013.

These include her struggles with mental health and body image issues while juggling a packed schedule in Japan and Singapore.

Estelle also shared how it was like returning to a ‘normal’ life after leaving the group, and subsequently finding her way into the local music and creative landscape.

Estelle Fly was scouted to be a J-pop idol at Anime Festival Asia

Estelle’s journey started at 16 years old while working at a maid cafe at the Anime Festival Asia (AFA).

The cafe needed someone to perform onstage at the convention to draw more customers.

“I ended up volunteering because I wanted to live out my ‘Hannah Montana’ dreams and be a performer,” Estelle recalled fondly.

“I had no fear — I was singing on stage, while holding a piece of paper with the lyrics!”

Her performance attracted the attention of a J-pop artist and her manager, who were present at the convention.

 

The manager approached Estelle for a chat, but nothing came out of it until a year later when the same manager pitched the idea of a J-pop group in Southeast Asia.

Estelle agreed and the manager offered her a spot in a closed audition they were holding in Singapore.

“The audition process was very easy, and I could tell during the audition that they liked me so I knew I was going to get it. Everything after that happened very quickly — the company got the girls together, and showed us their portfolio,” she said.

“That was when it hit me that I was about to sign with HoriPro, the same agency that manages artists from AKB48, actors from the ‘Death Note’ movie, all these ‘legit’ talents,” she enthused.

The signing took place just as Estelle was turning 18, and SEA*A officially launched sometime in 2011.

Spent 2.5 years as a member of now-defunct Japanese girl group SEA*A

SEA*A released four singles, one mini-album, and one full-length album during its 2.5 years as an active entity.

Most notably, the group’s debut single ‘Dream Shooter’ was one of the ending theme songs of the ‘Cardfight Vanguard’ anime series.

SEA*A also sang the ending theme song for anime Toriko and were given the rights to sing the English cover of Butterfly from Digimon.

Behind the public appearances and music releases, the members were shuttling back and forth between Singapore and Japan for rehearsals and recordings.

“I remember for ‘Dream Shooter’, we practised the choreography in Singapore, and we only had three days to learn it. The choreographer flew down from Japan to teach us. As I have prior experience in dance, I had to help the others as well,” Estelle said.

“After the three days, the choreographer and my manager flew back to Japan, and we had another week in Singapore to rehearse the dance before they flew us there for the shows.”

Estelle recounted how the members would also have rehearsals in Japan when they had performances there. Although training in Singapore was tough, she highlighted that it was even more taxing when they were in Japan.

The rehearsals would typically last from around 9am to 8pm in studios without air-conditioning, which Estelle said was to train the members’ staminas.

Made ‘cultural boo-boos’ while she was in Japan

For SEA*A — which consisted of three Singaporean members including Estelle and one Malaysian member — there was a clear language and cultural barrier between them and the J-pop circuit.

The girls had to pick up Japanese on their own through conversations and daily interactions as they did not have a specialised language coach to teach them.

They also made a lot of “cultural boo-boos”, Estelle confessed. Among them was office etiquette, which happened when they were at the label’s offices in Japan.

Image courtesy of Estelle Fly.

“We were sitting in the lobby, and when people came into the building, we were supposed to greet them because the office personnel were the people who ‘made things happen’ for artistes like us,” Estelle explained.

“In Singapore, we don’t do that. So, the girls and I were on our phones doing our own thing, but that was considered rude in Japan.”

The former idol added that when on set for shoots in Japan, the crew would typically eat first as they are the people who put the show together, and the people who start work the earliest and end the latest.

Whereas in Singapore, she said, the artistes and talents have the privilege to eat before the crew.

“There’s a great deal of appreciation and gratitude for the crew in Japan that isn’t as common in Singapore,” she remarked.

Estelle Fly struggled with body image issues during her time as a J-pop idol

Arguably the biggest obstacles Estelle had to conquer as an idol was her mental health and body image issues.

Image courtesy of Estelle Fly.

When she was transitioning to a young adult, she found herself in an industry where physical appearances are everything.

“To this day, I’ll always believe that I am overweight. I’ll always believe that I’ll never meet beauty standards,” she admitted.

Although the now-31-year-old has made peace with these thoughts, she still can never get rid of them completely.

“It’s one of those never-ending things where you will always feel like you will never be good enough. I will always try to improve myself, but I will never be content because I feel like I will be losing out to the people around me,” reflected Estelle.

These self-image struggles stem from her time as an idol, during which people would compare her to the other members.

Was told off by management when she wanted to dress ‘girly’

Emphasising that this was not the fault of her fellow members, Estelle recalled an incident when she asked her manager whether she could grow her hair out longer and have a more “girly” look.

At the time, she was the “sporty” one of the group.

“In front of everyone, including the make-up artist, he just went: ‘But that’s not your job. You’re not meant to be the pretty one, and your job is to sing and dance,’” recounted Estelle.

“Then he pointed to another member and said: ‘It is her job to be pretty, she is the visual of the group.’”

She continued: “Hearing that, 20-year-old me thought: I guess that’s me, this is all I will ever amount to.”

Image courtesy of Estelle Fly.

During the exchange, Estelle felt a sense of helplessness over not being able to dress how she wanted because of her weight.

Admittedly, her background in ballet, which was also a scene that heavily focused on a performer’s weight, contributed to her body image issues. All this made her feel like she would never be skinny enough.

“When you’re at that age, no matter how much you diet, you can’t shed those baby fats. Looking back, I don’t think I was that fat at all. But in my mind, in comparison to the other girls who were naturally thin and smaller than me, I was the chubby one,” she sighed.

“I constantly felt that I had to work to get the ‘pretty’ badge, but somehow I came to accept that I just wasn’t. In retrospect, no teenager should ever have to feel the way I did. It was heartbreaking.”

Management wanted her to mentor new members, she turned them down

SEA*A subsequently disbanded in June 2013, after the departure of two other members.

Estelle disclosed that the management had tried to look for other members and wanted her to be the one mentoring them. However, with her declining mental health, she did not feel ready to take on such a role.

“My self-esteem at 21 was in the pits, and I felt a sense of indignance as well. Here you have this industry that ruined my confidence, and now you’re telling me you want me to train new members? I was just resentful about that,” recounted Estelle.

Figuring that she was not too keen on potentially being compared to the new members in addition to the old ones, Estelle threw in the towel and terminated her contract on the pretext that she wanted to focus on her studies.

As such, the management made the call to disband the group and proceed with the remaining member as a solo talent.

Continued making music in Singapore until hiatus in 2021

In the years that followed, Estelle obtained diplomas in Mass Communication and Psychology.

She then proceeded to work for Singapore Airlines for a few months as a flight attendant before a company scouted her to make YouTube content.

It was during this period Estelle made her return to music, this time in the Singapore circuit.

She released her debut single ‘Blue’, under the Estelle Fly moniker, in 2018.

Estelle then signed to Singapore-based music agency Zendyll in 2019 and released her song ‘Love Like This’, which she co-wrote with music producer Jason Gelchen as well as fellow musicians Axel Brizzy, YAØ, and Sam Rui.

Notably, ‘Love Like This’ picked up the ‘Earworm of the Year’ award at the *SCAPE Youth Music Awards 2020.

After rolling out a few more singles and participating in several music projects, Estelle parted ways with Zendyll in 2021 and took a hiatus from music.

Former J-pop idol is now a content creator & actor, hopes to return to music soon

During the Covid-19 lockdowns, she started dabbling in streaming on Twitch and creating short-form content on TikTok – the latter of which she has continued to this day.

As of this writing, she has garnered more than 220,000 followers and 8 million likes on the video-sharing platform.

Since then, she has been an independent creator and found a new purpose in acting.

Most recently, she landed a role in the 2023 social thriller ‘Alienated’, a show commissioned by Mediacorp and produced by Viddsee Studios. In it, she plays a schoolmate of the protagonist.

Source: Mediacorp Drama on YouTube

Estelle also took to the stage in her first musical, ‘The Monster In The Mirror’, in May 2023.

“Acting makes me so fulfilled in a different way. It helped me regain my confidence to believe that I am capable of doing things in the art space,” shared Estelle.

This year, she hopes to take on more acting jobs, and is looking forward to releasing music again, although she does not know when that will happen.

Considering all that Estelle has accomplished following her departure from the J-pop circuit, she has zero regrets joining the industry. She said:

Having been through the whole process to become an idol, looking back, I realise how much it can screw with a kid’s mind. But, at the same time, if I could restart my life, I would still choose to do it again.

Also read: Inside a K-pop audition: What candidates go through & can S’poreans stand out?

Have news you must share? Get in touch with us via email at news@mustsharenews.com.

Featured image courtesy of Estelle Fly.

Valerie Yuam

This journalist is working really hard and couldn't write a description, but if they aren't, what have you been reading?

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