Chapter 11:

The Idol Industry

Sweet like Honey

“Yeah,” I replied casually, though my heart skipped a beat. Was Shirley going to judge me for my hobbies? Ten or twenty years ago, I probably would have given up all hope and steel myself for being treated as disgusting, but anime and otaku culture were becoming more mainstream these days. Now, nobody was ashamed of being an otaku, and most people saw it as just another hobby than something that was creepy and childish.

But there were still people who clung onto these negative notions, and I wondered if Shirley was one of them. She mentioned that she hadn’t watched The Girl Upstairs even though her idol group had performed the opening for it. That already wasn’t a good sign.

However, Shirley burst out laughing. I gaped at her, dumbfounded by her reaction. Was it so funny that I was an anime otaku?

“Now I understand,” she gasped, wheezing as she patted her chest while desperately trying to stop her laughter. “That’s why you didn’t recognize me. You aren’t interested in idols…or, how do I put it, real girls.”

“Hey, what do you mean by that? I’m a healthy, straight guy. Of course I’ll be interested in real girls!”

“No, I mean…I guess I took you for the type to hyper focus into your bubble of manga, anime and games that you wouldn’t pay attention to much else.” She leaned in closer. “Oh, so does that mean you’re interested in me?”

Was that a trick question? I had a feeling I couldn’t say yes, but if I said no, she might get all offended. Women were…difficult beings to comprehend.

“Perhaps.” I shrugged and changed the topic, nodding toward the television. The animation video had ended, and it was just automatically scrolling down some menu bar or something. “But that was really great! You sing really well, and I could tell that you enjoyed it. You like singing, don’t you?”

“Yeah, of course.” Shirley huffed and fanned herself. “Why else would I become an idol?”

“Then why did you quit?” I asked, genuinely curious. Unfortunately, I regretted it the second I blurted the question out. That was a sensitive question that Shirley seemed to avoid, based on the articles I had read about her online. I wouldn’t be surprised if she began putting some distance between us after that. My chest ached and I kicked myself inwardly.

“Sorry, you don’t have to answer that question if you don’t want to.”

“No, it’s fine. I can tell you’re asking that innocently, without any kind of…motives.”

Shirley sighed and leaned back. She closed her eyes briefly, and for a moment, I could almost envision her on stage, surrounded by the same ambient lighting that saturated the karaoke room. The dancing spotlights turned into waving glowsticks. The screams and cheers of a crowd, with Shirley standing in the middle and taking it all in.

Then the magic disappeared, almost like a snap of the fingers, and all I saw was Shirley’s solitary silhouette, hemmed in by a great void. A chill filled my veins as I watched her. The crushing pressure was suffocating.

“As much as I love singing, the…idol industry isn’t as cracked up as it’s made up to be. I didn’t care for the stardom or the fame. I never aimed to be popular. I just wanted my voice to reach everyone, that’s all.” Shirley scowled. “We don’t make a lot of money. Most of our revenue goes to sponsors, and the rest gets sucked up by the agency. To pay for concert venues. Supplies and materials for merchandise. Singing and dancing lessons. Booking studios. And that’s not the worst thing.”

“It’s not?”

Shirley thew her hands up. “The micromanaging of our schedules. Mornings were spent on dance classes with instructors so strict you would think they have sticks permanently jammed up their asses. The choreography sessions were a nightmare. Make one mistake and we’ll have to redo the whole thing all over again. We couldn’t eat whatever we want to eat, with producers constantly watching over our shoulders and managing our diets.”

She smirked. “That’s why Honey Café was one of the first places I visited after my retirement. I’ve always seen the pastries and beverages there. I’ve always wanted to try them. I like sweet things, you know. Before, when I was with my agency, they were very strict with what I could eat. To maintain my figure. they think honey is fattening, you see. They’ll be horrified if they find out I’m drinking honey coffee or some variant everyday.”

“That’s their loss.”

Shirley laughed at that. “Perhaps. But it was still stifling, having to constantly live in that environment. I don’t know how to manage it for ten years.” She scowled. “No romantic relationships allowed. I don’t think we were even allowed out of the dorm to visit families unless we had permission. We couldn’t even post our thoughts on Tweeter unless our comments have already been vetted by the producer and deemed inoffensive. Can’t afford getting into a scandal or risk saying something careless and upsetting fans, after all. Every aspect of our lives was being controlled.”


I couldn’t imagine how bad Shirley had it. I had thought my mom controlling, but Shirley’s producers appeared to be a million times worse. I shuddered to think what she had suffered through. No wonder she quit.

“The last straw was the favors.”

“Favors?” I repeated incredulously. Shirley was clenching her fists now, having sank to her seat. She glared at the table and nodded slowly.

“Ridiculous, isn’t it? The producers demand that we keep our images pure and innocent, and forbid us from having romantic relationships. Yet they sometimes…approach us suggestively. Not just them. Some of the higher-ranking executives of our sponsors. Apparently, we owe them…and they want us to pay them back. Not in money, but with…our bodies.”

She glanced up with a sad smile. “We refused and turned them down, but often that would hurt our sales. Opportunities for records. For concerts. Which in turn causes the producers to heap more pressure on us. According to them, the only way to survive is to make it into the Oricon Charts. To get the highest music CD sales. It’s always about making money and becoming the best. I didn’t care about that. I only wanted to sing. As long as I made enough to survive, that’s completely fine with me. I don’t need to be in the top hundred and earn millions of dollars, I could do with a couple of thousand a month. But the producers don’t see it that way.”

She spread her hands. “And here we are. I had enough. I’m not going to let some old greasy geezer touch me with his filthy hands – and judging from the ring on his finger, he’s married too.” She sniggered, but the sound was bitter. “Of course, with him being a big shot, they had to cover everything up when I slapped him. Gave me a huge compensation package to hush me up too, and I thought, why the hell not? I’ll get more money from that than if I sued him for damages, and given the lawyers he can hire, it’ll be a long, drawn-out case that’s a total waste of time.”

“So that’s why they were being vague on the reasons behind your retirement,” I said. I recalled I couldn’t find anything about it.

“It’s a boring story, isn’t it?” Shirley shrugged. “Sorry for disappointing you, but there’s no drama. No green tea bitches backstabbing me. It’s a pretty mundane reason and happens in the industry far more often than you’d expect. Most idols move on and continue, but me, I had enough. Besides, I’m too old.”

She smiled bitterly and glanced down at herself.

“I’m already in my thirties. I’m what you would consider an expired product. I’m not getting any younger, and the…the dancing sessions, the choreography…I find myself unable to keep up, especially when performing alongside the newbies. The producers, they’re always looking for fresh faces and new talent. An old lady like me will get eliminated eventually. They were already cutting my appearances, you know? I was getting less concerts and features. If I hadn’t already gotten a solid fanbase, they might have found an excuse to fire me. So I thought I should walk first…preserve my dignity before they cook up some scandal to get rid of me.”

I stared at her, horrified. “I didn’t think they would go that far.”

“You have no idea.”

“What do you plan to do now?” I asked, scratching my head. “I mean, forgive my ignorance, but what do you guys do after you retire? Do you…uh, become an actress, maybe?”

“Who knows? If I can get a deal with a record agency, I could transition to becoming a pop star. I don’t have any acting skills…I tried my hand one time. You know the drama series, Comet Garden? I had a small role as a supporting character, and then…nobody asked for me again. Even my fans weren’t receptive toward my performance. There were comments that said I should stick to dancing and singing.”

I winced. “Sorry to hear that.”

“It’s not your fault. And it’s over. I’m free.” She stretched herself and let out a contented sigh. “I can do whatever I want…and it’s a nice change. For the first time in my life, I can comment whatever I want on social media, I can eat whatever I want without anyone looking over my shoulder. It’s a blissful release. The only thing is that I still have to deal with people ogling me and asking for pictures and autographs whenever I set foot outside my house if I don’t put on a disguise. And…”

Her face grew dark. I blinked, realizing that there was something more that she had left unsaid.

“What’s the matter?”

“No. Nothing. They are still my fans, so I can somewhat understand, but…” She sighed. “I don’t want to say anything bad about my fans because they’re the reason I reached the heights I did, so let’s just leave it here.”


“But enough about me.” Shirley leaned back and handed me the microphone. “What about you?”

“What about me?”

“I’ve told you about my life story. It’s only fair that you tell me yours.”