A decade ago, K-pop had already established itself as a force in Asia and found niche audiences around the world. But it was soon turned into a truly global phenomenon after Psy’s YouTube-breaking “Gangnam Style” went viral in the summer of 2012. Powered by a galloping dance and bonkers music video, K-pop became a buzz word that even your American parents suddenly knew about.
Six months earlier in 2012, though, a very different effort at introducing Korean pop to Western audiences had played out in the form of a made-for-TV movie, starring a septet who’d actually marked K-pop’s debut on the Billboard Hot 100 three years earlier.
The Wonder Girls was a 40-minute film starring the Korean group of the same name, co-produced by K-pop company JYP Entertainment and Nick Cannon’s N’Credible company, which premiered on the TeenNick channel in February 2012. The story follows the outfit on their first tour of the United States, with the Wonder Girls — at the time consisting of Kim Yu-bin, Park Ye-eun, Woo Hye-rim, Ahn So-hee and Min Sun-ye, on top of Korean entertainment after a string of hit singles and equally big across Asia — exploring New York city and getting into assorted hijinks. It culminates with them entering a talent competition at the Apollo Theater (where they face off against an American group called School Gyrls, from a different Cannon-produced movie). It’s a fish-out-of-water story geared towards younger audiences.
The TV movie became a K-pop curio, an obscure bit of trivia for fans. Yet a decade later, as K-pop has grown into a major entertainment force in the U.S., The Wonder Girls special seems more like an important moment in the history of Korean entertainment trying to break America, and one hinting at how future groups and companies would vault to the top of music and social media charts.
“The whole point of this was to introduce American audiences to K-pop,” The Wonder Girls writer Krystal M. Harris tells Billboard. “The Wonder Girls were super huge, can’t-walk-down-the-street celebrities at the time in Korea – but over here, not so much…”
K-pop heavyweights had attempted to cross over into the States before Wonder Girls, but with little success. The singer Rain embarked on an ultimately doomed North American tour in 2007, while ‘00s superstar BoA released an English-language album in 2009, complete with hype-generating music videos, but was met with middling sales outside of her home region.
Wonder Girls had debuted in 2006 as the first girl group in Park Jin-young’s eponymous JYP Entertainment stable. They quickly gained popularity, before the 2008 retro-tinged number “Nobody” turned them into a greater regional force. Their ambitions grew.
“It was about January 2009 when we were invited to JYP’s U.S. concert as the opening guest, and we heard that people loved our performance,” former Wonder Girls’ member Kim Yu-bin, better known as Yubin, says via email to Billboard. “That’s when we started trying to enter the U.S. market.
The quintet became the first K-pop group to mount a serious push into the U.S. market. They signed with Creative Artists Agency and, in a preview of how Korean artists would come to use U.S. talk shows as a launch pad, appeared on The Wendy Williams Show to perform a song and quickly introduce themselves. Most notably, they served as one of the opening acts for The Jonas Brothers, then at the peak of their Disney-pop superstardom, on their 2009 U.S. tour.
It all would have just been a nice memory if Wonder Girls didn’t make history in the process. Propelled by the Jonas Brothers tour, “Nobody” debuted at number 76 on the Billboard Hot 100. That was the first time a K-pop artist ever appeared on the chart. “Towards the end of the tour, JYP told us we would be starring in a movie,” Yubin says.
The film needed a director, and it found one in music video director Ethan Ladern – who previously worked with artists such as B.o.B, OneRepublic and Bruno Mars. A producer he knew worked closely with Cannon, and he eventually was brought on to direct. “We were doing a grand introduction of the Wonder Girls to the States,” Ladder tells Billboard. It was obviously important that we wanted to show off their singing skills and their talent, and it was about making them really fun.”
Harris, meanwhile, had previously worked with Lader on music videos, and came on board initially as a cast director. First, though, everyone involved needed a first draft of the script to come in. “The script was…a bit offensive,” Harris says. “We were putting Koreans into America, and the script was relying on stereotypical jokes.” She stepped up and volunteered to take a look at it.
She cleaned up the rough bits – which, beyond racist gags, also included the main American character and love interest of member Yenny being named “DJ Nuts, or something relating to a man’s parts.” She changed his name to DJ Skillz, and tightened everything else up, all without losing the TeenNick vibe. “I didn’t have a huge background in anything Korean, but I know when something is a bit insensitive,” she says.
The Wonder Girls earned Harris her first professional writing credit. She still had to cast the film too, which presented further challenges. “It was a non-union film, so that means my talent pool was going to be a lot of green actors,” Harris says. She describes many auditions as “very, very interesting” – but with some diamonds present, such as Wes Aderhold, who was cast as DJ Skillz. “He just knew how to smolder in the right teen way.”
At the time, Aderhold was a fledgling actor based in Los Angeles with only a few credits to his name. “I obviously wanted to portray a DJ authentically, so I watched countless videos of DJs and went to my friends who spin and mix, and watch them,” Aderhold tells Billboard of how he prepared for shooting, alongside working with his acting coach at the time.
The Wonder Girls prepped too, for what would be one of their first forays into acting. “We took acting classes as a group and worked on our English pronunciation and language skills,” Woo Hye-rim, better known as Lim, tells Billboard through email. “Thankfully, our characters were based on our real-life personalities, so it wasn’t that hard to get into the character.”
Language, though, loomed as a challenge. Prior to shooting The Wonder Girls, the group had only needed to use English in a handful of promotional situations, like their aforementioned TV appearances (though Yubin spent part of high school in San Jose). “It was hard enough to act in Korean, but to act in English was even more challenging,” Yubin says. “There was a scene where we had to argue, and that was the most challenging for us. Just imagine having a serious argument with broken English. That was hilarious. It was really hard to keep a straight face.”
Lader, on the other hand, doesn’t remember there being many hurdles for the group – recalling early takes coming off as dry, but with everyone finding their rhythm gradually. “Actually, what I remember was during dress rehearsals, the girls already knowing everything by heart,” he says. “They came prepared and were ready to take the challenge.” Aderhold noticed the same professionalism while acting with them. “I don’t believe any of the girls had acted before. So there was this excitement of doing something for the first time and realizing they were really good at it. That was fun energy to play off of.”
Everyone interviewed about the actual filming of The Wonder Girls recalls it being fun, albeit frantic to finish everything in a short amount of time. Visual gags happened in the moment — including JYP, playing the role of overprotective manager, opting to wear silly pajamas and an eye mask in one scene — while unforeseen challenges like filming above a kickboxing gym added unforeseen stress (“Everytime the ‘ding’ happened between rounds, that’s when we shoot scenes,” Lader says).
“I want to say the Wonder Girls got like three hours of sleep, because they were shooting with us for 12, 15 hours, and then they’d rehearse their dance sequences and then they’d have to be back on set early in the morning,” Harris says.
Some of the fond memories stem from The Wonder Girls’ off-set freedom. Harris recalls the crew talking about making plans to go out, “and the girls were so excited about it because nobody was going to know who they were. They weren’t going to be hounded like they usually were when they went out. For this one moment in time, they were able to just be young women, having fun.”
The film premiered in February 2012, at a time when K-pop was taking more serious strides into the U.S. market. At the same time as The Wonder Girls, compatriots Girls’ Generation promoted their English-language release “The Boys” on American TV shows, including a somewhat surreal performance on The David Letterman Show with Bill Murray and Regis Philbin watching on. In July of that year, Wonder Girls shared their big swing at the English-language markets (and a number previewed in their movie), “Like Money,” featuring Akon and a video directed by Lader, featuring the Wonder Girls reimagined as cyborgs. While performing well on Korean charts, the song largely breezed by the intended American audiences.
Five days after that clip debuted, though, “Gangnam Style” appeared on YouTube. Its soon-to-be mega-success underlined something the K-pop industry had actually taken advantage of before and what would become necessary moving forward – easy access online. The Wonder Girls could only be viewed when TeenNick broadcast it (or through illegal streaming sites) in 2012. Currently, the best place to view it is on YouTube via fan uploads.
“I often watch the clips on YouTube — the movie makes me feel refreshed,” Yubin says, while Hyerim also says she revisits it via these unofficial uploads.
The lack of access hurt its overall reach, but The Wonder Girls did foreshadow an approach that would become crucial in K-pop’s future promotion — creating a shared bond between fan and performer. “Just like the message we give in the movie, we wanted to share our journey with our fans; the journey to success in the U.S. as a foreign idol group from South Korea,” Hyerim says.
Despite being scripted, the movie aimed to show new viewers who the members of this group were, while also giving existing fans a different perspective on their favorites. This approach is commonplace today, whether through social media or more slice-of-life offerings like Blackpink’s Netflix documentary or aespa’s New York trip diary (including a chat with Nick Cannon).
“In my experience, they were really the first time time a group came out like, ”I want to go to the States. I want to plant our flag, and have K-pop be recognized for how amazing it is,” Lader says. “Now flash forward to someone like BTS, and if there aren’t those forebearers leading the way, they don’t get the same opportunity.”
Lader is still directing music videos, for artists such as David Guetta and NLE Choppa, while working on other projects. Aderhold recently moved to New York to pursue artistic ambitions, and says that the last time he saw the movie “was two or three years ago…my friends put it on the big screen, while we were having mimosas.” Harris kept in touch with The Wonder Girls via Facebook for a bit after, and focused on her acting and writing career.
The Wonder Girls marked the first serious effort to introduce K-pop into the United States, a process that has paid off in recent years. Yet for Yubin, there’s something more personal to it: “The most fabulous thing is that the movie allowed me to reminisce about our time in the U.S. The people that I met during shooting the film and the experience that I was on the scene are unforgettably precious to me.”
The Wonder Girls never pushed too much into the U.S. market after 2012, and the group disbanded in 2017. While not held up as an important step in K-pop’s push into the United States, The Wonder Girls marked the moment of an industry’s ambitions becoming much more serious.
“It was a brand new market not only for our group, but for a K-pop group to debut in the U.S.,” Hyerim recalls. “Regardless of the result, I enjoyed the challenge as I believe it made our group stronger as a team and also left us with such a special memory. If I could turn back time, I would do the same without a doubt.”