These days, Chinese American student Kathy Lee is just a normal girl studying economics at Vanderbilt University in the United States. Back in 2016, however, she was a contestant on Mnet‘s famous idol survival show, Produce 101. After leaving MIDAS Entertainment to focus on her studies, Kathy (then known as Katherine Lee) is revealing all about her time in the K-Pop trainee industry—including the reality of extreme dieting.
When asked by BuzzFeed News whether she was affected by diet culture as a K-Pop trainee, Kathy revealed, “Oh, definitely.” First off, she revealed that trainees were forced to weigh themselves in front of everyone multiple times a week. “It was really embarrassing,” she recalled, noting that guys, girls, and teachers all watched the weigh-ins in one room.
Kathy explained that to get their weights as low as possible, trainees would strip down to nothing but a tank top and shorts. At the age of around 14, Kathy was deemed “overweight” at her first weigh-in. While the company was okay with this the first time around, Kathy revealed that “the dieting really started” once training began.
I remember the first time I did it I was obviously ‘overweight,’ because I was in the eighth grade and chubby to begin with.
— Kathy Lee
“It was really unhealthy at first,” Kathy shared to BuzzFeed News, explaining that she was only focused on the number on the weighing scale. The former Produce 101 contestant says she sustained herself by eating nothing but small amounts of chocolate. Then came the diet hospitals.
At some point, the company said I could go to a diet hospital. They have those in Korea.
— Kathy Lee
Kathy says she and another trainee took an hour bus ride to the diet hospital where they were given a type of herbal medicine. According to Kathy, the medicine would “suppress our appetite and increase our metabolism,” which meant their hearts would beat very fast. Looking back, although she was told the medicine was herbal, Kathy says, “I’m pretty sure they were diet pills.”
I don’t know. They said it was herbal, but after I took a health class in America, I was like, hang on. That seems sus. Because it suppressed my appetite, so I wasn’t hungry! I didn’t have any cravings, so I only ate to fill my stomach up.
— Kathy Lee
Ultimately, the combination of medicine and restrictive eating made Kathy lose “a ton of weight,”, with her lowest weight as a trainee coming in at 46 or 47 kilograms (101 lbs.). At Kathy’s height of 165cm, that meant her BMI reached a low of 16.9; BMI figures of under 18.5 are considered underweight.
“I remember feeling really weak,” Kathy recalled, adding that she couldn’t even bow down to say “annyeonghaseyo” without feeling dizzy. But sadly, that wasn’t all; Kathy says there was then another stage to her diet. As part of the diet hospital package, the then 14-year-old was given carboxy shots.
Carboxytherapy is a minor procedure that involves injecting carbon dioxide gas into the body to break up and filter fat, making it easier to lose weight. On top of that, Kathy also received a treatment which she described as, “An electric thing where there’s needles all around and they electrocute you.”
It’s all supposed to help you lose weight. I did a little bit of all that because it was part of the package.
— Kathy Lee
After all her treatments, she still had to eat a highly restrictive diet to maintain her low weight. Kathy says that her daily diet consisted of nothing but yogurt for breakfast, cucumber with cherry tomatoes and an occasional boiled egg for lunch, and a boiled egg with sweet potato for dinner. Even now, Kathy remembers how many calories are in a hard-boiled egg (“62 calories“) and a single cherry tomato (“12 calories“).
Kathy reveals that a part of her wondered, “What am I doing?“, but her drive to become a star pushed her through. “I think I was so determined to be a K-pop idol,” she shared, “And I was young. I wanted to be pretty.“