[INTERVIEW] Meet Vanner, K-pop's hardest-working and most heartwarming boy band
When boy band Vanner was named the winner of JTBC’s survival show “Peak Time” last month, a flashback of the five members’ years of struggles passed them by. One of those moments was when member Ahxian ran into his agency’s chief while working as a delivery worker to make ends meet — and it turned out, the chief was working the same part-time job himself.
“We had to worry about putting food on the table, and there were so many moments when we wanted give up,” said member Yeongkwang, who was also working at a movie theater at the time.
Vanner debuted ambitiously in 2019 after training themselves through over 200 live performances in Japan, but saw little success. The Covid-19 pandemic hit the following year and brought the entertainment industry to a halt, making it harder for Vanner to find gigs. All the employees of its agency left, leaving just the chief and five members to take care of their own management.
After years of various part time jobs, Vanner got a second chance on “Peak Time” as Team 11:00. The series aired from February to April with the aim to shed light on already-debuted but lesser-known boy bands.
Now as the show’s winners — set to receive a prize of 300 million won ($227,470), an album release and global showcase — the five members Taehwan, Gon, Hyesung, Ahxian and Yeongkwang said their dedication to keeping the group together finally paid off, during an interview at southern Seoul’s Gangnam District on Wednesday. In fact, it marked the band’s first proper press interview.
“It took four years to have a day like this,” said Ahxian. “We’re thankful for this precious moment, and we feel like we’re seeing the result of our years of hard work.”
From its very first performance on the show, the band left an impression on viewers who were surprised to learn that Vanner had remained in obscurity for years despite its talent. Vanner covered boy band Seventeen’s hit “Adore U” (2015) and was praised for filling the stage with the five members’ presence, especially considering that the number is originally performed by 13 members. Word-of-mouth gradually led Vanner to the top spot on April’s final episode.
Leader Taehwan says he always had trust in the members’ skills, which is why he strongly suggested they compete on “Peak Time” after he came across a notice for the program online.
“When I saw ‘Peak Time’ was going to air, I knew it was a show meant for us,” he said. “Our talented members deserved this opportunity, and we couldn’t miss this chance.”
In fact, the reason he found the notice was because Vanner’s agency VT Entertainment had no other employees; so Taehwan was in charge of everything a manager would do, from taking care of the fan website and social media to booking appearances. He did all that while working part-time at a tteokbokki (rice cake) restaurant, while other members worked at coffee shops, fast food joints and cosmetic stores.
“Honestly, accepting the fact we couldn’t afford to focus only on being singers was a hard pill to swallow,” said Hyesung. “But all five of us were on the same page — do what we needed for the team to stay together. We love the stage and that’s what makes us feel alive.”
“One day, a customer came into the shop I was selling soap in, and revealed herself to be a fan at the checkout,” Hyesung continued. “I honestly thought she might be disappointed seeing me like that, because I wished I looked cool on the stage in front of my fans. But she told me, ‘ Oppa, [a Korean term, often affectionate, for an older male] you shine whether you’re on or off the stage.’ That’s what kept me going.”
Although their situation was desperate, the members say they initially felt ambivalent toward Taehwan’s suggestion.
“To be honest, I wasn't completely happy with the idea at first,” Ahxian said. “I was worried we might get hurt again, if we were to go on the show and fail to see any results. But in the end, I thought it would be doable as long as I’m with the members I trust.”
“I had no hesitations, because I knew our boys were capable,” said Gon. “When Taehwan asked if I was willing to do it, I said yes without skipping a beat.”
So members got together in the early mornings for dance and vocal practice, then headed to their separate part-time jobs when the sun came up. But they did not expect they would see any meaningful outcome, let alone rave reviews from the public or win first place. They say they felt like they were on “The Truman Show.”
“I watched the final episode more than 10 times,” said Taehwan. “It was literally the peak time of our lives. I wanted to relive those happy moments.
“All of our parents were in the audience during the final episode, and it was their first time seeing us on stage,” Gon said. “I felt like a proud son while dancing. When we were named the winner, it was so unexpected and all our hard moments flashed before my eyes. Hyesung and I cried our eyes out. It still feels unreal that we won.”
“The coffee shop owner who hired me was so happy to hear that I was quitting after we won,” Gon added. “He had been telling me ‘Please quit, get out of here’ as his joking way of supporting my dreams [...] Part-time job-hunting websites should hire us models. We are so experienced and ready!”
It took a long time to get there, but the public seems to have finally recognized that Vanner was a treasure buried in the dark.
Earlier this month, the boy band starred in "Peak Time"’s Seoul concert featuring the show’s top six teams. Another Busan concert is scheduled for next month.
Vanner also signed with Klap Entertainment in early May, which will take care of the band’s management for three years. They are currently in talks for a new album.
“It actually feels a bit awkward now that I don’t have management tasks to do,” Taehwan laughed. “But right before we signed [with Klap], I was still in charge of the fan cafe and saw that its members increased by four times [...] We’ve been doing our absolute best every second. I just think the time hadn’t come for us until now. Everyone has different seasons to fully bloom, and our season came a bit late.”
“Those hard times are what made Vanner grow into what it is today, and what makes us grateful for the present moment,” Ahxian said.
Members expressed their happiness to finally have a proper practice room in southern Seoul’s upscale Cheongdam-dong neighborhood, a new dormitory with five separate rooms and their own vehicle. Before signing with Klap, they had to take public transport to all their appearances.
It seems members still have some adjusting to do for their newfound popularity. After the show ended, Gon says he was surprised to see a woman on the subway look up his name on her phone.
“I was shocked thinking, ‘Wait a minute, that’s me!’” said Gon. “I was right behind her, and she kept stealing glances at me, so I think she recognized me and wanted to confirm. I couldn’t tell her, ‘Hey, that’s me.’ I actually ran away. I was so shy because I had never received that kind of attention.”
“It’s just the beginning,” said Taehwan. “After the Seoul concert, we realized we still have so much room for growth. We’ll show an even more improved version of ourselves in Busan next month."
BY HALEY YANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]