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After A Career In K-pop, Tiffany Young Is Finally In Control

With the release of her EP 'Lips On Lips,' the Korean-American pop star is rewriting her own narrative

Who is Tiffany Young? It's a question I've found myself asking a lot over the last six months as the 29-year-old singer has been making a name for herself in the U.S. To be clear, I know who she is — I've known of her since she went by just Tiffany, the cheery American member of the successful K-pop girl group Girls' Generation — but I don't really know her. Like you, I know her through the bits and pieces she's been willing to share with me.

For example: Tiffany Young was born Stephanie Young Hwang. She loves musicals. And Christmas music. She's a Slytherin. She inherited her late mother's love of female artists, citing the "divas" — Annie Lennox, Madonna, and Mariah Carey — as her biggest musical influences. But she also went through a boy band phase in the early aughts and had a huge crush on Justin Timberlake. Her dream to become a performer led to a chance audition with South Korean company SM Entertainment and ultimately a move to Seoul at age 15, alone, where she trained for two years before debuting with Girls' Generation in 2007. Despite her decade-long singing career abroad, she decided not to renew her contract and instead move back home to Los Angeles in 2018 to try and make her pop star dreams come true in the U.S. with a fresh sound and a fitting surname ("Young is the Chinese character for forever in Korean," she told me last year).

These are all the familiar beats of Tiffany Young's story, and she typically recounts them warmly, her signature smile always present. But it's sometimes hard to see through all that poise and polish to find the woman underneath. It's not Young's fault; she's been held to the highest standard of perfection for more than a decade, and that's not something she can shed overnight. Though, she's getting there.

After kicking off her U.S. solo career last year with bold, sensual songs like "Over My Skin" and "Teach You" — two groovy English-language singles that helped establish the Korean-American artist as a woman not to trifled with, while also relying on glossy K-pop-inspired visuals to convey the message — 2019's "Born Again" was a fresh page for Young. "Never felt this safe, in a foreign place," she croons. "I used to feel so hollow, shallow, vacant."

Co-written by Young, the single was a sweeping confessional that picked at old wounds. At the end of 2018, her father was accused of fraud, and the situation made national news in Korea, forcing Young to not only apologize on her dad's behalf but also reveal her own estranged relationship with him. It was a painful, embarrassing experience, but it inspired her to see things from a new perspective.

"It changed me a lot," she told MTV News. "Finding that self-acceptance during that time really let me embrace some of the imperfections of myself [and] to find the strength to say, 'I want this rebirth. I want this to be the beginning. I want to ultimately say I am reborn as a human being, as an artist.'"

She teamed up with prolific producers and songwriters like Fernando Garibay, The Rascals, and Babyface to lay these insecurities bare in the studio, co-writing all five songs on her debut English-language EP, Lips On Lips. For Young, Lips On Lips — released in late February — was a way for her to "open up so that others may open up and connect [with it] the way music made me feel when I was lost." It was also an opportunity for Young to advocate for herself and her ideas for the first time and turn the studio experience into something fun and collaborative. "I used to always be nervous [in the studio]," she said. "I thought that I had to get things perfect in one take. I'm always trying to relax now. I'm just deprogramming a lot of things that I thought was supposed to be. There are no rules when creating, and I'm just reminding myself that every day because it really translates once you're comfortable and you're ready."

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(L) Tiffany poses for photos in Seoul, South Korea in January 2009; (R) Tiffany Young attends the iHeartRadio Music Awards in March 2019

Young is hardly the first artist to turn personal tragedy into creative fuel — Ariana Grande's done it twice in the last year alone (Sweetener, Thank U, Next) — but she's in a unique position, where by rewriting her narrative she's not simply writing it, she's owning it for the very first time.

She debuted with Girls' Generation at the age of 17. The first time I had interviewed her, last fall when she was promoting "Teach You" in New York, she had described it as "a time when you had to be perfect." K-pop idols not only endure years of training — practicing singing, dancing, rapping, and languages (as a foreigner, it took Young two years before she was comfortable reading, writing, and speaking Korean) — but they also have busy promotional schedules and, in most cases, various restrictions. In the early days of Girls' Generation, everything was decided for Young, from her clothes to her hairstyles. When the group released their first single, Young sported a short chop, which would become her signature look over the years. The style, she says, was determined by management as a way to give her an identity within the nine-member group. The long, loose blond waves she has now are as much a tangible representation of her rebirth as "Born Again."

And while the modern K-pop landscape is embracing new narratives, there's still an expectation to work hard and to always strive for more — better music, tighter formations, and better performances. "It was the most grueling work but [also] educational," she said. "I am thankful."

That unyielding level of work ethic is present in everything Young does, from changing into a new outfit at every press stop during a hectic 19-hour media day, to co-writing all five songs on Lips On Lips, and mapping out her first North American tour — an "intimate" showcase in which Young planned the set list (which includes euphoric covers of *NSYNC's "Gone" and George Michael's "Freedom") and the costumes (she was inspired by Blake Lively's character in A Simple Favor). "I'm just trying to find that balance of being relaxed and still kicking my ass to work harder and pushing myself to create," she said. But that hard work is already paying off. The singer recently won the iHeartRadio Music Award for Best Solo Breakout.

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According to Young, one of the most personal songs on the EP is "Not Barbie," an R&B song that celebrates human imperfections. "Even if I don't look like what they show me," she sings on the track. "They can't ever judge me 'cause they don't know me." To bring this song to life on tour, Young invites a few fans at every stop join her on stage for the emotional performance. "This tour is all about intimacy and closeness for me," she said. "That song's so special. I want every woman and man and boy and girl to know that beauty is being positively true to your mind, body, and soul, and nothing else."

Even for Young this idea of being true to yourself is a process. "I'm still learning," she said. Old Tiffany had to be perfect, but New Tiffany likes perfection too. This time, of course, it's her choice.

Just like it's her choice to decide what she wants to say and how to say it. In 2019, we don't want our idols to be perfect. In fact, we prefer when they're not, when they're a little messy — but not too messy. Thanks to social media, the relationship between an artist and their fans has never felt more intimate; there's an expectation to share the everyday emotions and anxieties you're feeling. That can feel overwhelming for some, but for Young, it's liberating.

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"I feel like opening up to this part of me made things a lot more clear in the sense of how optimistic and persevering I wanted to be during that time of Girls' Generation. I've always found a lot of beauty in pain." And that beauty can manifest itself in many ways, like, say, a persistent smile. Because sometimes the best way to really know someone is to pay attention to what they're not saying — like the tone of their voice, or the way their eyes sparkle when they're talking about their favorite Broadway musicals.

"You have to be able to see past the pain, and I got to do that. Music has always been that for me. I was just so thankful to be doing what I love to do, to be performing. That makes me continue to have this smile on my face."

To hear about Tiffany Young's career journey in her own words, watch her episode of the MTV News series, Homecoming.