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From Idol to Indie: Amber Liu on Her Self-Discovery Journey

From Idol to Indie: Amber Liu on Her Self-Discovery Journey

After a successful career as a member of K-pop sensation f(x), AMBER LIU is now dancing to the beat of her own drum – and language. She shares her voyage of self-exploration with Prestige.

Photography and creative direction KARL LAM
Illustrations TAKU
Styling GENNADY ORESHKIN
Make-up WENDY LEE at Wendy’s Workshop
Hair JEAN TONG
Styling assistant MILOSH BELIKIN
Photography assistants JOHN YAN and GARY CHAN

Depending on whom you ask, Amber Liu evokes widely different reactions from her fans. To a generation of K-pop followers, she’s an industry icon who sold millions of records as one-fifth of music sensation f(x). To her current fanbase, she’s an international indie music star who performs everywhere from LA to Tokyo. In mainland China, she’s a bona-fide TV personality after appearing on hit shows like Sisters Who Make Waves and Produce Camp 2021. But if you ask gamers on the internet, many know her simply as a streamer on Twitch.

“Often people online don’t know who I am, but they see me play and just want to game with me,” she says, laughing. “Some find me through my music videos on YouTube. They all seem to find different ways of discovering me.”

Amber Liu wears outfit by Givenchy and sunglasses by Balenciaga

At 31 years old, Liu isn’t only a gamer: she’s already a stalwart in the entertainment business. Famous around the world for many things, today she’s in Hong Kong, where I meet her ahead of her No More Sad Songs World Tour. Like many powerhouse performers, Liu is tiny in person, but huge on charisma. Even after being on set all day and being admittedly exhausted, she’s a team player who keeps going until the final flash. And despite the edgy tomboy style and countless tattoos, she oozes a soft, sweet energy that makes her instantly approachable. “Humble” and “down-to-earth” aren’t usually the first words that come to mind when dealing with celebrities, but that’s exactly what Liu is like in person.

“When I get tired, I start to become a little bit detached,” she admits to me. “Whenever I need a moment, even at my shows, and there are little pockets of downtime, I like to zone out. Whether it’s five minutes or 30 seconds, I’ll zone out. Even today at the shoot, I’ve zoned out a few times!”

Amber Liu wears outfit by Givenchy, Balenciaga sunglasses and Messika ring

Although she’s certainly no stranger to the city, it’s her first time performing to fans here as a solo artist. “Hong Kong has always been a vacation place for me because my aunt lives here,” she tells me. “Even as a kid, after I first moved to Korea to join the industry, I’d come here whenever I had a couple of days off. My aunt took me everywhere, so I have many happy memories of the city because of her.”

Born in Los Angeles, Liu is proudly Chinese-American, but it’s only been in recent years as a TV star in China that she’s been able to fully embrace her Asian heritage. Most recently, she won over viewers as a celebrity contestant on Sisters Who Make Waves, a Chinese variety show in which Liu won second place. “My Mandarin wasn’t the best, so when I was on all these shows my brain was racing, because I was trying to pick up on words,” she admits. “Now it’s pretty good.”

Amber Liu wears outfit by Ambush and Messika jewellery

What Liu didn’t expect, however, was that the experience would unexpectedly bring her closer to her own mother, who speaks little English. “Growing up, I knew she loved me, but I didn’t always know what she was thinking, how she felt and what her mindset was,” Liu admits. “After learning Mandarin on all these shows, I can now go home and have a proper conversation with my mom that’s around 90 percent Mandarin. Only now I can really know who my mom is. And I think that’s simply irreplaceable.”

As a Chinese American whose career started in Korea, and has enjoyed success in various territories, it’s almost no surprise Liu has suffered from identity issues during her time in the spotlight. “I’ve spent more than half of my life living outside the States, so I sometimes have this identity crisis where I’m not quite sure where I belong,” she says. “But at the same time, I try to reassure myself that I don’t need to stress about finding somewhere I belong – my mind is always going to feel at home with people that I love and that push me.”

Amber Liu wears a top by Lululemon, pants by Ralph Lauren and Messika jewellery

After almost 15 years in the industry, Liu says she’s still learning to be comfortable in her own skin. “I’m in a phase where every day is an inch forward,” she admits. “If you think about the past, you dwell on the past and you become depressed. If you think about the future, you become anxious. But when you’re present for the moment, you’re more mindful of things.” But, of course, that’s often easier said than done. “I’m very much a person trapped in the past and I’m always worrying about the future,” says Liu. “As a daily practice, I have to tell myself the most important thing right now is to be here, in the present, right now.”

Like many musicians, a large part of Liu’s self-discovery journey is reflected in her music. Although she was once known for catchy K-pop beats – like “Hot Summer” and “4 Walls” as part of f(x) – Liu’s solo career has given her the opportunity to explore new sounds and create her own signature style of music. “Because of the whole self-discovery thing I’m going through, I’m starting to experiment with other genres and bring band elements into my music these days,” she explains.

Amber Liu weras headgear by Kowloon City Boy, a Lululemon top and Messika jewellery

As an indie artist, taking control of her music and sound is vital to Liu. “I want to make music that reminds myself why I’m doing this,” she says. “Because when you’re in the industry, unfortunately sometimes you do lose sight of what it is, and it’s nobody’s fault. The industry itself is just very demanding and just soul-sucking at times. I always try to remind myself that I do this for a reason. “I’ve been in the industry for 15 years, but it hasn’t been until the past maybe two years that I’ve really let loose.”

With millions of fans around the world, experimenting with new sounds and projects can be a double-edged sword, but that hasn’t stopped Liu from finding the courage to do her own thing. “I don’t want to let my fans down, but at the same time I have to keep reminding myself this is my story – I’m not writing their story,” she says. “For me, I’m writing my own story for myself to share with other people. And hopefully that’s how I create honest music, because I want to wear my heart on my sleeve. I often tell my fans to ‘be yourself’, and I also need to be myself. I need to practise what I preach.”

Amber Liu wears a top by Louis Vuitton, sunglasses by Balenciaga and Messika jewellery

Now she’s got her eye on the prize, Liu isn’t afraid to cross boundaries, and may even venture into the rock genre in the future. “Professionally I’ve been doing a lot of pop and dance, but growing up I was more of a rock fan,” she confesses. Just how rock is she really? “Paramore, Blink 182, Sum 41, My Chemical Romance, Taking Back Sunday – I love all that,” she says without hesitation.

Growing up, it was her love of music and these edgy rock bands that saw her through dark times. “The reason why I got into the music was because I felt lonely,” she admits. “I felt out of place and music allowed me to meet like-minded people. Back then I was an awkward, weird kid and I was bullied a lot. And when I finally made friends, it was only because of music and our love for the bands.”

Amber Liu wears a top by Louis Vuitton, sunglasses by Balenciaga and Messika jewellery

And while the world of music was an escapism for the young Liu, in later years it was the music world itself that made her feel isolated and alone again. After finding fame, she quickly realised there was a dark side to the industry. “After becoming a K-pop idol, people change around you and treat you differently,” she tells me. “I soon realised some people were just using me to try get something from me. People don’t always have the best intentions. That’s why I often felt lonely. The K-pop idol experience is already so unusual – and being a foreigner in the industry made it even more unique, and often isolated.”

Fortunately, these days Liu surrounds herself with a strong support system, often turning to her close-knit friendship circle for support. “I’m so thankful to have the friends I have,” she says. “In our group, we’re all extremely different people, but we have a special bond because we were together at a time when our lives were all just really, messy [laughs]. But seriously, we complete each other. We were all in our twenties together, just trying to figure it out. I have very caring friends and I’m grateful for that. “I have close friends in Korea, China, and over in the States and Canada – it’s like I have like little pockets around the world.”

Amber Liu wears a Coat by Ralph Lauren, Lululemon top, sunglasses by Fendi and Messika jewellery

Liu also credits her family as a pillar of strength, even if her sister likes to keep her grounded in unusual and often hilarious ways. “My sister always says to me, ‘Amber, do you think you’re a pop star? Do you think you’re famous? Well, you know what? You’re a poop-head.’ Every time I visit her, she’ll say, ‘Go wash the dishes.’ I’d be like, ‘But those are your dishes!’”

Of course, a strong support system is vital for any entertainer, let alone a K-pop singer in one of the hardest music industries in the world. But in recent years, following a string of headline-making suicides, including Liu’s former bandmate Sulli, the K-pop industry’s mental-health issues are increasingly being spoken about.

Amber Liu Prestige April 2024 cover
Amber Liu wears outfit by Givenchy and sunglasses by Balenciaga

Liu’s K-pop days may be long gone, but she’s still a big advocate for mental-health awareness, believing it should be more widely spoken about, and especially in Korea. “I haven’t been present in the industry, but I always hope that – whether it’s K-pop or any industry – mental health is more openly talked about,” she says. “I know there’s a stigma against therapy. I go to therapy and I love my therapist. It keeps me sane.

“I just hope that if anybody’s struggling out there – and they’re scared to speak up or say anything – they know there are ways to find help and that they’re not alone. When I was struggling with my mental health – or when I do – I go to a place where I feel incredibly low, and I feel alone in the situation. But when I’m able to share it with someone like a close friend, or call my sister, or speak to a therapist, I usually I feel a lot better afterwards.

I honestly think that simply opening up is a good way to start dealing with how you feel.”

Amber Liu wears an outfit by Louis Vuitton

Of course, having someone to talk to immediately in low moments isn’t always an option. For those situations, Liu has her own technique to calm herself down. “When I’m feeling super anxious, or really spiralling down, I stand alone in front of a mirror and

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I say out loud how I feel,” she reveals. “Because what the reality actually is could be different. Many times I’ll say, ‘I feel super anxious right now, because of this …’ Or if I feel really sad and I don’t know why, then I talk myself through it. I try to guide myself through how I’m feeling to really understand what it is. And eventually down the line, I either understand why I was feeling a certain way, or at the very least I end that conversation with myself a little less heavy.”

And Liu’s advice to the newbie K-pop singers trying to survive a brutal industry of pressure, rules and beauty standards? “Surround yourself with people who genuinely support you and want you to be both mentally and physically healthy.”

Amber Liu wears an outfit by Louis Vuitton

While Liu’s individuality and stand-out tomboy aesthetic during her f(x) days was curated and celebrated at the time, other singers in the industry aren’t as lucky. She explains: “At times when, especially in a group setting when you’re working in a team, of course there should be a cohesiveness, but it can be challenging for an individual to find their own style, too. Everybody is beautiful in their own way and it should be up to them to find what image, style and persona is best for them.”

After all these years, is there anything Liu misses about the K-pop industry? “I often speak to my friends who are still promoting in K-pop, but the industry has totally changed. I don’t know if I can say that I actually miss anything about it, because it’s totally different now,” she admits.

The one thing that hasn’t changed however is the f(x) girls’ strong bond. Unlike most successful girl bands in history who feud and split up, Liu has remained fiercely close to former bandmates Victoria, Krystal and Luna. “The one thing I do miss are my bandmates, for sure,” she says, lighting up. “I think that’s the only thing I miss at this point. We’re very chill with each other. The one thing that I’ve always really loved about my bandmates is that we really hype each other up, and we’re all supportive of each other and self-motivated to do what we want to do.”

Amber Liu wears outfit by Louis Vuitton

With so much love between the former colleagues, surely fans can expect an f(x) reunion? Well, not just yet. “As of now, I don’t want to give any false hope to fans,” says Liu. “At this point, we haven’t really been talking about that. I think right now we’re just totally focused on our own thing. And we support each other, the best that we can.”

But if the opportunity arises in the future at the right time? She responds with a cheeky smile: “Possibly, yes. When the stars align.”

In the meantime, Liu has more than enough on her plate with her solo tour and a legion of adoring fans. But it’s her Asian fan base that she feels particularly close to. “Because I promoted most of my career here in Asia, a lot of the fans are more like friends and family, because they’ve kind of grown up with me,” she explains. “They tell me, ‘Amber, please take care of yourself and go to sleep.’ Sometimes they nag me and I yell back at them, but it’s all in good fun. At the end of the day, the fans here are always super chill. I’m incredibly grateful to have that kind of relationship with them.”

Amber Liu Prestige April 2024 cover
Amber Liu Prestige April 2024 cover

And though Liu may have started her career as a K-pop idol, she’s long evolved, admitting she no longer wants to be labelled “idol”. “I don’t like the word ‘idol’, because I don’t want my fans to worship me. Even when they say I’m a role model, I’m like, ‘Are you sure? Are you really sure about that?’

“In the end I am what I am, however people want to see me. That’s on them. How I view myself is somebody who just wants to write music, perform it and ultimately bring people together. That’s all.”

If bringing people together is her main goal in life, then she’s already done a stellar job – idol or not.

Source: Prestige Online

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