K-pop, body positivity, and bisexuality feature in Lyla Lee’s debut YA novel I’ll Be The One

Book cover courtesy of HarperCollins.

By Jennifer Zhan

Five years ago, Lyla Lee gathered with a group of peers in USC’s Asian Pacific American student lounge to witness what she said felt like a historic moment for the community. The first episodes of ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat had just aired, and seeing a family on screen that reminded her of her own inspired her to write an Asian American story that became the Mindy Kim series, her first published books.

Lee’s first YA novel, I’ll Be The One, will be released on Tuesday, June 16. In a full-circle moment Lee describes as surreal, an HBO Max film adaptation of the book is in the works and set to be directed by none other than Fresh Off The Boat creator Nahnatchka Khan.

Photo of Lyla Lee by CJ Lee.

I’ll Be The One follows Skye Shin, a bisexual Korean American 16-year-old competing in a K-pop audition show with dreams of becoming the industry’s first plus-sized star. While battling public scrutiny, Skye also finds herself falling for fellow contestant and world-famous model Henry Cho.

“It’s a fun rom-com, but more than that, it has some bite to it,” editor Mabel Hsu said. “It has some realistic issues it represents between an immigrant mother and first generation daughter. Taking that divide and exploring it from a young Korean American perspective felt really interesting to me, and Lyla captured it really well.”

Topics that came up during the editorial process, Hsu said, included what causes friction in communication with Asian mothers, as well as microaggressions and experiences with yellow fever and fetishization. 

“Any good editor could help a book storywise, in terms of plot, voice, all that stuff,” Hsu said. “But when it comes time to really explore character motivations, especially coming from a viewpoint that hasn’t been shown as much, (it was) especially crucial and fortunate that we were able to have a team full of Asian American women who have lived through similar experiences.”

Writing about the world of K-pop competitions also involved some hands-on research: Lee studied the structure of multiple shows, including K-pop Star, The Great Birth and Produce 101. She went to Seoul to speak with a friend who became a singer after winning such a program and said he provided insight into the social politics among contestants and the physical stress filming episodes in a short time frame has on the voice and body.  

To shape Skye’s personality as a confident performer, Lee said she also spent a lot of time listening to artists with strong “girl power anthems,” from Beyoncé and Lady Gaga to K-pop acts like MOMOLAND and Blackpink.

When Lee was three, she was fat shamed into quitting ballet, and said growing up, she never felt skinny enough. She said she hopes readers will be inspired by Skye’s self-love and acceptance of her body.

“That’s actually one of the reasons why I wrote I’ll Be The One, because it kind of changes the narrative,” Lee said. “Even though Skye gets fat shamed, she doesn’t quit like I did, and she actually stands up to her haters. She actually tells them, ‘Well, you know what? It doesn’t matter what size I am, I’m still awesome at what I do.’”

Isabel Jones, the cover model for the book, said she watched many Korean music shows growing up, but found it hard to see herself in the K-pop idols because of how different they looked. She said she hopes the K-pop industry grows to include more representation for plus-sized bodies, rather than continue to reinforce beauty standards that can be detrimental to the physical and mental health of teens and younger audiences. 

“I’ve met a few people who are just absolutely fit to be an idol at this moment, but because they don’t fit that size 0 that a lot of these agencies are looking for, they have to starve themselves,” Jones said. “It’s really unfortunate to see these people having to do that. The (K-pop) industry is still very fat-phobic, as I’m seeing it now.” 

Jones was scouted for the cover from her Instagram, where she posts K-pop dance covers and currently has over 105,000 followers. When she posed as Skye during the photoshoot, she said she tried to imagine that she was on stage, unconcerned with those who criticize her weight rather than focus on her techniques or skills.

“I guess that’s kind of how I do my own dance covers,” Jones said. “When I’m dancing in my own room, I think of myself as a dancer, not as a plus-size dancer. Rather than thinking about what hate comments I’m going to get or how people are going to look at me, I just try to enjoy the moment as fully as I can.”

Another aspect of Skye’s identity highlighted in I’ll Be The One is her sexuality. Skye is not out as bisexual to her parents or most of her friends, and is learning to navigate how she feels about herself and how much she’s willing to share with the outside world.

Lee, who is bisexual, said there’s a lot of stigma surrounding being queer and Asian. Many of her LGBTQ+ Asian friends, she said, didn’t explore that part of their identities until their 20s. While writing I’ll Be The One, Lee said she wondered if anyone would be interested in seeing this kind of representation. 

“It’s kind of sad, the way that even though it was my lived experience, I was doubting myself and doubting the fact that people would want to read this book,” Lee said. “I think that kind of tells you that there should be more queer and POC representation in literature, so that more teens can realize that it’s okay, it’s actually normal and there’s a lot of people out there who are queer and POC.” 

Hsu said people are increasingly speaking up about the importance of authentic intersectional representation in literature. Lee said she’s been happy to see recent strides in the amount of diverse stories in not just books, but movies and TV shows as well.

“We have all these Asian American writers and creatives who are getting their stuff out there, and I think that’s great, and I hope that that wave just continues,” Lee said.

Dallas indie bookstore Interabang Books will host a virtual release party for I’ll Be The One at 6 p.m. CST on June 16. Lee is holding a preorder campaign for those who order the book through its first week of sales.

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