I don't need to see an old picture of Mark Tuan to know exactly what he was like in middle school.
"Did you have a skater phase?" I ask him via Zoom.
"I had that phase for sure. I really loved to skate," he remarks.
At all five of the middle schools I went to, every single class had at least three guys perpetually in tight jeans with a wallet chain draped from their pockets, baggy T-shirts emblazoned with whatever band they're begging their parents to let them see at the next Warped Tour, and shaggy hair they could barely see through.
"That was me," Tuan mutters sheepishly before laughing.
Something about Tuan froze in that phase of his life. About 95 percent of his friends are from middle school, he estimates, including his best friend circa fourth grade. Tuan still nostalgically slips on Vans, Converse, and occasionally skinny jeans. That glint of childlike curiosity remains in his eyes, too.
But life moved on quickly for Tuan after middle school, whether he liked it or not. In August 2010, he packed up his life in Los Angeles and moved to Seoul, South Korea, to train under JYP Entertainment in hopes of becoming a K-pop star. About four years later, he succeeded when he debuted with GOT7.
Eventually, he was far from the guys I went to middle school with. If you added up the populations of all four of the Connecticut, Florida, and Texas towns I grew up in, they'd equal the amount of people who, at one point, watched him over a livestream as he removed his makeup after a GOT7 concert in Singapore. He more or less lived out Avril Lavigne's "Sk8er Boi."
Just as many eyes — if not, more — are on Tuan now. In January 2021, the members of GOT7 announced they aren't renewing their contracts with JYP. As the others signed to new labels in months following, Tuan returned to his California hometown. These days, he livestreams his life via Twitch and Instagram, looking just like the guys I grew up with probably do now: unshaven, makeup-free, tanned skinned from beach days with bedhead hidden under a baseball cap.
While chatting with him through my computer screen, the past decade as a K-pop idol almost seems like a blip. Tuan refers to that phase as "In Korea" throughout our interview. ("In Korea, I wasn't out in the sun a lot;" "In Korea, we had schedules almost every single day;" "I didn't make any new friends in Korea.") Despite experiencing something few people get the privilege to — K-pop superstardom — Tuan is seemingly as normal as could be. Talking to him feels less like an interview and more like getting to know a new friend via Zoom. Honestly, some questions that pop in my head, like why did you decide to not go to college or what truly motivated you to go to Korea, seem too prying for a first meeting.
But those mentions of being "in Korea," give him away as a not-so-normal-as-he-appears guy. There, Tuan says he wasn't in the sun a lot and constantly had hair and makeup people fussing with his face and hair. Now he's on his own to figure out just how necessary sunblock is and what to do with his hair. "Usually, I just wear a hat because I'm not good at styling my hair," he says. "If I tried, I don't think it would look good at all, so I just wash it."
Tuan's skin-care routine also holds relics from the K-pop phase of his life. He lists off the steps for me: face wash, toner, moisturizer. Occasionally, he'll slot in a sheet mask and a face scrub. And when the seasons change, Tuan's sensitive skin breaks out, so he reaches for pimple patches to help treat them.
But wait, Tuan has one more complexion essential only a true celebrity is willing to divulge: drinking a lot of water clears his skin. I may have rolled my eyes at that statement. His defense: "It's just cleans everything out of you." The weekly dermatologist appointments for medical facials Tuan once had might have been the key, but fair enough.
Before we wrap up our chat, Tuan interjects another addendum: "I just want to say, I don't think I have that good of skin," he reveals. "I can tell when people have good skin, but I don't think I'm one of them."
But what is Tuan's definition of "good skin," I inquire. "Super clear, buttery smooth," Tuan returns. But he's also quick to say he's accepted his skin for what it is after years of having his skin constantly covered in foundation and sparkles. "I just want people to know that you don't have to worry about breaking out," Tuan continues. "It's about who you are at the end of the day. It doesn't matter what you look like."
That's not to say Tuan doesn't ever want to wear makeup again, though. It has a time and place in his life. He neither knows how to do makeup himself nor ever has an idea in his head of how it should look. Instead, Tuan trusts the makeup artists he works with to let their imaginations run wild.
"I'm still trying to find myself."
As he currently embarks on his solo music career, this same attitude runs through Tuan's life. He's not exactly sure what he wants, but he'll know when he sees it. In other terms, Tuan is an exploratory major in the college phase he never got to have but is now living out. After years of the K-pop industry dictating exactly what he should look like, Tuan finally gets to feel out and play around with different styles on his own terms. "Aesthetic-wise, I'm still trying to find myself," he says. "I'm always changing how I want to show myself to people."
Tuan's first test harks back on his skater roots: punk rock, complete with stacks of chunky metal rings, a simple chain, worn-out vintage T-shirts, and longer hair. Maybe he'll even dye it purple, he notes as he absentmindedly takes off his hat and smooths back his hair. A permanent addition to this temporary style study Tuan has in mind is more tattoos.
The most recent addition to Tuan's growing collection of body art was done by beloved tattoo artist Dr. Woo. Although securing an appointment with him at his secret studio usually entails putting your name on a lengthy, several-year wait list, Tuan easily finessed one.
"When I got back, I was trying to find the right tattoo artist and just liked his work," Tuan recalls. "It's not too dark; It's soft and strong. So I reached out to him, and his assistant got time in for me." Dr. Woo worked his magic for a dove and olive branches on the back of Tuan's forearm. "It signifies a new beginning, hope, and freedom," Tuan reveals.
Most of Tuan's tattoo hold similar messages of motivation and affirmation for him. First, he mentions the words "stay true" and "be real" inscribed above each knee as the tattoos that mean the most to him. (They also barely ever on full display.) “That is a phrase that I want to keep to myself,” he explains before pausing, reluctant to verbalize that he's famous. We are both fully aware that he, in fact, is, and has 10.6 million Instagram followers to prove it. Instead, he chooses to utter, "Now that you're famous, a lot of people change and they let things get to them. I always want to be true to myself, and I don't want the fame to get to me."
Next, Tuan points to the Korea's national flower, the hibiscus, delicately decorating the back of his bicep. "I thought it would be a good, meaningful tattoo," he says. "I started out my career in Korea. I've gained a lot in Korea, so I got that on me."
From there, I ask Tuan about the smiley face smack dab on the center of his kneecap. "That one was just something fun," he states through chuckling. I tell Tuan that I, too, have tattoos with no meaning, just for vibes. Tuan mentions he has a butterfly on his calf for the same reason. There's nothing deep behind it besides the fact that the angled placement looks cool when he's wearing shorts.
Tattoos are like stamps from my past, I muse. I may not like some of them right now, but I know I did at one point in my life. Tuan agrees with the first part, but, "I don't think I have a tattoo that I don't like. I want to live my life with no regrets," he shares.
"I just do what I want. If it makes me happy, it'll make me happy."
Tuan takes a moment to think before getting lost in a message that could apply to every aspect of his life right now. "I just do what I want. If it makes me happy, it'll make me happy," Tuan says. "At the end of the day, you have to live for yourself pretty much. You should be happy because if you're not happy then, you won't enjoy anything you do."
Right now, Tuan finds happiness in spending time with his family, cuddling with his dog, Milo, and walking around. "In Korea, it was hard for me to go out in public," he shares before asking himself why that was. After a couple of seconds of consideration, Tuan decides it may have been because he didn't have many friends in Seoul. “I'm a person that is hard to open up to people,” he adds. "I have friends, but they're not super close friends. I wasn't that comfortable going out with them. But now that I'm home, walking on the street is bringing me a lot of happiness."
On his walks, Tuan window shops and stops by restaurants he's always wanted to try after hearing his friends rave about them. Because he left the States when he was a junior in high school, he mentions he missed the entire time when his friends started to drive and go out and about on their own. Now, Tuan is catching up on everything.
"I am definitely still figuring out a lot of things because I'm a super indecisive person," Tuan says. "Like, when I was young, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up." An ironic statement coming from someone who is already in their second act at age 27.
"Walking on the street is bringing me a lot of happiness."
For the future of XC3, Tuan's clothing line that's an ode to his birth year, 1993, he is more exacting and in touch with his Virgo-ism. He wants to keep creating casual streetwear – elevated essentials if you will. His inspiration for the brand comes from clothes he himself gravitates toward. "The fun thing about being able to design a T-shirt is you get to do anything you want to it," he says. "I try not to take too much from other people and just try to think of something new and what would be something cool that I could do."
Suddenly, I connect Tuan's unlikely personality dots. Although he's indecisive when it comes to himself, he's driven by his intuition to create external things. After sharing this realization with him, he agrees, saying, "Yeah, most of the time." However, Tuan giggles to himself and adds, "It sounds weird when you put it that way." Oops.
But on a deeper level, it all makes sense. Tuan never really had to decide how he presents himself to the world. For years, he willfully flowed the ever-flowing waves of K-pop concepts: lilac-haired dream boy in "Lullaby" one month; fire-engine redhead another. However, the industry had no say over XC3, which first launched in 2018, so Tuan could dictate the details of it however he desired.
This sort of contradictory work ethic works for him and will continue to. It's taken him around the world and back. It's helped him maintain the same friend group from middle school, which now makes up Team Tuan. In April, it got him signed to Hollywood talent agency CAA, home of A$AP Rocky, Dua Lipa, and Stevie Nicks — just to name a few.
"Because I really want to try new things and there are so many things that I want to do," Tuan says of the latter. "It's a really good opportunity for me." And only time will tell what Mark Tuan's next phase will be.
Source: Read Full Article