Wonho Rising: A K-Pop Prince Stakes His Claim to the Throne

It’s easy to judge a book by its cover, especially when the photos are being served up by Wonho. But K-pop’s leading man is out to prove that he’s more than just mop top and muscles, as he leaves his boy-band roots behind for an exciting solo career.

Wonho first rose to prominence as part of the seven-piece group Monsta X. In 2019, he left the group amid a flurry of press after years-old allegations of marijuana use surfaced on social media (cannabis is still illegal in South Korea). Cleared of all charges a few months later, Wonho returned with new management and a fresh perspective.

While Monsta X were known for their pop and hip-hop leanings, Wonho’s solo work has flirted with everything from funk to Eighties synth-pop, to R&B. But it’s his candid lyrics and emotional delivery that have endeared him to millions of WENEE (the official name for his fans) across the globe. “The fact that I can convey my authentic thoughts and feelings by producing my own music is the most important thing to me as a singer-songwriter,” he says.

His debut solo single, “Losing You,” was a soaring, piano-driven ballad, achingly performed by the singer in near-perfect falsetto. “‘Losing You,’” he told Rolling Stone during the song’s release, “is about the connection between people, and the selflessness of loving someone so much that you’ll become one with them and they become even more important to you than yourself.”

After years of sharing the stage — and the studio — with six bandmates, “Losing You” was the perfect introduction to Wonho the gifted storyteller, and solo star. For the 28-year-old, this second act has been a culmination of years of soul-searching, both in terms of finding his sound, and finding something to say.

“Actively participating in the producing process of my own music so I can directly communicate with and convey my feelings to WENEE is definitely the biggest part of my career,” he says.

Wonho grew up idolizing the K-pop singer Rain: “His mesmerizing performances on stage made me want to become a well-rounded artist like him.” These days, his influences these also include Kanye West, Justin Bieber, and Billie Eilish, the latter two of whom he covered during a global livestream concert last September. Still, Wonho admits, “I think I’m still in the process of finding my own musical sound. I’d like to say that my musical sound is not something that is fixed on a specific genre or a style of music [but] rather, it’s fluid, like the musical inspirations I get.”

Wonho’s mix of introspection and playfulness has made him a chameleon of sorts in the K-pop world, able to seamlessly transition between schoolyard bops and decidedly more adult fare. It’s reminiscent of Usher’s transformation in the early 2000s from teen heartthrob to leading man, and it’s become a way for Wonho to grow up alongside his fans, while tackling weightier subject matter in his lyrics as well — from unrequited love (“Losing You”) to a twisted relationship push and pull (“Devil,” off his second EP, Love Synonym Pt.2: Right for Us).

And then there’s that other decidedly more adult content he’s been releasing, with everyone from gay men to stay-at-home moms enjoying Wonho’s thirst-trapping photos on Instagram.

The fitness fanatic admits to posting his own selfies, but is otherwise nonchalant about his newfound internet fame. “I’m glad that my fans find my pictures sexy,” he says. “I feel so thankful to be loved.”