Stephanie Hwang was 15 when she left her native California for Seoul, South Korea, where she hoped to become a music star. Within two years, the teenager – now going by the stage name of Tiffany – made her debut with Girls’ Generation, which would become one of the most successful K-Pop groups ever. “It wasn’t easy in the beginning, because I was in Korea without my family and I couldn’t speak the language,” says the 28-year-old singer. “I had to learn Korean really fast so that I knew what was going on.”
Last year, she opted not to renew her contract with SM Entertainment and moved back to Los Angeles to study acting and launch her solo career. Her first post-Girls’ Generation single is “Over My Skin,” a sensual, bold, English-language song she co-wrote, and is releasing under the new stage name Tiffany Young.
Young spoke with RS about her new solo confidence, why she’d like to duet with Sam Smith, and more.
Was your decision to use the name Tiffany Young – which includes part of your Korean first name, Mi-young – a way of connecting the public to your Korean and American backgrounds?
Yes, I was thinking the same thing. I didn’t put too much thought into it, but sometimes your heart knows before your brain does. Mi-young is my Korean [first] name and Tiffany has been the identity of who I am as an artist and identities me with Girls’ Generation. I wanted to bring both the old and new to this new chapter of my journey.
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How concerned were you that Girls’ Generation fans wouldn’t forgive you for leaving Korea?
It was never a secret that I wanted to pursue a career here in America. My girls knew and our fans knew. I started out in Girls’ Generation when I was 17, and now I’m 28. They knew that my home was in America and that I wanted to go home one day.
At any point, did you think, “This might be a good time to distance myself from K-Pop”?
You know what? I love K-Pop. I was thinking more about how can I bring what I am as a K-Pop artist, but also bring in the elements of pop that I love and grew up with – that Pharrell, Britney, Justin Timberlake, Timbaland era. That music is still amazing to this day. I just wanted to bring both worlds together. We’re at a great time where K-Pop is an amazing pop form and it’s turned into this thing where it’s about the feeling you get when you hear a song, even if it’s not a language that you know. I want the audience to connect that way.
“Over My Skin” is a very sexy song. What were you feeling when you sang the lyrics?
I was feeling super, super cool. [Laughs.] I was feeling very empowered, confident and comfortable. When I was writing it, it came from a place where I wanted to say that if I’m showing a little skin, it’s because I want to show it for me – because I feel good. It’s not for anybody else. I love that there are big vocal moments, but there’s also a cool, lower register in the chorus and it adds this bass to the rhythm.
There are many provocative girl groups in Korea. But there is also the expectation of projecting a certain level of innocence. Would you have felt comfortable writing something like “Over My Skin” when you were still living there?
I mean, I’m pretty sure I could. But I do believe that this song [is the result of] all the experiences and of questioning myself about whether I could talk about certain things. Coming back home made me feel comfortable about expressing my emotions freely.
I always had the impression that “What Do I Do”– which you and Sooyoung from Girls’ Generation wrote a couple years ago – gave listeners an idea of the direction you wanted to take.
“Over My Skin” was written pretty recently, and I remember Sooyoung – who was the most recent one here [in Los Angeles] – listening to this song and she was like, “Oh my gosh, this is so different and shocking, but this is so you at the same time.” I’m excited to see how people are going to react to it.
You’ve said that music helped you deal with your grief after your mother’s death in 2002. How so?
If I think about it, I had been finding myself being very apathetic towards the situation, even as a 12-year-old. I remember feeling so bad for my dad, because he just lost the love of his life, and my aunt just lost her sister. I should’ve also been thinking about me. I was just a child who had lost her mother. I finally found the strength to say, “OK, what am I going to do to go on? What’s going to make me feel better?” And that was music. Music was the only thing that made me feel understood and made me feel better. I rooted myself in that. It was a process to navigate what my life and feelings were, but I think music saved me in every way.
What would you say to the Asian-American children who still don’t really see themselves represented in American media?
Times are changing! I think about the challenges [previous generations faced], but it’s about pushing forward and letting our thoughts and dreams guide us. As you push through the struggles, that’s what always becomes one of the most satisfying things in life.
What are your plans for a new album?
I have been working on music since last September. I do have a lot of music done and I would love to continuously be able to release music until it leads to a full album. I don’t ever want to slow myself down when creating or challenging myself.
Do you have anyone in mind for a collaboration?
I have a few, but the first person is Sam Smith. I’m a huge fan, and I love what he does and who he is as a musician. His rendition of Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” was so good. I would love to sing a piano ballad – or anything – with him.