'Sick' of Toxic Relationships, AleXa Explains Why Self-Love Is 'Prerequisite' for Healthy Love in New Song (Exclusive)

"You can love someone obviously, but don't idolize them," the 27-year-old K-pop solo artist says of her single's message

The memory of quitting a job might leave a sour taste in most people’s mouths. But for K-pop solo artist AleXa? Quitting her two past part-time jobs were anything but “Sick.” In fact, even seeing her termination papers years later was something she was excited to do.

“What they literally wrote for reason for termination was ‘Following dreams and moving to Korea to become a K-pop star,’” Alexa recalls to PEOPLE. “Oh, I cried.”

Nostalgia instantly hits at the memories of the crossroads the Korean-Russian singer faced. At the time, she had just beaten out thousands of contestant hopefuls to secure a spot in one of Korea’s most competitive audition shows, Produce 48. For the Oklahoma native, that meant she had to uproot the life she’d known growing up in the South to move to Korea, where she wound up permanently staying.

“If I’ll be completely open and honest — it was not difficult for me at all,” AleXa says of her decision to chase her dreams. “When the opportunity came, I knew it was now or never."

<p>Choi, Jong-in De Leon</p> AleXa

Choi, Jong-in De Leon


It’s a gamble that few would perhaps have the guts to take. However, AleXa’s fateful decision would pay off big time. The now 27-year-old singer has since not only established her bold, pop punk-influenced artistry, but has also carried her name to big heights.

For instance, she won NBC’s American Song Contest, a remake of Europe’s popular Eurovision Song Contest, with her electro-pop “Wonderland” single in 2022. Most recently, she also made history as the first Korean solo artist to perform at iHeartRadio’s Jingle Ball in December 2023.

Related: Here Are the 56 Artists Competing in 'American Song Contest' — Including Six Notable Acts!

Her bright and extroverted nature remains just as boldly consistent. From the moment she sits down to chat with PEOPLE, framed by her two braids and a choker around her neck, she even admits to her talkative nature.

“I have a big energy for a small person,” she says with a laugh.

Though she might exude tall girl energy on screen, she assures that she’s anything but, at just 4 feet and 11 inches tall. However, that’s a factor that makes her powerhouse presence on the stage even more impressive.

Now, she’s bringing that electric force westward with her official American debut. Her latest single, “Sick,” packs both a figural and physical punch in its lyrics and music video by exploring the darker nuances of a toxic relationship. It becomes lyrically clear that a crippling lack of self-love, combined with low self-worth, can lead one to reject a seemingly perfect partner. Then, that twisted relationship is visualized through an intimate fight choreography, where AleXa and her boyfriend violently battle it out. As the punches and kicks intensity with often bloody results, one winner emerges victorious.

“AleXa kills her boyfriend at the end, like she’s putting to death that perfect image she had,” the “Tattoo” singer says, referring to herself in third person. “She’s killing that rose-tinted view she had of him.”

It’s experience that has taught AleXa to recognize what that rose-tinted view may look like. After several past relationships, she has learned for herself just how much of a “prerequisite” self-love is in order to truly love someone else. That one element alone changes everything, from the way she reacts to the way she perceives. Since then, she’s made sure to never put another love interest on a pedestal.

“You can love someone obviously, but don’t idolize them,” she says. “If the thought of them being so out of your league, being so perfect makes you sick, then baby, you’ve got to tone those loving words down.”

<p>Choi, Jong-in De Leon</p> AleXa

Choi, Jong-in De Leon


“I feel like so many people fall in love with the concept of a person rather than the person themselves,” she continues. “Nowadays, if you look around, situationships are more so a thing than relationships, which is insane. I have heard so many stories from my friends lately, and I’m like, ‘Is this really what the world is coming to?’”

Related: TWICE on 'Fresh Approach' to Friendship and What Gives Them the 'Confidence to Go On' in New Album (Exclusive)

Although self-love might not have always been there for the “Bomb” singer, her passions as an “emo kid” always were. When she wasn’t preoccupied with anime or cosplay, she would almost certainly be performing. Indeed, the triple threat had always been dancing, singing in vocal concerts and acting in plays from a young age.

However, a clear path for her own performing endeavors never really clicked until she discovered K-pop. Boy bands SHINee and EXO were the first groups to steal her heart. When she dived deeper into the genre and learned about their structures, she realized just how “magical” it all was. The fact that she could also find herself represented in the genre also gave her hope, after living in “middle white America” her whole life.

From there, she made K-pop covers in her free time and put her talents out there. Eventually, she would win Soompi’s “Rising Legends” K-pop competition in 2017, where she accumulated over 1 million fan votes.

<p>Choi, Jong-in De Leon</p> AleXa

Choi, Jong-in De Leon


After signing with her current label, Zanybros, the “Do or Die” singer finally had the chance to establish the “tough and strong image” she wanted as an artist. With her label, she pioneered an “AI, futuristic, cybernetic badass bitch,” concept that her fans, dubbed the A.I Troopers, could identify with and embody.

“I wanted to be that kind of person that people could look up to and be like, ‘Oh, she’s cool, she’s strong,’” she explains. “I almost want to be that kind of superhero in a way.”

It’s like how kids say, ‘I want to be Superman,’” she adds. “People would be like, ‘I want to be AleXa.’”

Part of that image would also involve her expressive style and fashion, which didn’t always exist at its full potential. Moving to Korea served as the catalyst for her exploration after growing up in a “very strict” religious household. At the time, she only had her ears pierced, and quickly acquired non-visible tattoos on her hip bones, ribs and underneath her chest. However, her parents caught on to her first visible tattoo right away. Her habitual nature of gesticulation allowed them to get a peek of a tattoo of a blue lock on her wrist.

“My folks were like, ‘What’s that on your wrist?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, this silly little thing? It’s nothing, don’t worry,’” She recounts, feigning an air of playful ignorance. “I eventually showed them it on video, and they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s actually quite pretty.’”

Related: BIBI Drives into New Territory with Becky G in 'Amigos' as She Reveals 'True Self': 'Always Shapeshifting' (Exclusive)

Now, AleXa has far more tattoos, and even a song of the same word. “Tattoo” is what the singer dubs the “most vulnerable song” she currently has in her discography, and embracing that feeling is something she’s easing into more. In fact, songwriting is a form of therapy for her, where writing her raw emotions into lyrics can help her get over painful memories and feelings, she says.

“Juliet” was an especially cathartic experience for her during a 2 a.m. writing session, where the lyrics were flowing out of her as she sat down to write.

“The words were coming to my mind, but at the same time, I was sobbing while I was writing it,” she recalls.

“Sick” represents a departure from those previous releases, which represents AleXa’s newfound focus on her most “authentic” self and digging deep into new sides of her. Her artistic expression will continue to flourish in her upcoming US tour, “Sick of You.” Part 1 of that tour will take her through six cities until mid-April, including that of her hometown.

“I have not been to my hometown in a while, so my friends are planning on kidnapping me and just taking me around the city,” she says with a laugh. “So, I’m looking forward to getting kidnapped.”

<p>Choi, Jong-in De Leon</p> AleXa

Choi, Jong-in De Leon


Perhaps while being back there, a full-circle moment will compel her to reflect on how far she’s come since she first left for Korea. Through major ups and downs, including instances of bullying in “real life and on the Internet,” she’s grown to be even “tougher” than ever before.

“Certain things that have happened to me now in my adult life at 27, if they happened to me when I was 16 or 17, it would’ve been completely different,” she reflects. “I would’ve reacted in a completely different way. So, I think age and life experience helps shape your perspective to be more introspective and be like, ‘OK, what kind of person am I?’”

However, when looking back in retrospect, she wouldn’t change one thing. Just like how immense pressure can form a diamond, AleXa believes that the challenges she’s been through have helped her “build character.”

“The thing is, everything that happens to you in life is something for you to learn from,” she says. “Everything is a lesson at the end of the day. So, how you choose to act and react past that is really up to you.”

“Sick” is now available to stream.

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