BANGKOK -- The idol group craze that swept Asia and made pop cultural icons of its stars has long been the domain of Japanese and South Korean groups, but now the small landlocked nation of Laos is getting in on the act.
Billed as the first Laotian idol group, all-girl LaoNavy have been making waves since their debut in September, building up a fan base in their homeland as well as performing in Thailand and Japan.
The group, taking its cues from the phenomenally successful Japanese girl band AKB48 and its various sister groups, is the brainchild of Japanese national Junichiro Ichikawa, who came up with the idea in his role as sales and marketing manager of Masa Food Supply, a Vientiane-based Japanese foodstuffs wholesaler.
Seeing the huge popularity of BNK48, Thailand's AKB-equivalent, Ichikawa saw an opportunity to create a homegrown idol act to use in advertising after he was tasked with promoting high-end strawberries by a Japanese farm owner, whose produce is sweet, tasty, but priced three times higher than typical strawberries in Laos.
While first considering using an individual model to publicize the fruit, Ichikawa noted the absence in Laos of any idol girl group that could be used as an advertising tool.
Despite having no prior experience in the entertainment world, Ichikawa said, "I decided to establish an idol group" as a symbol of the Japanese produce handled by Masa Food.
Ichikawa announced his search for members on Facebook and received more responses than expected. But he was unfamiliar with the idol business.
"I didn't know what types of idols were popular, and so I just began to watch videos of (Japanese idol group) Momoiro Clover Z," he said.
Without music production know-how or choreography skills, Ichikawa contacted a Japanese musician and Laotian choreographer and asked them to come up with songs and dance routines for the idol group he planned to create.
Seven members, aged 14 to 21, were chosen from some 50 hopefuls at an audition, although the group is currently a six-piece after one member recently "graduated" from the group and left. With their time taken up by school on weekdays, the girls convene for group work on Saturdays and Sundays, earning them the tag "weekend angels."
The LaoNavy lineup sang their debut single at Kumafes, a manga and animation festival held in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, in December. After saying hello to the audience in Japanese in high-pitched voices, the group got the audience clapping to the beat with their performance.
Having their own songs makes LaoNavy stand out, as the Laotian pop world is typically characterized by tribute and imitation acts lip-syncing and dancing to hits by popular South Korean groups such as Blackpink and Twice.
BNK48's arrival on the scene brought a new wave of interest in idols to Laos, where many Thai TV shows are aired. The Bangkok-based girl group has been sought after for TV dramas, movies and commercials in Thailand since around 2018, inspiring young people in Laos to dream of joining Japanese-style idol groups.
LaoNavy appear to be a hit not only in Laos, as nearly 40% of people registered on the group's Facebook fan page are Thai, indicating a growing appetite for Japanese-style idol culture in Thailand since BNK48 hit the big time.
"LaoNavy are cute," said a 22-year-old self-employed Thai BNK48 fan who gave his first name as Pariwiwat.
As the Thai and Laotian languages are closely related, LaoNavy's second and subsequent singles in Laotian have crossed over to the Thai market in a "reverse export" for a nation whose entertainment business is usually dominated by its larger neighbor.
LaoNavy may have only recently launched, but they are already piquing the interest of many in Southeast Asia who will be watching to see if they can go the long haul like their successful predecessors in the world of idol groups.