Lalisa Manobal was 14 when her life changed in an instant. In 2010, she attended an audition for YG Entertainment in her native Thailand — and became the only person to get accepted among 4,000 aspiring trainees. Soon after, she moved to Seoul, alone, without knowing a word of Korean (she’s now fluent), calling her mom in Bangkok every day.
Lisa has a knack for putting others at ease, laughing and joking easily, but onstage and onscreen, her eyes change: They’re alight with ferocity, as she raps, dances, and sings, an unfaltering symbol of the swag and confidence that’s Blackpink’s calling card. Speaking in Korean and English, she talks about how she loves Blackpink but also has ambitions to try new things. Her 2021 solo single “Lalisa” is infused with a maximalist mix of rap, EDM, brass riffs, and even traditional Thai instruments. Another solo single, “Money,” dethroned Drake to take the top spot on Billboard’s Rap Digital Songs Sales chart. “I respect everyone’s roles within Blackpink,” she says. “I don’t want to break this image; I want to keep doing what I do within Blackpink. But personally, I have so many things I want to try. I love photography, I want to try acting, and more.”
(In celebration of Blackpink’s appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone, we’re publishing individual digital covers with each member of the group; check back throughout this week for more.)
You’re Blackpink’s main dancer and lead rapper, and you also sing. What are you bad at?
Interviews! It’s so hard to express myself through language. Even in Thai. Like, when you ask, “Do you have anything to say to your fans?” In my head, there are so many things, but I don’t know which words to use. I’m completely confident expressing myself through my body, like, “Ohhh, my gawwwd, this is my stage!” But when it comes to speaking, it’s hard for me. I’m actually sweating now. So nervous.
It makes sense that you’re fluent in Thai and Korean. How did you come to speak English so well?
I don’t! I learned English at school in Thailand. I went to a full Thai school until sixth grade. Since middle school I went to a bilingual school — well, not bilingual; they had an English program where you learn every subject in English. I have a little Thai accent when I speak English, so people can tell, “Oh, you’re not from here.”
You took part in dance competitions as a child in Thailand. Is that what you wanted to do? What was your childhood dream?
A stewardess! I once went to Singapore with my family. I saw the beautiful flight attendants on Singapore Airlines, wearing this uniform — a really long dress with sleeves down to the elbow, maybe purple fabric, with patterns. And this pretty unni [“older sister” in Korean] talked to me in English: “Do you want some milk?” And I was like, “Wow, yes please!” So as soon as we landed in Singapore, I begged my mom to buy me their uniform, which she did. But sadly, I didn’t meet the height requirements — you have to be tall enough to reach the overhead luggage.
And then you trained to become a dancer, with encouragement from your mom.
I’ve been going to dance classes since I was five. I competed in all these dance competitions. My dad would just say, “Oh, you won? Nice!” And that was that — it’s a dad thing. My mom was my audience at home, when I danced to the dance CDs she bought. Turns out, her dream was to be an actor. So when I was little, she sent me to acting and dancing classes. I hated acting. I was a baby, trying to memorize lines, but I didn’t know how to read! How could I memorize lines? I was bullied by an oppa [“older brother” in Korean] in my class, because I couldn’t read. I was, like, four.
You called your mom every day after you moved here to become a trainee.
She’d say, “Don’t come back! Just hang on for another year!” There would be times when I’d say, “I just want to go back to school.” Our debut plans kept being pushed back and back, and I couldn’t see the end of this. “When was this going to end? Like, when?! Do we have to get tested every single month?” When I told her, “I want to quit,” my mom would say, “Think about your situation. How many kids want to be in your place? If you give up and come home, do you think you can have a normal life? You’re just going to try again. You’re here now, just hold on until the end.”
More than a decade later, you’re one of K-pop’s biggest stars. How do the young YG trainees greet you? Do you give them advice?
They bow, like, 90 degrees, “Annyeonghaseyo!” [formal “hello” in Korean]. There is a Thai trainee that reminds me of when I was young. I’m trying to take care of her. It’s not so much about giving advice. We eat together, go shopping. She’s 17 and has been here for nearly two years. I asked her once, “Is there anything you’re struggling with?” And she started to cry. “I want to dance like you, unni, but I’m so bad, and I’m so sad about that.” I just tell her, “Keep practicing!”
I can see why she looks up to you. When you appear in Blackpink videos, the screen lights up. But you also know how to play — how to not take yourself too seriously.
You know, I’ve never thought about it like that. You’re the first one to say it in such detail. Normally, people just tell me, “You look great! You look cool!” When I’m shooting a music video, there’s so much to care about: pretty facial expressions, outfits, is my hair too messy? And so on. But I also have all these ideas that I imagine for my particular scene. Should I try this gesture? Or that? Sometimes it doesn’t work out the way I want. But I just do things. I just try.
Many fans think of you as “Blackpink’s best dancer.” Do you sometimes want to break this image, or try different things?
I respect everyone’s roles within Blackpink. I don’t want to break this image; I want to keep doing what I do within Blackpink. But personally, I have so many things I want to try. I love photography, I want to try acting, and more.
What are you curious about in music?
Blackpink is trying different songs, but there’s still a lot we haven’t done. Reggae, even jazz, like you said before. Is hip-hop the only thing I’m good at? What if it turns out I’m also good at traditional Thai music? I’m curious to know how much I can expand what I do. Even within dance, there are so many genres I haven’t tried, like contemporary dance! Music-wise, dance-wise, I feel like I still have to learn more.
Are there any artists or colleagues who make you jealous?
Not so much jealousy — Rosalía is so cool. She has her own Spanish culture, that’s inside her person, that influences her music. When you see her, you think, “Oh, she’s Spanish.” And she uses her culture so well, making it into her own thing. In [my 2021 solo single] “Lalisa,” I wanted to create a Thai atmosphere.
I just want people to know I’m Thai. Some people don’t know: “Oh, she’s part of a girl group from Korea, so maybe she’s Korean.” So I talked to our producer, Teddy, who put different Thai sounds into my music.
What was it like to go solo, standing onstage alone?
Nervous. Very nervous. Normally when the four of us are together — let’s say Chaeyoung [Rosé] gives her 100 percent. Then the rest of us can feel it onstage. And unconsciously I also get this energy of “Shoot, I need to do more too.” We boost each other in that way. But if I stand alone, it’s different. I can’t take energy from anybody. It just has to come from me. And the fans just watch only me. It was a huge burden. But what can you do? This is my solo! I just practice and monitor myself a lot.
Your producer, Teddy Park, is probably one of the most important people for Blackpink. How does he stimulate you musically?
Oppa knows how to speak to me, and I understand him. And then he pushes so hard. He’d say, “Again, again, again. A little more, a little prettier.” In the past, I used to only rap. One day, he told me to try vocals. But I’m so bad at singing. At least, there was a time when I was really bad. That whole year between “As If It’s Your Last”  and “Ddu-du Ddu-du”  was really rough for me. When I went to the studio to record, nothing came out. I cried. I felt like I was bringing the team down. Oppa pushed me hard. “You can’t? No. Try harder. Go back in there.” Because of Teddy, I overcame that time. I feel a little more confident about singing now.
In Light Up the Sky, the 2020 Netflix documentary about Blackpink, you said, “I’m a role model in Thailand, but I don’t even know what kind of a musician I’ll be.” What did you mean by that?
Whenever I go to Thailand, there’s this new generation of babies that all look up to me: “I want to be like Lisa, unni!” But when I look at myself, I am lacking in so many areas. There are so many things I don’t know because I’m still young. They look up to me as an idol, but I still don’t think I’m perfect enough to be their idol. Am I there yet? Am I ready? I’m actually really curious. In what ways am I an idol to those kids? I still feel I have a long way to go.
You went back to Thailand recently for your birthday. How was it?
It was the first time in three years. My mom and dad are getting old. Now we don’t have quarantine; it’s easier to travel. Whenever I have time, I want to return to Thailand. I don’t want to waste my time. I don’t want to say, “I don’t care what the company is gonna say!” But I want to see them as often as I can.
What do you miss most about living with your family?
I miss traveling together. My dad is Swiss, and he really values having a family day. We’d go to a mall together. And at least once or twice a year, we went traveling abroad together. I miss that so much. When Blackpink was doing the world tour, we did visit Europe together. That was so convenient because of packing. “Mom, come, please,” I’d say, and she’d just pack all my stuff. “Mom, take out my stuff, please,” and she’d unpack. It’s the best.
You’ll be her baby forever.
I actually asked her, “Mom, how old do you think I look?” She said, to her, I’ll always be five.
Do you still talk to your mom on the phone everyday? You mentioned in the past that she takes care of your finances.
I talked to her this morning. It’s her birthday soon. I just asked her, “Where are you gonna go on your birthday?” And she doesn’t take care of my finances anymore! Since debut, I’ve been managing my own money. I buy whatever I want. The advantage to Mom managing my money was, there was always a limit to how much I could spend a month. But now that I’m alone … “Huh? Where did it go?”
It’s clear that family is the most important thing in your life. Who is the funniest?
My dad has the typical middle-aged-man humor. Mom is really affectionate and cute. I love their dynamics together. Daddy is like, “Ugh, whatever,” while Mom goes, “Ooooh, Daddy.” Just watching them makes me laugh.
Have you ever wondered what will happen if Blackpink ends one day?
I don’t think we’ve even talked about this amongst ourselves. We’ve jokingly said, “Jisoo unni is going to live in Hawaii. Lisa will return to Thailand,” but I don’t want to think about the end. It’s too sad. Someday we’ll get married and things like that. But then I see the Spice Girls, how they got together for a reunion concert. Can we do that too someday? Will I be able to dance then, like I do now? I mean, won’t Blackpink last at least 10 more years? We’ll be nearly 40 by then.
Who will Lisa be in her forties?
I don’t know. I’ll still have good vibes, doing different things, like now.
What are you up to these days?
We’re all going back and forth from the recording studio, or doing our own stuff, or going abroad because of fashion business. I’ve been working nonstop for the past week without a break. If I have a day off, I just stay at home. After this interview, I have nothing else scheduled today. I think I’ll go back to the house. . . . You know, in this interview, I wanted you to feel like my answers were coming from inside me, without a filter, as honestly as possible. I don’t have the prettiest words to tell you. I only have what’s inside me.