When Billboard met with Sulli in 2013 at the KCON Los Angeles festival, it was noted that she appeared “cool, calm and…guarded at first” before warming up into a ball of “genuine excitement.” Now, that gradual blooming of personality acts as an appropriate metaphor to her too-short-but-impactful career that ended Monday (Oct. 14) as the world learned that the K-pop star and actor had died at age 25.
Even from her early K-pop beginnings, it seemed as if Sulli (real name Choi Jin-ri) was destined to have an unconventional place in the industry. As a standout stunner in the girl group f(x) under K-pop’s biggest agency SM Entertainment, Choi and her band members deviated from K-pop’s usual glossy and bubbly looks with atypical, experimental singles that included everything from songs that related wisdom teeth to relationships in “Rum Pum Pum Pum” to “Pinocchio (Danger)” that shouted out the beloved Disney character. The starlet became known for her beauty — considered one of the top beauties in SM — loved for visual aspects like her “eye smile.”
After five years with f(x), Sulli took a break from her group in the midst of the group’s promotions for 2014 album Red Light, citing both mental and physical fatigue from continuous comments and rumors that followed her. Those comments kicked into overdrive in those months over whispers the young star was dating Choiza, the Dynamic Duo rapper 14 years her senior, when any type of dating is frowned upon by fans in the K-pop world.
While her professional work focused on movies and modeling, the star became more known for her social media presence and divisive viewpoints. For South Korea’s deeply conservative society, her “controversial” — with controversial purposely put in quotes here — opinions like not being a fan of bras or posting public photos with her boyfriends stirred the country’s notoriously harsh online commenter community. The star also wasn’t afraid to get political as one of the very few celebrities showing public support when South Korea overturned its abortion ban and staking her position as pro-choice.
The curious nature of the star’s penchant for provocation was heavily covered by Korean media with international fans kept abreast of the outrage she seemed to garner regularly on translation websites. A 2017 article titled “Does Sulli dream of being the Kim Kardashian of Korea?” garnered pickup across Korean websites as commenters called her names and criticized her body, talent and mental well-being.
One of Sulli’s biggest artistic statements came in 2017 from Real, the final movie before her untimely death. In the film, the then-22-year-old actor played a rehabilitation therapist, starred in a nude scene and portrayed drug use. The movie sparked more negative rumors about her, most notably that she was actually using drugs, all of which are illegal in Korea. Sulli eventually spoke out about the rumors, saying she embraced method acting to do her best for the role, watching films about drugs “five times a day.” Her perceived controversies were rooted in her wanting to commit to her art, a misconception that continued throughout her life.
Her inclination to controversy eventually seemed to color her career, as she joined the Korean variety show The Night of Hate Comments as the youngest and most outspoken host on the cast that brought celebrities on to respond and react to their online detractors. On the show, Sulli confidently opened up about many topics, including her pregnancy rumors, family plans, dating preferences and more.
Even her return to music, via the three-song single Goblin released in June, saw her embracing an unexpected dream-pop sound for a title track that discussed a person with dissociative disorder. Mental health is still largely considered taboo in Korea, but Sulli seemed to be embracing the idea for her K-pop comeback and even acts in what appears to be a psychological evaluation in the music video.
Even while Sulli was most known for her beauty as a member of f(x), as a solo artist she was a credited co-writer and co-producer of music that delivered the experimental effervescence of her former girl group but also packed an undeniable punch of melancholy as she asks, “Why do you look so blue?” in “On the Moon” and closes the track “Dorothy” with a despondent outro. Her career becomes all the more interesting when considering she had the backing of SM Entertainment all this time, a top agency known for housing some of the industry’s most pristine idols, and continued to push her to get new gigs and opportunities amidst her divisive persona.
Sulli left this industry at a time when K-pop stars, especially women, are still not able to fully, freely express themselves without risking major backlash from the public. While she will be undeniably missed, one hopes that not only did Sulli’s outspoken, confident way of living make a change to the traditional, harshly rigid standards that Korean celebrities seemingly must keep, but also evolve the toxic culture of online commenters that plague and taunt the K-pop stars — perhaps more than anyone may realize.