Sulli: The woman who rebelled against the K-pop world

In an industry that rewards performers for their silence off stage, K-pop star Sulli was a rebel.

The actress-singer rose to prominence as a member of girl band f(x). But she came to be known for speaking out on mental health issues, cyberbullying and women’s rights – issues that remain sensitive in a conservative society like South Korea.

The 25-year-old died at home on Monday.

She is being remembered by her fans as someone who made sure her voice was heard.

As one music critic put it: “She laughed when she wanted to laugh and cried when she wanted to cry. She brazenly spoke out. She didn’t fit the mould.”

From trainee to popstar

Sulli, whose real name was Choi Jin-ri, entered the Korean entertainment scene in 2005 when she was just 11 years old.

She went on to audition for SM Entertainment, one of Korea’s biggest entertainment companies, and was accepted as a trainee, a much-coveted gig.

In 2009, she made her debut with K-pop girl group f(x). The then five-member group’s debut album – 피노키오 or Pinocchio – topped the Korean charts and they became one of the biggest K-pop girl groups.

“f(x) is arguably one of the most musically innovative groups that K-pop has ever seen,” said K-pop writer Joshua Calixto. “The group was known for its genre-spanning music that, while undeniably catchy, came adorned with unfamiliar or unexpected elements that twisted conventions.”

They were also one of the first K-pop acts to be recognised internationally, starring at US festival South by Southwest (SXSW) in 2013 – a time when K-pop bands like BTS had not quite begun to make their mark in the West.

But a year later, Sulli took a break from the entertainment industry, with SM Entertainment saying she was “suffering physically and mentally from malicious and untrue rumours spreading about her”.

In 2015, she officially quit the group and decided to focus primarily on acting.

In 2018, she returned to singing, releasing a solo debut single with SM titled Goblin, in which she played a character with dissociative identity disorder, previously known as multiple personality disorder.

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