The Hallyu – or Korean Wave – pipeline has given us some of the industry’s most famous and bankable leading ladies. While some were K-pop idols first, others got their start in showbiz as head-turning models before making it on the big screen.
Meet the South Korean actresses who began their careers as commercial and print ad models.
Model-turned-actress Jun Ji-hyun for Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 2021 collection. Photo: Alexander McQueen
Before dipping her toes into the K-drama world and becoming one of its highest-paid actresses, Jun Ji-hyun established herself as a fashion icon, appearing on the cover of Ecole magazine in 1997 and pursuing more modelling gigs that eventually landed her a Samsung MyJet printer commercial, catapulting her to fame.
Cha Tae-hyun and Jun Ji-hyun in a still from My Sassy Girl (2001). Photo: Handout
Following her popularity, she was given the lead role in the highest-grossing Korean romantic comedy film of all time, My Sassy Girl (2001). which also earned her the titles “nation’s first love” and “Korea’s sweetheart”. She eventually made her Hollywood debut in Blood: The Last Vampire (2009) and appeared in more chart-topping K-dramas such as My Love From the Star (2013) and Legend of the Blue Sea (2016).
With her career spanning more than two decades, Jun is not only popular in South Korea, but throughout Asia. She’s cultivated such a strong fan base that almost all the products she endorses sell out like hot cakes, not only in South Korea but even overseas.
Jun Ji-hyun modelling for Giordano. Photo: Giordano
The Hallyu star is known as the first-ever Korean actress to be photographed for American Vogue. She also appeared on the cover of many other prestigious fashion magazines such as Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, W and Marie Claire.
Proving her enduring star power, British luxury brand Alexander McQueen appointed her as their first Korean ambassador in 2020. According to AllKpop, Jun was named the highest-paid Korean celebrity of 2021, earning around US$14.7 million that year.
Song Hye-kyo for brand Michaa. Photo: @kyo1122/Instagram
Song Hye-kyo remains one of Korea’s most sought-after actresses, receiving an estimated US$42,000 per drama episode, according to various media reports. But did you know that before her on-screen accolades, Song got her start in the modelling industry when she was only 14 years old?
Korean star Song Hye-kyo’s breakout role came in 2000 TV drama Autumn in My Heart. Photo: KBS
In 1996, she won first place in a modelling contest, which marked the beginning of her successful career as a model and then eventually an actor. Her acting career skyrocketed after she landed a leading role in Autumn in My Heart (2000). Since then, she has appeared in numerous films and dramas, including Full House (2004), That Winter, the Wind Blows (2013) and Descendants of the Sun (2016). She also bagged many endorsements that helped her cement her status as one of the most prominent Hallyu stars to ever rise to fame.
Song Hye-kyo for high-end jewellery brand Chaumet. Photo: @kyo1122/Instagram
Her growing list of brand endorsements includes Italian luxury fashion house Bottega Veneta, high-end skincare line Sulwhasoo, and cosmetics brand Laneige, to name a few. Earlier this year, LVMH appointed Song as the first Korean global ambassador for Fendi and the Asia-Pacific ambassador for Chaumet.
On top of the millions she takes home from dramas, she also earns a whopping amount from her endorsement deals. TMI News revealed that Song’s commercial modelling guarantee shot up to 900 million won (about US$750,000) in 2019. And with a reach of over 11 million followers on her Instagram page alone, she reportedly earns an estimated 540 million won (US$450,000) per sponsored post.
Actress Shin Min-ah’s career took off after she starred in My Girlfriend is a Gumiho in 2010. Photo: @illusomina/Instagram
Even before carving her name in the acting business, the “goddess of beauty” of South Korea was recognised for making big strides within the fashion industry.
Shin Min-ah has been modelling since the age of 14, spending her teenage years posing for photographs and appearing in commercials and music videos. Her success did not end there as she eventually made her acting debut in 2001 in the movie Volcano High. Her acting career took off after she starred in the comedy series My Girlfriend is a Gumiho (2010) and Oh My Venus (2015).
Shin Min-ah has scored deals with Chanel, Givenchy Beauty, Gucci and Cartier. Photo: @illusomina/Instagram
Pursuing acting and modelling simultaneously, she became a force to reckon with, proving time and time again her influence as a popular celebrity. Throughout her colourful career, she became the face of high-end luxury brands such as Chanel, Hera Cosmetics, Cartier, Givenchy Beauty, Gucci and Roger Vivier.
She has also graced the pages of magazines not only in Korea, but overseas. She is known as the first Korean actress to have an exclusive feature in The New York Times T Magazine, and she once flew to Milan, Italy to shoot a Calvin Klein spread with Hollywood actor Jamie Dornan.
Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour was quoted praising Shin for her beauty and the final photo shoot result, according to Soompi.
When the Camellia Blooms star Gong Hyo-jin for luxury brand Piaget. Photo: @piaget/Instagram
Gong Hyo-jin started as a model in the 90s, appearing in TV advertisements and catalogues. She’s also currently known to her fans as South Korea’s “queen of romantic comedy”.
According to various media reports, the award-winning actress started receiving calls from agencies convincing her to further her acting career after she took a supporting role in the horror film Memento Mori (1999). Since then, Gong has appeared in 30 films as well as K-dramas with notable performances in It’s OK, This Is Love (2014) and When the Camellia Blooms (2019).
Gong Hyo-jin in It’s OK, This is Love. Photo: SBS
Proving that she is a fashion icon in her own right, Gong launched her own fashion line called Excuse Me x Suecomma Bonnie in 2012 and has appeared on the cover of Vogue, Elle, W, Instyle and Harper’s Bazaar. She has also modelled for Valentino, Dior and Burberry, and is currently an ambassador for luxury watch and jewellery brand Piaget.
Korean actress and fashion icon Bae Doona was scouted in university. Photo: @doonabae/Instagram
Bae Doona was scouted by a Korean modelling agency while she was still in university. She started as a catalogue model for the clothing line CoolDog in 1998 and began her acting career a year later by debuting in the KBS TV drama School.
Her reputation as a movie actress is certainly not to be underestimated. While standing her ground as a style icon, she appeared in South Korean films, K-dramas and several international films and TV series such as Cloud Atlas (2012) – her Hollywood debut – Jupiter Ascending (2015) and the Netflix original series Sense8 (2015).
Son Sukku and Bae Doona in an action scene from Netflix’s Sense8. Photo: handout
Fast forward to 2016 and she became Louis Vuitton’s first-ever South Korean muse, representing the luxury fashion brand not just in South Korea, but in Paris and the US. In 2019, she graced the cover of American Vogue together with Scarlett Johansson and Deepika Padukone.
Kim Hyo-jin made her acting debut in 1999 and has graced the glossy pages of Marie Claire Korea, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar. Photo: @hyojin__0705/Instagram
After returning home from her brief stay in Australia, Kim Hyo-jin took some modelling gigs for teen magazines in 1997 before making her acting debut in 1999. She had several small roles before bagging bigger parts in the comedy film Everybody Has Secrets (2004) and family drama I Am Happy (2009).
Kim also switched to theatre and delved into some erotic thrillers and LGBTQ+ films. While acting, she continued doing endorsement shoots through which she met her now-husband, actor-director Yoo Ji-tae. Over the years, she has graced the glossy pages of Marie Claire Korea, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar.
Han Ye-seul won a supermodel contest in 2001 and has since appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Grazia and Elle magazine. Photo: @han_ye_seul_/Instagram
Born in Los Angeles, California, Han Ye-seul gained prominence in South Korea after winning a supermodel contest in 2001 that earned her multiple modelling projects. Choosing to establish herself as a celebrity in South Korea, she renounced her US citizenship in 2004. The 40-year-old star had several small parts before her breakout role in the 2006 hit series Couple of Trouble followed by Tazza in 2008.
Han Ye-seul in Couple or Trouble. Photo: MBC
She continued to act in comedic roles and later won several local best new actress awards. She was embroiled in controversy after missing two days of filming for the KBS TV drama Spy Myeongwol in 2011, according to The Chosun Ilbo, prompting a hiatus from acting. Eventually, she made a successful comeback in 2014 through the TV series Birth of a Beauty.
Throughout her career, she has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Grazia and Elle.
Lee Sung-kyung, known as the “Gigi Hadid of South Korea”. Photo: @heybiblee/Instagram
With her distinctive hazel eyes and towering height, Lee Sung-kyung caught the eye of the fashion industry early. The 31-year-old star kicked off her career after competing in South Korea’s Super Model Contest in 2008 and eventually became on of the most sought-after models for print and runway. Fashion magazines dubbed her the “Gigi Hadid of South Korea”.
Model-turned-actress Lee Sung-kyung in Cheese in the Trap. Photo: TVN
With her growing reputation as an ulzzang – a Korean term for “best face” or “good-looking” – she became one of the first model-actresses to be signed with YG Entertainment, a South Korean agency known for managing BigBang, 2NE1 and many more K-pop artists.
She landed her first leading role in the drama Weightlifting Fairy Kim-Bok-Joo, for which she gained weight. It became a breakout role for Lee, and solidified her superstar status.
As a top model, she has graced the covers of leading fashion magazines such as W, Vogue Girl, Grazia and CéCi. She has also endorsed Laneige, Fresh Pop and Adidas.
Descendants of the Sun star Kim Ji-won has been in the entertainment industry from a young age. Photo: @geewonii/Instagram
Before bagging her roles in Fight For My Way (2017) and Arthdal Chronicles (2019), Kim Ji-won was a teenager auditioning for commercials and extras in music videos.
After becoming a singer, theatre actress and commercial model who appeared in both TV and print ads, she made her major TV appearance in the sitcom High Kick: Revenge of the Short-Legged (2011). But her big breaks came after her performances in The Heirs (2013) and Descendants of the Sun (2016) – roles she won awards for.
Kim Ji-won’s big break was in Descendants of the Sun. Photo: KBS
The Hallyu star has since become the face of multiple brands such as Dr. G, Basic House, J. Estina, Lonsdale and even Shin Ramyun! She has also posed for magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire and Vogue Girl.
Jung Ho-yeon rose to fame after starring in Squid Game. Photo: @hoooooyeony/Instagram
After starring in the psychological thriller series Squid Game, Jung Ho-yeon’s fan base skyrocketed. She reportedly gained 19 million followers on social media after the show premiered in September. She is now the most-followed Korean actress on Instagram, overtaking Lee Sung-kyung and Song Hye-kyo.
But before being catapulted to overnight stardom, Jung was a renowned model turning heads with her iconic fiery red locks on the runway.
Model-turned-actress Jung Ho-yeon on the runway. Photo: @hoooooyeony/Instagram
She kick-started her career at Seoul Fashion Week and then went on to compete in season four of Korea’s Next Top Model in 2013. She decided to leave Seoul to further her modelling career and made her international modelling debut as an exclusive model for Louis Vuitton in 2016. Since then, she’s walked for luxury brands like Chanel, Gucci, Prabal Gurung, Marc Jacobs, Jeremy Scott and Roberto Cavalli.
The popular model has also posed on the covers of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, W, Dazed and Marie Claire, to name a few.Internet Explorer Channel Network