The untold truth of K-Pop star Sulli

On Oct. 14, 2019, South Korean singer-actress Choi Jin-ri (better known by her stage name Sulli) was found dead in her home just south of Seoul. According to Koreaboo, the Seongnam Sujeong Police Station later confirmed that she had died of an apparent suicide. She was 25.

Sulli rose to stardom as a member of f(x), making her debut as part of the five-piece act in 2009. Her relationship with fans of the now-disbanded K-pop girl group had become strained by the time of her passing. She was heavily criticized online, for example, when she went on a personal hiatus citing health issues just a few weeks after f(x) made a comeback with 2014's Red Light — effectively cutting promotion of the album short. The Busan-born idol formally left f(x) the following year, and announced her intention to focus on her acting career. Sulli appeared in just a single feature film between then and June 2019, when she unexpectedly returned to the idol scene as a solo artist with "Goblin." 

So, what exactly happened during those few months prior to the K-pop star's tragic passing? This is the untold truth of Sulli.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Sulli was a taboo breaker

Sulli broke several big K-pop taboos over the course of her career. The K-pop industry holds its idols to almost impossibly high standards, and when an idol falls below these standards, the fans will often let them know it ... and in no uncertain terms. Sulli unfortunately attracted a lot of negative attention, for example, when she stopped wearing a bra under her shirt in some of her Instagram posts. However, the singer-actress stood firm when challenged over it by making her debut on The Night of Hate Comments – a Korean show on which celebrities respond to malicious comments that have been made about them online — in June 2019.

"Bras have wires, they are not good for health," Sulli said (via Metro). "Not wearing one is comfortable. That is something beautiful and natural. For me, a bra is like an accessory. Some outfits go with it, and others do not. That's why I sometimes do not wear a bra." The former f(x) member admitted that the no-bra backlash was hard for her to handle at first, but it only made her more determined to exercise her freedom. "When I upload my photos without a bra, people talk about it a lot," Sulli added. "I could have been scared. But I didn't because I thought it would be nice if more people could discard their prejudices."

This K-pop star didn't fit the idol mold

To say that a K-pop idol stepping out of line the way Sulli often did is rare would be a drastic understatement. Her rebellious behavior unfortunately made her an easy target for trolls, but there were plenty of people who appreciated and respected her — both in and outside of the industry. 

"She laughed when she wanted to laugh and cried when she wanted to cry," one Korean music critic said after her passing (via BBC News). "She brazenly spoke out. She didn't fit the [mold]." Over on Instagram, fans left similar messages of support. "I always adored and respected you for your boldness," one grieving user wrote (via Japan Today).

Part of the problem for Sulli was that her agency, SM Entertainment (which expressed "deep condolences" following her passing, per Metro), had packaged her as the innocent little kid of f(x). This meant that she faced extra scrutiny whenever she did something that was considered out of that character. However, she often went against the grain regardless. South Korean singer and painter Kwon Ji-an hoped that Sulli would be honored in death for speaking up about sensitive topics when others around her refused to, saying (via Reuters): "She wasn't just an issue-maker but I hope she will be remembered as a women's rights activist who was free-spirited, who could truly speak her mind." 

She flouted the no-dating rule

One of the most important rules K-pop idols are expected to follow is the one that prohibits dating. According to screenwriter Fairlane Raymundo, the illusion of availability must be upheld so that male fans can feel as though they stand a chance with their idol of choice, no matter how remote. "They are objects to be had," Raymundo, who's a fan of Asian entertainment, wrote for ReelRundown. "And if they are off the market, there isn't much point in selling them."

That didn't stop Sulli from entering into a relationship with rapper Choiza. The unlikely pair dated for two years, before reportedly splitting in early 2017. They were first romantically linked in 2014 after footage of them holding hands surfaced online. The revelation sparked major controversy in the K-pop world: Choiza was 14 years older than Sulli and "was born for the Korean Ghetto hip hop culture," as Raymundo put it, adding, "I don't think fans are angry about the fact that she fell in love, but that she fell in love with Choiza."

The rapper kept a low profile in the days following Sulli's death, but later took to Instagram to express his shock and grief. "We spent beautiful moments together and it was with great reluctance to send you away, but those memories will remain with me until I close my eyes," Choiza wrote (English translation via Malay Mail). "This heart will always miss you."

Sulli rebounded with a non-celebrity mystery man

Sulli's relationship with Choiza tainted her reputation in the eyes of many so-called fans of f(x). The perception was that Choiza was a cradle-robbing creep who'd hit the jackpot with a much younger, much more famous woman, despite the fact that he was (on paper, at least) quite the catch himself. "Choiza is a self made man," Fairlane Raymundo wrote for ReelRundown. "He has his own company and manages other artists who have just as much freedom to pursue their artistry without signing a no dating clause." Regardless, Sulli was criticized and castigated for dating him — though the experience clearly didn't put her off dating altogether.

According to Hello KpopSulli rebounded from Choiza with a non-celebrity, diving into another romance not long after the split. In July 2017, mystery man Kim Min Joon came forward and confirmed that he and the former f(x) member were taking different paths after four months of dating. "After lots of thought, Choi Jin-ri and I decided to go separate ways," he reportedly wrote on Instagram, adding that he hoped his breakup with Sulli would not be twisted into tabloid fodder. "It was ordinary dating. There is only the story of the two, and no other special stories or curious backstories."

This K-Pop star called out some so-called fans

In April 2019, Sulli attended a drinking party with friends and decided to start live-streaming from the venue. The impromptu Q&A she held sparked controversy in South Korea, not only because she appeared to be drunk at the time, but because of what she had to say about a certain section of K-pop fans. The former f(x) member was being watched by some 14,000 people at the height of the stream, and wasn't happy with the line of questioning that some of these so-called fans were taking.

At one point, the singer-actress took offense to a particular comment and told her viewers that she was sick of "gaze rape." According to The Korea Times, this is a term for "excessive gazing that makes people feel violated." Sulli said, "You do not have to worry about me. I hate people who gaze rape me." After another user chimed in and advised Sulli to shut down her live-stream before she said something she'd regret, the multi-talent responded with: "I do not think such a person is my fan. What are you?"

She suffered homophobic abuse

In yet another Sulli-related K-pop scandal, the singer was once subjected to homophobic abuse online after she kissed friend and fellow idol Gu Ha-ra (also known for her boundary pushing social media content) on the lips at her own birthday party in 2017. 

According to Allkpopthe reaction among fans was actually quite mixed, but as is often the case when it comes to toxic fandom, the vocal minority made themselves heard. Many left hurtful comments about the former f(x) member, most of them relating to her sexual orientation. "I'm afraid the two will announce they're dating in the future," one person commented, while another assumed that Sulli "must've gone from Choiza to liking girls." One person even suggested that Gu Ha-ra (better known simply as Hara) was "out of her mind" for kissing Sulli.

What all of these nay-sayers clearly didn't realize, however, was that these two were like sisters to each other. After Sulli's death was announced in October 2019, Hara posted some pics of them lying in bed together on Instagram, along with a touching tribute to her late friend. The caption translates as (via Allkpop): "In that world, I hope Jinri can do whatever she wants." Sadly, Hara was unable to attend Sulli's funeral because of work commitments in neighboring Japan, so she sent a heartbreaking video message to her friend instead, promising (via Koreaboo): "I will live hard and work hard for you."

K-Pop star Sulli tracked down a cyberbully

What's become abundantly clear about Sulli since her passing is that she was systematically targeted by cyberbullies for years, attacked by anonymous online trolls because of her stance on women's rights and outspoken nature. She opened up about that experience when she began co-hosting The Night of Hate Comments in 2019, just months before her untimely death. The troubled idol revealed that she actually managed to track down one of her haters, but chose not to prosecute them when she discovered they were a student at a prestigious university.

"If I wasn't lenient with a student who goes to such a good university, they'd become an ex-convict," Sulli said (via Soompi). She explained how she received a long letter of apology from the "malicious commenter" and chose not to take the matter any further. "They said they were sorry and they hadn't known it would become such a large issue. They said they'd taken their stress out on me."

Since Sulli's passing, idols and academics alike have been urging the Korean government to implement changes and put an end to the endemic of cyberbullying. "Freedom of expression is a vital value in democratic society, but insulting and hurting someone else's dignity is beyond that limit," Lee Dong-gwi, who is a a psychology professor at Seoul's Yonsei University, said (via Channel News Asia). "There need to be far harsher penalties for those who violate that law."

Sulli's fans blamed ex-boyfriend Choiza for her death

Sulli's ex-boyfriend, Choiza, faced some intense criticism when the tragic news of her death leaked. According to The Korea Times, the rapper's Instagram account was inundated with hate comments. Angry users outright blamed Choiza (a member of hip-hop outfit Dynamic Duo) for Sulli's death, claiming that she would never have been targeted by trolls if it weren't for him. Some even went so far as to tell Choiza they hoped he would "die in a car crash."

However, they weren't all hate comments. Some people actually saw the irony in attacking Choiza online, considering cyberbullies allegedly played a part in Sulli's apparent suicide. "Sulli died not because of him but because of people like you," one defender wrote, warning the trolls that they would only "make another victim of cyberbullying" if they continued to hate on Choiza.

The rapper wasn't the only person to be called out by fans following Sulli's death. People were also quick to turn against her former f(x) bandmate, Krystal, when she failed to update her social media on the matter. However, it turned out the Asian-American idol had been with Sulli's family the whole time, reportedly staying at her memorial alter for three days straight. "She was there for the whole process," an insider cited by Allkpop claimed. "The malicious comments now are too harsh."

She started working really young

According to Sulli herself, the public often forgot just how young she was. If it seemed as though she'd been around forever at the time of her passing, that's because she began working in entertainment at a really young age. The singer-actress first tasted the limelight as a child actor, appearing in the drama Punch Lady (2007) and rom-com Miracle of Giving Fool (2008). The following year, she made the switch to K-pop and debuted with f(x), but she'd actually been in training for a career as an idol for a long time. 

Sulli was only in the fifth grade when she moved into a trainee dorm in Seoul. While speaking on her reality show Jinri Market (which followed her around as she went about setting up her own pop-up shop) in 2018, Sulli reminded viewers of this fact. "Since I started working at an early age, no one thought that I was young even when I was actually really young," she said (via Koreaboo). When she arrived in the capital as a kid, fellow aspiring stars Taeyeon and Tiffany (who would go on to debut with Girls' Generation) took the youngster under their wing. "They took good care of me and I liked to follow them around," a tearful Sulli revealed on an episode of Come to Play in 2011 (via Allkpop). "I came to Seoul alone so I only had them to look up to for support."

Sulli felt 'alone in the world'

Sulli didn't shy away from explaining why she left f(x). During the first-ever episode of her reality show, Jinri Market, the actress and then-retired idol revealed that she realized the K-pop life wasn't for her and decided to put some distance between herself and the industry. "I couldn't see the future," she admitted (via Koreaboo). "I had no idea what would happen in the future, so I did everything I could to protect myself." Couldn't she have asked her friends and family for advice? "Even when I said I was exhausted, no one listened to me," Sulli claimed. "I felt all alone in the world."

Former f(x) bandmate Victoria didn't publicly reply to these comments directly, but fans believe that a cryptic message she posted to Weibo was actually a veiled response. "Everyone has a path they desire and that they must go on," she wrote (via Koreaboo). "Don't stop walking and go, don't regret." It seems as though Sulli had the full support of Victoria, who took to Instagram to share her final goodbye when the former was found dead at her home. "Sulli, the weather is nice today," Victoria wrote (via Metro). "Goodbye. I won't forget you. I love you."

She suffered from 'panic disorder'

Were Sulli's cries for help ignored by her agency? While speaking to Busan Report in the wake of her passing, an industry insider claimed that the idol had urged SM Entertainment to do more to protect her against cyberbullies on numerous occasions, but to no avail. "Sulli had a hard time dealing with the hate comments," the source alleged (via Koreaboo). "She constantly asked her agency to take proper course of action in dealing with these comments." Meanwhile, SM Entertainment claimed that they'd tried to root out one particularly troublesome hater, but were unable to do so because the offender was registered in a foreign country. "The IP address was made temporarily just for the use of malicious comments, making it hard for us to catch the user," a spokesperson said.

It seems as though Sulli felt like she'd been hung out to dry, not only by her agency, but by some of her closest friends, too. The former f(x) star spoke about her mental health in the first episode of her 2018 reality show, Jinri Market, revealing that she suffered from "social phobia" during a candid segment. "I've had panic disorder ever since I was young," Sulli said (via Metro). "There were times when close people ... some of my closest friends have left me. People hurt me, so everything fell apart. I didn't feel like I had anyone on my side or anyone who could understand me."

K-Pop star Sulli was accused of drug use

Sulli covered a number of topics during her debut on The Night of Hate Comments, including accusations of drug use. While she watched a number of drug-related movies in preparation for her role in 2017's Real — and revealed that her friends even compared her to late method actor Heath Ledger — she insisted that she never tried drugs in real life. "There are even people who've uploaded comparisons of photos of my pupils next to photos of the pupils of people who really do drugs," Sulli said (via Soompi), before offering to put a hair sample forward for a test. "I could take out a strand of my hair right now," she quipped. Her fellow MCs pointed out that she'd dyed her hair and eyebrows, but Sulli just laughed and said: "Then I'd do it with my leg hair. I didn't shave my leg hair."

The singer-actress also joked with her co-hosts about that bra backlash, but Sulli allegedly wasn't happy ... at least according to someone who knew her well. After her death, one of Sulli's close friends came forward and alleged that the star had been trying to quit her job on the show for at least two months, because it was having a negative impact on her mental health. "Sulli had severe mood swings," the friend claimed (via Koreaboo). "Her anxiety recently seemed to get much worse so we were very worried about it."