In the cutthroat world of K-pop where idols are expected to play by the rules, Sulli was one of the few female celebrities who was unafraid to be exactly who she was: fearless, unapologetic, and a true freedom fighter. And that’s how she’s going to be remembered.

For many of us who got into K-pop back in its heydays, you’d have probably spent your formative years looking up to second-generation idols such as Girls’ Generation, SHINee and f(x). When the latter first debuted with the spunky anthem ‘LA chA TA’ back in 2009, the unconventional quintet became an instant hit thanks to their addictive tunes and eclectic musical style – a departure from K-pop’s usual formula of bubblegum pop. Choi Jinri (better known as Sulli), the maknae of the group, was well-loved for her bright personality and fresh-faced charms which would eventually earn her the affectionate nickname of a ‘human peach’. Back then, she was 15.

Fast forward a decade later, our world was turned upside down when news of Sulli’s sudden passing hit the Internet. The starlet was found dead at her home on Monday (14 October), leaving behind a legacy that has inspired tons of young women around the world. She was 25.

Since her departure from f(x) in the midst of promotions in 2014, hardly a day went by without Sulli making the headlines for her seemingly ‘controversial’ views – such as advocating for the no-bra movement and speaking up on women’s rights – which would often come under heavy criticism in South Korea’s patriarchal society. Yet despite the constant public scrutiny, she was never one to bow down to people’s expectations and stood firm in her beliefs, all in her unfiltered glory.

Fellow K-pop star and solo artiste Park Jimin said that Sulli’s “one of the bravest and brightest” in a recent tweet – and she couldn’t have said it better.

A FEMINIST ICON

If there’s anyone who has gained a solid rep for being one of the most outspoken stars in the K-pop industry, it’s Sulli. Known to fly her girl power flag high, the 25-year-old was a major advocate for the no-bra movement and frequently posted photos of herself without a bra – and that’s a pretty strong statement in a deeply conservative society like South Korea.

 
 
 
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A post shared by 설리가진리 (Sulli) (@jelly_jilli) on

She explained, “I think that it’s free and beautiful. When I first posted a ‘no bra’ photo, there was a lot of talk about it. I was scared and could have hidden, but the reason I didn’t is because I want to change the prejudice about that. I’ve heard that there are more people who go out braless lately.” Well, we can safely say that it was Sulli who gave these girls the confidence to do so.

STANDING UP TO HATERS

Throughout her career, Sulli was relentlessly bullied online for even the most trivial of issues. But instead of letting those malicious comments bring her down, she channeled the negativity into resilience as she bravely stood up to naysayers.

As a host on Korean variety show The Night of Hate Comments, she candidly discussed her experience dealing with online abuse: “I think that if I worry too much about what other people think of me, it will be difficult to find my own self because I would get influenced by everyone. Ever since I was young, I hated seeing myself obsess over what people thought of me so I tried to work on it.”

However, nobody is bulletproof – after all, words can sometimes hurt more than bullets.

In an industry where K-pop idols aren’t able to freely express themselves without fear of backlash, one can only hope that Sulli’s situation will serve as a wake-up call and encourage a kinder, more cohesive community.

SHEDDING LIGHT ON MENTAL HEALTH

In her 2018 reality show Jinri Store, Sulli opened up about her struggles battling with social phobia and anxiety, explaining that she had been suffering from a panic disorder since she was young. “People hurt me, so everything fell apart. I didn’t feel like I had anyone on my side or anyone who could understand me,” she confessed.

Back in June, the former f(x) member made her long-awaited musical comeback with ‘Goblin’ – a haunting alt-pop number that speaks of someone living with dissociative disorder. Some may have dismissed it as just a cool concept, but the way the video highlighted the underlying stigma surrounding such psychological disorders, all while reigniting the conversation on the importance of mental health, was truly deserving of praise. 

Even though the topic of mental health is still largely considered taboo in South Korea – which is one of the countries with the highest suicide rates in the world – Sulli’s outspokenness about her personal battles not only broke the culture of silence, but helped many fans through their own dark times as well. It’s a conversation that we all need to be having about, yet perhaps the most painful realisation is that it took a precious life to make people realise that it’s time to evoke change.

You’ve put up a good fight, Sulli. Rest easy now.

If you or you know someone who’s in need of help, please call Samaritans of Singapore at 1800-221 4444 (24-hour hotline), or email them at [email protected]

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