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

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Former member of South Korean girl group f(x), Sulli, at the photocall for FENDI on September 03, 2019Image copyright
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Sulli first entered the Korean entertainment industry at the age of 11

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.

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(L-R) Victoria Song, Amber Liu, Krystal Jung, Sulli and Luna made up girl group f(x)

“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.

She was also a talk show host on a programme known as The Night of Hate Comments, which featured celebrities talking about their experiences with hate comments and cyberbullying.

Struggles and trolling

What really made her stand out was her outspokenness – a trait not common among K-pop stars, who often remain very private about their lives and thoughts.

The K-pop industry is also known for the pressure it puts on its idols to maintain a wholesome image.

“K-pop artists are called ‘idols’ in Korea… [beings] that must be ideal, perfect people and performers at all times even in their personal lives,” said K-pop columnist Jeff Benjamin.

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Female Kpop stars are expected to maintain a wholesome image

Sulli defied this.

“Female K-pop stars are expected to be cute and lovely while being obedient to public reception. Sulli didn’t fit this mould. She was one who intentionally raised her voice and wanted to be heard,” said Yoonha Kim, a K-pop critic based in Korea.

She spoke openly about her struggles with mental health issues, cyberbullying – and even her romantic relationships, which many K-pop stars are banned from doing by their management.

The 25 year old insisted women should be free to dress as they pleased, and she herself was often strongly criticised for not wearing a bra in public.

“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 that I want to change peoples’ prejudices about that. Part of me also wanted to say: ‘This isn’t that big of a deal,'” she told an interviewer.

For all this, she was openly attacked by online trolls, many of whom deemed her actions “controversial”, from her attire to the pictures she posted.

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Sulli was openly attacked online

“To many of Sulli’s critics, even something as innocuous as posting pictures [of herself] with her boyfriend was considered a controversial move,” said Calixto.

But she continued speaking out, firm in her conviction that her haters had no right to silence her.

“She brazenly spoke out based on her own beliefs. These nonconforming, loud and bold female stars have to risk their entire career to be who they are,” said Kim.

A true trailblazer

Sulli was found dead at her home on Monday. The initial police report said there was no sign of foul play. Her close friends said she had been depressed before her death.

Several idols have since spoken out about the need for better support for stars in the K-pop industry, and the pressures they are under.

Kim Dong Wan, of boyband Shinhwa, wrote on Instagram that many stars were “fighting a battle within themselves, debating how much sickness can they bear in their hearts and continue to work, all for the sake of the sweetness that money and fame provides”.

Family and friends of Sulli, including her former f(x) band mates, attended her funeral on Thursday.

The funeral was initially closed to the media and fans, but SM Entertainment later allowed fans in to bid farewell. Thousands of fans have also paid tribute to her online.

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Sulli has been described by her fans as someone who spoke out for women’s rights

“Let’s remember Sulli more for the things she fought for,” said one comment on Twitter. “She’s one of the few famous and outspoken Korean figures that openly talks about feminism, mental disorders, and body positivity. A true trailblazer.”

“I think people who cared about women’s rights supported her in one way or another,” said Kim.

“Many Korean women are [now] voicing their desire to fight. Even if she can’t hear it anymore, I hope it will comfort her a little on her way.”

Reporting by Yvette Tan and Wonsang Kim



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R. Kelly faces bribery charge over 1994 marriage to Aaliyah

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R. Kelly arrives for a hearing on sexual abuse charges at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in June 2019Image copyright
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The singer has faced allegations of underage abuse for two decades

R. Kelly has been charged with bribing a government official in order to get a fraudulent identification document to marry an under-age girl in 1994.

The girl, named only as Jane Doe in the documents, has widely been identified by US media as singer Aaliyah.

They got married when she was 15 and R. Kelly was 27. The certificate, leaked at the time, listed her age as 18.

R. Kelly is facing several sexual abuse charges with trials in Chicago and New York next year. He denies wrongdoing.

The latest criminal indictment was filed by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, New York, and expands on charges filed against him in July.

  • R. Kelly denied bail as second trial date set

They say he and his entourage headed up a racketeering operation, across two decades, which recruited women and under-age girls for illegal sexual activity.

What is the new charge?

R. Kelly, real name Robert Kelly, is accused of paying a bribe to an unnamed Illinois government employee to obtain a fake ID.

That identification was then used to obtain a marriage licence which listed her age as 18, the New York Times reports.

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Aaliyah died in a plane crash in 2001

Court documents reportedly say the bribe was paid on 30 August 1994 – just one day before the marriage licence to Aaliyah, first reported by Vibe magazine.

Their marriage was annulled months later because the teenager, whose full name was Aaliyah Dana Haughton, was under age.

The singer died in a plane crash in 2001. Her debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, was produced and written by R. Kelly.

Steven Greenberg, R. Kelly’s lawyer, told ABC News earlier this year that his client had “no idea” Aaliyah was 15 when they married.

Responding to the New York Times on Thursday, Mr Greenberg said the new charge “does not appear to materially alter the landscape”.

More on the R Kelly allegations

  • The history of allegations against him

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Media captionLanita Carter explains why she decided to speak out publicly against R Kelly

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David Beckham sleeping film plays at hospital he was born in

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'David' on show at Whipps Cross HospitalImage copyright
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Taylor-Johnson’s David video is on display at Whipps Cross Hospital

An hour-long video of former footballer David Beckham sleeping has gone on show at the London hospital he was born in.

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s artwork has been loaned to the ultrasound department at Whipps Cross Hospital in Leytonstone, east London, until March 2020.

Unveiled in 2004, David shows England’s then-football captain getting 40 winks after a Real Madrid training session.

The National Portrait Gallery’s Sarah Tinsley said both artist and subject were “very happy” with the loan.

  • Sleeping Beckham makes art debut

Beckham, now 44, was born in the hospital’s maternity unit in 1975 and grew up nearby.

Taylor-Johnson was commissioned to create a portrait of him in 2002, when she was known as Sam Taylor-Wood.

The Fifty Shades of Grey director has previously called the piece, which plays on a continuous loop, a “meditation on celebrity”.

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Beckham was filmed by Taylor-Johnson (right) while he was playing for Real Madrid

“We looked at a number of different venues with a relationship to David Beckham, including a railway station, a school and a football ground,” said Tinsley.

“In the end, the hospital seemed to provide the best environment for showing the work.

“What this space provides is a moment of quietness while people are waiting for appointments or coming out,” she continued.

“The work is a very peaceful, very intimate, different kind of portrait [that] provides people with something very quiet [and] peaceful to look at.”

The loan is part of the National Portrait Gallery’s Coming Home project, which involves portraits of 50 individuals travelling to places which which they are closely associated.

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C3PO actor: ‘I was left out of Star Wars publicity’

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C3PO actor Anthony Daniels has told BBC Radio 5 Live that not being included in publicity for the original Star Wars film left him feeling “rejected, redacted and ignored”.

Speaking to Jamie Stangroom, he said “mystery men” behind the original Star Wars film wanted to maintain an illusion that C3PO was “a real automaton. That he was an advanced piece of electronics, magically created by the studios and the production.”

The studio went so far as to not include Daniels’ name on the original poster, which he said left him feeling inferior to co-stars Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Sir Alec Guinness.



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