In the conservative world of the South Korean entertainment industry, she stood out like a beacon of hope.
Choi Jin-ri, or Sulli to her fans across the globe, talked openly about the pressures of life in the closeted world of K-pop.
Her battle against depression and her candour on mental-health issues shredded the glitz and glamor associated with the country’s music scene.
On Monday, her death reverberated across South Korea after she was discovered unconscious at her Seongnam residence. She was only 25 years old.
Outpourings of grief have followed the tragic news.
“I always adored and respected you for your boldness. All I can say is rest in peace,” a fan commented on Sulli’s Instagram account.
“In heaven, you don’t have to act strong or pretend everything is okay,” another fan wrote. “I hope you will only think about yourself there.”
Music journalist Taylor Glasby described Sulli as a “free spirit” and the driving force behind her former band f(x).
The all-girl group broke into the K-pop stratosphere in 2009 with a more gritty sound.
“They were one of the girl groups that didn’t fit in, they did their own thing. Their music was more hard-hitting. It was innovative and complex, and it helped cement an entire sub-genre within K-pop [known as] girl crush,” Glasby said.
“When she left, her legacy became being outspoken. It became taking control of her own image. I admired her spirit to do so despite the constant negativity that was directed at her by some less open-minded citizens,” she told the BBC Radio 1 show Newsbeat.
By 2014, Sulli had put her pop career on hold after suffering from “stress-related pain,” compounded by depression in what she described as cyber-bullying relating to her private life.
A year later, she announced she would be pursuing acting projects and was offered the role in the 2017 superhero movie Real. She also released her debut solo single, Goblin, in the summer.
Yet she was rarely out of the spotlight and was considered controversial by segments of the Korean media. To her fans, she was simply a woman of principle.
“Going braless is one’s freedom,” she said on Korean network JTBC’s Night of Hate Comments show in July.
“When I upload my photos without a bra, people talk about it a lot,” she said.
“I could have been scared. But I [wasn’t] because I thought it would be nice if more people could discard their prejudices,” she added.
Sulli also pushed back from her personal life being turned into reality TV. In April, she accused fans of “gaze-rape.”
The Korea Times defined the phrase as “a newly coined term referring to excessive gazing that makes people feel violated.”
She made the remark during an Instagram live stream which showed her drinking with friends.
But it was her stand and openness about mental health issues that resonated.
“Even close people left me,” she said, referring to panic disorders that plagued her life.
“I was hurt by them and felt there was nobody who understands me, which made me fall apart,” Sulli told the TV show Jinri Store in 2018.
The exact cause of her death is still under investigation. But police issued a statement saying the celebrity had been suffering from “severe depression.”
On Twitter, fans mourned her death.
“Condolences to Sulli’s family and friends and our dear angel may you rest in peace. You’ve occupied a part of our hearts and you’ll never be forgotten,” one fan twitter.
Another admirer said:
“You’re just an angel who wanted to go back home and I hope you won’t feel pain anymore and only the utmost happiness. We love you.”
– additional reporting AFP