She gained 20 million Instagram followers in one month. She’s on the cover of Korean Vogue wearing silver leather short shorts and thigh-high boots. She’s even signed a lucrative contract to be a spokesperson for Louis Vuitton. And all it took was an ensemble role in a violent dystopian drama on Netflix!
It’s good to be Squid Game star Jung Ho-yeon. Granted, she was a successful model before landing her first acting role in the series, but when 111 million viewers—and counting—are tuning in to every grisly episode, it’s not especially surprising that she has ascended into the It Girl stratosphere.
Jung plays Kang Sae-byeok, a North Korean defector with a penchant for pickpocketing who wants to use her winnings to liberate her mother and free her brother from a shelter. Her character is dogged, selfless, and remarkably beautiful, and the combination works—so much so that she’s become the biggest star on Netflix’s biggest hit so far.
Jung, 27, grew up in the Myeonmok-dong area of Seoul. After attending Dongduk Women’s University, where she majored in modeling—who knew such things were possible?—she signed with a local modeling agency and ended up placing second on Korea’s Next Top Model.
A few music videos and fashion spreads followed, but her big break came soon after she accidentally dyed her hair a fiery shade of red before her 2016 debut at New York Fashion Week. During the spring ’17 collections in Paris, she nabbed an exclusive deal with Louis Vuitton, and began appearing on the covers of the Korean editions of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
She’s become the biggest star on Netflix’s biggest hit so far.
Acting was a later development. During her modeling days, she took acting classes, studied English, and watched such films as Fargo, Kill Bill, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In early 2020, she signed with a Korean talent agency. A month later, she was auditioning virtually for Squid Game between walking the runways at New York Fashion Week.
To prepare for the role, she studied dialect with North Korean defectors, learned martial arts, and created a journal for her character.
Her Instagram account is full of fashion spreads, but her personal life is just as intriguing to her new fans. Jung’s boyfriend is fellow actor Lee Dong-hwi, who has starred in the successful Korean films The Handmaiden and Extreme Job.
And in a match that was surely made in P.R. heaven, Jung’s most visible bestie is Jennie Kim, the rapper and lead singer of K-pop phenomenon Blackpink. The two met when Jung was modeling for a Chanel fashion show in Paris; Jennie is currently the face of the brand’s Coco Neige collection of athletic apparel.
Jennie, who has nearly 55 million Instagram followers, refers to herself as “human Chanel.” She attended the show for obvious reasons, and her stylist introduced the two. After solidifying their relationship backstage at a Blackpink concert in New York, they began to socialize at home in Korea. (Jennie reportedly sent a coffee truck to the set of Squid Game during filming—not a bad way to build social-media buzz.)
Spoiler alert—it’s not likely that Jung will appear on a second season of Squid Game. But that won’t hamper her success. Hollywood, like the rest of the world, just can’t look away.
Ashley Baker is the Style Editor for Air Mail