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The Transformation Of HoYeon Jung From Childhood To Squid Game

Contains spoilers for "Squid Game"

The popularity of Netflix's "Squid Game" has catapulted a number of its actors into super-stardom. Take HoYeon Jung, for example. The actress appears in the series as North Korean defector Kang Sae-byeok, who needs the prize money to support her younger brother and to reunite with her mother, who was captured during the border crossing that also killed her father. Although she is one of the many characters that did not make it out of the game alive, this role is proving to be the breakout one for the 27-year-old. NME reported on October 4 that Jung has become the most-followed South Korean actress, with 13 million followers at the time of that writing; that number has since skyrocketed to 22 million.

If you're just discovering her, you're not alone. "Squid Game" was her acting debut, and she clearly picked a winner for her first role. Now, you might want to know more about her, like where she grew up and what her path to stardom has been like. Here's a look at her transformation over the years. 

She started modeling at age 16, later appearing on Korea's Top Model

According to Elle Australia and Vogue, Jung was born in 1994 in Myeonmok-dong, a suburb of Seoul in South Korea. She grew up there as well, attending Dongduk Women's University where she majored in modeling. She has two siblings (via Interview Magazine), but has kept information about them relatively private. Unlike many models who are discovered by others, this determined future star worked freelance at Seoul Fashion Week when she was just 16 before finally getting representation. 

In 2013, she starred on the fourth season of "Korea's Next Top Model," getting eliminated in the third episode (according to W Magazine) but returning in Episode 5 and eventually becoming one of the show's runner-ups. She gives some credit to her experience on the reality competition in creating her character for "Squid Game." 

"I didn't think I grafted the competitive and strong-willed versions of myself from 'Korea's Next Top Model' to Sae-byeok's character," Jung told NBC News. "But thinking of it now, maybe I still have those aspects within me, which helped me understand the role. And I've grown to accept that part of me, as well."

She became one of the world's top models

After that, her modeling career took off. She worked steadily in Korea, appearing in Korean versions of Vogue, Elle, and W before taking on runway work starting in 2016; W Magazine decided to name her one of its top 10 breakout models of 2016. She landed an exclusive global contract with Louis Vuitton (via Models.com) and appeared in her first major runway show: Opening Ceremony's Spring 2017 show at New York Fashion Week. She told The Korea Times, "I was trained but my past experiences didn't help ease my nervousness at all during my first show," she said. "I was nervous and at that same time I was thrilled, because my dream came true."

She also walked runways for Marc Jacobs, Fendi and Alberta Ferretti in Paris and Milan in the weeks and months following, W says. Later, she became a staple on runways in all three of those high-fashion cities, along with London. She walked for additional brands, such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Chanel, Bottega Veneta, and even the Gap. And, she developed a signature look when she dyed her hair red without her agency's permission (via W Magazine). 

Two years ago, she won the Asia Star Award at the 2019 Seoul Asia Model Awards. She has asserted that "mental toughness" helped see her through the ups and downs of the industry — something, we imagine, that also helped her get through the filming of "Squid Games" (via Korea Times).

She nailed her first audition

While Jung actually has a boyfriend — she has been dating actor Lee Dong Hwi since 2016, according to People — she apparently spends a lot of time alone reading, watching movies, and thinking, while she travels on airplanes and stays at hotels. "On holidays, I spent time alone at home watching a movie, reading a book, and contemplating," she told W. "Now that I think about it, if I hadn't had that time, I probably wouldn't have been able to do acting. I relieved my loneliness with movies and books, and I had a strong desire to express what I felt through acting."

She told Vogue that the contemplation she did while alone made her ask hard questions. "I thought more and more about myself and my position in humanity at large. Who was I? What does it mean to be human? The need to answer those questions was what brought me to acting."

Jung took acting classes in Korea, then secured an acting agent and received her first script (via W Magazine). It was for "Squid Game." Because she was so early in her acting career, she didn't expect to get the role, or that the show would get so big. "I was just so happy that I got a role and could give a performance," she said. "I still feel nervous at the thought of meeting an audience through the screen. I never dreamed that the show would become such a global sensation."