Amid all the gruesome and disturbing yet brilliantly made scenes in the global hit K-drama “Squid Game” shines one breakout star that fans just can’t seem to get over. Playing the role of North Korean defector Kang Sae-byeok in her first-ever acting gig, Jung Ho-yeon has risen to international fame as the series tops
Before the series premiered on Sept. 17, the 27-year-old had already made a name for herself in the modeling industry. She began her career in 2013 as a participant in another cutthroat, yet far less deadly competition, “Korea’s Next Top Model,” where she finished in second place. Soon after, she made appearances at Seoul Fashion Week before working her way up to the international scene.
In 2016, Jung was signed on as an exclusive model for Louis Vuitton during its Fall/Winter 2017 show, according to HypeBae. Donning a signature look of vibrant red hair at the time, Jung went on to cement her status as one of South Korea’s top models as she continued to grace the catwalks for more major brands like Chanel, Gucci, and Marc Jacobs, to name a few.
In 2020, Jung signed on to Saram Entertainment, which landed her the audition for the “Squid Game” character Sae-byeok. It was during her preparation for New York Fashion Week when she was asked to send in a video audition for the role.
In an interview with W Korea, Jung revealed she hardly slept upon receiving the news and instead spent the days solely focused on studying the script with the exception of meal breaks. Two days after she sent the video in, she flew back to South Korea to repeat the process again for an in-person audition.
Jung could hardly believe it when she got the part. “The first thing I said was ‘Why?’” she recalled. A mixture of emotions overwhelmed her, both “happiness” and “fear,” as she began to doubt whether she would be able to fulfill the role.
But it’s clear from viewer reactions on social media that she did the role more than justice.
Featured in countless viral videos circulating the internet, Jung has become the center of many discussions surrounding the show, particularly as fans discover her dark but persevering character is played by an equally fierce model in real life. According to Chosun, her follower count on Instagram started at roughly 400,000 before the show’s premiere. Almost two weeks later, the number has soared to over 9 million.
Jung revealed later in the same interview that she sees herself in the character that viewers get to know and love on screen. It was easier for her to relate to Sae-byeok since throughout her career she would experience loneliness during her many days spent abroad. As Sae-byeok had to leave her hometown in North Korea and was forced to live apart from her family, “the feeling of loneliness while trying to make it through life isn’t much different,” Jung said.
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