Lee Sung Kyung: From Model to Actress Extraordinaire

With her acting chops and musical talent, this actress is definitely shaking up the entertainment scene in South Korea.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

With her acting chops and musical talent, this actress is definitely shaking up the entertainment scene in South Korea.

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The transition from idol to actor is not the only popular trend in South Korea. For the last few years, more and more models have made a name for themselves in the acting arena.

And while we’ve witnessed the rise of Kim Woo Bin, Lee Jong Suk and Nam Joo Hyuk, it’s not just the tall and lanky male models who have crossed over.

Repping the women is Lee Sung Kyung, who is known for her baby face and vivacious personality.

The 27-year-old started her journey as a model in 2008 after competing in the 17th Super Model Contest. After bagging awards in various modelling contests and becoming a runway favourite – she walked in more than 10 A/W ’14 shows for Seoul Fashion Week – she decided to pursue her other love: acting.

Lee Sung Kyung made her acting debut in It’s OK, That’s Love as a high school student who was enamoured of Lee Kwang Soo’s character. Despite it being her first foray into acting, she received compliments for her performance, with netizens and critics in disbelief over her rookie status.

And that was just the beginning of her journey.

The rise

Not long after, she acted in Queen’s Flower, which earned her the Best New Actress awards at two awards shows and the Best Actress in a Special Project Drama trophy at the MBC Drama Awards in the same year.

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1- 2016: Collaborated with Eddy Kim to release "My Lips Warm Like Coffee"

2- 2015: Walked the runway for Seoul Fashion Week

3- 2014: Made her acting debut with It’s OK, That’s Love

Since then, Sung Kyung seems to have developed an acute instinct for choosing roles in dramas that will hit the jackpot. From Cheese in the Trap to Doctors, her charm has shone through in role after role.

Last year, her fame reached new heights when she scored her first lead role in Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo, a drama inspired by the real-life story of Olympic weightlifter and gold medallist Jang Mi Ran. 

While many were initially skeptical about her suitability for the role, especially because of her slim frame, Sung Kyung proved her critics wrong with her stellar performance and commitment to the role – according to MBC’s Section TV, she put on 5kg to play the role of a weighlifting athlete.

The backstory

Interestingly, prior to It’s OK, That’s Love, Sung Kyung had never thought of appearing on the small screen. “I had never even considered it,” she admitted on variety show Happy Together, adding that she wanted to be a musical actress instead. “I planned to study [singing]... and cut down on modelling for three to five years to prepare to debut in a musical when I suddenly got the opportunity [to star in a drama].”

She revealed in an interview with Korean news outlet Atstar1 that she got the role purely by chance. “The director was looking for an actress who had not been moulded, especially among models. I was fortunate to have met him... Thankfully, he liked my talkative and ‘reckless’ personality, and cast me in the role.”

You read that right – she didn’t even have to audition!

Four years on and she has risen through the ranks to become one of the most sought-after actresses in South Korea.

Of course, this doesn’t mean she has given up her first career. She told Korean news outlet EToday, “I will continue with my modelling activities. It’s a job I really love.”

In fact, she has found the perfect balance: the actress marries her modelling skills with her fame through brand endorsements. Her portfolio includes beauty brand LANEIGE, mobile phone brand LG and GT Milk, among others.

The side gig

Although she has yet to star in a musical, she hasn’t forgotten her love for singing. She demonstrated her vocal chops in an appearance on King of Mask Singer, where she blew the audience away when she took on the identity of “Blue Crab Holding Flowers”.

After her appearance on the show, she went on to perform at the MBC Drama Acting Awards, and later collaborated on songs with the likes of Eddy Kim and fellow label mate PSY.

In fact, her interest in music started even before she entered the entertainment industry – she majored in piano in school. She revealed in Happy Together that she had been playing the instrument since young and even after becoming a model, she would play it for seven to eight hours a day on her days off. 

<b>1</b>-2016: Starred in Cheese in the Trap. <b>2</b>-2016: Starred in Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo. <b>3</b>-2015: Became the face of LANEIGE
<b>1</b>-2016: Starred in Cheese in the Trap. <b>2</b>-2016: Starred in Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo. <b>3</b>-2015: Became the face of LANEIGE

In fact, we think her versatility is a huge reason for her success. That, and her adorable personality, of course.

While South Korean actresses usually have an aura of mystery surrounding them, Sung Kyung is known for her candid and witty personality, which is on full display both on variety shows and off-camera.

It was probably this side of her that got her cast in KBS variety show Small Town Cinema: Overgrown Bromance this year, which featured her and three veteran actors going to a remote village in South Korea to help set up an outdoor movie theatre for the residents to enjoy.

The future

Of course, that’s not the last you’ll see of Sung Kyung this year. The actress has a new drama, About Time, which will be released in May. The fantasy romance drama sees her playing the role of a musical actress who has the ability to see a person’s life span, including her own. She meets a man (Lee Sang Yoon) who’s able to stop her “life span clock”, and the two fall in love.

If her past works are anything to go by, we reckon this will be one of the biggest K-Dramas of the year. 

Photography Yoo Youngkyu Originally shot for W Korea / Fashion Editor Jung Fwanwook Images Getty Images, TPG/Click Photos Text Hidayah Idris.