This Is How You Evolve Gracefully: Lee Hyori from K-Pop Superstar to Nature Goddess
After a four-year break from her reign as the number one Korean entertainer that every guy wanted to date and every girl wanted to be, Lee Hyori is back with a long-awaited comeback album and super successful reality show. As major fangirls, we thought it’d be fitting to pay homage to the forever K-pop queen by taking a look back at her ever-evolving beauty and how she captured our hearts from the ‘90s to this day.
Who can sit high and pretty at the top of the charts as the highest-paid female singer and most sought-after celebrity of Korea, then suddenly disappear from the limelight to live a simple life on a secluded farm on Jeju Island? Not to mention decide four years later to step back into the spotlight with a record-breaking reality show and well-received comeback album?
Only the one and only Lee Hyori, of course.
The singer, TV host, actress, executive producer, commercial queen, and animal rights activist has had an untouchable career spanning almost 20 years since she first debuted at the age of 19 as a member of mega girl group Fin.K.L. in 1998. She made headlines with every move, but over the past two decades, it was the many transformations of her image that were highly scrutinized.
Hyori’s husband of four years revealed in an interview that his wife actually prefers comfy clothes and no makeup when no cameras are around (which makes us love her even more). Nevertheless, the chameleon-like celebrity always kept fans and critics all over the globe on their toes awaiting her next makeover, from sexy and vampish to bare-faced and minimalist. Whether they approved or not, the brazen and outspoken star had them mesmerized and talking, and today no one can deny the major influence she has had on K-pop and K-beauty.
For those who are old enough to have been cast under the magic spell of “10 Minutes,” Hyori reigns in their memories as the ultimate crush-worthy K-pop star. Those who missed the era of the Lee Hyori Syndrome may or may not know that the sexy, flirty images of K-pop girl groups today can be credited in large part to Hyori pushing the limits of what the motherland considered appropriate dress back then.
Either way, her recent and successful comeback calls for a stroll down memory lane. Because there is no K-pop without the great Lee Hyori (and besides, who doesn’t like looking at her photos?).
Hyori with Fin.K.L.
In 1998, a 19-year-old Hyori debuted with K-pop girl group Fin.K.L., which quickly became one of the most iconic groups of all time. The first album Blue Rain was heavily R&B, and that undoubtedly influenced Hyori’s look — her wardrobe often consisted of ’90s-style baggy pants or overalls. Her hair was more natural with the signature side bangs reminiscent of that decade, layered and strand-y to frame the face. Black eyeliner and an icy, shimmery eyeshadow highlighted her youthful, fresh face.
Hyori then ventured into the true K-pop cutesy vibe with the release of her group’s second song “To My Boyfriend,” complete with candy-colored outfits, anime-inspired hair, and doe-eyed smiles. Until the end of the ’90s and through Fin.K.L.’s second album, Hyori’s look swayed from street-cool to girly bubblegum pop (a rare treat as Hyori eventually left that sweet aegyo for an edgier feel and never looked back).
Things started heating up in 2000, with the release of “Now,” a song in Fin.K.L.’s third full album. Hyori and the rest of the group transitioned into a more mature, sexier look with toned-belly-baring midriffs, sleek leather, lighter hair, and darker lipstick.
Hyori as a solo star
Perhaps the most controversial and fierce changes in Hyori’s look came when she broke out as a solo star in 2003. As a solo star Hyori experimented even more with hair colors and styles, makeup, and risqué fashion.
Her first solo hit song “10 Minutes” from her first album Stylish was about how she can seduce a guy in just 10 minutes … and indeed she did. Crowned the “sexy dancy queen,” Hyori rocked racy outfits, danced provocatively in her videos, and didn’t seem afraid to push the limits of what was considered “acceptable sex appeal” at the time in Korea.
You can see more of Hyori’s sexpot makeover in “Get Ya” from 2006:
She gets into more creative storytelling mode with her videos, as seen in “U-Go-Girl” from 2008:
Hyori is almost unrecognizable in her 2010 video for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” as she takes her beauty and fashion looks to an out-of-this-world, high fashion-meets-street level:
In her hilarious 2013 video for “Bad Girls,” Hyori shows off her sense of humor, some acting chops, and her love of dressing up and playing the part:
The notorious bad gal admittedly caught a lot of slack for her provocative moves and sexy getups, but the publicity may have worked in her favor as she landed major endorsements and pretty much became the nation’s official soju girl. By 2006, she was the highest paid female singer in South Korea, and whatever hair, makeup, or fashion she donned was sure to be the next big trend.
During this time, Hyori gave off hints of perhaps who she really was inside and where she would eventually go with her aesthetic. Her off-duty look was usually a bare face and a warm smile, a complete 180 from her default on-camera look, which usually involved some sort of dark eyeliner or smoky eyes and deeply shaded lips.
Hyori’s return to nature
After a series of sexy, suggestive looks, Hyori changed it up once again in a shocking way. Never one to go with the mainstream flow, she wed former guitarist of rock band Roller Coaster in 2013, and around then her style changed to a more effortless, understated cool. Whether because of her true love for comfy chic, her husband’s indie influences on her, or both, the once dolled up diva stripped down to the bare necessities, opting for a naked face and casual attire over the flash and flirt her fans loved and critics loved to hate on.
In line with her new aesthetic, even her wedding was pared down and simple, the antithesis of big flashy Korean weddings in hotels. Her hair fell in mid-length, natural looking waves, her face seemingly devoid of much makeup, and she carried a bouquet of wildflowers. True to Hyori’s trendsetting powers, this also launched another movement of “small DIY weddings,” and even more celebs followed suit with simpler ceremonies and celebrations.
The former glitz and glam goddess then moved to a secluded farm on Jeju island, where she still lives with her hubby and menagerie of animals. We were able to get a glimpse into her “simpler” country life when W Korea did a spread on Hyori’s Jeju home in 2015.
Shortly after that, the Seoulite announced that she was taking a two-year break from the limelight to focus on her personal life. She cut off her SNS accounts, ceased all television appearances, and just like that, Hyori had left the building.
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Two years later, in early 2017, Hyori let us in on her rural farm life when she decided to grace Instagram with her presence to promote her comeback. Hyori’s Bed and Breakfast, the star’s reality show in which she hosts guests in her home, aired in June and also let us in on her personal life, ssaeng-eol and all.
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While on the island, her hair is often un-styled and her fashion definitely more laid back and breezy. She’s not the soju-selling Hyori we’re used to, but the legend still looks beautiful as ever keeping it real and doing what she loves with the people (and pets) she loves.
As promised, Hyori’s comeback album Black was released this past July, and the more mature-sounding, experimental album reflects her current image of choice. In her music video for “Seoul,” she sports athleisure attire and windswept, naturally wavy hair. She’s confidently wearing minimal, if any, makeup, a total contrast to her looks in earlier hits like “Bad Girls.”
Hyori turns up the dial a bit more in her music video for her second new release “Black,” where she’s dancing around in the desert in a sexy black bikini top and long skirt, owning mile-long hair extensions, and luring you in with dramatic smoky eyes. In other scenes in the same video, she’s in Western-grunge clothes that look like they haven’t seen a washer in decades, but hey, it’s Hyori. She can pull off a potato sack if she wanted to. Plus her grit and tough-girl charm is a refreshing break from the polished perfection of the female K-pop scene today (although we love that, too!).
During her recent appearances on Korean variety shows, Hyori embraces a more sophisticated boho or indie vibe with less dramatic makeup, jet black, wavy hair, and an apparent penchant for black clothing. Nonetheless, she still exudes her signature sexiness. She told Happy Together hosts that now that she’s older (she’s 38) and more experienced, she’s not worried about how she looks on screen and whether her wrinkles are visible or not. The epitome of aging gracefully, if you ask us.
Still a bad girl at heart, Hyori has the guts to show up decked out to the nines or bare-faced without a care. She does what she wants, and that’s what makes her beauty transformations so irresistible.
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No matter how many times her look has changed, one thing remains the same — all eyes are on her. Which of Hyori’s looks is your favorite?