From Cover Girl To Leading Lady: 12 Actresses Who Got Their Start As Models

Fashion modeling and acting in film or TV can sometimes be similar. We see this when models and actors have to evoke certain emotions, play a character, or make the audience believe in a story they’re a part of — whether it’s on screen or in the glossy pages of a magazine. It’s no wonder why a lot of Korean models transition into acting, and eventually take their talents to another stage. Here are 12 Korean actresses who first started out as models on the runways and commercials:

Jun Ji Hyun

No top actress or stylish women list would be complete without Jun Ji Hyun. Not many people know this, but the actress got her start as a model for Ecole Magazine in 1997. When she was 16, her high school friend (who was also a model then) introduced her to a photographer. But what made her a household name was her appearance in the Samsung My Jet Printer commercial, where her quirky, confident dancing and stunning looks made her an icon for so many teens her age. The comedy film “My Sassy Girl” earned her immense fame and the rest, as they say, is history. She is still one of the most liked advertising models for skin care, food, and designer brands because everything she endorses becomes a “hot item” and gets sold out!

Watch her iconic commercial here:

Gong Hyo Jin

Gong Hyo Jin is known for her cool, unconventional style on and off camera, and this is because she’s had years of experience as a fashion model and starring in TV advertisements before becoming one of Korea’s top rom-com leads. She has this ability to form incredible chemistry with her co-actors, which she proved in “Pasta,” “The Greatest Love,” and “The Producers” among others, and her genuine acting often moves viewers to tears.

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Shin Min Ah

Another beautiful actress that started her career early in the spotlight is Shin Min Ah, who debuted as a model in a magazine at age 14. With her signature dimples, irresistible eye smile, and acting talent, she went on to star in the hit drama “Beautiful Days” with Lee Byung Hun. She would later become the lead in “My Girlfriend is a Gumiho,” “Tomorrow With You,” and “Oh My Venus.” She’s still modeling for top beauty brands and designer fashion labels like a real pro.

Fun fact: Before his rise to fame in the “Fifty Shades” movies, Jamie Dornan modeled alongside Shin Min Ah for Calvin Klein in a steamy editorial for a magazine.

Bae Doona

Bae Doona is considered as one of the best actresses in Korea, and now she’s getting the recognition she deserves in Hollywood. She actually started as a catalog model in 1998, after being scouted by a model talent agency while walking in Seoul. She starred in “School,” just like many other top actresses today and eventually started accepting unconventional roles in non-mainstream films. She’s known for pushing the envelope when it comes to acting, and there’s a story that director Bong Joon Ho cast her in the film “Barking Dogs Never Bite” because she was willing to act without makeup — something that actresses at that time didn’t dare to do.


Kim Min Hee

We all recognize Kim Min Hee in her daring, mysterious, and serious acting roles that get international acclaim, but she actually started as a magazine model in her teens. Aside from her amazing acting skills, her love life is always the topic of headlines, especially with her former rumored and official dating relationships with high profile actors. She is most known for the teen drama “School 2,” “The Handmaiden,” and “On the Beach at Night Alone,” among many other works.


Kim Hyo Jin

Just like the others, Kim Hyo Jin began her career as a model for teen magazines. She made the transition to theater, and eventually explored erotic thrillers and queer cinema where she played bisexual and lesbian roles. She met her actor-director husband Yoo Ji Tae when they were both modeling for a clothing brand.

Han Ye Seul

Han Ye Seul first got recognized when she won a Supermodeling contest (that time for SBS) in 2001. She was born in the United States and attended school there until college, but the call to pursue her dreams in the entertainment industry led her to move to South Korea. She became famous for her role in “Forbidden Love,” and also starred in “Spy Myung Wol,” “Tazza,” and “Birth of a Beauty,” among many others. She often portrays characters who have captivating beauty, but she proves that she is more than her looks through her acting skills.


Lee Sung Kyung

With her tall height and face like an angel, Lee Sung Kyung was born for the runway and dramas. Her career started when she won a Supermodel Award in 2008, which made her one of the most sought after models in print, runways, music videos, and TV commercials. She used to work with ex-boyfriend Nam Joo Hyuk in a lot of advertisements before. You can see some of their modeling stints here. Later on, she would play a part as a feisty student who catches the attention of Lee Kwang Soo‘s character in “It’s Okay, That’s Love.” Producers saw her talent and eventually signed her on to play more important roles until she became the lead in romantic dramas.


Esom (Lee Som) got her jumpstart as a model when she entered an Mnet model audition reality program in 2008. But it wasn’t until she starred as the lead in “Scarlet Innocence” that she gained recognition as an actress. She was nominated for Best New Actress in five different award ceremonies. Her latest project is a new rom-com titled “The Third Charm” with Seo Kang Joon, and it was reported that they flew to Portugal to film the drama. 

Jung Yoo Jin

Jung Yoo Jin started her modeling career under YG Entertainment. Her modeling portfolio includes prestigious work for fashion brands like Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Chanel, Marc Jacobs, and DKNY, and fashion editorials for Vogue, Marie Claire, and Cosmopolitan. She is known for her roles in “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Moorim School” and “W.” She is currently starring in “30 but 17.”

Kim Ji Won

Kim Ji Won’s charm was first discovered through TV commercials, most notably she became a household name as the “Oran C Girl” and “Lollipop Girl.” She played smaller roles in “High Kick 3: The Short Legs Strike Back” and “To the Beautiful You,” until she stood out for her fierce role in “Heirs,” where she won the New Star award at the SBS Drama Awards. She also captured viewers’ hearts in “Descendants of the Sun,” but her first leading role with Park Seo Joon in “Fight My Way” sealed her status as a top actress to watch out for.

Fun fact: Kim Ji Won was chosen as one of the “lollipop girls” who starred alongside BIGBANG in a commercial for a cell phone brand.


Nana is first known as a member of After School and Orange Caramel, but she actually started her modeling career as a participant in the 2009 Asia Pacific Super Model Contest. While her group halted their activities and each member is pursuing solo acts, Nana spread her wings as a TV host (“Style Log”) and starred in Chinese TV dramas. Her acting skills were recognized in Korea when she starred in “Good Wife,” for which she received the Rookie Actress award at the 2016 Asia Artist Awards.


For the Korean male models-turned-actors version of this feature, click here!

Hey Soompiers! Did you recognize any of these actresses when they were starting out as young models? Who’s your favorite? Let us know in the comments below! 

DianneP_Kim is an English magazine and online writer and former stylist based in South Korea. Follow her Korean adventures at

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