Text by Madeleine Mak | Photos by Jungwook Mok
Youmi Lee wears a crystal-embroidered wool tweed mini dress and nylon tights (Miu Miu)

The secret to becoming a household name isn't to have the least amount of screen time possible. Yet, Youmi Lee knows how to roll with the punches and make every minute count. Coupled with an ability to get viewers invested in her character's rollercoaster of emotions, this South Korean actress has now swapped supporting roles for that of a universally adored leading star.

We’ve seen South Korean actress Youmi Lee live many lives. From a selfless competitor in Netflix’s Squid Game to a villainous rich girl seeking redemption in All of Us Are Dead, Lee’s talent for transforming into complex and often subversive characters, has not gone unnoticed. This was confirmed by her glass ceiling-shattering win at last year's Emmys for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama. “It felt like reality had faded away at that moment,” Lee recounts her historic win. “It gave me the strength to embrace more adventures in the future.” A reflection, perhaps, far too humble for the star who had to juggle the overlapping production schedules of two K-drama heavy hitters and a side hustle as a food delivery driver. At the time, Lee only had car rides between sets to re-acquaint with the character she was portraying, a level-up in the human experience in having to deal between real and reel life. “During scenes as Ji-yeong [from Squid Game], I tried to empty everything I had inside, whereas for Lee Na-yeon [from All of Us Are Dead], I tried to fill myself with a variety of emotions and characteristics.” While the average person might have cracked under the pressure, Lee looks back on this time as “challenging but enjoyable”. For the determined star, winning the prestigious award was just the icing on the cake. Lee always knew that she’d be successful. She just never anticipated how meteoric her rise would be.

Patent calfskin leather and crystal-embroidered nylon knit cardigan and matching briefs, nylon top, nylon tights, and calfskin leather slingback pumps (Miu Miu). [Right] wool coat and silk georgette dress (Miu Miu)

Growing up, her passion for acting was sparked by a love for dramas and the big screen. Don't mistake her girl next-door appearance as an admission for her love of rom-coms. Lee considers horror and thrillers as her favourites genres, citing Christopher Nolan’s breakout film Memento as an example. “Memento kept showing me unexpected aspects that I’d never seen before. The movie was a shock to me and it stayed in my mind for a long time,” Lee recalls. Perhaps then, it is no surprise that at 15, Lee made her acting debut in suspense thriller, The Yellow Sea. And later, ascend to superstardom with projects similarly remembered for its shock value. However, to pigeonhole her is a discredit to her range and thirst for learning. A drive that proved to be invaluable when the actress picked up a pair of ice skates for her first lead role in 2022's sports drama, Mental Coach Jegal. Playing a world champion speed skater stuck in a slump, Lee underwent months of rigorous athletic training. And spoiler alert: this drama is also the first time she plays a character that lives to see the show’s end credits. “It was my first lead role so I felt a lot of pressure,” Lee recalls. “It was a big challenge to be the production’s main character from start to finish but I went on with the shoot willing to learn new things.” Like many of us, she de-stresses with the occasional power nap and by eating her favourite snack. She loves a meal of kimbaps (cooked rice, vegetables, fish and meat rolled in seaweed) on a busy day.

Wool rib knit top and matching skirt, cotton T-shirt, calfskin leather slingback pumps, and nappa leather Arcadie bag (Miu Miu)

Soon, her second lead drama, Strong Girl Gang Nam Soon, will air. Unlike past projects, the series is lighthearted in nature as her character is one with superhuman strength. Lee joyfully recalls having to conquer her first wire scene, “It started to feel like I was riding an amusement park ride. I wondered if this is how actors feel in Marvel movies!” For the actress who would choose the power of teleportation if she had it her way, this fearlessness was something she embraced after playing the righteous Gang Nam Soon. “I learnt a lot from her. I learnt that it’s okay to act and speak more honestly and it’s okay to become more confident,” Lee shares. A confession, perhaps, surprising as those around her will tell you about her down-to-earth and quirky personality.

Wool knit cardigan, cotton T-shirt, silk georgette skirt, nylon tights, and calfskin leather bag (Miu Miu). [Right] wool rib knit coat, wool rib knit sweater and matching briefs, and cotton T-shirt (Miu Miu)

Would you believe it if we said that an off-duty Lee is even more loveable? As a self-proclaimed “slowpoke” and “sleepyhead”, she is also a proud pet mom of three dogs and two cats. On a separate Instagram account dedicated to her furry friends, Lee shares images of her beloved shih tzus wearing a rotating wardrobe of funky patterned sweaters. “I especially think they have such cute feet.” When it comes to her personal style, she also prefers to keep things casual and comfortable. Rather than depending on a celebrity stylist or looking up to a fashion icon for her OOTDs, Lee dresses based on the colour she is feeling. For her, fashion has always been about enhancing rather than dulling her individual charms. “Whenever I see someone cool, I tell myself that I want to show my own cool side too.”

Crystal-embroidered wool tweed mini dress, nylon tights, and calfskin leather slingback pumps (Miu Miu)

It is no wonder that the actress would later debut as an ambassador for Miu Miu's spring 2022 season alongside trailblazers such as Ever Anderson and Hailey Bieber. Lee remembers flying to Los Angeles for her first photoshoot with the house. Helmed by photographer Tyrone Lebon, the actress was a nervous wreck on the inside. “It was fun to go overseas for the shoot and experience a new culture,” Lee shares, “I was nervous as many people were present like in a drama set, but I tried to stay focused on the camera.” Since, the actress has continued to step out of her comfort zone, emerging as a fashion icon in her own right. This May, she got the chance to host her very own Miu Miu Select event in Taipei that lets her curate must-haves from the brand's L’Été collection. For the actress, it is the Italian fashion house’s push for unfiltered self-expression that calls to her the most. “It’s not about imitating a specific look but rather about making the person wearing the clothes appear more attractive, stylish and free-spirited,” Lee shares.

Wool knit cardigan, cotton T-shirt, silk georgette skirt, and nylon tights (Miu Miu. [Right] patent calfskin leather and crystal-embroidered nylon knit cardigan and nylon top (Miu Miu)

Lately, the blossoming star has carried on letting her imagination run wild. Inspired by the 2008 action thriller Wanted, Lee’s been manifesting a future role of an assassin by playacting with toy guns at home. Pretending to duck and find cover within the corners of her living space, the actress preps for her next plan of attack. “I know that action scenes are difficult to do but I want to try it,” Lee shares. At the end of the day, it is this unapologetic fixation on expanding her horizons that makes her so endearing to even neutrals. How she stays resilient and motivated is somewhat of a straightforward formula for Lee. “Overcome obstacles and keep going,” she simply puts. Whatever life she chooses to live next, we can expect nothing short of greatness.

Style Director SARAH LAM; Casting and Production MI KIM; Hair JUN HO MA; Make-up EUN JEONG JO; Photography Assistants JUNGWOO JANG, JOONGMYOUNG LEE, HANSOL CHU, AND JUWON OH; Styling Assistants JOOYEON SHIN AND SOHEE SON; Make-up Assistant YOUNG A. KIM; Hair Assistant SOYEON CHO

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