When one of K-pop’s biggest stars marries a relative commoner, withdraws from the limelight, and escapes Seoul to a wooded compound with a pack of stray dogs, the outside world is naturally curious.
But four years after Lee Hyori moved to Sogil-ri in Jeju Island full time, she and her husband, Lee Sang-soon, decide to open up their home to cameras, crew, and strangers to run a bed and breakfast with the help of other celebrities they barely know. That’s the basis of Hyori’s Homestay, and South Koreans can’t get enough of it.
“They must have been curious about this house, right?” Hyori says to her husband in the first episode, before any guests arrive. “While we’re at it, we can satisfy what they were curious about. Maybe people will stop ringing our bell after this.” (Spoiler alert: They don’t.)
Hyori’s Homestay—on Netflix, the show is titled Hyori’s Bed & Breakfast—has been a hit sensation on Korean television since it aired in 2017, having set new ratings records for its network JTBC over its two seasons. It also won best entertainment program at Korea’s Golden Globes, the Baeksang Arts Awards, this year.
While the basis for this show might sound familiar—a mega star whose fame peaked years ago gains modern relevance with a reality TV show—the end product is nothing like the drama-stuffed American reality programming so many sheepishly describe as their guilty pleasure.
Instead, Hyori’s Homestay is a type of slow programming that reveals its charm with its beautiful setting and relatable characters, even if they do include Korea’s most famous celebrities.
Lee Hyori, ”chairman” of her namesake bed and breakfast, is legendary in South Korea, having been part of the girl group Fin.K.L., one of the first K-pop groups, which came to prominence in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Dubbed the queen of K-pop, Hyori was Fin.K.L.’s leader and transitioned to a successful solo career, reportedly becoming the highest-paid female singer in South Korea in 2006.
Before her husband, Lee Sang-soon, became “president” of the bed and breakfast, he was the guitarist for the group Roller Coaster, which the blog Allkpop described as an “acid jazz modern rock band.” There was much interest in the two when they began dating, in part because people found the pairing odd. Sang-soon wasn’t a major celebrity and was seen as basically an average guy. Over and over again, guests—especially the women—remark that Sang-soon is better looking in person (but never directly to his face because that would be rude).
Over the course of the show, this average guy gained a reputation as Korea’s “national husband,” seen as universally desired by Korean women because of how he dotes on his wife. “I heard that a lot of household wives are telling their husbands to do better after watching the program,” Hyori said on the Korean talk show Radio Star in 2017.
Hyori and Sang-soon don’t do this alone. The producers send them an employee each season to help with the cleaning and cooking, but what the couple don’t expect (in the first season at least) is the star power of their staff.
Lee Ji-eun, who goes by the stage name IU, is often referred to as “Korea’s little sister,” having debuted as a pop star at 15. In 2014, she had the most No. 1 songs of any K-pop star and held K-pop’s record for the most weeks at No. 1, according to Billboard. She was also the most popular idol among South Koreans in 2017, according to a Gallup Korea survey (link in Korean). So while Hyori, who is nearing 40, ruled K-pop past, IU, who is 25, rules K-pop presently.
Ji-eun trades in her microphone for a mop when she joins the show in the first season. Throughout filming, she reveals herself to be drastically different from her K-pop persona. She’s quirky, quiet, and prone to zoning off when left to her own devices. She’s not particularly good at cooking, but she is devoted to her job and her bosses.
Im Yoon-ah (also stylized as Yoona) was a member of the group Girls’ Generation, which has been likened to an Asian version of the Spice Girls, and is currently an actress. Unlike IU, Yoona, who joins in the second season, is quite talented as a chef, impressing the innkeepers with her recipes and various kitchen gadgets.
Park Bo-gum, heartthrob movie star, joins the show in the second season to assist Hyori and Yoona for a few days when Sang-soon travels to Seoul for work. He wins over Hyori and Yoona, the guests, and even Sang-soon, with his thoughtfulness and sweet demeanor. Bo-gum’s arrival set new ratings records for the show, with its top producer calling it (link in Korean) the “Park Bo-gum effect.”
Hyori and Sang-soon, who started dating because of their work for animal-rights groups, have three cats and five dogs (six in the second season). The cats are Mi-Mi, Sam-sik (who’s often mistaken as pregnant but is just morbidly obese), and Sun-yi. The dogs, all strays, are Guana, Mocha, Soonshim, Ko-sil, Seok-sam, and Mi-dal.
Hyori and Sang-soon aren’t told anything about their guests—who they are, the size of their groups, their genders, or how long they’re staying. But the producers, after reviewing more than 180,000 applicants over the two seasons, seem to screen candidates for their thoughtfulness. Often they’re couples, families, friends, or coworkers, but sometimes they’re solo travelers. Some of the guests have very compelling backstories, but none bring any drama (the token white guy, however, brought a lot of awkwardness).
It’d be naive to think Hyori’s Homestay is as real as it gets. This is a television show with producers and, as it becomes more apparent in the second season, product placements. (It’s no coincidence the Dyson handheld vacuum from the first season was later replaced with nearly identical ones from Korean electronics giant LG.)
That said, the show’s quite unpolished and that’s a part of its charm. The hour-plus-long episodes of Hyori’s Homestay are far longer than they need to be—often chronicling the mundane, like doing laundry, grocery shopping, and fixing plumbing problems—which only reinforces the idea they’re showing what daily life is like at the bed and breakfast.
While there are occasionally beautiful timelapses and drone photography, the vast majority of footage—from inside the house, inside cars, or gathered by crew following the guests on their outings—is pretty average in quality and sometimes seem to barely qualify as high definition. The show’s low-production value is only furthered by its very Asian-variety-show style of TV editing—for example, by replaying the same moment three or four times, and the liberal use of slow motion and cheesy captioning.
Also, their home, while lovely, is not set up to be a bed and breakfast. It’s a spacious loft that doesn’t seem to have any doors inside, not even for the bathroom (they put up a partition to give guests some privacy). In addition to giving up their bedroom, Hyori and Sang-soon turn a nook by the stairwell that had served as an office into a makeshift second bedroom by putting up a curtain to accommodate more guests.
At times when they’re surprised with more guests than they have room for, they resort to creative solutions like renting an RV (a pair of backpackers also opted to sleep in their tents). Each night, Hyori, Sang-soon, and their animals retire to a small standalone structure by the main house that serves as their recording studio when they’re not running an inn.
Voyeurism aside, it seems likely the reason viewers keep returning to the show is because the people and the relationships seem so genuine.
Hyori, IU, Yoona, and Bo-gum don’t come off as divas, even if they’re cleaning toilets as a temp gig, and they don’t seem to mind being surrounded by fans, who for the most part try to restrain their excitement of living with their idols (after the initial meeting anyway). There is no army of assistants fixing their problems nor is there a fixation on looking flawless—Hyori’s more likely to be seen wearing a bathrobe and slippers than makeup.
When it’s time for the staffers to return to their normal lives as Korea’s rich and famous, we see how difficult it is for them to leave Hyori and Sang-soon. Somehow staying at Hyori’s bed and breakfast, whether it’s for a few weeks or even days in Bo-gum’s case, appears to have deeply changed them. The same can be said for the guests.
When everyone departs, Hyori and Sang-soon still have each other, of course. Over and over, viewers see in the couple how effortless and simple love can be. They’re patient and kind with each other, and constantly laughing. That’s probably what Korean women are really after—a relationship like theirs—more so than Sang-soon himself. (Of course, it’s easier when you don’t have normal-people problems like needing to work or take care of children.)
This show was a big transition for the couple after holing up in their love nest for a few years, but partway through the first season they come to realize there was a certain emptiness and loneliness to their lives, and they seem to love the experience of opening up not just their homes but also themselves to others (though the couple did end up selling their house to the network because of frequent trespassers and break-ins).
What you find watching the show is that the retired pop star who escaped the glamour of her past to live a more down-to-earth life is actually quite down to earth. And though you know it’s television, you find yourself thinking Hyori, Sang-soon, IU, Yoona, and Bo-gum are people you could actually be friends with.