In 2021, Netflix streamed the pop-culture phenomenon “Squid Game,” a fictional South Korean thriller series about financially-desperate players risking their lives to play deadly versions of beloved children’s games.
The Emmy-winning series was so popular that it has since inspired the British reality competition series “Squid Game: The Challenge,” which airs its 10th and final episode on Netflix on Wednesday, Dec. 6.
Virginia native Shelby Hoefling was one of the 456 contestants competing to win $4.56 million, the largest single cash prize in game-show history. Unfortunately, she was eliminated in Episode 3, so now she’s rooting for her fellow Virginian, Mai Whelan, a 55-year-old immigration adjudicator from Vietnam who lives in Fairfax County.
“Tonight, we’ll all be watching the finale,” Hoefling told WTOP. “Everyone in Virginia, we’re rooting for you, Mai! We want you to take it home and do us proud. … I remember meeting her in ‘Red Light, Green Light,’ before everything started and I remember being excited to learn that she was from Northern Virginia, so that was really special. … She’s a really sweet woman and she’s really focused on winning. … I hope that she wins.”
Raised in Falls Church, Virginia, Hoefling was living in Alexandria when she was contacted by a Netflix casting agent asking her to audition. The agent had enjoyed the viral videos that she posted with her 98-year-old grandma, Patricia Hoefling, which had been featured on the “Today” show and “Good Morning America.”
Once selected, she flew to London to film the show, surviving the first round by playing “Red Light, Green Light,” featuring a replica of the giant, creepy doll who turns her head, signaling contestants to freeze in their tracks.
“That was the first game in the [original] show, so we were somewhat prepared for that,” Hoefling said. “I had been preparing at home, kind of running through the living room and having people shout out when to stop and stuff like that. … Once we got into the game, … we were holding those positions for about 40 minutes each time. The room was also 20 degrees, so it was absolutely freezing. … Eventually, my strategy was I fell to the ground.”
In Episode 2, she survived the second round of “Dalgona,” involving stencil shapes on cookies.
“There was a lot of drama leading up to that, how the shapes were chosen, it was a matter of who’s willing to fold to take umbrella, then star, then triangle, then circle,” Hoefling said. “Luckily the line I was in eventually got circle after a lot of drama and people freaking out and some people having to ‘die’ in order to get circle. … My strategy was just to be as calm as possible because you’re trying to get that shape out with your hand and a needle.”
She was eliminated in the third round during a game of “Warship,” recreating the board game “Battleship.”
“We had all thought the third game was gonna be tug-of-war,” Hoefling said. “We were all thrown with a surprise that it ended up being a game of life-size ‘Battleship.’ Each person was in a ship on the board, then we had captains who chose how they want to send a missile to the other side. … I was just unlucky in the ship I chose and where I stood, so I was the first person hit. … Even though I got knocked out, it was definitely still an amazing experience.”
Hoefling has since moved to Baltimore, Maryland with her husband, but her grandma sadly died before the Netflix series aired. As fate would have it, her funeral was on the same day of the premiere, putting it all in perspective.
“It was another reminder that reality TV, money and fame, those things don’t matter,” Hoefling said. “Your life and the people you’re surrounded with and the people you love, those things matter. … It came out just a few days before Thanksgiving, so my family was all together, so we were excited to be able to watch it together. … We would watch and pause it and see my face and things like that, so it was fun to be able to watch it with my family.”