汉语世界(The World of Chinese) 2016年2期

Understanding the obsession with making and breaking online celebrities


In China, the world that exists online can sometimes seem more real than the world that exists around us. There, one can be who they like and express what they like—for a while anyway. And, in this odd community of cyber citizens, a few individuals are built into statues of internet gods of beauty, wit, and morality, only to be crushed by the judgments of those who built them in the first place. This modern phenomenon has given rise to household names, books, films, and even an economy that flourishes when the fame burns bright and lasts long after it fades. In many ways Chinas internet realm is UNIQUELY isolated, which makes it an interesting place to see kings and queens rise, flourish, AND fall.

The Economy of the Internet Celeb

Just like the real world, money makes the web go round

Thin, V-shaped chin, huge eyes, supernaturally long eyelashes—when people see a girl with these features, they automatically reach for the phrase 网红脸(w2ngh5ngli2n), or internet celebrity face. According to the stereotype, internet celebrities share this picturesque visage, with an unpleasant assumption they have had cosmetic surgery. Theyre assumed to run online stores and to have fleeting romances with pop stars and the super rich.

Zhu Chenhui, allegedly the newest girlfriend of Wang Sicong (王思聪)—known for being the son of one of Chinas richest men, Wang Jianlin (王健林)—is one of the newest online celebrities. She may just be the latest in a long line of conquests, but before the gossip exploded she had already earned some celebrity and huge profits online. Reports claim that Zhu is now making 150 million RMB this year with her Taobao store, more even than Chinas richest actress, the famous Fan Bingbing, who earns around 128 million RMB a year.

But, becoming one of these lucky few isnt easy, and while many manage to do it by accident, it is not an area yet governed by any field of economic science. In many ways, its like starting any business. You need to find your target audience, build up a unique personal brand, keep up constant communication with your followers (customers), and always remember to update regularly. In reality, it might take a team of experts to operate an account to make a Weibo look sufficiently humble and self-run.

However, if one is creative enough, they can just harness the imagination (and vanity) of hopeful web celebs. Hongshu (轟叔), born in 1992, gained more than one million followers on Weibo, and decided to start a very creative business: selling sweet potatoes online. But, not just any sweet potatoes—sweet potatoes sold only to attractive people. Even Hongshu himself admited this was a little “bitchy”, but it worked. Hes a man that knows the internet. “Good-looking people feel superior to ugly people; but the point is everyone tends to think of themselves as good-looking,” Hongshu said in a speech.

Of course, the fastest way to success is sex appeal. Being pretty and fashionable is probably one of the easiest ways to become a grass-roots celebrity, giving these young and impressionable stars at least one skill: Photoshop. The prevalence of this ideal has resulted in the phrase, “online beauties only exist online” becoming cliché.

Others opt directly for plastic surgery, risking the before-after pictures that could, in the end, become their downfall.

And, as ever, where there is fame, there is money. Any large group of people, no matter how disparate, has commercial value. Whispering a quick, short quote into Weibo shouts at millions. Song Feifei, a marketing expert, says that marketing agencies pay these internet celebrities differently according to their number of followers, ranging from hundreds to thousands of RMB. “But they wont necessarily accept your offer. They have to consider whether your product fits their image and whether they can manage to write some interesting content,” says Song.

To some extent, internet celebrities can turn their fame into influence and turn their influence into money.

“Not many people want to entertain the public online as a career,” says Li Shaoyong, 34, a grassroots celebrity agent working at the Beijing Gushan Cultural Company. Li used to be a joke writer and when his fans exceeded 50,000, people started coming to him, asking to insert their products into his jokes.

Now that hes with the company, his major job is sifting through the growing numbers of online stars and employing them while theyre cheap.

With a whole team working behind him, online celebrities are more productive and can always generate new content and timely topics that interest the public to sustain their popularity a little bit longer.

There are any number of ways to become popular on the internet if you play your cards right. If you are neither pretty nor smart enough, then go for a pet. If you have a pet which is adorable enough, you need to do nothing but post photos or short films of your cutties, then you can be popular. “Red Little Fatty” (紅小胖), for example, simply raised his pet and posted pictures of his fat little kitten that attracted more than 450,000 followers—which, by the way, is about the population of Malta. It just focuses on that particular cat. More cats can equal more followers. The “Mad Cat Lover” (大爱猫咪控), an account posting different kinds of cats, has more 1.6 million followers.

Followers mean market potential and even serve as a brilliant feedback tool. Often via selling cosmetics and clothes, these minor internet celebs are the lifestyle ideal for their casual fans. All these celebs have to do is post whatever product theyre meant to be marketing and in seconds theyll have enough comments for a PR onslaught. Of course, with that many viewers, you dont even need a promotion push—just post a link to your store.

Data from online retail platform Taobao shows that more than 1,000 Taobao shops are run by internet celebrities. During Singles Day on November 11, Chinas biggest online shopping day, seven out of the top ten hottest womens clothing stores were owned by people whose only claim to fame was minor online celebrity.

Zhang Dayi, a former model and now the owner of an online shop, has more than three million fans on Chinas SinaWeibo, which is more than most major film stars. It is said that thousands of this social media “It Girl” items are sold in seconds. Even what she wears in photos garners a barrage of comments asking her what brand she is wearing, as if the whole online world is a red carpet reporter.

Unlike the realms of film and music stardom, those like Zhang are from all walks of life, from models and independent designers to photographers and stylists. For many, its a short walk from internet celebrity to an entrepreneur with their own brand and investment capital flowing into their coffers. “Since the latter half of last year, we have noticed some of the womens clothing shops on Taobao are quite different from others. Those shops have turned into blogs; the clothes are independently designed and money is made this way,” director of Taobaos clothing division, Jin Ke, said in an interview with

In most contexts, the word “internet celebrity” is associated with Taobao shop owners, and in a broader sense, it generally refers to guerilla marketing. Obviously, the realm of internet celebrity isnt just populated by fashion icons and beautiful schmoozers; in the age of the internet, anything can become famous, and every bit of that fame is valuable.

This strange equation of followers equaling money is perhaps a relatively new addition to the economy, though one shudders to think how someone can be taught to be an internet celebrity. The fact remains, however, that while people casually peruse their social media feeds, they are, perhaps inadvertently, inspiring a generation of would-be entrepreneurs. This odd economy is perhaps made even stranger by the fact that some become famous accidentally and others use the pretense of shame to gain notoriety. In the end, it is a transaction: netizens are entertained by their interest, hormones, or need to shame others, and those same celebrities use their followers to make money. Thats Chinas online-celebrity economy. It would appear that this is the modern price for conversation, one that, with time, has experienced serious inflation.

- Sun Jiahui (孙佳慧)

What a tangled web we weave...

When it comes to online celebrity, shame leads to fame

Probably the most notable—and certainly the most notorious—web celebrity at present is Wang Sicong, the big-spending, big-mouthed son of the richest man in China, Dalian Wanda Group CEO Wang Jianlin.

As the heir to what is now a 32.7 billion USD fortune, the younger Wang had long been a well-known name, but it wasnt until 2011 that he made his first big splash in the world of online gossip. In April of that year he got into a spat on SinaWeibo when he accused Zhang Lan, owner of the high-end South Beauty restaurant chain, of lying about being close friends with his father and accepting money from the Wanda Group for her sons wedding. A few days later he called Zhang and her son “zhuangbi”, a vulgar term for people that exaggerate their worth.

Though it garnered buzz at the time, this wasnt Wangs first spat; in January of 2011 alone he fired pointed barbs at venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee for releasing a book with an “ugly” cover and called comedian Zhao Benshan a nongmin, or peasant, for renting out a plane hed bought. It was, however, big enough to be commented on by local media, an indicator of things to come.

As the years rolled by, Wangs infamy grew thanks to both outlandish displays of wealth and his knack for hitting the nerves of web users. On Valentines Day last year, he announced that all he needs in a Valentine date is big boobs; the fuss created led to state media organization Xinhua publishing a 1,287-word criticism claiming that Wang: “recklessly disseminates vulgar information…from the worship of money to sex and violence”. His father apologized for Wangs behavior on state television, blaming his sons Western education for his outspoken nature.

Perhaps they hoped it would shame him into silence. If so, they were wrong: Wang reposted the article on his Weibo account, and one month later he posted a picture of him straddling his pet huskie, with the caption “I am practicing how to fuck a dog”. Xinhua squealed that hed, “stained the purity of the Chinese” and warned others not to praise or copy him. Regardless, he continued to hit the headlines; in May he showed off two Apple watches hed bought for his dog, and in June he got into a slanging match with actress Fan Bingbing.

Whether Wang gets off on trolling the uptight and pompous by playing a character, or whether his Weibo feed is an honest gateway to an id unleashed is up for debate. Whats certain is that his outlandish acts have made him enormously popular. He has a following of 15 million Weibo fans, and is known as “The Peoples Husband”(國民老公)—essentially, Chinas most eligible bachelor.

Not everyone receives such a positive response from Chinas netizens. In November 2009, pictures began to circulate online of a woman handing out flyers in Shanghai, seeking a tall, handsome and rich boyfriend with a Masters in Economics, an international outlook, and who hadnt fathered any children. The excessive demands, coupled with the womans less-than-supermodel appearance, led to much mockery online. Choice comments from one news report, translated by the website ChinaSMACK, included: “How about first going to get plastic surgery?” and “Even if I have to spend the rest of my life with just my left and right hands I would not want this kind of garbage.”

The woman, who had claimed to be working at a Fortune 500 company, was revealed to be LuoYufeng (羅玉凤) a cashier at supermarket chain Carrefour (since Carrefour was 25th on the Fortune Global 500 list at the time, she was technically right). Web users quickly dubbed her Sister Feng (凤姐), or “Sister Phoenix”, but it wasnt until she appeared on popular Jiangsu Province talk show Renjian in January 2010 that she really hit the big time.

Luo was joined on the show by two attractive young men, whom she claimed were her boyfriend and ex-boyfriend, and made a series of bold—some might say absurd—statements such as “No one in the last 300 years can compare with my IQ.” The boyfriends were later revealed to be actors, but both Luo and the TV station denied hiring them.

Whatever the truth, netizens were fascinated by the ongoing car-crash that was Sister Fengs life. In March 2010 she announced that she would get plastic surgery, leading to a slew of cruelly photoshopped images; that September she released a near-nude photo series showing her, for reasons unknown, holding a stepladder. Meanwhile, she continued to make absurd pronouncements on Weibo while earning money with public appearances and TV guest spots, making boastful remarks to the jeers and humiliation of audiences—perhaps the nadir of which was an appearance on Chinas Got Talent that saw her being hit with an egg.

But while “Sister Feng” was becoming Chinas victim of choice, LuoYufeng was quietly pocketing cash. As she told China Daily in 2010, “Making money is my priority now. Ill do any TV show or commercial as long as I get paid for it.” She acquired a US visa, and that November she moved to New York. Barring her Weibo updates and a brief return to handing out leaflets (now in English, and advertising herself as “the hottest star in China”) in early 2012, she gradually faded from mainstream view, settling into her new role as a manicurist in The Big Apple. That, it seems, was what she had been trying to achieve all along.

Wang and Luo share a talent for skillful provocation, but their uses for this dubious gift show how much the landscape of Chinese social media is shaped by wealth and privilege. For Wang, whose comfort and security is guaranteed for the rest of his life, provoking ire and annoyance for the amusement of himself and his followers can be a hobby without consequence—even when the state press is baying for blood.

But for Luo, a plain, poor cashier in a society that has no time for those that are not beautiful, rich, or powerful, it was the only way to get ahead. Her canny grasp of the worst parts of human nature told her that if she acted boastful, arrogant, and condescending—in the way that Wang would later become famous for—audiences would be hungry for new opportunities to humiliate her, and that creating those opportunities would be a route to financial success.

As she said on Weibo in September last year: “I graduated from college and I was a cashier in Carrefour; Im an ordinary common person, and the things that I said on television and to the public dont fit my identity as a small person. But the same kind of talk coming from Wang Sicongs mouth has a different outcome. The only difference between us is that he is the son of the richest man and I am from a farming family…”

And while their motivations and expectations are different, their insight into what makes web audiences tick are both fiercely on-point: they know we want to believe, because the fiction theyre selling is so much more interesting than the truth. Would Wang Sicong really tell Fan Bingbing she cant act to her face? Probably not. Was Sister Feng really so stupid that she could unironically say, “Einstein is for sure not smarter than me. He invented light, right?” No.

But we want it to be true. We need it to be true, because the feeling of laughing along with the billionaire jester or jeering the woman whos so stupid she doesnt feel shame—and doing so alongside millions of others—feels so good.

- James Wilkinson