Streaming Stars in China

Deep in cyberspace, the fame of nascent celebrities is exploding in a wave of online actors and actresses, clothing and makeup advisers, singers, writers and gossips. These new streaming stars are changing everything.

We read about their sumptuous lifestyles, latest loves and multimillion-dollar contracts in the celebrity pages and on gossip websites. But behind many a film star there are long periods of joblessness and menial work before they make the big time. Of course, there are countless thousands who never make it.

But Jiang Yilei, 29, has become a star virtually overnight in China – not from being snared by a big film studio, but thanks to the internet and social networking sites.

Jiang, widely known as Papi Jiang, previously was an unknown graduate student at the Central Academy of Drama. Eight months ago she began to produce, star in and distribute online dozens of short videos in which she plays a variety of characters and lampoons those in everyday situations such as dating.

She has attracted some 13.1 million followers on the Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo over the past few months. The public spotlight fell on her when she attracted venture capital of 12 million yuan ($1.85 million) in March. On April 21, after fierce bidding among those vying to place advertisements alongside her videos, the hammer fell with a bid of 22 million yuan for the first ad to go with one of her online video clips.

Jiang, of Shanghai, is just one of thousands of Chinese to whom hugely popular internet social sites and social media such as Sina Weibo, WeChat and – which have hundreds of millions of users – have offered a stage.

“The way Papi Jiang managed to get venture capital and thus transform what she is offering into a commodity marks a sea change. This year heralds the beginning of the online celebrity economy in China,” says Zhang Xiaorong, a researcher with the Tencent Research Institute, in a recent report.

“This will be the beginning of the making of online celebrities. Many online celebrities are going to emerge this year,” says Xue Yongfeng, a researcher with Beijing internet consultancy Analysys International.

Papi Jiang attracted venture capital of 12 million yuan in March. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Trying to make a name for oneself on the internet, either in China or elsewhere, is not exactly new. But it is only in recent months in China – particularly through Papi Jiang – that the tremendous commercial value of these celebrities has begun to crystallize in the public mind, and more talent, investors and capital are beginning to pour into the market.

“The way that mass-market art and cultural and entertainment content used to be created, managed and distributed is giving way to a model in which the internet plays a central role, and it is the internet that is turning into the great moneymaker,” Xue says.

Online celebrities in China have far more opportunities than their overseas counterparts because of the sheer scale and diversity of Chinese sites in their many manifestations, whether it be e-commerce, social media or something else. It has produced many more ways in which they can make a name for themselves and then turn that into cash.

When Chinese people used to think about online celebrity, by and large they pictured porcelain-faced young women, but now the idea has been stretched to take in any number of people who have a huge following on the internet, according to Da Shan, founder of Today’s Online Celebrity, a WeChat public account devoted to analyzing China’s online celebrity economy.

“My feeling is that many people used to have a slightly condescending attitude toward online celebrity,” Da says. “But since Papi Jiang appeared, it has become a cultural and economic phenomenon.”

Today’s Online Celebrity recently published a report about the potential commercial value of such celebrities, measured by number of followers, and the influence and business model of the platforms on which they are active. The online celebrity market, still in its infancy, could be worth hundreds of billions of yuan, Da says. The potential worth of the most valuable online celebrity, the online writer called the Third Master of the Tang Family, is put at 1.47 billion yuan.

The most eye-catching group of online celebrities – who have a whole sales and production team for goods they hawk to online fans as part of their business model – are those closely connected with China’s e-commerce companies, such as Alibaba’s Taobao. Pictures or videos of these celebrities – and they are almost without exception attractive young women who dress to the nines – appear on social media, accompanied by advice for their followers on subjects such as choosing the right clothes and the right cosmetics. The brands behind the pictures then parse and weigh fan feedback in the form of product orders as they start to roll in before deciding how much more to produce for their linked Taobao stores.

In this case, you can forget the idea that a Little Miss Nobody working alone, crouched over an old computer in a shed in a village, is behind all this. Instead, most of these celebrities have a savvy back-up team that helps them in their business dealings and with the content they post.

The woman that is the face of the operation usually also deals with an incubator or agencies that connect her with manufacturers, suppliers and advertising agencies and guide her in maintaining, or if need be changing, her image so as to keep followers loyal, says Yang Ping, general manager of an incubator of online celebrities in Hangzhou.

Fang Qihe, a blogger and Taobao shop owner in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, is one of those who puts on stylish garb, takes photos of herself and posts them online. She now has 490,000 followers, and about 50 to 80 percent of what her Taobao shop sells is snapped up by that entourage.

“We’re selling about 350,000 yuan of product a month, but I’ve got a support team now, and I expect that eventually the monthly sales figure will rise to 2 million yuan,” she says.

In the apparel industry in China, online celebrities are responsible for sales worth 100 billion yuan a year, according to Guotai Junan Securities. Taobao says more than 1,000 shops connected to online celebrities who hawk women’s clothing each have a sales revenue of more than 1 million yuan a year. Of the top 10 online women’s clothes shops, seven are connected to online celebrities.

Another large group of online celebrities consists of those who perform on live streaming sites. Against decorated backdrops in various styles, the central character may sing, dance, play games or tell jokes. These online celebrities’ income is derived mainly from gifts and money sent through the website by fans.

Xia Keke, 22, a performer on, a live broadcasting platform, says that since she got into the business, June 2014, she has made more than 5 million yuan as an entertainment host – singing, dancing, telling jokes and leading viewers in playing online games.

The Ministry of Culture says about 200 million people in China use online live streaming, and that at the busiest times 3,000 to 4,000 rooms are streaming simultaneously, with a combined viewership of between 2 million and 3 million. There are more than 200 live streaming platforms, and the ministry says the industry was worth about 7.77 billion yuan last year.

Others who are cashing in on online fame include many who do not show their face, but provide entertainment or information in the form of novels and other written content, astrological advice, cartoons or stock market analyses. They also give expert opinions or advice on talk shows or spread gossip about other celebrities. This group of online celebrities is the largest but also the most difficult to pin down since their business models usually are not well developed yet and they are widely dispersed in cyberspace. But they also have great potential commercial value, Da Shan says.

The many ways online stars can cash in show that the online celebrity economy has begun to run in a more cohesive, organized and professional way, the emerging online celebrity incubators and agencies say.

Moreover, as online celebrity becomes more mainstream, those who have gained fame in more conventional ways are increasingly turning to social media to keep in contact with their fans, and they, too, are beginning to develop online personalities.

More than 10 million viewers watched a live-streamed online games contest featuring musician, record producer, director and actor Jay Chou, who is famous throughout Asia, and controversial figure Wang Sicong, known for buying his dog two gold Apple Watches. He is the son of Wang Jianlin, one of China’s richest men and chairman of mainland property and entertainment conglomerate Wanda Group.

“The boundaries between online celebrities and other stars will increasingly blur as more stars will need to get online to communicate more with their fans, and more online celebrities will be able to attract advertisers and become involved in films and so on,” Da says.

Streaming Stars

Given the size, reach and pace of change in the industry, authorities overseeing it are struggling to keep up. Some live streaming platforms cross into controversy as a result of host behavior considered inappropriate or illegal, such as wearing overly skimpy attire, using lots of vulgar words or, in some cases, simulated or actual sexual behavior.

The Ministry of Culture has ordered more than 12 live streaming sites to make changes to comply with regulations. Several weeks ago, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television gave Papi Jiang a dressing down for using “swear words and insulting language” and ordered her to clean up her act.

The desire by online celebrities to milk their fame to the fullest may be because a cyberstar’s shelf life seems to be relatively short. The Tencent report says that the online celebrity of half of those now enjoying it is likely to dissipate after only six months to three years, even though those with more staying power may remain for five years or longer.

Yang Ping, general manager of a Hangzhou incubator, says that as competition between online celebrities heats up, the critical thing will continue to be the quality of content. “Few are going to be able to project personalized, excellent content,” Yang says. “As in other industries, only the top 20 percent will survive.”

Da says: “Online celebrities are usually highly attractive physically, but that’s not enough. The best are those with strong personalities who are innovative, hardworking and talented, and those who are excellent communicators. They’re the sort of people who will pose numerous times just for one shot that is going to be placed online. Having something unique to offer as well as a personality will be the key to survival.”

Even for Papi Jiang – as commenters note that “aesthetic fatigue” for her videos is starting to creep in – finding a workable business model and sustainable popularity will still remain a question, he says.

Tang Yue contributed to this story.