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HoneyCC likes to say that she scarcely remembers the last time someone called her by her given name, Lin Chuchu. She took her online name from a 2003 movie starring Jessica Alba, about an aspiring hip-hop dancer and choreographer named Honey who catches her break after a music-video director sees a clip of her performing. Something similar happened for HoneyCC, who also trained in hip-hop dance, as well as in jazz and Chinese folk styles, and was equally determined to be discovered.
After an injury cut short her dancing career, a few years ago, she and some friends set up an advertising business. Many of her clients were social-media companies, and her work for them led to an observation about the sector’s development: first there was the text-based service Weibo, the largest social-media network in China at the time; then people started posting images. “But a single picture can only say so much,” she told me recently. “To really communicate a message, you need a video.”
Today, HoneyCC, who is twenty-seven, is one of the biggest stars on the video-sharing platform Meipai. Launched in 2014, it is now the most popular platform of its kind in China, with nearly eight billion views per month. In her videos, which last anywhere from fifteen seconds to five minutes, she lip-synchs to sentimental ballads, dances to hip-hop, stages mini sketches, undergoes beauty treatments, and lolls seductively in bed. Petite, with a delicately tapering face, she can play the ingénue, the diva, or the girl next door, and costume changes come at dizzying speed. “Sometimes I look like something out of a dream,” Honey said, flashing a smile of dazzling bleached teeth. “Other times I look like a mental patient. But a pretty mental patient.”
HoneyCC understands the charm that comes from undercutting perfection. Romantic walks with wholesome-looking young men are upended by pratfalls. Behind-the-scenes takes, in which she talks to the camera with her mouth full, foster a sense of casual intimacy. In a sketch at a go-kart track, she struggles to remove her helmet; when her head emerges, makeup is smeared all over her face.
HoneyCC has millions of followers, and receives more offers for product-placement deals than she can accommodate (her advertisers include Givenchy, Chanel, and H.P.). She runs successful e-commerce stores that sell cosmetics and clothing and she recently launched her own makeup brand, What’s Up HoneyCC. When she posted a five-minute video of herself dancing and twerking in a pair of skinny jeans, she sold some thirty thousand pairs. She is a millionaire many times over.
I first met HoneyCC, in May, in Xiamen, a port city on the Taiwan Strait. We were at the headquarters of Meipai’s parent company, Meitu, Inc. Its first product, in 2008, was a photo-editing app, also named Meitu (“beautiful picture,” in Chinese), which young people seized upon as a means of enhancing their selfies. The company now has a battery of apps, with names like BeautyPlus, BeautyCam, and SelfieCity, which smooth out skin, exaggerate features, brighten eyes.
The apps are installed on more than a billion phones—mostly in China and the rest of Asia, but also increasingly in the West, where Meitu seeks to expand its presence. The company sells a range of smartphones, too, designed to take particularly flattering selfies: the front-facing selfie cameras have more powerful sensors and processors than those on regular phones, and beautifying apps start working their magic the moment a picture has been taken. Phone sales accounted for ninety-three per cent of Meitu’s revenue last year, and the company is now valued at six billion dollars. Its I.P.O., a year ago, was the largest Internet-company offering that the Hong Kong stock exchange had seen in nearly a decade.
Worldwide, Meitu’s apps generate some six billion photos a month, and it has been estimated that more than half the selfies uploaded on Chinese social media have been edited using Meitu’s products. HoneyCC told me that it is considered a solecism to share a photo of yourself that you haven’t doctored. “Selfies are part of Chinese culture now, and so is Meitu-editing selfies,” she said. In nine years, the company—whose motto is “To make the world a more beautiful place”—has almost literally transformed the face of China. There’s a name for this new kind of face, perfected by the Meitu apps, which you now see everywhere: wang hong lian (“Internet-celebrity face”).
Internet celebrities themselves—the name wang hong means “Internet red”—are newly ubiquitous in China. The most famous of them rival the country’s biggest pop singers, and outrank most TV and movie stars, in recognition and earnings. Meitu takes a cut of what Meipai users make with their videos—as much as thirty per cent in some instances, although no executives and few stars will discuss the exact figures. The biggest names, like HoneyCC, become brand ambassadors. When she and I met, she was about to go to a rehearsal for a conference being held in a few days’ time to mark Meipai’s third anniversary—a round of parties, networking sessions, and workshops for wang hong and wang hong wannabes. HoneyCC and her peers would be sharing secrets of their success, while others took notes on how to join their ranks, or perhaps even supplant them. “The market is competitive and growing more so,” she said; fans constantly demand more variety, more polish, more beauty. “You must feed them and encourage them and figure out what they like, even before they do,” she went on. “It’s a mad rush when the eyes are on you, but there’s no guarantee they’ll stay there.”
Over the entrance to Meitu’s headquarters, the company’s name is written in slanted pink letters. The path toward it is flanked by human-size figures, resembling Teletubbies, coated in bright, glossy paint. An employee explained that they represented aspects of the company’s operations, such as marketing, product management, and programming.
The building’s interior evoked a giant Hello Kitty store. The walls were painted Jordan-almond shades—the color scheme changes every few months—and there were stuffed animals and bobblehead dolls on the desks. Conference rooms were named for aspirational spring-break locations: Hawaii, Bora-Bora, Fiji. (The average age of the employees is twenty-seven.) Stylishly clad men and women pecked at computers that were covered in garish stickers, like high-school lockers.
Chen Xiaojie, a twenty-seven-year-old with caramel-colored contact lenses and waist-length hair, gave me a demonstration of Meitu’s most popular apps, on her Meitu M8 phone. Holding the device at arm’s length, she tucked in her chin (“so the face comes out smaller”), snapped a photo of us, and handed me the result. My complexion looked smoother, my eyes bigger and rounder. I asked if I had been “P”-ed—the Chinese shorthand for Photoshopping. Chen said that the phone had automatically “upgraded” me. “Only when you enjoy taking selfies will you have the confidence to take more,” she explained. “And only when you look pretty will you enjoy taking selfies and ‘P’-ing the photo. It’s all very logical, you see.”
Next, using the BeautyPlus app, she showed me how to select a “beauty level” from 1 to 7—a progressive scale of paleness and freckle deletion. Then we could smooth out, tone, slim, and contour our faces, whiten our teeth, resize our irises, cinch our waists, and add a few inches in height. We could apply a filter—“celestial,” “voodoo,” “edge,” and “vibes” are some of the options. A recently added filter called “personality” attempts to counteract a foreseeable consequence of the technology: the more that people doctor their selfies, the more everyone ends up looking the same. Like everything else in the app, the personalities available—“boho,” “mystique,” and so on—are preset.
Chen opened up the BeautyCam app and the words “Beauty Is Justice!” flashed up on the screen. The interface was laid out like Candy Land, with a winding path of rabbits, rainbows, and unicorns. Then came MakeupPlus, which not only applies foundation, lipstick, blush, eyeshadow, and mascara, but can also dye your hair, shape your brows, and change your eye color. Meitu has recently started partnerships with a number of cosmetics brands, including Sephora, Lancôme, and Bobbi Brown; users can test products on their selfies and then be redirected to the brands’ Web sites to place their orders.
I asked a number of Chinese friends how long it takes them to edit a photo before posting it on social media. The answer for most of them was about forty minutes per face; a selfie taken with a friend would take well over an hour. The work requires several apps, each of which has particular strengths. No one I asked would consider posting or sending a photo that hadn’t been improved.
When I met Meitu’s chairman, Cai Wensheng, later that day, he confirmed that editing your pictures had become a matter of ordinary courtesy. “In the same way that you would point out to your friend if her shirt was misbuttoned, or if her pants were unzipped, you should have the decency to Meitu her face if you are going to share it with your friends,” he said. He took enormous pride in the fact that “Meitu” had entered the Chinese lexicon as a verb.
Cai is forty-seven and grew up in a peasant family on the rural outskirts of Quanzhou, fifty miles up the coast from Xiamen. He said he owed his success to China’s transformation “from a country where uniformity was absolute and the entire populace wore two colors—black and navy—to now, when you can wear absolutely anything.” The power of appearances first became clear to him at school, in the mid-eighties, when he noticed how much attention a particular girl received because she was the only pupil who owned a bra. He soon found that there was money to be made selling cosmetics on the sidewalk—“Owning a tube of lipstick was an untold luxury”—and dropped out of school after ninth grade to pursue business ventures.
Cai co-founded Meitu with another entrepreneurial Quanzhou native, Wu Xinhong. The initial plan was to build a simplified Photoshop for what Cai called lao bai xing. (The phrase means, roughly, “just plain folks,” and Cai constantly applied it to himself.) Once user data started coming in, they saw that their app was overwhelmingly used by young women for selfie enhancement. “The demand was there even though no one knew it,” he said. He realized that the market for online beautification was his for the taking.
Wu told me that user data remained central to the company’s strategy. “It tells us, in real time, what we need to know,” he said. In the beginning, people tended to favor a Japanese anime look, with huge eyes and pale skin. Now people have shifted to what he described as “Euro-American wave,” a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that the apps have a way of making people look more Western—for instance, by replacing single eyelids, which are typical, though not universal, among East Asians, with a double eyelid fold. There is even a new filter on BeautyPlus called “mixed blood,” used to achieve a Eurasian appearance. Earlier this year, there was a spate of outrage on social media after international users pointed out that increasing beauty levels in the app invariably resulted in a lightening of skin color.
The Meitu executives I spoke with were careful to dispel the implication that their apps influenced people’s preconceptions about what is attractive. “The Chinese notion of beauty has been ingrained and uncontroversial for a long time,” the chief technology officer said. “Big eyes, double eyelids, white skin, high nose bridge, pointed chin.” (This view is historically debatable, but widely held in China.) Wu even implied that Meitu was democratizing beauty, making it into something you could work at rather than a matter of genetic luck. “Lao bai xing get to aspire to something more beautiful than anything they have ever known,” Wu said. “That’s an achievement.”
One afternoon in Xiamen, on the seventh floor of a residential high-rise, Deng Lanfei, a Meipai star with three million followers, was hunched, as if famine-stricken, over a cup of instant noodles. Next to her, hungrily eying the noodles, was a young man named Fu Yunfeng (a million followers). Both were wearing white shirts and red ties, giving them the appearance of car-rental clerks. A makeshift paper sign behind them—“Earn a Million Advertising Company”—suggested that they worked at an ad agency so unsuccessful that its employees were nearing starvation.
I had come to a tiny film set, at the headquarters of Zi Yu Zi Le (“self-entertainment, self-enjoyment”), a company that shoots videos for Meipai and a few other platforms. The pair on set really were creating an ad (for a new brand of bottled spring water), but, as in many Meipai videos, there was a playful layer of self-reference. Deng’s business manager, Yang Xiaohong, handed me a copy of the script. On the brink of death, the two workers agree to play rock, paper, scissors for the last cup of noodles. But just then a call comes in from the spring-water company, which wants to commission a commercial capitalizing on Deng’s popularity. “Wait,” I whispered to Yang. “Deng is supposed to be playing herself?” Yang smiled, and said, “Deng is both playing herself and not herself.”
The acting was exaggerated, as in a “Saturday Night Live” skit, and amateurish. Deng’s bangs kept obscuring closeups of her face, and Fu couldn’t decide whether resting his left arm or his right on the table better conveyed “maximum desperation.” Take after take ended with Deng dissolving into giggles. I flipped ahead in the script. Deng had only about fifteen lines, but it seemed possible that the scene would never be finished.
Yang assured me that the casualness of the acting and the modest production values were an asset. “On social media, traditional ads are no longer effective, because everyone knows they’re just a put-on,” she said. “But if an online influencer can embed a product in scenes that are basically her life, her followers respond: they feel that using what she’s using will bring them closer to her.”
The production company was set up two years ago, with the help of a four-million-yuan investment from Meipai, and is run by a man named Yan Chi, who is also HoneyCC’s boyfriend. When I spoke to him, he’d just returned from Silicon Valley, where he’d talked to people at YouTube and Google about his effort to expand the company by recruiting new stars from major cities all over China. He said that his biggest challenge was the regionalism of Chinese taste. “It makes it exceedingly difficult to produce hit content,” he told me. In English-speaking online culture, videos can go viral across many different countries. China was different, he said: “It’s everything from exposure to the outside world and average education level to sophistication and spending power. In a single country, people are living realms apart.”
A little later, a group of men arrived who looked as if they’d stepped out of a K-pop video—Meipai stars from all over China who were in town for the anniversary conference. Yan poured tea and answered their questions about increasing their fan base. A quarter of Meipai’s uploaders are men, and their videos tend toward comedy. A twenty-four-year-old with a degree in chemistry mentioned his breakout hit, a skit about how different the reactions to snow are in southern China, compared with in the north. I wondered if the news was ever a good source for comic material, but when I asked there was silence, punctuated by nervous laughter.
“If you want to build an audience, especially a young one, you should probably avoid politics,” one man said, eventually. “If you say something controversial, you’ll get shut down. If you’re repeating what’s on the news, well, then, what’s the point?”
“It’s not only about the censors,” someone else added. “Politics is also just not that interesting to our fans. They are teen-agers and want to be amused by stuff actually relevant to their lives.”
It became clear, though, that most of the stars approved of President Xi Jinping’s tough stance toward Western powers. “The way to succeed is to listen to the Party and follow the government,” one man said. Beyond that, they took no interest in politics and thought of China’s development as a generational evolution. People born in the nineteen-seventies, one star explained, still bear traces of the collectivist mind-set of the days before Communism was tempered by market reforms. “They only know what it’s like to please the group, and don’t really have a sense of self,” he said. The one-child policy meant that people born in the eighties are a bit more self-centered, and subsequent generations are even more so. Today’s teen-agers, he said, “want to stand out and be individuals—to be like everyone else is just uncool.”
Wen Hua, the author of “Buying Beauty,” a study of Chinese aesthetic standards and consumerism, confirmed that this appetite for individualism is a new phenomenon in a society that has long prized conformity. “The arrival of Meitu and plastic surgery can seem an opportunity to take ownership of yourself and your body,” she said. “But is it real individuality?” She saw the fanatical pursuit of beauty not as a genuine expression of independence but as a reaction to social and economic pressures. Whereas older Chinese grew up with the so-called Iron Rice Bowl (tie fan wan), the security of a life lived entirely in government employment, today’s young people, Wen pointed out, have no safety net and also face an economy that produces many more college graduates than it does jobs for those with a degree. What’s more, the growth of service industries has put a premium on self-presentation. The Iron Rice Bowl has been replaced by what’s sometimes known as the Rice Bowl of Youth (qing chun fan)—low-level but decent-paying jobs in fields like public relations and sales, for which youth and good looks are considered core qualifications. The new emphasis on appearance, she said, was at the root of Meitu’s success: “Meitu is in the business of manufacturing a desire for perfection, so that you feel its gaze everywhere and find yourself conforming to—and confirming—its standards.”
I spoke to Wu Guanjun, a political theorist at a university in Shanghai who also teaches at N.Y.U.’s campus there, and he pointed out that the young not only face a dysfunctional job market but also are bombarded with images of media stars and of the fuerdai, China’s first generation of trust-fund kids. Seeing no connection between hard work and reward, young people increasingly opt for the escapism of celebrity culture. Wu views Meitu as the epitome of this trend. “It fills the emptiness because it provides distraction and stimulation,” he told me, and mentioned that, these days, the only way he can get his students to concentrate in class is by dropping references to the latest celebrities.
I asked Wu if this was any different from Kardashian-era America, and he said that pop culture in the West, having had longer to develop, is more varied. In China, he felt, it is still possible for celebrity worship to capture the entire culture. “Some of my students regard it as the defining feature of their existence, the thing that gives their life meaning when everything else seems out of their control,” he said. “To participate in this culture is to verify your existence.” He recalled a student who spent vast amounts of time pining for a particular celebrity. One day, in a lottery, she won a ticket to see him in person. After agonizing for some time, she decided not to go. “I knew she wouldn’t go,” Wu said. “For her, this celebrity might as well have been a deity. You don’t want to come face-to-face with your god, because it’s frightening to think that you might see a pimple on his chin.”
From Xiamen, I travelled to Chengdu, which has emerged as a leading center of plastic surgery, to visit Xichan hospital, the largest cosmetic-surgery provider in Sichuan Province. It was founded twelve years ago by Zhang Yixiang, a Sichuan native who originally trained in public health but then realized the profit potential of cosmetic surgery. “I had a doctor friend who told me that the surgeries cost a hundred yuan each but that clients were happy to pay two thousand or more,” he said. “I knew then it was going to be a growing market.”
Ninety-eight per cent of Xichan’s patients are women, most of them between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. Nose jobs and blepharoplasties (which create the double eyelid crease) are the most popular procedures. Zhang said that in the early days, most clients were seeking to hide a scar or a physical deformity; now, he said, “more often than not, it’s very attractive women who are chasing perfection.”
A woman in her early thirties named Xu Xueyi gave me a tour of the premises, which looked like a Versailles-themed Vegas hotel—eight floors of ornate rooms and gilded corridors, shops and spas. A profusion of synthetic flowers, marble, and sparkling chandeliers served to distract from the procedures taking place out of sight. You might be having your jawbone sawed down, in order to give your face a dainty oval shape, but, just across the hallway, you could treat yourself to a jade-inlaid gold necklace, get a perm or a manicure, or pick up some body-slimming lingerie.
“We do everything here to make you happy and satisfied,” Xu said brightly, as she led me through a V.I.P. suite with a Jacuzzi. Bandaged women in striped robes passed by, guided by nurses who waved at Xu. The nurses were all notably good-looking, and Xu confided that she’d had several procedures. “I injected my chin with filler to make it pointier but didn’t like it, so I dissolved it two weeks later.”
Xu took me to one of the hospital’s senior surgeons, Li Bin, a man of fifty who spoke with scholarly placidity. “In the past, in conservative China, we used to prioritize a person’s interior to the exclusion of all else,” Li told me. “But, in today’s competitive world, your appearance is an asset that you want to maximize.” He mentioned that it is normal for a job applicant’s résumé to include a head shot, and, indeed, plastic-surgery patients in China are often more interested in the professional benefits of good looks than in romantic ones. The procedures are viewed as a simple investment that will yield material dividends.
Since the rise of Meitu, a different kind of client has become more common: young, impressionable women who bring pictures of their idols to his office and ask to be given this or that feature. He smiled and shook his head. “Expectations are higher than ever, and it’s hard to get through to clients about the recovery period and the risk of unforeseen results,” he said. “To change the shape of a face requires cutting into the jawbone”—a procedure that Western doctors are reluctant to perform except in cases of medical need, because of a significant risk of fatal complications—“but on Meitu the transformation is instant and completely controllable.”
In the afternoon, I met a loyal customer of the hospital named Li Yan. She was thirty and had had more procedures than she could remember, starting in college: double-eyelid creation, eye-corner-opening, nose job, chin implant, lips injected to resemble “parted flower petals.” Almost every feature of her face had been done a few times, but she still felt as if she were a rough draft, in the process of revision. “I don’t think my nose bridge is quite high enough, and the tip doesn’t have the slight upturned arch I want,” she said.
I asked Li, who works as an administrative assistant in a regional bank, how she managed to afford all the surgery. “It’s how I spend most of my money,” she told me, adding that, over the years, boyfriends had also chipped in. She said with satisfaction that no one who’d known her at school would recognize her now and that she’d destroyed every picture she could find of herself before the surgeries began. “The beauty of photos taken before the digital age is, if you destroy it, it’s gone for good.”
Li was devoted to Meitu, and used the apps to preview surgeries she was considering. Surgery and Meitu, she believed, “clarify each other.” Recently, she’d been approached by a wang hong recruiting agency about developing an online presence, but she worried that the livelihood would be too unstable, and, besides, she couldn’t really sing or dance or act. The recruiter had said that she wouldn’t need any skills, but she still wasn’t convinced. “I could never be as beautiful as a wang hong,” she told me, laughing.
“You should consider getting some work done, too,” Li said at one point. It was a comment I’d been hearing with disconcerting frequency as I hung around wang hong in China. One of the hospital’s doctors, Li Jun, said she would give me a consultation, but I’d have to wait till the evening; although it was a Sunday, her schedule was packed.
Our session lasted half an hour, during which the chalk pen she used to draw on my face was almost never at rest. By the end, my face resembled a military map in the late stages of a long battle. She began with structural problems. My jaw was too square, my cheekbones too broad, and my eyelids too droopy. My nose bowed outward—a “camel hump”—and I had a weak chin. After the half-dozen or so procedures that it would take to ameliorate these flaws, we could move on to smaller things, which could be dealt with by a combination of Botox (for my shrunken forehead, my jaw muscles, and the creeping crow’s-feet around my eyes) and filler (for my temples, the pouches under my eyes, my nasal folds, and my upper lip). The cost would be more than thirty thousand dollars. “There are still other things that could be done,” she said, as I stared at my chalked-up face in the mirror, but she was careful to manage expectations. It was clear that no amount of intervention could transform my face into that of a wang hong.
I arrived back in Xiamen in time for Meipai’s anniversary conference, which took place in a sleek hotel near Meitu’s headquarters. Around four hundred Meipai stars from all over the country were there. The youngest was four and the oldest seventy-two, but the majority ranged in age from late teens to mid-twenties.
A screen in the auditorium displayed photos of Justin Bieber and other global megastars who’d got their start online, while Meitu staffers explained to the young hopefuls what the future might hold if they kept up their assiduous posting. Neon-colored slide shows about e-commerce and the monetization potential of celebrity flashed by, but I soon realized that the audience wasn’t paying much attention. “At an event like this, it’s all about rubbing shoulders with stars who have more influence,” a man named Mark explained. Mark was a rarity: a Caucasian wang hong. He was South African, and had moved to China nine years earlier, in his mid-teens, when his father got a job there. With a mop of red hair, he looked like Prince Harry, but lankier. “It’s about breaking into the stars’ circles and maybe sharing a photo of you posing with a wang hong who has double or even ten times your fan base.”
All day, the room hummed with nervous tension, and even the friendliest interactions carried a competitive edge. Wang hong discussed the difficulty of getting a hair appointment, as everyone was piling into the same few salons, and how two-hour makeup sessions had required them to skip breakfast. A woman with wheat-colored hair and a lacy white sheath dress, who went by the screen name StylistMimi, told me that she thought of herself as a late starter, having only been on Meipai for a year. With fewer than four hundred thousand followers, she was anxious to make up for lost time. Another, named Liu Zhanzhan, warned that there was currently an oversaturation of wang hong “incubators”—talent scouts like the one who had approached Li Yan. “They promise you everything, but you sign a contract and you are basically sold to them for six, seven, eight years,” she said. “They manage hundreds of people, and, at the end of the day, how many actually make it?”
StylistMimi excused herself in order to live-stream, holding up her phone to give her followers a panorama of the room and narrating the proceedings in a syrupy voice. Live streaming, on Meipai or on a variety of other platforms, such as Kuaishou and Huajiao—has emerged as an important revenue source for wang hong. As Mimi broadcast to her fans, a real-time log of cash donations and other gifts appeared at the bottom of her screen, in the form of icons of gold coins and flower bouquets. Those who donated got to ask questions, and one fan wondered what big-name celebrities Mimi could spot. “Do you see HoneyCC three rows ahead?” Mimi whispered, angling her phone toward the star. “I saw her from a distance but didn’t get a closeup. In real life, she looks just O.K.”
An unforeseen complication of meeting so many wang hong at once was that it was hard to keep them all straight. They tended to bear only an impressionistic resemblance to their Meitu-improved profile pictures. But anytime I took out my iPhone 6 to take a selfie with someone, I was rebuffed. People would suspiciously ask what kind of camera it was before walking away with expressions ranging from offense to pity. “I can’t allow you to take a picture of me with that camera—it’ll be too ugly,” a woman from Chongqing told me. I assured her that I was not a wang hong and would not be posting it, and we reached a compromise: she would take a selfie of us on her Meitu phone, edit her face, and then send the photo to me.
“A regular camera can’t capture the whole of a person,” a young man with shaggy bleached-blond hair and brilliant blue contact lenses told me, as he showed off his editing skills. “It has no way of expressing the entirety of your beauty.” He was nineteen, from Nanjing, and called himself Abner, a name he said he’d chosen because it sounded “seductively exotic.” His Meipai career took off a year ago, after a short video he posted made the daily “hot list.” The video was “the narcissistic kind,” he said: “I don’t speak at all but just look beautiful.” This turned out to be his favored mode.
Abner’s following on Meipai is modest, a mere hundred and forty thousand people; he is more into live streaming, which demands much less in terms of scripting and production design. But live streaming has its hazards. “You’re compelled to constantly stream or else your fans forget you,” he complained, adding that he regularly spends eight-hour stretches at his computer. To fill the time, he said, “I put on makeup, or, if my makeup is already done, I sing karaoke, but I don’t have a good voice.”
I asked if a lot of men use makeup. “Increasingly, yes,” Abner answered. “But of course not everyone does as elaborate a job as me. My situation is a bit special because of all my plastic surgery.” He’d begun reshaping his face when he was fifteen, having become fascinated by the way he could change his face with Meitu’s apps. “They opened up this world where I could literally invent what I looked like,” he said.
Over the years, using money earned from a part-time job, he had steadily raised the bridge of his nose. He’d undergone double-eyelid surgery, and then he had the outer corners of his eyes extended—a procedure known as lateral canthoplasty. Abner told me that he would have done the inner corners, too, but his doctor had told him he had no extra skin there to cut. In all, he’d had half a dozen procedures on his eyes, and, just a week before the conference, had completed a third remodelling of his nose. “The stitches aren’t even out, and I’m not supposed to travel,” he said, showing me bruising between his nostrils. “But I don’t care. I’m here to meet fellow wang hong, take group selfies, and grow my fan numbers.”
By now, Abner said, his live-streaming income had paid for his surgeries several times over. He told me that his look was chiefly inspired by Korean models he follows on Instagram. Instagram is blocked in China, but he uses a V.P.N. connection to get past this, the same way that other people access sites like the New York Times and Twitter. He’d even live-streamed from Seoul recently, while attending a friend’s birthday party, but the whole thing had been a fiasco. He’d been completely unaware of a recent diplomatic standoff between China and South Korea over the latter’s deployment of an advanced American missile system known as THAAD, as a defense measure against North Korea. For months, Chinese TV had been saying that the arrangement was a threat to Chinese security and calling for boycotts of Korean goods. None of this had filtered down to Abner, who was startled by a sudden onslaught of hostile comments from followers calling him a traitor to his country. “I don’t watch the news, and politics is the most boring thing I can think of,” he said. “Before leaving for Korea, I didn’t even know about that stupid missile. I told my fans I booked the tickets months earlier, and, besides, the weather was perfect for outside photography.”
Abner was studying finance in college, but said, “I don’t go to classes much, though I try to show up for the tests. I’ll probably collect the degree, even if it’s completely pointless.” The idea of working in an office struck him as ludicrous, and he expressed contempt for the way his parents, who run a small cell-phone store, thought of nothing but work and constantly fretted about money. “What my parents don’t get is that being a wang hong is much more practical than any office profession,” he went on. “The truth is that in China going to school is useless. The things my professors drone on and on about—can they actually help me make money? The best-case scenario is you’ll just be a lowly cog in a corporation owned by rich people and run by their children.”
That evening, Meitu’s stars trooped out to the hotel courtyard for a party. Palm trees surrounding a kidney-shaped pool were hung with lights, and people drifted around tables where cocktails, champagne, and seafood kebabs were being served. Except for the guardian of the four-year-old wang hong, who splashed around in the water, not a single adult was in the pool. Although the women’s bathroom was thronged with bikini-clad wang hong examining themselves in a full-length mirror, one of them explained that swimming was out of the question: there were so many selfies to be taken and edited, and almost everyone was live-streaming the event to their fans.
Nearby, drinking beers, were two young men who didn’t look like wang hong. They turned out to be equity analysts at a Shanghai-based firm that helps investors identify opportunities in China’s Internet and media sectors. “There’s more money floating around at this party than any investor-relations conference we’ve ever attended,” one of them said. His name was Robert, and he was from Texas. His colleague, who was Chinese and went by the name JC, said that the lavishness of the event was Meitu’s way of marketing itself to its stars: “Meitu needs its wang hong to promote it as a top brand.”
On a stage near the pool, the evening’s entertainment began. A Korean-Chinese boy band launched into a Backstreet Boys-style number, to happy screams from the audience. Next up was a man in shades who rapped about his journey to Xiamen from Shenyang. HoneyCC danced with a few friends near the stage, and a crowd flocked around her, phones aloft as they streamed the spectacle to their followers. Every gesture of greeting and intimacy was also a pose for a selfie, and people were too busy live-streaming to make conversation. “Take the party out of your phones,” the d.j. repeatedly pleaded, but his exhortations were themselves filmed and disseminated to millions of viewers.
I caught sight of an older woman, perhaps in her seventies, standing and watching the young dancers with an expression of rapt, unfiltered joy. Her face was creased and leathery, but her mouth, agape with wonder, gave her a childlike look. She was the only person there who wasn’t holding a cell phone, and she was dressed plainly. Two security guards went up to her and asked what she was doing there. She said that she was the wife of a janitor at the hotel, had heard the music, and wondered what was going on. “Granny, you have to leave,” one of the guards said. She nodded but didn’t move, and it wasn’t until the men each took one of her arms and tried to propel her to the exit that she began walking, her head still turned toward the music and her smile unchanged. As the guards succeeded in ejecting her, I realized that she was the most beautiful person at the party.
Meitu employees like to describe the company’s products as “an ecosystem of beauty,” but ecosystems are inherently diverse, whereas Meitu and the trends it epitomizes seem to be moving China in the direction of homogeneity. A generation of Chinese, while clamorously asserting forms of individualism that would have been unthinkable for their parents and grandparents, is also enacting a ghastly convergence. Their selfies are becoming more and more similar, and so are their faces. Through the lens of a Meitu camera, the world is flawless, but flawlessness isn’t the same as beauty, and the freedom to perfect your selfie does not necessarily yield a liberated sense of self.
Over by the stage, Abner was halfheartedly trying on various glow-in-the-dark accessories that Meitu had provided, taking a selfie with each new look. “I still don’t know why my video from this morning hasn’t gone viral,” he said sulkily and wandered off.
I took out my phone and scrolled through his videos. Abner’s eyes were large and imploring, his complexion so pale that, when he happened to pose in front of a white wall, the face he had so painstakingly sculpted melted into the background and became almost invisible. In one video, a single wisp of hair had been artfully primed to keep falling in his eye. He would brush it away with his arm. He was wearing a ruffled shirt too big for his skinny frame, and the over-all effect somehow called to mind the Little Prince. In another, he played languorously with a piece of cheesecake but never quite took a bite.
Below each video came the comments and donations of his teen-aged fans. (He had told me that the best time to earn money was around the Chinese New Year, when kids were flush with cash given to them by their families; he could easily clear six thousand dollars a week.) The bottom of his screen was a blizzard of hearts and stars and money bags. But one adoring girl wrote a longer, more earnest message: “Him. He was my first wang hong idol. I never thought it was possible to love a person so much. He was really my first. Stylish, majestic, with ethereal beauty. Truly, can anyone be so perfect?” ♦
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