After Years of Derision, China’s Internet Celebrities Finally Win Mainstream Success

Li Jiaqi, a young man famous for tastefully applying lipstick and makeup on himself, is the hottest name to millions of Chinese women right now. He used to be a beauty adviser at L’Oréal, but now he has become a national Internet celebrity, with over 9 million followers on Weibo. Dubbed China’s “Lipstick King,” he holds unparalleled live-stream sales records for make-up products, especially lipstick. His catchphrase is: “Oh my god! So beautiful! Buy it! Buy it! Buy it!” On 2019’s Singles’ Day annual shopping blowout, he sold 15,000 units of lipstick within five minutes through livestreaming, which is still an unbroken record.

Li Ziqi is another hot video blogger loved by Chinese young women. As a Chinese food and country-life blogger, she focuses on creating meals and handicrafts with basic ingredients and tools using traditional Chinese techniques. Compared to Li Jiaqi, Li Ziqi’s influence is not limited to the Chinese market. Her videos usually have few words, with no English translation at all, but since the content of her videos can be understood across cultural borders, she has over 7.5 million followers for her YouTube channel.

SEE ALSO: Why Does Li Ziqi Outperform Most Chinese Vloggers on YouTube?

Li Jiaqi and Li Ziqi became Internet celebrities through different paths, but both of them are examples of a new era in the Chinese wanghong (Internet celebrity) economy. Internet celebrities are no longer standing at the bottom of the entertainment industry, and have become a core power that no one can ignore.

Previously, wanghong used to be a negative term to describe those who desired sudden fame, with no intelligence or substance but a taste for vulgarity and scandal. Sister Furong and Sister Feng can be seen as the first generation of wanghong who were famous for their vulgar words and narcissistic self descriptions. Their popularity was indicative of the growing trend of Chinese female bloggers who have become famous for posting earth-shattering statements. Their popularity did not bring an equivalent financial return. They became famous for being something of a laughing stock, and their followers were mainly curious to see how ironically narcissistic they could be instead of appreciating their personal qualities. As soon as people are tired of their outlandish but repetitive statements, their followers abandoned them immediately. Additionally, the business model of the wanghong economy had not been established yet in China, and the popularity of those people was accidental, with no well-planned promotion channel to translate their influence into profits.

The second generation of wanghong developed a preliminary business model of online retailing. Those celebrities usually have their own brands, generally clothing or cosmetic goods, available on Taobao or other C2C platforms. In order to increase sales, they are active on different social media platforms to demonstrate their daily fashion styles and attract followers, who are all potential buyers.

Wanghong started to transform into a viable business in 2016. In this year, livestreaming platforms started to become popular. Many people poured onto different platforms to livestream a range of content, including infomercials. Compared to traditional, one-directional social platforms, livestreaming puts influencers on an equal footing with followers and allows the two sides to have real, spontaneous communication.

As the wanghong economy in China started to grow into serious business, wanghong Internet celebrities were still labeled negatively. They promote a very narrow definition of beauty, valuing doe eyes, a high nose, light skin, and a very pointy chin, nicknamed the “wanghong face.” In addition, the products they push are of uneven quality. Although many of these influencers attained huge successes financially, the influence of wanghong was still limited to their millions of followers. Mainstream entertainment and fashion industries still closed their doors to the group.

Li Jiaqi and Li Ziqi have recently smashed through these barriers, ushering in a new era for wanghong. Their success feeds the development of the overall wanghong economy. Due to Li Jiaqi’s high level of communication and professional skills, he soon outperformed other livestream influencers, aided by his previous experience as a beauty advisor. His surprisingly high sales bring him not only a high income, but also recognition and respect, which his predecessors did not get.

In October, Li Jiaqi became the cover person of Grazia, the international woman’s weekly. Earlier in December, the movie The Wild Goose Lake used his livestream to sell tickets. Over 250,000 tickets sold out within 15 seconds, and the result shocked the actor, Hu Ge, one of the most popular actors among the young generation. In the same week, Li Jiaqi became the roastee of the first episode in the new season of China’s Comedy Central Roast. In previous three seasons, roastees were generally well-known actors, singers, and athletes who have earned convincing awards in their fields. This show that Li Jiaqi has been breaking down the boundary between wanghong and the mainstream of the entertainment industry that used to be thought impenetrable.

Li Ziqi has also hit the mainstream. A few weeks ago, her name took a top position in the trending terms on Weibo. People were discussing whether her videos count as a successful cultural export, since her videos “neither reflect the reality of Chinese rural areas nor represent the reality of Chinese society,” according to her critics. However, her supporters dispute this idea, saying that Li Ziqi does not aim to document Chinese society, but to introduce traditional techniques to people who had no exposure to them. The discussion finally caught the attention of several state media outlets. They wrote that Li Ziqi illustrates that Chinese culture can be understood and cherished by foreigners, and Chinese people should be grateful to her for letting people understand the beauty of Chinese culture.

The success of Li Jiaqi and Li Ziqi is not accidental. The rise of the wanghong economy provides people who come from distant places opportunities to break down geographical limitations and be known online. At the same time, this pair are lucky to stand at a transitional period of the wanghong economy, in which wanghong are taking a high-profile role in the overall industry, and have more space to create good content.