THE (R) EVOLUTION OF AN INTERNET CELEBRITY
A young woman from China’s hinterland, with few qualities believed necessary for success, claws her way to online respectability by following loads of chutzpah with growing sophistication.
During the latest US presidential election, most Chinese pundits followed the prognostication of mainstream American media and wrote off Donald Trump as an outlier with more entertainment value than a real chance of winning. A notable exception was Luo Yufeng, who did not belong to any think tank here in China or Stateside.
A month before the November election, she said, based on the Twitter accounts of Trump and Clinton that she followed, she sensed more support for Trump.
On the day of the election, she posted an article about a trailer driver she knew, which ended up explaining Trump’s unexpected victory better than almost all Chinese-language analysis that surfaced in the immediate aftermath of the event. The driver, who Luo claims to have known for several years, used to make a decent living by hauling big loads across the American continent. He could rake in considerable cash during the holiday seasons like Christmas because he was willing to work while others would take the time off for family gatherings. But, with the inflow of new immigrants, his pay flattened out and then started a long decline. Now he had to consider quitting the business.
He legally migrated to the United States a decade ago, and his livelihood, unlike that of most middle-class American families, was threatened by the wave of illegal immigrants under a Democratic administration.
Luo’s article did not draw any conclusions. She just gave a vivid description of one person and his quandary.
Luo works in a New York beauty parlor, earning a living by clipping nails for customers. She is the furthest thing from a talking head in an ivory tower or power center. She is plugged in to the grassroots, at least the social segment that is her crowd in terms of linguistic preference and social background. Back home in China, her writing has gained a sizable following.
A following that used to mock her for her plain looks and ungainly behavior.
In the past year and half, many of her early detractors have publicly apologized for their ugly words of prejudice against her.
Each of her articles is followed by an endless string of apologies such as this on the iFeng site: “Sister Phoenix, I was one of those who had ruthlessly ridiculed you. I didn’t know it was a complex thing to evaluate someone. I just took the surface for what it is. I have since discovered your talent and your insight and your perseverance.
“I have read all your writings. And I can say that many of those empty-talking experts are just out there for self-gain. Only you have articulated the hardships of people at the bottom of society like us. My sincerest apology to you.”
Sister Phoenix, or Fengjie, is her online moniker, patterned on a character in a literary classic. For several years it was a name people loved to hate, or at least to laugh at. A profile in People magazine called her “China’s most hated reality star”. Indeed, there was reason enough to take her as a joke as she was positioning herself as more or less a clown for the purpose of public attention.
Luo, born in 1985, hailed from a poor vil- lage in the hinterland. She attended college for three years and worked as an elementary school teacher for two years. Then she decided to head for the bright lights. Moving to Shanghai, she found that competition was more fierce in the big city.
She was working at the checkout counter of a supermarket when she began to use the dating game as her platform for self-promotion. She turned herself into an instant laughing stock when she listed her ideal men, who included a couple of Chinese superstars and the US president.
Her outrageous remarks, such as her selfassessment as “one with the highest IQ in 300 years and 300 more years from now”, kept her in the limelight, winning her the title “worthy of the Nobel prize in chutzpah”. Coupled with her lack of physical beauty as defined by stars, her brazenness stood out glaringly in a culture that traditionally values modesty and self-effacement.
Luo did the rounds of the nation’s reality shows, but rarely made it to the finals. Just as her 15 minutes of fame seemed to be used up — when a report surfaced saying that television shows that included her were considered “too vulgar” by the regulators and faced a regulatory crackdown — she got a visa for the US.
After a few years as a footnote to the last internet dynasty, Luo reappeared, this time as a contracted columnist for iFeng, a website previously affiliated with the Phoenix television network. Surprisingly to many, she has mellowed.
Yes, she still throws out the occasional repartee that blends a superiority complex with an inferiority complex. But when she uses the form and length of writing traditionally saved for old media, her persona emerges with more subtlety and maturity. She is able to discuss complicated social, political and cross-cultural issues with earthy humor and sharp insight.
Luo’s observations of American society, seen from the ultralow perspective of a wannabe immigrant, and the contrast she provides with Chinese society in flux, have exalted her to a position rarely achieved by anyone with better education or pedigree. She gains a ringside view of the US far from the office towers of prestigious media and relays it to a Chinese public who would never bother with a newspaper, let alone its opinion page.
Maybe Luo had a split personality from the start. When she was still playing the dating game, some of her poems surfaced, revealing a sensitive soul and a writing proficiency on par with professionals. But they were lost in the crazy whirlwind she had helped whip up around her.
Jane Eyre would not have taken this route to fame or fortune, but Luo, a product of reform-era China, has even less to fall back on than the character in the Charlotte Bronte novel. She may not have clawed her way to middle-class respectability yet, but nobody can deny her effort.
For her latest posting on Jan 12, titled “I want your blessings and encouragement”, she received a tidal wave of empathy and appreciation, especially from the huddled masses who used to taunt her.
Luo’s observations of American society, seen from the ultralow perspective of a wannabe immigrant, and the contrast she provides with Chinese society in flux, have exalted her to a position rarely achieved by anyone with better education or pedigree.