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.

China Daily European Weekly - - Life - Ray­mond Zhou Con­tact the writer at ray­mondzhou@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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.

CAI MENG / CHINA DAILY

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