Pride and Prej­u­dice

Wang Ju faced re­lent­less bul­ly­ing when she par­tic­i­pated in tal­ent show Pro­duce 101, but rather than shrink­ing she turned it to her ad­van­tage. Is there room for unique­ness in China’s cookie-cut­ter pop­star cul­ture?

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Mao Yi­jun, Gu Xin and Xie Ying

Chi­nese au­di­ences de­mand cer­tain things of their pop­stars' ap­pear­ance. As 25-year-old Wang Ju would read­ily ad­mit, she lacks them. She has been taunted for be­ing “fat,” “thick” and even “black” (a ref­er­ence to her tanned skin that is not in­tended to be as racist as it might sound). Few ex­pected Wang would gain the tremen­dous pop­u­lar­ity she did on Pro­duce 101, the lat­est Chi­nese “re­al­ity” show from in­ter­net gi­ant Ten­cent, which picks 11 women from 101 can­di­dates to form a new girl group, whit­tling them down round af­ter round through a pub­lic vot­ing process.

Her gen­eros­ity to­ward the bul­ly­ing she en­dured from au­di­ences and her unique, sup­pos­edly “West­ern” aes­thetic saw Wang, who was ini­tially ranked at the bot­tom of the bunch, scale the ranks by mid­sea­son when her pop­u­lar­ity started to soar, de­liv­er­ing her to sec­ond place where she sat at the be­gin­ning of the show's grand fi­nale on June 23.

But Wang failed her fi­nal test. As pub­lic votes were called out in the fi­nal, she re­mained in the same spot as other con­tes­tants dramatically took their po­si­tion among the win­ners. Out­side, Wang's fans seemed stoic. They said she would con­tinue to stand out, that her unique style would help her re­al­ize her dreams in the end. But it was this unique­ness that her op­po­nents con­tin­u­ally cri­tiqued, claim­ing her aes­thetic and ap­pear­ance did not meet Chi­nese au­di­ence ex­pec­ta­tions for a pop­star. Now, with the pro­gram over, Wang faces a greater chal­lenge: main­tain­ing her pop­u­lar­ity.

Rise of an Un­der­dog

Wang's jour­ney on Pro­duce 101 was tor­tur­ous. In the fourth episode, also the first knock­out round, she was on the verge of be­ing elim­i­nated. Af­ter she wasn't put straight through, she had to fight for a re­serve spot. “I still want to seize a chance for my­self. I still want to stay on the stage, since my dream is not yet fully re­al­ized,” she said on the stage, firmly and steadily, stand­ing apart from other cry­ing can­di­dates with a big smile on her face.

Wang learned to dance as a child, but was in­jured in an ac­ci­dent at 15 years old, and ap­par­ently took a hor­mone to aid her re­cov­ery that caused her to gain weight.

But she never gave up her dream of per­form­ing on stage. She took en­trance ex­ams for per­form­ing arts col­lege twice, but failed both. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from an or­di­nary high school, she worked as a mu­sic teacher, an art teacher and then a head­hunter, where she found she was at a loss. She fi­nally en­tered the mod­el­ling busi­ness as an as­sis­tant. Dur­ing Pro­duce 101, she told the me­dia that the job in the com­pany had reignited her de­sire to per­form. Ev­ery time she watched models on the cat­walk, she hoped that she could one day be among them.

Wang ranked at the bot­tom dur­ing the first four episodes. Fol­low­ing the third episode – the con­tes­tants' first pub­lic per­for­mance – Wang en­dured ugly on­line bul­ly­ing which at­tacked her ap­par­ently in­fe­rior ap­pear­ance. A pop­u­lar blog­ger named “Lao­ji­deng'er” who has more than 500,000 fol­low­ers on Sina Weibo, posted sev­eral screen­shots of Wang's danc­ing and joked that Wang could “beat [pow­er­ful Marvel Comics' vil­lain] Thanos with one sin­gle hand.” The tweet re­ceived more than 800 com­ments, one of which ref­er­enced Shake­speare's The Tem­pest, “Hell is empty, all dev­ils are here,” with the com­ment, “Hell is empty, Wang Ju is here at the coun­tri­fied Pro­duce 101.” The com­ment quickly went vi­ral, with some ques­tion­ing whether Wang was on the pro­gram as comic re­lief.

To the sur­prise of many, Wang did not get mad at their hurt­ful and sex­ist words, but merely made use of them. “Hi, I am Wang Ju from hell,” she in­tro­duced her­self in the sec­ond pub­lic per­for­mance, and even im­i­tated some of the gifs which had cir­cu­lated por­tray­ing her dance. Her wis­dom and tol­er­ance con­verted many view­ers into her fans. Lao­ji­deng'er no longer mocked Wang, but called her “Sis­ter Ju” and be­gan can­vass­ing votes for her.

It was dur­ing the fourth episode, in which Wang man­aged to bat­tle through that Zhang Chuan, 20, be­came a Wang sup­porter. “I wanted to know more about her,” he told Newschina. He started to search for more peo­ple with the same taste on the in­ter­net and was soon ad­mit­ted into a Wechat group of 200 fans. They told Zhang they no­ticed Wang at the very be­gin­ning of the pro­gram, with some at­tracted by her dis­tinc­tive style and oth­ers riled by the in­jus­tice of her treat­ment.

May 14, two days af­ter episode four, was seen as a turn­ing point for Wang. Zhang's fan group shot up to the max­i­mum of 500 mem­bers and Wang's fans es­tab­lished two spe­cial teams to lobby for votes for her. They tried ev­ery­thing, mak­ing up tongue twisters for Wang to spread on the in­ter­net, rewrit­ing the theme song of the pro­gram for Wang and or­ga­niz­ing all sorts of on­line and off­line ac­tiv­i­ties. They even bought thou­sands of ex­tra QQ (Ten­cent's on­line chat­ting tool) ac­counts in or­der to vote for her. Zhang re­vealed that they es­tab­lished a 70-mem­ber fan club to vote for Wang around the clock.

By May 30, Wang's pop­u­lar­ity in­dex on Wechat (based on the fre­quency of Wechat searches for the user, as well as pub­lic ac­counts and per­sonal posts) had risen a hun­dred fold, to over 13 mil­lion in just six days. By June 3, when the sec­ond rank­ing was pub­lished, Wang was no longer on the re­serve list, but among the 36 se­lected reg­u­lar can­di­dates, ranked 23rd.

Spe­cial and Dis­tinct

Lao­ji­deng'er said he never thought that Wang was a typ­i­cal girl group mem­ber, given the Chi­nese au­di­ences' harsh de­mands, but Wang had the courage to break the mold with the sup­port of her fans.

His sen­ti­ment was echoed by Ma Yankun, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of Pro­duce 101. “I didn't think Wang was qual­i­fied to be in a girl group, nor even to be a can­di­date, but she had a very strong de­sire to get on the stage and I found she had some­thing spe­cial and dis­tinct,” he told Newschina.

A piv­otal mo­ment was when Wang was no­ti­fied she had passed

the pre­lim­i­nary round (be­cause an­other con­tes­tant had quit), she put on a blue fur shawl and strode to­ward the stage. “My pre­vi­ous style doesn't suit me any more be­cause I got fat, but I can change my style to fit the cur­rent me, a West­ern­ized style,” she told me­dia dur­ing the pro­gram. Tanned skin, heavy eye shadow and blue fur then be­came Wang's trade­marks, lead­ing The Guardian to dub her the “Chi­nese Bey­oncé.”

Dur­ing one les­son, the con­tes­tants re­ceived ad­vice from renowned an­chor­per­son Ma Dong. Wang asked Ma why women who are ca­pa­ble and skilled per­form­ers, but less good look­ing, found it harder to win con­tests than those who were slim and beau­ti­ful but not es­pe­cially tal­ented. Ma said a fam­ily al­ways has dif­fer­ent sizes of pots and only those that are dif­fer­ent enough from oth­ers are put to use. “You will not be needed to the great­est ex­tent un­til you are dis­tin­guished to the great­est ex­tent,” he told Wang. In other words: be unique.

Ma's words clar­i­fied the rea­son be­hind Wang's ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity. To high­light her unique­ness, Zhang's Wechat group spe­cially made a video ti­tled A Dif­fer­ent Wang, in which Wang bites into a big slice of pizza while rolling her eyes, vi­o­lently shak­ing her iconic fur shawl off her shoul­ders, rais­ing a wine glass larger than her face, and so on. Her fans cap­tured many screen­shots of the video and made them into funny gifs, cap­tion­ing them “vote for me.”

“You have the right to re­de­fine a girl group,” Wang later ex­claimed to the au­di­ence when so­lic­it­ing votes for her­self. Be­ing pretty and slim did not need to be the dom­i­nant re­quire­ment to be in a girl group, she said.

Her per­sis­tence and painstak­ing ef­forts to be her­self have moved more and more view­ers. “I am more or less con­strained by the so­cial trend. You know, every­body ac­tu­ally has the right to be them­selves, and more peo­ple choose to sup­press them­selves, but Sis­ter Ju was brave enough to break the mold,” a Wang fan us­ing the pseu­do­nym “juhe­fany­ing” (lit­er­ally “Ju's re­ac­tion”) told Newschina.

“In the past, I didn't be­lieve fate was change­able,” Lao­ji­deng'er wrote on his mi­croblog. “While vot­ing for Sis­ter Ju is only one thing I have done to change fate… It's a kind of way to re­al­ize my own dream, to be my­self.”

“It is truly hard to change fate, but we are help­ing Sis­ter Ju do so ev­ery day… It is amaz­ing and ex­tra­or­di­nary… We are moved by her and our­selves,” he added.

Can Fate Be Changed?

As many fans have told the me­dia, Wang's rel­a­tive “or­di­nar­i­ness” cre­ated prox­im­ity with au­di­ences and her per­sis­tent ef­forts to be dif­fer­ent led to em­pa­thy from fans and a cam­paign to change her fate. “If

you ad­mire some­one alone, the af­fec­tion might fade. But if a group of peo­ple mo­bi­lize to sup­port some­one, the af­fec­tion grows and grows,” Zhang told Newschina.

This ef­fect and the wide­spread me­dia cov­er­age, how­ever, did not fol­low Wang to the end of the show. Some think her fall be­gan with her fans' al­leged bal­lot rig­ging, as claimed by fans of other con­tes­tants, which ap­par­ently drew con­cern from the or­ga­niz­ers. Oth­ers still blame her ap­pear­ance for her fail­ure.

“It is a hu­man's in­stinc­tive de­sire to ap­pre­ci­ate beau­ti­ful things and peo­ple, es­pe­cially when it comes to girl groups which ex­press them­selves through body lan­guage, such as danc­ing… Do you wanna see a pile of fatty meat?” wrote a pop­u­lar fash­ion blog­ger whose in­ter­net name is “huo­ji­u­jian” on her Wechat ac­count. “Those pop­u­lar South Korean or Ja­panese girl groups have the same re­cruit­ment stan­dards – good looks are the bot­tom line and good mu­sic skills are pre­ferred,” she con­tin­ued.

“Pop­u­lar crazes are of­ten tran­sient... au­di­ences will not and can­not be re­spon­si­ble for their idols' fu­tures,” she added.

Ob­servers have said that Wang's im­age caters to young peo­ple's de­sire to sub­vert the main­stream. Even Wang her­self re­al­ized that her pop­u­lar­ity was not com­pletely her own do­ing.

“Some peo­ple may sup­port me out of cu­rios­ity – they won­dered what I would do if I won the con­test,” she told Newschina.

A com­men­tary on huxiu.com, a pop­u­lar Chi­nese site for arts and cul­tural crit­i­cism, at­trib­uted Wang's pop­u­lar­ity to the re­al­ity show's de­mand for at­ten­tion.

“They need con­tro­ver­sial and fresh things to at­tract at­ten­tion and in­crease clicks, and Wang was one of those can­di­dates… It was easy to arouse the sym­pa­thy of the au­di­ence,” said the com­men­tary.

This be­lief was backed by Ma Yankun, who ad­mit­ted in an in­ter­view with Cb­n­weekly, a Shang­hai-based fi­nan­cial mag­a­zine, that they were keep­ing a close eye on pub­lic opin­ion through­out the pro­gram to find out what kind of line-up was more ac­cept­able. Although the pro­gram in­vited pro­fes­sional artists to help ap­praise the can­di­dates, the rank­ing, Ma claimed, was al­ways de­ter­mined by pub­lic polling.

Now, the pro­gram has ended with sat­is­fac­tory rat­ings – over 4.7 bil­lion across the show's run, but this has lit­tle re­la­tion­ship with Wang who must now find her feet once again.

In July, Wang re­port­edly at­tended an ac­tiv­ity hosted by the fash­ion mag­a­zine Baz­zar, and photos which cir­cu­lated from the event ap­peared to show a much slim­mer and less dis­tinct in­car­na­tion of the as­pir­ing pop­star. Some fear that Wang has given in to the pres­sure of China's pop in­dus­try. If so, how this might af­fect her pop­u­lar­ity re­mains to be seen.

Wang Ju (mid­dle) and two other con­tes­tants on the Pro­duce 101 TV tal­ent show

Pro­duce 101 can­di­dates grab­bing a meal as they re­hearse late into the night

Wang Ju (in black) is elim­i­nated in the fi­nal round of Pro­duce 101

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