Singing and telling jokes to hundreds of thousands of people tuning in on their mobile phones is not just a lifestyle in China, but a lucrative career that can make you a millionaire.
Being a social media ‘influencer’ seems like a pipe dream to many — driving fancy sports cars, strolling Parisian boulevards in fashionable clothing and attending A-list events for a living.
But in China, where there is a massive youth audience, Shifei Technology — who claims to be central China’s biggest internet celebrity “incubator” — is now helping hundreds of young women become millionaire superstars in the multi-billion-dollar social media market.
But because the market in China is so big, women are earning up to $60 million a year, which is more than Kim Kardashian earns.
Shifei now has more than 600 aspiring internet celebrities to their name and they’re teaching them how to better wield their selfie sticks, build a strong personal brand, and effectively turn their fans into consumers.
Internet stardom a highly sought after career in China
Recently, at a celebration of the company’s relocation in China’s central city of Wuhan, dozens of beautiful young women associated with Shifei put their lessons into practice —showing up in red Ferraris and live-streaming the night with selfie sticks.
According to a 2017 Renmin University report, internet stardom is now the most sought-after career prospect for young Chinese people born after 1995.
Tapping into the craze, incubators offer professional education on brand building, fan maintenance, and even product development.
Xiaoying Chen, 30, is among the legion of internet celebrities on Weibo, and currently has more than 253,000 followers.
She runs a clothing brand on Alibaba that she defines as “new French elegant style”.
Ms Chen told Chinese media her annual income was over $2 million in 2015.
Kai Wang, Ms Chen’s business partner, told Chinese media what was actually on sale was Ms Chen’s lifestyle.
The “bourgeois romantic lifestyle” is deeply attractive to many young Chinese women living in the country’s more-developed east and is central to the brands of many social influencers, he said.
While Shifei is yet to unveil detailed plans about how it will nurture its future stars, the concept of internet celebrity academies or incubators, where young girls are trained to take better selfies and translate fame into profit, is not new.
Last year, a university in south-west China, the Chongqing Institute of Engineering, even began teaching a class on how to become an internet celebrity.
The syllabus covered a range of unique skills including styling, “personality building”, live-streaming, and psychology of the fans.
Internet celebrity economy to pass $21 billion
Haiqing Yu, an associate professor at RMIT University and an expert on China’s digital media, began studying the country’s internet celebrity culture in the early 2000s, when female bloggers first began to emerge — in the early days, the bloggers accumulated their followers single-handedly.
“It was about how in a traditionally patriarchal society, the Internet could give young women a platform to have their own voices,” Dr Yu said.
“It was viewed as the rise of women’s consciousness in China’s modern era.”
But, she says unfortunately this was quickly turned into something completely different, as companies working to mass-produce internet stars.
“The girls all now look like each other and follow similar paths,” she said.
Most Chinese internet stars accumulate their fan bases on the social media site Weibo and later bring fans to their shops on Alibaba, a popular Chinese online marketplace.
Turning followers into customers through Weibo became easier after Alibaba bought an 18 per cent stake in the social media company in 2013, and increased the stake to 31.5 per cent in 2016.
Their services are now closely integrated, making it easy for Weibo celebrities to direct fans to their wares.
By 2016, the value of China’s nascent internet celebrity economy reportedly reached $11 billion, and is expected to surpass $21 billion in 2018, according to a report by Beijing-based research agency Analysus.
From monitoring kitchen hygiene to live stream shopping
Shenshen Cai, a lecturer in Chinese studies at Swinburne University of Technology, said live streaming has become one of the most popular online social entertainment activities in China.
“Through various live video streaming platforms, the audience is able to watch different kinds of [entertainment and] … events including conferences, teaching, weddings, cooking shows,” she said.
Chinese personal shoppers — known as “daigous” — are also live streaming their shopping to prove the authenticity of the product they are buying for their clients.
Meanwhile, restaurants in some cities like Hangzhou in the eastern Zhejiang province are being encouraged by the local government to offer live streaming of their kitchens to allow customers to monitor food preparation.
A report from state-owned Xinhua media last December said the request for kitchen live streaming was made in an effort to “alleviate food safety concerns that shroud China’s booming takeout services”.
There are reportedly more than 150 restaurants in Hangzhou that offer the service on a popular takeout app.
With live streaming being quickly taken up by businesses and individuals, consultancy firm Deloitte last year predicted China was likely to remain the largest market for live streaming in 2018, with a forecast revenue of $US4.4 billion($6.2 billion) — a 32 per cent increase over the previous year.
Revenue is largely driven by viewers donating money in the form of virtual gifts to performers as they sing or dance. Live streaming platforms usually also take a portion of the revenue.
Li said his fans were predominately young women in their mid-20s.
“In general, people are more likely to be emotional at night so we usually live stream then,” he said.
“Users would gradually develop a certain type of attachment to you after watching you live stream for a long time.
“When it was my birthday or during a festive season, or even when my fans were happy, I can receive gifts valued at about 10,000 yuan ($2,080).”
And as Li’s popularity grew on the online platform, he also received opportunities to appear on popular TV shows in China.
Live streaming opens doors for ‘innovative career path’
Dr Cai said host live streaming shows — like Li’s — were one of the most popular trends, which usually involved attractive and vivacious young women who perform and chat to their audiences.
“Many young Chinese women have set as their life goal to become an internet celebrity, as this will not only [give] them fame but also fortune,” she said.
“The emergence of these young female internet celebrities in China signifies a new socio-cultural trend which provides opportunities for some young women to follow a new and innovative career path.”
This was the case for Zhihui Ma, another popular host on Inke who is known for her funny imitations and jokes.
Before her live streaming debut, the 31-year-old from China’s inner Mongolia typically earnt about 2,000 yuan ($416) a month from doing a variety of jobs including guiding tours and waitressing.
The internet celebrity is now frequently recognised on the street and more than 90,000 people on average tune into her show daily. She has earnt nearly 3 million yuan ($624,000) in the past three years.
However, being a popular live streamer does not always bring positive attention.
Ma said people sometimes commented on her appearance and suggested she should have plastic surgery because she was not pretty enough.
She said being a live streamer was also easier for beautiful women, who did not necessarily have to work hard to prepare as many props and jokes for their audience to avoid repetition.
“Sometimes I get really speechless after running a live streaming show, because I have been talking and singing too much, like I was crazy,” Ma told the ABC.
“Sometimes I also feel a bit sad, given that [what I receive] from working so hard can’t even match [the amount] received by girls just acting cute.”
While live streaming has also taken off on platforms like YouTube and Twitch in other parts of the world, analysts believe the scale of the industry in China could be related to the uptake of smartphones.
Citing Deloitte’s 2018 Mobile Consumer Survey, Kate Huggins, a partner at the consulting firm, told the ABC that Australia was still “far behind” China in terms of general mobile use, and using mobiles to watch videos in particular.
“One reason is that many Chinese consumers leapfrogged the PC and went straight to the smartphone as their primary internet device,” she said.
“The dominance of mobile platform WeChat in China is also an important factor: in China we have seen greater integration of chat, social, entertainment and payment features in a single mobile platform, which is very different to the way PC-born digital platforms in the West have evolved.”
However, Ms Huggins said recent government intervention and consumer concerns around smartphone addiction could impact the growth rate of smartphone use.
In recent years, the Chinese Government has clamped down on content it deemed inappropriate — such as hostesses wearing revealing outfits — on a number of popular live streaming platforms.
Concerns have also been raised over children squandering large sums of money to buy virtual gifts for live streaming hosts without their parents’ approval.
Last year, a 24-year-old man from China’s central Hunan province reportedly disappeared from the family home after he was suspected to have taken 1.7 million yuan ($354,000) from his parents to spend on live streaming websites.