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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?

By Mao Yijun, Gu Xin and Xie Ying Updated Oct.3

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 said.   

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 said.   

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 business 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 Harper's 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.