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More than half a billion people in China have smartphones, and one of the popular ways to use them is to look at other young Chinese who are using their smartphones to make videos of themselves in hopes of finding fame and fortune. NPR's Anthony Kuhn takes us inside the star-making machinery for a look.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Huang Xian'er wants to be China's first Internet video star specializing in travel.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HUANG XIAN'ER: (Foreign language spoken).
KUHN: In one of her first videos, she takes viewers on a tour of Harvard University. Huang didn't actually go there. She shot the video with a cell phone in a Beijing park just to get some practice. Huang says she grew up watching other Internet celebrities, but she never thought she'd want to become one herself.
HUANG: (Through interpreter) My mom knew I was watching Internet stars in school. She simplistically thought that all Internet stars sell clothes, get plastic surgery and all look the same.
KUHN: The stereotypical Chinese Internet celebrity is doe-eyed, has a high nose bridge and a pointy chin. Ms. Huang already has all these and has no plans for surgery. She just Photoshops her pictures a bit.
After only a few months of work, Huang already has about 600 fans on her channel on Youku, China's version of YouTube. And she signed a contract with an Internet talent firm.
HUANG: (Foreign language spoken).
KUHN: At the firm's studio, Huang chats with a guest about hiking around Beijing. She live streams it over a smartphone. As they talk, little emoticons - hearts, flowers, gifts - waft across the phone's screen. Huang's fans spend real money to buy these virtual gifts, and she gets a cut of it.
Huang's company is run by 35-year-old Gu Yongliang. He scouts out and trains potential Internet starlets and promotes them through advertising and social media. He has 40 or so of them on his payroll. Although he hasn't turned a profit yet, he likes what he's doing.
GU YONGLIANG: (Through interpreter) To help these young Chinese with dreams to go even further in their creative work is something I feel that has great value.
HUANG: (Foreign language spoken).
KUHN: Next, Huang Xian'er shoots a video that parodies state television's evening news. It also contains commercials for a Chinese delicacy, hairy crabs. Most Internet celebs in China either entertain or advertise. Huang does both, although she admits she's still just a beginner.
But Tian Li, an expert on new media at Beijing University, argues that consumers are not looking for professionally produced, highbrow material. They want content they can relate to made by people they idolize.
TIAN LI: (Through interpreter) Because I like you or your image, I don't really care what you're saying. What's more, just because I'm your fan I'll gladly accept anything you recommend.
KUHN: This popularity reportedly helps China's Internet mega-stars to earn more money than A-list movie stars. Internet personalities are often dismissed as superficial, vulgar and materialistic, but Tian Li argues that they shouldn't be so easily dismissed.
TIAN: (Through interpreter) To a certain extent, they will change the answer to the question, who is most influential in our society?
KUHN: That influence, Tian argues, is likely to come at the expense of traditional authorities, including China's leadership. China's government recently required live streaming internet shows to be licensed, but the rules have so far had little effect. And Tian Li believes that they're unenforceable. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
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