Jiang Yilei, known to Chinese internet users as Papi Jiang, is a hot commodity. Her videos mocking social mores—often in a foul-mouthed rage—have won her over 12 million Weibo followers.
On 21 March, the 29-year-old received RMB 12 million (US$1.8 million) in investment for a 12 percent stake in her future earnings, placing her value at RMB 100 million (US$15.4 million). A few weeks later, on 18 April, her videos were removed from her channel on Youku, and from social app WeChat for their “vulgar and coarse content” as judged by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of China (SAPPRFT).
Despite the setback, at an auction held just days later on 21 April, Shanghai-based makeup retailer Lily&Beauty paid RMB 22 million (US$3.4 million) for the first advertisement to appear in one of Jiang’s videos. While it pays to be skeptical of auction results in China—at least if the art market is anything to go by—Jiang’s success nevertheless marks a watershed moment in both Chinese netizens’ interests and companies’ willingness to work with web celebrities.
“Ten years ago people got famous because of their unconventional or unethical behaviour,” says Flamingo researcher Jason Huang. “Then the boom in online retail made models popular, many of them thanks to surgical enhancement. Now it’s time for Papi Jiang and financial commentator Luo Zhenyu, people with an acute sense of social and economic issues and a strong view point.”
This article is part of the Cultural Radar series
Talented, self-made celebrities are gaining traction online in China, and advertisers are willing to pay to be associated with them. The problem for brands is that China can be a risky place to partner with content producers. Extremely popular shows “Go Princess Go!”, “Addicted Heroin” and “Where are We Going, Dad?” were all taken off the air this year. The Papi Jiang case demonstrates that Chinese censors are just as willing to shut down individuals as TV shows if they become too influential.
Papi Jiang has apologised for falling on the wrong side of the censors and promised to promote “positive energy”, despite the fact that her willingness to speak bluntly is central to her appeal. Fans described her first video uploaded after SAPPRFT’s intervention as “boring”.
Zoe Cai is senior research executive and Sam Gaskin is cultural content editor at Flamingo Shanghai.