Two staff members at Chen Mo Network Marketing company, whose founder Chen Mo is best known for shooting pictures of Sister Lotus and propelling her to stardom before he set up the company. [China Daily]
Online marketers are creating the country's Web celebrities, Duan Yan in Beijing reports.
With more than 384 million netizens desperate to discuss or deride the "next big thing", the demand for Web celebrities - people made famous overnight by a well-seen clip, blog or post - has become enormous.
In recent years, pictures circulated online have helped a homeless man shoot to fame for being "well dressed" and a pretty village girl in traditional ethnic Qiang clothing become a pin-up model.
Although this seems like luck, analysts say these people are often the clients - and sometimes victims - of so-called tui shou, Internet marketers who stand to earn big money by thrusting them into the limelight.
By paying thousands of netizens to leave positive or negative posts on China's popular websites, thereby generating attention, tui shou (literally pushing hands) potentially stand to make thousands of yuan on advertising tie-ins and promotions, even if the star of the show does not.
For the casual browser, forwarding hilarious or shocking stories or clips about crazy stunts maybe just a bit of fun. To some, it is a serious business.
"It's very competitive," said He Mingchen, 30, an online promoter based in Beijing. "Anyone who knows how to find enough paid posters to work for him can do this kind of work. It's easy to make money from people who have limited knowledge about the Internet."
About 10 percent of He's clients are individuals aiming to become celebrities "and they are far more profitable than working with businesses".
"There are so many rich people who want to be famous," said the entrepreneur, who founded his business in 2008 and works for entertainers, talent show contestants, inventors and artists.
On average, it costs about 3,000 yuan ($440) to pay netizens to leave just one post on more than 3,000 online forums - and with a large enough budget, marketers can almost guarantee that their client will become an Internet sensation.
Compared with getting on television or a talent contest, winning the hearts of the online media is easy, with popular forums like tianya.cn and mop.com only too happy to provide a platform for wannabes.
"We don't care who is behind these stories," said Du Peiyuan, mop.com's Beijing-based director of interactive service. "We've built the platform but we don't really care who is dancing on it. As long as it's reasonable and legal, and viewers like it, come up and dance.
"Many journalists browse online forums every day to get their news ideas," he said.
Wang Fei, tianya.cn's interactive service director for North China, agreed and added: "Reporters need to report on things that the readers want to read, while websites need to put up things viewers like to click on."
It is almost impossible to identify who is gaining fame due to the sheer weight of interest or the Internet marketing machine (tui shou take credit either way).
However, Luo Yufeng, one of the biggest Web celebrities today, denies receiving any help on her road to stardom.
Luo Yufeng, better known as Sister Phoenix, poses with a passersby in Guangzhou during her marriage-seeking trip around the country. Luo is one of the biggest Web celebrities today. [China Daily]
The 24-year-old, who is more commonly known as Feng Jie, or Sister Phoenix, shot to fame after she handed leaflets on the streets of Shanghai's Lujiazui financial district that stated the characteristics a man would need in order to marry her.
"He must be an elite with a degree in economics or similar from Peking University or Tsinghua University," she wrote. "He must also be 176 to 183 centimeters tall and good looking."
As Luo is petite and arguably plain-looking, netizens immediately hailed her as the nation's newest laughingstock. Others were quick to see the business opportunities, though, with several self-proclaimed "experts in viral marketing" stepping forward to take credit for masterminding her success.
One of them was Chen Guibing, a marketer who has never met Luo but claims he uploaded numerous posts about her online in which he also mentioned his own name. He believes this "free advertising" has helped both of their careers (Chen also promotes a Tibetan mastiff breeder and an artist).
"There was no tui shou behind me. I was on my own from the start," Luo insisted when talking to China Daily.
However, she accepts that her story is now beyond her control and admitted that ever since she appeared on Renjian, a popular television talk show in Jiangsu province, she has been swept along by the media frenzy.
Luo's performance on Renjian in January sparked a whole new round of criticism for the wannabe actress and singer.
She was joined on the show by her "boyfriend" and "ex-boyfriend" (both were later confirmed to be actors) to talk about their "love triangle", and also made bold comments such as: "I started reading literature at 9 years old and no one can surpass me", and "No one in the last 300 years can compare with my IQ".
The footage again spread quickly over the Web. However, Liu Yuan, branding chief in the editor's office of Jiangsu TV, denied the show had helped to market Luo and said she arrived at the studio with the actors.
"I did not hire the men. I just went along with it for the money," said Luo. "Making money is my priority now. I'll do any TV show or commercial as long as I get paid for it."
The producers of Renjian paid Luo 600 yuan for the interview. "It's the amount we offer all our guests to help with transportation and accommodation," said Liu. "We also offered Luo psychological advice from experts to help her return to her normal life. She turned it down."
The spotlight fades
Industry experts say that whether a person wants to become famous or not, the life-changing costs of being a Web celebrity can often outweigh the benefits.
Luo used to work as a cashier in one of Shanghai's Carrefour supermarkets for about 1,400 yuan a month. She quit the job two months after the Renjian interview and now spends her time traveling from city to city to appear on television shows and at commercial events.
"This is all just small money, though. The big money will come in when I win a commercial endorsement, or make a movie or music album," she said.
As the Feng Jie story rolls on, Luo continues to be surrounded by reporters waiting for the next outlandish quote, and has offers from plastic surgery clinics for free consultations. She also receives many invites from talent shows to sing a song - no matter how badly she sings it.
On one TV talent show in Shanghai in May, a man from the audience crushed eggs on her head during an interview with the host, shouting: "You're shameless. Don't embarrass yourself any more."
"Few people can be an idol," said Du at mop.com. Other experts agreed that, as most Web users mock almost anything and anyone, the ability of enduring humiliation is a must for these Internet celebrities.
Shi Hengxia, another Web celebrity, who was nicknamed Furong Jiejie, or Sister Lotus, became famous in 2003 when she posted pictures of herself on forums run by Peking University and Tsinghua University. [China Daily]
But what happens when the netizens lose interest?
For Shi Hengxia, another Web celebrity, watching the spotlight slowly turn away from her has been a frustrating experience.
The 30-something woman, who was nicknamed Furong Jiejie, or Sister Lotus, by the media is often referred to as a classic example of an Internet-made star - she is even mentioned in school textbooks for English classes to demonstrate the term "spectacular".
Shi became famous in 2003 when she posted pictures of herself on forums run by Peking University and Tsinghua University (two colleges she wanted to attend) with captions that read: "I have a physique that gives men nosebleeds."
Neither university offered her a place, yet netizens found humor in her "inflated sense of self-worth".
However, all attempts by Shi over the last few years to launch a mainstream career in dancing, singing or acting have fallen flat. Most of her fans appear to be only interested in mocking her.
Today, her views on celebrity are far different than in 2003.
"It's like a bunch of beggars digging in trash cans, looking for food," she complained. "This one lucky beggar got some leftover food and the other beggars were jealous and angry.
"I've just been waiting for people to change their views about me," said Shi, who now has a personal assistant and is represented by Beijing Furong World International Culture and Media, an Internet marketing firm.
"Right now, our company is trying to avoid the comparisons between Sister Furong and other web celebrities. It's a critical time for her transition," added her agent, Lin Sir. When it comes to hiring Web celebrities to promote products, business analysts also warn that companies should be cautious.
Due to their usually negative image, and the fact new personalities are competing for attention every day, these stars tend to shine for only a short time.
Ultimately, a Web star attempting to start a mainstream career is like "writing in the water", said Du at mop.com. "If Shi tries to change herself, then she is not the famous Sister Furong anymore," he said.
So, the only options these celebrities have are to court more controversy or become less famous. "That's the real tragedy," shrugged Du.
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