Meitu’s popular apps and a flippant attitude towards plastic surgery are changing what it means to be beautiful
13 April 2018 |JIAYANG FAN | South China Morning Post
“HoneyCC likes to say that she scarcely remembers the last time someone called her by her given name, Lin Chuchu. She took her online name from a 2003 film starring Jessica Alba, about an aspiring hip hop dancer and choreographer named Honey who catches her break after a music-video director sees a clip of her performing. Something similar happened for HoneyCC, who also trained in hip hop dance, as well as in jazz and Chinese folk styles, and was equally determined to be discovered.
After an injury cut short her dancing career, a few years ago, she and some friends set up an advertising business. Many of her clients were social-media companies, and her work for them led to an observation about the sector’s development: first there was the text-based service Weibo, the largest social-media network in China at the time; then people started posting images. “But a single picture can only say so much,” she tells me. “To really communicate a message, you need a video.”
Today, HoneyCC is one of the biggest stars on the video-sharing platform Meipai. Launched in 2014, it is now the most popular platform of its kind in China, with nearly 8 billion views per month. In her videos, which last anywhere from 15 seconds to five minutes, she lip-synchs to sentimental ballads, dances to hip hop, stages mini sketches, undergoes beauty treatments and lolls seductively in bed. Petite, with a delicately tapering face, she can play the ingénue, the diva or the girl next door, and costume changes come at dizzying speed.
“Sometimes I look like something out of a dream,” the 27-year-old says, flashing a smile of dazzling bleached teeth. “Other times I look like a mental patient. But a pretty mental patient.”
HoneyCC understands the charm that comes from undercutting perfection. Romantic walks with wholesome-looking young men are upended by pratfalls. Behind-the-scenes takes, in which she talks to the camera with her mouth full, foster a sense of casual intimacy. In a sketch at a go-kart track, she struggles to remove her helmet; when her head emerges, make-up is smeared all over her face.
HoneyCC has millions of followers, and receives more offers for product-placement deals than she can accommodate (her advertisers include Givenchy and Chanel). She runs successful e-commerce stores that sell cosmetics and clothing, and she recently launched her own make-up brand, What’s Up HoneyCC. When she posted a five-minute video of herself dancing and twerking in a pair of skinny jeans, she sold some 30,000 pairs.
I first meet HoneyCC in May 2017, in Xiamen, Fujian province. We are at the headquarters of Meipai’s parent company, Meitu, Inc. Its first product, in 2008, was a photo-editing app, also named Meitu (“beautiful picture”, in Chinese), which young people seized upon as a means of enhancing their selfies. The company now has a battery of apps, with names such as BeautyPlus, BeautyCam and SelfieCity, which smooth out skin, exaggerate features, brighten eyes.
The apps are installed on more than a billion phones – mostly in China and Asia, but also increasingly in the West, where Meitu seeks to expand its presence. The company sells a range of smartphones, too, designed to take particularly flattering selfies: the front-facing selfie cameras have more powerful sensors and processors than those on regular phones, and beautifying apps start working their magic the moment a picture is taken. Phone sales accounted for 93 per cent of Meitu’s revenue last year, and the company is now valued at US$6 billion. Its IPO, a year ago, was the largest internet-company offering that the Hong Kong stock exchange had seen in nearly a decade.
Worldwide, Meitu’s apps generate 6 billion photos a month, and it has been estimated that more than half the selfies uploaded on Chinese social media have been edited using Meitu’s products.
HoneyCC says that it is considered poor manners to share a photo of yourself that you have not doctored. “Selfies are part of Chinese culture now, and so is Meitu-editing selfies,” she says. In nine years, the company – whose motto is, “To make the world a more beautiful place” – has almost literally transformed the face of China. There’s a phrase for this new kind of face, perfected by the Meitu apps, which you now see everywhere: wang hong lian (“internet celebrity face”).
Internet celebrities themselves – wang hong means “internet red” – are newly ubiquitous in China. The most famous of them rival the country’s biggest pop singers, and outrank most television and film stars, in recognition and earnings. Meitu takes a cut of what Meipai users make with their videos – as much as 30 per cent in some instances, although no executives and few stars will discuss the exact figures. The biggest names, like HoneyCC, become brand ambassadors.
When she and I meet, she is about to go to a rehearsal for a conference being held in a few days’ time to mark Meipai’s third anniversary – a round of parties, networking sessions and workshops for wang hong and wang hong wannabes. HoneyCC and her peers will share secrets of their success while others take notes on how to join their ranks, or perhaps even supplant them.
The market is competitive and growing more so,” she says; fans constantly demand more variety, more polish, more beauty. “You must feed them and encourage them and figure out what they like, even before they do. It’s a mad rush when the eyes are on you, but there’s no guarantee they’ll stay there.”
Over the entrance to Meitu’s headquarters, the company’s name is written in slanted pink letters. The path towards it is flanked by human-size figures resembling Teletubbies and coated in bright, glossy paint. An employee explains that they represent aspects of the company’s operations, such as marketing, product management and programming.
The building’s interior evokes a giant Hello Kitty store. The walls are painted pastel shades – the colour scheme changes every few months – and there are stuffed animals and bobblehead dolls on the desks. Conference rooms are named for aspirational holiday locations: Hawaii, Bora Bora, Fiji. Stylishly clad men and women peck at computers covered in garish stickers, like high-school lockers. The average age of employees is 27.
In the same way that you would point out to your friend if her shirt was misbuttoned, or if her trousers were unzipped, you should have the decency to Meitu her face if you are going to share it with your friends. Cai Wensheng, Meitu co-founder
Chen Xiaojie, a 27-year-old with caramel-coloured contact lenses and waist-length hair, gives me a demonstration of Meitu’s most popular apps, on her Meitu M8 phone. Holding the device at arm’s length, she tucks in her chin (“so the face comes out smaller”), snaps a photo of us and hands me the result. My complexion looks smoother, my eyes bigger and rounder. I ask if I have been “P”-ed – the Chinese shorthand for Photoshopping. Chen says that the phone automatically “upgraded” me.
“Only when you enjoy taking selfies will you have the confidence to take more,” she explains. “And only when you look pretty will you enjoy taking selfies and ‘P’-ing the photo. It’s all very logical, you see.”
Next, using the BeautyPlus app, she shows me how to select a “beauty level” from one to seven – a progressive scale of paleness and freckle deletion. Then we could smooth out, tone, slim and contour our faces, whiten our teeth, resize our irises, cinch our waists and add a few inches in height. We could apply a filter – “celestial”, “voodoo”, “edge” and “vibes” are some of the options. A recently added filter called “personality” attempts to counteract a foreseeable consequence of the technology: the more that people doctor their selfies, the more everyone ends up looking the same. Like everything else in the app, the personalities available – “boho”, “mystique” and so on – are preset.
Chen opens up the BeautyCam app and the words “Beauty Is Justice!” flash up on the screen. The interface is laid out like the Candy Land board game, with a winding path of rabbits, rainbows and unicorns. Then comes MakeupPlus, which not only applies foundation, lipstick, blush, eyeshadow and mascara, but can also dye your hair, shape your brows and change your eye colour. Meitu has recently started partnerships with a number of cosmetics brands, including Sephora, Lancôme and Bobbi Brown; users can test products on their selfies and then be redirected to the brands’ websites to place their orders.
I ask a number of Chinese friends how long it takes them to edit a photo before posting it on social media. The answer for most of them is about 40 minutes per face; a selfie taken with a friend will take well over an hour. The work requires several apps, each of which has particular strengths. No one I ask will consider posting or sending a photo that has not been improved.
When I meet Meitu’s chairman, Cai Wensheng, later that day, he confirms that editing your pictures has become a matter of ordinary courtesy. “In the same way that you would point out to your friend if her shirt was misbuttoned, or if her trousers were unzipped, you should have the decency to Meitu her face if you are going to share it with your friends,” he says. He takes enormous pride in the fact that “meitu” has entered the Chinese lexicon as a verb.
Cai is 47 and grew up in a peasant family on the rural outskirts of Quanzhou, 80km up the coast from Xiamen. He says he owes his success to China’s transformation “from a country where uniformity was absolute and the entire populace wore two colours – black and navy – to now, when you can wear absolutely anything”.
The power of appearances first became clear to him at school, in the mid-1980s, when he noticed how much attention a particular girl received because she was the only pupil who owned a bra. He soon found that there was money to be made selling cosmetics on the street – “owning a tube of lipstick was an untold luxury” – and dropped out of school after ninth grade to pursue business ventures.
Cai co-founded Meitu with another entrepreneurial Quanzhou native, Wu Xinhong. The initial plan was to build a simplified Photoshop for “laobaixing”, or everyday people. Once user data started coming in, they saw that their app was overwhelmingly used by young women for selfie enhancement. “The demand was there even though no one knew it,” he says.
Wu says user data remains central to the company’s strategy. “It tells us, in real time, what we need to know,” he says. In the beginning, people tended to favour a Japanese anime look, with huge eyes and pale skin. Now people have shifted to what he described as “Euro-American wave”, a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that the apps have a way of making people look more Western – for instance, by replacing single eyelids with a double eyelid fold. There is even a new filter on BeautyPlus called “mixed blood”, used to achieve a Eurasian appearance. Earlier this year, there was a spate of outrage on social media after international users pointed out that increasing beauty levels in the app invariably resulted in a lightening of skin colour.
The Meitu executives I speak to are careful to dispel the idea that their apps influence people’s preconceptions about what is attractive. “The Chinese notion of beauty has been ingrained and uncontroversial for a long time,” the chief technology officer says. “Big eyes, double eyelids, white skin, high nose bridge, pointed chin.” (This view is historically debatable, but widely held in China.) Wu even implies that Meitu is democratising beauty, making it into something you can work at rather than a matter of genetic luck. “Laobaixing get to aspire to something more beautiful than anything they have ever known,” Wu says. “That’s an achievement.”
[Today’s teenagers] want to stand out and be individuals – to be like everyone else is just uncool Meipai user
One afternoon in Xiamen, on the seventh floor of a residential high-rise, Deng Lanfei, a Meipai star with 3 million followers, is hunched, as if famine-stricken, over a cup of instant noodles. Next to her, hungrily eyeing the noodles, is a young man named Fu Yunfeng (a million followers). Both are wearing white shirts and red ties, giving them the appearance of car-rental clerks. A makeshift paper sign behind them – “earn a million advertising company” – suggests that they work at an ad agency so unsuccessful that its employees are nearing starvation.
I have come to a tiny film set, at the headquarters of Zi Yu Zi Le (“self-entertainment, self-enjoyment”), a company that shoots videos for Meipai and a few other platforms. The pair on set really are creating an ad (for a new brand of bottled spring water), but, as in many Meipai videos, there is a playful layer of self-reference. Deng’s business manager, Yang Xiaohong, hands me a copy of the script. On the brink of death, the two workers agree to play rock, paper, scissors for the last cup of noodles. But just then a call comes in from the spring-water company, which wants to commission a commercial capitalising on Deng’s popularity. “Wait,” I whisper to Yang. “Deng is supposed to be playing herself?” Yang smiles, and says, “Deng is both playing herself and not herself.”
The acting is exaggerated, as in a Saturday Night Live skit, and amateurish. Deng’s fringe keeps obscuring close-ups of her face, and Fu cannot decide whether resting his left arm or his right on the table better conveys “maximum desperation”.
Yang assures me that the modest production values are an asset. “On social media, traditional ads are no longer effective, because everyone knows they’re just a put-on,” she says. “But if an online influencer can embed a product in scenes that are basically her life, her followers respond: they feel that using what she’s using will bring them closer to her.”
A little later, a group of men arrives. They look as if they have stepped out of a K-pop video – Meipai stars from all over China who are in town for the anniversary conference, and a quarter of Meipai’s uploaders are men, their videos tending towards comedy.
“If you want to build an audience, especially a young one, you should probably avoid politics,” one man says. “If you say something controversial, you’ll get shut down. If you’re repeating what’s on the news, well, then what’s the point?”
“It’s not only about the censors,” someone adds. “Politics is also just not that interesting to our fans. They are teenagers and want to be amused by stuff actually relevant to their lives.”
It becomes clear, though, that most of the stars approve of President Xi Jinping’s tough stance towards Western powers. “The way to succeed is to listen to the Party and follow the government,” one man says. Beyond that, they take no interest in politics and think of China’s development as a generational evolution. People born in the 70s, one star explains, still bear traces of the collectivist mindset of the days before Communism had been tempered by market reforms. “They only know what it’s like to please the group, and don’t really have a sense of self,” he says. Today’s teenagers, he adds, “want to stand out and be individuals – to be like everyone else is just uncool”.
Wen Hua, the author of Buying Beauty (2013), a study of Chinese aesthetic standards and consumerism, confirms that this appetite for individualism is a new phenomenon in a society that has long prized conformity. “The arrival of Meitu and plastic surgery can seem an opportunity to take ownership of yourself and your body,” she says. “But is it real individuality?”
The new emphasis on appearance, she says, is at the root of Meitu’s success: “Meitu is in the business of manufacturing a desire for perfection, so that you feel its gaze everywhere and find yourself conforming to – and confirming – its standards.”
I speak to Wu Guanjun, a political theorist at a university in Shanghai who also teaches at New York University’s campus there. He points out that the young not only face a dysfunctional job market but also are bombarded with images of media stars and of the fuerdai, China’s first generation of trust-fund kids. Seeing no connection between hard work and reward, young people increasingly opt for the escapism of celebrity culture. Wu views Meitu as the epitome of this trend. “It fills the emptiness because it provides distraction and stimulation,” he tells me, and mentions that, these days, the only way he can get his students to concentrate in class is by dropping references to the latest celebrities.
He recalls a student who spent vast amounts of time pining for a particular celebrity. One day, in a lottery, she won a ticket to see him in person. After some agonising, she decided not to go. “I knew she wouldn’t go,” Wu says. “For her, this celebrity might as well have been a deity. You don’t want to come face-to-face with your god, because it’s frightening to think that you might see a pimple on his chin.”
In the past, in conservative China, we used to prioritise a person’s interior to the exclusion of all else. But, in today’s competitive world, your appearance is an asset that you want to maximise. Li Bin plastic surgeon
From Xiamen, I travel to Chengdu, a leading centre of plastic surgery, to visit Xichan hospital, the largest cosmetic surgery provider in Sichuan province. It was founded 12 years ago by Zhang Yixiang, a Sichuan native who originally trained in public health but then realised the profit potential of cosmetic surgery.
“I had a doctor friend who told me that the surgeries cost 100 yuan each but that clients were happy to pay 2,000 or more,” he says. “I knew then it was going to be a growing market.”
Ninety-eight per cent of Xichan’s patients are women, most of them between the ages of 18 and 35. Nose jobs and blepharoplasties (which create the double eyelid crease) are the most popular procedures. Zhang says that in the early days, most clients were seeking to hide a scar or a physical deformity; now, he says, “more often than not, it’s very attractive women who are chasing perfection”.
A woman in her early 30s named Xu Xueyi gives me a tour of the premises, which look like a Versailles-themed Vegas hotel – eight floors of ornate rooms and gilded corridors, shops and spas. A profusion of synthetic flowers, marble and sparkling chandeliers serve to distract from the procedures taking place out of sight. You might be having your jawbone sawed down, to give your face a dainty oval shape, but, just across the hallway, you could treat yourself to a jade-inlaid gold necklace, get a perm or a manicure, or pick up some body-slimming lingerie.
“We do everything here to make you happy and satisfied,” Xu says brightly, as she leads me through a VIP suite with a jacuzzi. Bandaged women in striped robes pass by, guided by nurses who wave at Xu. The nurses are all notably good-looking, and Xu confides that she has had several procedures. “I injected my chin with filler to make it pointier, but didn’t like it, so I dissolved it two weeks later.”
Xu takes me to one of the hospital’s senior surgeons, Li Bin, a man of 50 who speaks with scholarly placidity. “In the past, in conservative China, we used to prioritise a person’s interior to the exclusion of all else,” Li says. “But, in today’s competitive world, your appearance is an asset that you want to maximise.” He mentions that it is normal for a job applicant’s résumé to include a head shot and, indeed, plastic-surgery patients in China are often more interested in the professional benefits of good looks than the romantic ones. The procedures are viewed as a simple investment that will yield material dividends.
Since the rise of Meitu, a different kind of client has become more common: young, impressionable women who bring pictures of their idols to his office and ask to be given this or that feature. He smiles and shakes his head. “Expectations are higher than ever, and it’s hard to get through to clients about the recovery period and the risk of unforeseen results,” he says. “To change the shape of a face requires cutting intothe jawbone” – a procedure that Western doctors are reluctant to perform except in cases of medical need, because of a significant risk of fatal complications – “but on Meitu the transformation is instant and completely controllable”.
In the afternoon, I meet a loyal customer of the hospital named Li Yan. She is 30 and has had more procedures than she can remember, starting in college: double-eyelid creation, eye-corner opening, nose job, chin implant, lips injected to resemble “parted flower petals”. Almost every feature of her face has been done a few times, but she still feels as if she is a rough draft, in the process of revision. “I don’t think my nose bridge is quite high enough, and the tip doesn’t have the slight upturned arch I want,” she says.
I ask Li, who works as an administrative assistant in a regional bank, how she manages to afford all the surgery. “It’s how I spend most of my money,” she says, adding that, over the years, boyfriends have also chipped in.
Li is devoted to Meitu, and uses the apps to preview surgeries she is considering. Surgery and Meitu, she believes, “clarify each other”. Recently, she was approached by a wang hong recruiting agency about developing an online presence, but she worries that the livelihood will be too unstable and, besides, she cannot really sing or dance or act. The recruiter said that she would not need any skills, but she is not convinced. “I could never be as beautiful as a wang hong,” she says, laughing.
The arrival of Meitu and plastic surgery can seem an opportunity to take ownership of yourself and your body. But is it real individuality?Wen Hua, author
I arrive back in Xiamen in time for Meipai’s anniversary conference, which takes place in a sleek hotel near Meitu’s headquarters. About 400 Meipai stars from all over the country are there. The youngest is four and the oldest 72, but the majority range in age from late teens to mid-20s.
A screen in the auditorium displays photos of Justin Bieber and other global megastars who got their start online, while Meitu staffers explain to the young hopefuls what the future might hold if they keep up their assiduous posting. Neon-coloured slide shows about e-commerce and the monetisation potential of celebrity flash by, but I soon realise that the audience is not paying much attention.
All day, the room hums with nervous tension, and even the friendliest interactions carry a competitive edge. Wang hong discuss the difficulty of getting a hair appointment, as everyone is piling into the same few salons, and how two-hour make-up sessions have required them to skip breakfast. A woman with wheat-coloured hair and a lacy white sheath dress, who goes by the screen name StylistMimi, tells me that she thinks of herself as a late starter, having only been on Meipai for a year. With fewer than 400,000 followers, she is anxious to make up for lost time. Another, named Liu Zhanzhan, warns that there is an oversaturation of wang hong “incubators” – talent scouts like the one who approached Li Yan. “They promise you everything, but you sign a contract and you are basically sold to them for six, seven, eight years,” she says. “They manage hundreds of people, and, at the end of the day, how many actually make it?”
StylistMimi excuses herself to live-stream, holding up her phone to give her followers a panorama of the room and narrating the proceedings in a syrupy voice. Live-streaming, on Meipai or on a variety of other platforms, such as Kuaishou and Huajiao, has emerged as an important revenue source for wang hong. As Mimi broadcasts to her fans, a real-time log of cash donations and other gifts appears at the bottom of her screen, in the form of icons of gold coins and flower bouquets. Those who donate get to ask questions, and one fan wonders what big-name celebrities Mimi can spot. “Do you see HoneyCC three rows ahead?” Mimi whispers, angling her phone towards the star. “I saw her from a distance but didn’t get a close-up. In real life, she looks just OK.”
A regular camera can’t capture the whole of a person, It has no way of expressing the entirety of your beauty Abner, social media star
An unforeseen complication of meeting so many wang hong at once is that it is hard to remember who is who. They tend to bear only an impressionistic resemblance to their Meitu-enhanced profile pictures. But whenever I take out my iPhone 6 to take a selfie with someone, I am rebuffed. People will suspiciously ask what kind of camera I am using before walking away with expressions ranging from offended to pity. “I can’t allow you to take a picture of me with that camera – it’ll be too ugly,” a woman from Chongqing tells me. I assure her that I am not a wang hong and will not be posting it, and we reach a compromise: she will take a selfie of us on her Meitu phone, edit her face and then send the photo to me.
“A regular camera can’t capture the whole of a person,” a young man with shaggy, bleached-blond hair and brilliant blue contact lenses tells me, as he shows off his editing skills. “It has no way of expressing the entirety of your beauty.” He is 19, from Nanjing, and calls himself Abner, a name he says he chose because it sounded “seductively exotic”. His Meipai career took off a year ago, after a short video he posted made the daily “hot list”. The video was “the narcissistic kind”, he says: “I don’t speak at all but just look beautiful.”
Abner’s following on Meipai is modest: a mere 140,000 people; he is more into live-streaming, which demands much less in terms of scripting and production design. But live-streaming has its hazards.
“You’re compelled to constantly stream or else your fans forget you,” he complains, adding that he regularly spends eight-hour stretches at his computer. To fill the time, he says, “I put on make-up or, if my make-up is already done, I sing karaoke, but I don’t have a good voice.”
I ask if a lot of men use make-up. “Increasingly, yes,” Abner replies. “But, of course, not everyone does as elaborate a job as me. My situation is a bit special because of all my plastic surgery.”
Abner began reshaping his face when he was 15, having become fascinated by the way he could change his looks with Meitu’s apps. “They opened up this world where I could literally invent what I looked like,” he says.
Over the years, using money earned from a part-time job, he has steadily raised the bridge of his nose. He has undergone double-eyelid surgery, and had the outer corners of his eyes extended – a procedure known as lateral canthoplasty. Abner says he would have done the inner corners, too, but his doctor told him he had no extra skin there to cut.
In all, he has had half a dozen procedures on his eyes. Just a week before the conference, he completed a third remodelling of his nose. “The stitches aren’t even out, and I’m not supposed to travel,” he says, showing me bruising between his nostrils. “But I don’t care. I’m here to meet fellow wang hong, take group selfies and grow my fan numbers.”
By now, Abner says, his live-streaming income has paid for his surgeries several times over. He says his look is chiefly inspired by Korean models he follows on Instagram. Instagram is blocked in China, but he uses a VPN connection to get past this. He even live-streamed from Seoul recently, while attending a friend’s birthday party, but the whole thing was a fiasco. He was completely unaware of a recent diplomatic stand-off between China and South Korea over the latter’s deployment of an advanced American missile system known as Thaad, as a defence measure against North Korea. For months, Chinese TV had been saying that the arrangement was a threat to Chinese security and calling for boycotts of Korean goods. None of this had filtered down to Abner, who was startled by a sudden onslaught of hostile comments from followers calling him a traitor to his country.
“I don’t watch the news, and politics is the most boring thing I can think of,” he says. “Before leaving for Korea, I didn’t even know about that stupid missile. I told my fans I booked the tickets months earlier, and, besides, the weather was perfect for outside photography.”
Abner is studying finance in college, but says, “I don’t go to classes much, though I try to show up for the tests. I’ll probably collect the degree, even if it’s completely pointless.”
The idea of working in an office strikes him as ludicrous, and he expresses contempt for the way his parents, who run a small mobile phone shop, think of nothing but work and constantly fret about money. “What my parents don’t get is that being a wang hong is much more practical than any office profession,” he says. “The truth is that in China, going to school is useless. The things my professors drone on and on about – can they actually help me make money? The best-case scenario is you’ll just be a lowly cog in a corporation owned by rich people and run by their children.”
That evening, Meitu’s stars troop out to the hotel courtyard for a party. Palm trees surrounding a kidney-shaped pool have been hung with lights and people drift around tables where cocktails, champagne and seafood kebabs are being served. Except for the guardian of the four-year-old wang hong, who splashes around in the water, not a single adult is in the pool. The women’s bathroom is thronged with bikini-clad wang hong examining themselves in a full-length mirror, but, one of them explains, swimming is out of the question: there are so many selfies to be taken and edited, and almost everyone is live-streaming the event to their fans.
You’re compelled to constantly stream or else your fans forget you. I put on make-up or, if my make-up is already done, I sing karaoke, but I don’t have a good voice. Abner
On a stage near the pool, the evening’s entertainment begins. A Korean-Chinese boy band launches into a Backstreet Boys-style number, to happy screams from the audience. Next up is a man in shades who raps about his journey to Xiamen from Shenyang. HoneyCC dances with a few friends near the stage, and a crowd flocks around her, phones aloft as they stream the spectacle to their followers. Every gesture of greeting and intimacy is also a pose for a selfie, and people are too busy live-streaming to make conversation. “Take the party out of your phones,” the DJ repeatedly pleads, but his exhortations are themselves filmed and disseminated to millions of viewers.
I catch sight of an older woman, perhaps in her 70s, standing and watching the dancers with an expression of rapt, unfiltered joy. Her face is creased and leathery, but her mouth, agape with wonder, gives her a childlike look. She is the only person who isn’t holding a phone and she is dressed plainly.
Two security guards ask what she is doing there. She says that she is the wife of a janitor at the hotel, had heard the music and wondered what was going on. “Granny, you have to leave,” one of the guards says. She nods but does not move until the men take her arms and propel her to the exit, her head still turned towards the music and her smile unchanged. As the guards eject her, I realise that she was the most beautiful person at the party.
Meitu employees like to describe the company’s products as “an ecosystem of beauty”, but ecosystems are inherently diverse, whereas Meitu and the trends it epitomises seem to be moving China in the direction of homogeneity. A generation of Chinese, while clamorously asserting forms of individualism that would have been unthinkable for their parents and grandparents, is also enacting a ghastly convergence. Their selfies are becoming more and more similar, and so are their faces. Through the lens of a Meitu camera, the world is flawless, but flawlessness is not the same as beauty, and the freedom to perfect your selfie does not necessarily yield a liberated sense of self.
Over by the stage, Abner is half-heartedly trying on various glow-in-the-dark accessories that Meitu has provided, taking a selfie with each new look.
“I still don’t know why my video from this morning hasn’t gone viral,” he says sulkily and wanders off.
I take out my phone and scroll through his videos. Abner’s eyes are large and imploring, his complexion so pale that, when he happens to pose in front of a white wall, the face he has so painstakingly sculpted melts into the background and becomes almost invisible. In one video, a single wisp of hair has been artfully primed to keep falling in his eye. He will brush it away with his arm. He is wearing a ruffled shirt too big for his skinny frame, and the overall effect somehow calls to mind The Little Prince. In another, he plays languorously with a piece of cheesecake, but never quite takes a bite.
Below each video there are comments and donations from his teenage fans. (Abner told me the best time to earn money was around Lunar New Year, when kids were flush with cash given to them by their families; he could easily clear US$6,000 a week.) The bottom of the screen is a blizzard of hearts and stars and money bags. But one adoring girl has written a longer, more earnest message: “Him. He was my first wang hong idol. I never thought it was possible to love a person so much. He was really my first. Stylish, majestic, with ethereal beauty. Truly, can anyone be so perfect?”