Forget Kim Kardashian – with more than 70 million social media followers, actress and UNHCR ambassador Yao Chen’s reach is beyond human comprehension. The ‘Queen of Weibo’ discusses notoriety and humanitarianism
It’s a cold February in Beijing. Outside the Ritz-Carlton, biting winds and temperatures of three degrees have reduced poplars lining the street to icy statues, with passersby, swathed in fleece and goose-down, hurrying to get home.
Inside the hotel, the scene is very different. Yao Chen – arguably the most famous woman in China – stands in a front room, clad in a white dress and skyscraper heels, and besieged by journalists.
Shortly due to attend a press conference, the actress and social media guru gamely attempts to answer even the most inane questions from the throng of reporters clamouring around her, each begging for a piece of her time. In the end, everyone comes away satisfied; they have got their quotes and are rewarded with the mega-smile that has gained Yao the nickname of Bakasura (rough translation: “big mouth” ).
Followers of Yao’s Weibo account – a Chinese blogging site that is a mixture of Twitter and Facebook – may recall, back in 2009, when she messaged: “A woman in high heels is like a woman wearing an artificial limb.” Yet today, Yao remains a consummate professional, wearing the armour of femininity expected by her public without a murmur of complaint.
When we meet later, the heels are swiftly replaced with sneakers, and an explanation. “I love to make people happy,” Yao says.
I was on an Emirates flight through Dubai and saw my face pop up on the movie guide for a film called Firestorm I was in with Andy Lau. It never gets any less strange!
However she does it, it’s working. Yao’s ascent to her current status as Chinese national treasure has been meteoric. Just eight years ago, the now 35-year-old actress was at the beginning of her career, playing a ditzy girl-next-door on Chinese martial arts comedy My Own Swordsman. The TV show was a phenomenon, airing over 100 episodes, and Yao caught the public’s attention.
She is popular because of her accessibility – conventionally attractive, but not intimidatingly beautiful. Nor does she play femmes fatales: she is primarily known as a comedic actress, similar to Jennifer Aniston. Moreover, her working-class background her father was a train driver and her mother worked at the post office – adds to her aura of moderateness, something encouraged in China.
When translating this persona to numbers, the results are staggering. Yao Chen, with 77 million followers on Weibo, surpasses both Justin Bieber and Barack Obama – who can claim just 61 and 55 million fans on Twitter, respectively.
“It is a large number, but I’m not sure how significant it is, really – there are a lot of people in China,” says Yao gently. She explains that with the flood of followers came uncertainty, and a pressure she has grappled with for some time.
“As my followers increased every day, I felt like I needed to adjust my writing angle. For a long time, I thought I should write things that made people happy. Of course, I never wrote anything that I didn’t believe in, but my statuses erred on the side of pleasing people. But obviously it’s difficult and tiring to please everyone, and it’s in these moments that I start to question myself.”
She adds that, no matter how many followers she has, it is always strange to confront the reality of her fame. “I was on an Emirates flight through Dubai and saw my face pop up on the movie guide for a film called Firestorm I was in with Andy Lau. It never gets any less strange!”
Dubai is on Yao’s bucket list of places to visit, a place she says she travels through “all the time, but always as a connection. It would be great to see it, though. I’ve seen the beautiful landscapes of New Zealand and fashion festivals in Paris, but I’ve also been to refugee camps in Ethiopia – it’s good to experience all sides of what this world has to offer us.”
Yao’s posts on Weibo reflect this global view, being a mix of photos from far-flung film sets, updates from charity projects or day-to-day chatter. Recently, she uploaded one of her baby son’s doodles, joking: “Look at this Picasso-esque work; we’re counting on him to support us in our old age.” But as well as humour, there remains a sense of charity that is threaded throughout her social media presence. She is a big re-poster, and often uses her followers as a call to action; asking them to spread the news of a missing child, or donate money to a struggling hospital.
Alongside this activism, the blogging site has brought her things that the new internet generation most value: exposure and fame. Last year, she was selected by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. But she confesses to me that she has considered closing down her account many times.
“In the olden days, there was a distance between actor and audience, who consider you to be the role you play. Nowadays, there are new channels for people to know about you beyond the screen, which means that there is also a new channel to criticise you.”
I’ve seen the beautiful landscapes of New Zealand and fashion festivals in Paris, but I’ve also been to refugee camps in Ethiopia – it’s good to experience all sides of what this world has to offer us
Despite the downsides, Yao’s desire to present the reality behind the facade of a celebrity has meant her Weibo account has stayed active. “Weibo is like a mirror, and it has witnessed every aspect of my life in these past years, just like a reality show,” she says.
This year, however, her New Year’s resolution has been to cut back, and she now posts just one or two statuses per day instead of the 10 she used to at her peak.
The time she used to spend on social media has been filled with more work, and more family time. In the summer of 2013, she gave birth to her first child, something which she said caused her to dampen her hot temper to become “the most patient human being in the world”.
Acting projects included starring in a Chinese TV series Divorce Lawyers, and wrapping up new movie Ghost Blows the Lamp with the celebrated Chinese director Lu Chuan. Not surprisingly, all these updates can be read from her Weibo feed, but they err on the brief side.
“In a way, I am the only target readership of my Weibo now,” Yao Chen says. “I only post things I want to read. But if watching a cute video of my son makes someone happy, that’s like a surprise gift for me.”
During our conversation, Yao repeatedly emphasises the fact that, in her eyes, Weibo is a double-edged sword. So while she has to confront its downsides when her personal life or acting career is called into question, she can also wield its power to help the less fortunate. “Weibo can be used to help someone who is in need, and it’s amazing what people can make happen just by reposting or commenting. Its power lies in accumulating everyone’s ‘small’ power, and making it huge.”
Her partnership with the UN Refugee Agency is one of the best examples of this. Yao Chen has been meeting refuges in the Philippines, Thailand, Ethiopia and Syria since 2010, and posts about her experience on Weibo afterwards, which has generated huge attention on the site. “When I first received the invitation from UNHCR, I felt that it was a mission I should be involved in,” Yao recalls. “I was very passionate, but knew little about the concept and situation of refugees.”
Despite her inexperience, she has flour-ished in this new role, and the support of the establishment has followed. Early this year, Yao was named ‘Person of Charity and Fashion’ by government-related media outlets Renmin and Huanqiu, and last year was the first time the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (China) was able to celebrate World Refugee Day in Beijing instead of Hong Kong. “Attendees include leaders of related departments and officials of other UN Organisations, which is a sign of recognition of our work. It was really inspiring to see,” says Yao.
She adds that her passion for humanitarianism was inspired by Angelina Jolie. “In the refugee camp, a little boy put his hand on her legs; a sign of trust. Her face was bathed in the sun, and I found the whole scene was a moment of beauty.”
After working as UNHCR’s Honorary Patron in China and then UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador – the first in China – five years of hard work has made Yao Chen learn more about this “beauty”.
“Charity needs passion, but it’s not enough to just have passion. When your passion cools down, what you need more is rationality and objectivity to face it all.”
Charity needs passion, but it’s not enough to just have passion. When your passion cools down, what you need more is rationality and objectivity to face it all
When I ask about her experiences at the camps, she recalls endless details: children crying, a beautiful boy with flies on his wounded feet, a camp built with thorns and plastic bags. “After visiting, you realise that refugee is not a word or a concept. The reality is usually a lively individual, which people don’t expect,” Yao says.
Her witnessing of this fear and poverty has infiltrated her dreams, too. “At first, it’s a normal day. I go downstairs to buy groceries. Then, my home explodes. But even when I wake up crying, I know it’s a dream. This is reality for a lot of refugees who have lost their homes.”
“Do you ever feel incapable?” I can’t help but ask. “I have had this feeling,” she confesses. “I ask myself again and again, what can I do for them? Usually, after visiting in the camps, everyone that I’m with from the UN goes to their bedroom silently. However, whenever I see people’s faces and can talk and connect with them, they make me realise that I am needed. They hope the world won't leave them behind and they need me to create awareness of their situation.”
Maybe, like Weibo, our world is another double-edged sword for Yao. “I feel that I am guided by my fate. As a celebrity, I have been to many beautiful places, but visiting refugees has brought me to the worst places in the world. It seems that God says to me, look, this is what I create.” She pauses, and then finishes her thought softly.
“It's true, I have seen the best and the worst, and that will make me love the world more.”