Inside China's Biggest Live-Streaming Superstar Factory
China doesn't need Twitch to make its live-streaming take off.
I was told to expect skimpy outfits, but not an overweight man in a pink wig, red lipstick, and a sparkly mermaid tail and bra. But there he was, on stage, blowing kisses at the video camera and sporadically saying "Thank you!" in a girly voice, like a character from some kind of twisted version of The Little Mermaid.
I hoped that he was getting serious coin for making such a spectacle of himself. Thankfully he probably was, as he was being broadcast live to thousands of viewers on an internet show, the title of which roughly translates to I Am Your Hawaii Girl, in the Beijing headquarters of REDO Media. The firm claims to be China's biggest live-streaming star agency.
I Am Your Hawaii Girl was being shown on the live-streaming app Lai Feng. Behind the cameras the producers, staring at screens showing the footage unfolding, nodded their heads as virtual gifts such as flower and banana emojis streamed in. "Thank you!" Mr Sparkly Mermaid cooed again as digital roses—each representing a one yuan (15 cents) gift—piled up on screen.
The recent broadband-quick rise in popularity in China of apps such as Lai Feng, and the people who broadcast on them, has caused a new branch of the internet technology industry to spring up around it. The REDO Media agency has around 3,000 internet stars on its books from across China, many of whom self-broadcast as their full-time jobs.
The company invited me to its Beijing office to show me how its iPhone-wielding army of broadcasters made money.
REDO Media's large office complex was a primary colour-splattered mash of design styles. Small studios lined dormitory-style corridors; behind each door was a female broadcaster entertaining followers via a tripod-mounted iPhone. Viewers competed for their attention by giving them digital gifts, that are bought with real money and can be converted back into cash.
In one studio a young bespectacled girl tilted a tiny black rabbit towards her smartphone, excitedly introducing the twitching fur ball to her followers. Next door, a petite woman in a lacey white dress and a tiara belted out pop songs while holding a massive microphone. In another room a woman sat in front of a huge panda head soft toy and bashed a keyboard, triggering cutesy laughter and squeaking sound effects.
Due to the spike in the amount of people watching these streamers live over the past year, doing this full time has become a lucrative job for thousands of women. Women self-broadcasters with the firm outnumber men by around nine to one.
Live-streaming sites such as Douyu paved the way for the industry explosion by facilitating the rise in popularity of live-streaming video games (although Twitch is not censored in China, by having its interface in Chinese Douyu is far more popular in the country). With the Chinese government blocking a huge amount of websites due to strict censorship and an ongoing campaign to "clean up" the internet, Chinese broadcasting sites have flourished in an arena with little international competition.
Realising that a huge amount of men in China like to watch and send messages to girls broadcasting from their bedrooms using such sites and apps, self-broadcasters catering to this market became massively in demand.
"After Chinese New Year last year it really went viral thanks to the era of mobile internet kicking in hard," said Wang Chen, a manager at REDO Media. That prompted the company, which formed in 2013, to start signing up the most promising broadcasters.
I met two of them, 18 year-old Di Tai and 23 year-old Memo, in one of REDO Media's dressing rooms. The pair slapped on makeup and giggled, a propped-up iPhone capturing the scene and broadcasting it live as we chatted. "Hello—I am English" I said to the iPhone, prompting a cascade of "Hello!" messages written in English to cut through the feed of Chinese language messages.
Along with the mermaid guy, Di and Memo were the main stars of I Am Your Hawaii Girl. Their job was to splash around in water tanks playing picture-drawing games whilst wearing bikinis. "It's basically like going on a beach holiday," said Memo. "At first, before I got in the tank, I was a bit nervous but it started to feel natural. You don't wear a jacket when you're on the beach, right?"
Di and Memo usually earn a few thousand yuan each per day (1,000 yuan converts to around $145) broadcasting either at home or in a REDO Media studio. Memo, however, said that the most she earned in digital gifts in one week, before the total was split according to her contract, was 410,000 yuan ($60,000). Full-time self-broadcasters get a salary from REDO Media and take home around 20 percent of their total gift earnings after it is divided between them, the agency, and broadcasting platforms.
"That broadcaster who was jailed deserved it. Tougher policies will help purify the industry."
"I mainly sing—and I'm talkative, so I answer questions from viewers," said Di. "As girls, you can always use charm and cuteness," added Memo. "Skills like singing and dancing work. Also, I'll make subtle comments to get gifts such as, 'A broadcasting room like mine would be perfect if I had that gift'. But skills are the most important."
To hone these skills REDO Media trains up broadcasters with dancing and singing classes—the company has both a dance and recording studio. It also offers advice to the broadcasters about how to deal with the inevitable lewd comments that pop up in their feeds. "It's not uncommon for anyone in this industry to get comments like that," said manager Wang, who encourages broadcasters to simply ignore them. "It's like when people say, 'If you get bitten by a dog, would you bite back?'."
There's no doubt that REDO Media's female self-broadcasters are largely chosen for their attractiveness, but they seldom do anything racier on camera than show a bit of cleavage. Authorities in China have clamped down hard on the industry over the past year in an attempt to eliminate "inappropriate content" from the web, shutting down thousands of live-stream accounts. Last November a 21 year-old woman from Chengdu was jailed for four years for live-streaming herself enjoying a foursome. In May that same year, "erotic" banana eating in live-streams was banned.
You won't find any suggestive fruit sucking in the booths at REDO Media.
"Tougher regulations are a good thing," said Wang. "That broadcaster who was jailed deserved it. Tougher policies will help purify the industry."
Indeed, Zi Jing, a 23 year-old broadcaster who is one of the company's star performers, was the picture of sweetness and innocence during my visit. She sauntered through the office's corridors, resplendent in her elegant white frock, her selfie stick holding her constantly-filming iPhone in front of her.
Zi has around 390,000 subscribers on Lai Feng, and helps host shows such as I Am Your Hawaii Girl. She earns "a couple of hundred thousand yuan" (100,000 yuan converts to around $14,500) a day before the money is split, broadcasting to between 50,000 and 100,000 people during sessions that last around eight hours.
"I am real and natural," she said when I asked what the secret of her success was. "Not many people like pretentious girls these days, or girls with 'cosmetic' style faces."
Some impressively sneaky tactics, as well as this "real"-ness, have contributed to Zi's success. "For example, if someone sends me a gift I'll say, 'Oh, did you give me a gift? I didn't see it. Can you please send it again?'"
Many of the self-broadcasters working with agencies such as REDO Media have ambitions to be proper 'real life' celebrities, and go on to work in TV. For many, though, working as a self-broadcaster is lucrative enough. It provides easy, flexible work: a tempting alternative to normal rat race employment in China's cutthroat graduate job market.
But how satisfying is making a living letting people watch you flounce around all day through your iPhone? Does it make the broadcasters' parents proud? Memo insists it does. "My mum actually broadcasts with me—we both go on camera," she said. "She thinks being a broadcaster is not as easy as people think. Some are sexy, some are funny, but she sees what I am doing as more like being a comedian, bringing laughter to the audience. She supports me."
An hour later, Memo and Di threw off their dressing gowns to reveal their bikini-clad figures, clambered into the water tanks and began splashing around. On the screen next to them, the digital roses started piling up once more.