How would you like to earn millions by flaunting your lifestyle on social media?
- China’s ‘internet celebrity economy’ is expected to surpass $21 billion in 2018
- Internet stardom is the most desired career for Chinese people born after 1995
- Female internet stars were once seen as a challenge to China’s patriarchal society
Being a social media ‘influencer’ seems like a pipe dream to many — driving fancy sports cars, strolling Parisian boulevards in fashionable clothing and attending A-list events for a living.
But in China, where there is a massive youth audience, Shifei Technology — who claims to be central Asia’s biggest internet celebrity “incubator” — is now helping hundreds of young women become millionaire superstars in the multi-billion-dollar social media market.
But because the market in China is so big, women are earning up to $60 million a year, which is more than Kim Kardashian earns.
Shifei now has more than 600 aspiring internet celebrities to their name and they’re teaching them how to better wield their selfie sticks, build a strong personal brand, and effectively turn their fans into consumers.
Internet stardom a highly sought after career in China
Recently, at a celebration of the company’s relocation in China’s central city of Wuhan, dozens of beautiful young women associated with Shifei put their lessons into practice —showing up in red Ferraris and live-streaming the night with selfie sticks.
According to a 2017 Renmin University report, internet stardom is now the most sought-after career prospect for young Chinese people born after 1995.
Tapping into the craze, incubators offer professional education on brand building, fan maintenance, and even product development.
Xiaoying Chen, 30, is among the legion of internet celebrities on Weibo, and currently has more than 253,000 followers.
She runs a clothing brand on Alibaba that she defines as “new French elegant style”.
Ms Chen told Chinese media her annual income was over $2 million in 2015.
Kai Wang, Ms Chen’s business partner, told Chinese media what was actually on sale was Ms Chen’s lifestyle.
The “bourgeois romantic lifestyle” is deeply attractive to many young Chinese women living in the country’s more-developed east and is central to the brands of many social influencers, he said.
While Shifei is yet to unveil detailed plans about how it will nurture its future stars, the concept of internet celebrity academies or incubators, where young girls are trained to take better selfies and translate fame into profit, is not new.
Last year, a university in south-west China, the Chongqing Institute of Engineering, even began teaching a class on how to become an internet celebrity.
The syllabus covered a range of unique skills including styling, “personality building”, live-streaming, and psychology of the fans.
Internet celebrity economy to pass $21 billion
Haiqing Yu, an associate professor at RMIT University and an expert on China’s digital media, began studying the country’s internet celebrity culture in the early 2000s, when female bloggers first began to emerge — in the early days, the bloggers accumulated their followers single-handedly.
“It was about how in a traditionally patriarchal society, the Internet could give young women a platform to have their own voices,” Dr Yu said.
“It was viewed as the rise of women’s consciousness in China’s modern era.”
But, she says unfortunately this was quickly turned into something completely different, as companies working to mass-produce internet stars.
“The girls all now look like each other and follow similar paths,” she said.
Most Chinese internet stars accumulate their fan bases on the social media site Weibo and later bring fans to their shops on Alibaba, a popular Chinese online marketplace.
Turning followers into customers through Weibo became easier after Alibaba bought an 18 per cent stake in the social media company in 2013, and increased the stake to 31.5 per cent in 2016.
Their services are now closely integrated, making it easy for Weibo celebrities to direct fans to their wares.
By 2016, the value of China’s nascent internet celebrity economy reportedly reached $11 billion, and is expected to surpass $21 billion in 2018, according to a report by Beijing-based research agency Analysus.
By Vicky Xiuzhong Xu and Jack Kilbride