Thế Giới

China’s ‘imperfect’ virtual influencer challenges traditional beauty standards


Written by Amanda Florian, CNN

“Your skin is a bit dry,” one user commented on the video posted by Angie, a famous influencer who was the first appeared on Chinese social media last fall. “You should wear a mask.”

In the video uploaded to Douyin, the original version of TikTok, Angie’s skin looks rough and uneven. A long yawn revealing slightly crooked teeth.

She doesn’t have “the face of a celebrity”, another user commented.

Typical influencers might clap in response with a comment, but Angie isn’t a typical influencer – she’s not even a real person.

Angie is an imperfect virtual personality. She may still be conventionally beautiful, but unlike other Chinese virtual influencers, Angie is not posing in branded clothes, walk the runway or promote new songs. Instead, she sports plain white, takes a sip of Coca-Cola and yawns across the screen.

Sometimes she can be seen with a flushed face, and even a pimple or two. And her casual personality has clearly resonated on Douyin, where she has amassed over 280,000 followers to date.

Angie is the creation of Jesse Zhang, the director of a CGI animation company based in Shenzhen.

Angie is the creation of Jesse Zhang, the director of a CGI animation company based in Shenzhen. Credit: Jesse Zhang

Virtual influencers are nothing new in China. The country’s first digital KOL (main opinion leader) that went viral, Ling, was created in May 2020. With a sharp jawline, slim face, and rosy lips, Ling reflects a traditional Chinese beauty ideal. This February, she appeared on the cover of Vogue Me, a fashion magazine aimed at China’s “post-90s” generation, “along with real-life celebrities GEM, Liu Haocun and Liu Yuxin.

But Angie offers a refreshing alternative, her fans say, in a country where plastic surgery needs are on the rise, and beauty apps compete to create filters that show users prettier versions of themselves.

Virtual idols are more realistic

Angie is the creation of Jesse Zhang, the director of a CGI animation company based in Shenzhen.

Zhang was looking for ways to express her creativity and thought it would be interesting to create a virtual character with imperfect traits – someone who could help people relax and feel more positive about themselves. self. Angie started taking shape in July 2020, and within three months, Zhang posted the first video of her character on Douyin. By December, she had about 100,000 fans.

“I didn’t think she would get famous so quickly,” he said, crediting her popularity to her light-hearted, idyllic videos.

“Her features and details all have this bit of ‘real-life’ feel,” says Zhang. “But she also has some things that a real person wouldn’t. Her ears are a bit like a fairy, and her eyes are round, big, and cute.”

Despite knowing she wasn’t real, many of Angie’s followers were eager to tell her about their day in two group chats on Douyin.

“Some fans will also invite me to talk about things in life – they are in a difficult situation or they have some difficulties,” said Zhang, who responded to the comments with a comment. Angie’s free time every day.

Several fans credited Angie for cheering them on or helping them relieve stress amid life’s difficulties. “Angie, last time you texted me that I’ve been feeling really sad lately. I’m doing much better now,” one fan wrote. “When I was about to take an afternoon nap, I watched your video and was in an even better mood!”

Followers said they are preparing for the upcoming semester and they will try to work hard at school. “Keep trying,” Angie wrote in response, adding that sad moments will become a thing of the past.

“The reason why I like her is that Angie is more realistic than many real people,” one of her followers, Xiao Qi, who lives in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing, told CNN. “She gives the tempered world a beauty.”

Low-risk influencers

Currently, Zhang has no plans to monetize Angie with live streams, although he is open to collaborating. However, if a designer makes money in the marketplace for virtual influencers, he can find a ready audience – on Douyin, fans often support their favorite content creators. by depositing in live streams, from a few cents to hundreds of dollars or more.

For marketers, virtual influencers are a low-risk alternative to real-life stars – they’re always ready to do whatever is required with minimal fuss. Viola Chen, a strategist at Red Ant Asia, says pixel-perfect influencers can also be easily shaped to fit the company’s campaign.

An animator at Beijing Mizhi Tech works on hairstyles for a virtual idol.

An animator at Beijing Mizhi Tech works on hairstyles for a virtual idol. Credit: Greg Baker / AFP / Getty Images

“It’s easier for them to upgrade and customize to fit different styles and make sure their image stays true to the brand,” says Chen.

But Chen said virtual influencers will not replace real people. In some campaigns, she added, they’re seen as inauthentic or overly commercialized, like when internet users called out virtual influencer Ling when she posted about Gucci lipstick. According to Chen, fans were not convinced.

“Followers question whether it is appropriate for virtual influencers to talk about beauty and skin care products whose effectiveness needs to be verified by touches,” Chen said. people) or not.

Red Ant Asia co-founder, Elisa Harca, agrees, seeing a future where the brand’s digital and real-life influencers coexist.

“With any form of marketing, you want to find a combo program so that not all of your eggs are in one basket,” she says. “Diversity is the key to digital – it’s never one size fits all. And you have things that will appeal to more and more people to certain tribes. “

Changing beauty standards

Angie’s real-life features are part of her charm – but they’ve also drawn a lot of criticism online. Some Douyin users disagree with her thick thighs, wrinkled makeup, blurred acne scars, and uneven skin tone.

Beneath a video, in which Angie is seen sipping Coca-Cola, one user asked why she wasn’t made with “double eyelids”. (About half of East Asian and Southeast Asian women are born with monolids. Many choose to have surgery to create a clear crease, called blepharoplasty, which is now a procedure. Aesthetics are most common among people of Chinese descent, according to an academic publication Journal of Plastic Surgery.)
Angie's Douyin account sees her playing the piano, styling her hair and walking outside.

Angie’s Douyin account sees her playing the piano, styling her hair and walking outside. Credit: Jesse Zhang

Criticisms of Angie’s appearance reflect the ongoing debates about beauty standards in China. While there are signs that attitudes may be slowly changing – with stars like tanned singers and curvy Wang Ju increasingly in the spotlight – female celebrities are often slim and have skin like that. dew.

According to Jaehee Jung, a professor of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware, there is still enormous pressure on women to conform to certain beauty ideals. Her research on the perception of attractiveness among university students in Shanghai found that most wanted to change something about their bodies – slimmer bodies or bigger eyes, for example.

“Many young women think, ‘Well, you have to keep up with the beauty trends,’ or you’ll be seen as lazy,” says Jung.

Therefore, an imperfect virtual character like Angie, Jung suggests, is more suitable for many Chinese girls and women.

“I think it’s refreshing when you find a complete opposite character who is almost like a normal person – and she doesn’t have to look like anyone else,” she said. “I think for a lot of the audience, they see themselves.”

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