Click magnet: Why 73 million Weibo followers hang on Yao Chen’s every word
Is it like having a superpower,” I ask Yao Chen as she raises her coffee cup to her lips. The actress breaks into a broad smile as her translator explains my meaning. “I’m getting more mature,” she says, avoiding the question. “These days I am much more careful and cautious.”
One could add the word “modest” to that list, because Yao, self-effacing as she is, has more followers on Weibo (the mainland’s version of Twitter) than the population of Britain, France or Thailand. That’s 73.2 million, in case you were wondering. And when 5 per cent of the population of one of the world’s most powerful (not to mention politically sensitive) nations is hanging on your every word, you have a lot of influence, no matter how cautious you are.
In fact, so great is that influence, she has the ability to change the course of people’s lives with a click of her mouse. Stories abound of children’s operations that were paid for by donations from her Weibo followers, of old ladies who put their entire savings into causes she supports – even of a condemned man who was suddenly hailed as a hero because of her impassioned online defence of his character (he was a friend of her father’s).
So how did a 34-year-old from Shishi, a small coastal city in Fujian province, rise from obscurity to become one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people on the planet? (Forbes ranked her 83rd among the world’s most powerful women.) And why has the West never heard of her?
Let’s start with the second question. Unlike compatriots Gong Li, Jackie Chan and Fan Bingbing, Yao has never made a Hollywood film and speaks almost no English.
“Of course, if the right script came along I would love to do a Hollywood film,” she says, when we meet in a bustling café on the east side of Beijing. “For now, though, I would just be happy if my current body of work in China got some recognition overseas.”
After studying at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, she scored a role in martial-arts sitcom My Own Swordsman. What followed was a mixture of romantic comedies and action films, with Yao often cast as the girl next door. One of her most popular – Colour Me Love (2010) – sees her play the lead in a Devil Wears Prada-ish tale of a girl moving to the big city to work for a hard-boiled magazine editor.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else fitting the role so perfectly, not least because she cuts such an accessible figure both on screen and off.
Evidently comfortable in her own skin, she arrives for our interview make-up free, her hair drawn back into a simple ponytail, wearing a white T-shirt tucked into a black leather skirt, and brogues.
Yao doesn’t have a “look-at-me” beauty – nor is she classically beautiful by Chinese standards – but her appeal is obvious. The first things you notice are her striking eyebrows, which arch above wide eyes. The next thing you notice is her heart-shaped face, tapering to a toothy smile.
“She’s certainly not your cookie-cutter leading lady,” says Alexi Tan, who directed her in Colour Me Love. “I think people like her so much because she’s always herself. She doesn’t put on a persona.”
A glance at a typical internet message board seems to prove his point. “She really speaks from the heart!” read one comment after Yao posted a message about her 2011 divorce from actor Ling Xiaosu. (She is now married to cinematographer Cao Yu, and the couple have a baby son whose name is kept secret for security reasons.) “She’s the least fake of all the celebrities,” reads another. “Not a hypocrite like the others …”
Does Yao agree that it’s her down-to-earth nature that has endeared her to so many?
“Well, I’m a middle-class girl,” she says. “So I’m more suited to leading a normal life. What’s familiar to me makes me feel safe.” Which, of course, would make perfect sense if it weren’t for the fact that so many stars don’t manage to retain such levels of normality.
The only child of a train driver and a postal worker, she says that her father was “a very humble person” who had a great influence on her.
“I would always overhear him and my mum discussing how they could help others,” she says. “Because he worked on the railway, his friends assumed he could get them tickets for their Lunar New Year train journeys home before everyone else. In fact, he couldn’t, but he didn’t want to let them all down, so he’d wake up at the crack of dawn and queue up with everyone else.
“For me, one of life’s great joys is still being able to go out and buy my own food. I bargain for vegetables in the market, spend time with my family, cook for them. I’m very lucky.”
I’m not sure luck comes into it, I say. There are plenty of stars who wouldn’t want to continue with such a mundane life once they’d made their millions.
“Yes,” she says. “Of course, this is every individual’s personal choice.”
Modesty always goes down well in the mainland, where corruption is rife, the gap between rich and poor widens every year and the ostentation of the nouveau riche has become reviled. So it’s no surprise that the unassuming Yao has become a national heroine. It’s also perhaps no surprise that four years ago she was approached by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to be its goodwill ambassador in China, à la Angelina Jolie (who, Yao says, was one of the reasons she was inspired to accept the role).
Yao is obviously passionate about her work for the agency. When she talks about her trips to countries such as Ethiopia and Lebanon, she speaks with the directness and fervour of someone who has witnessed suffering first-hand, not just put their name to a charity for the kudos it brings.
This hasn’t gone unnoticed by her fellow countrymen, who regularly criticise actors for what they perceive to be a more cynical championing of charities. Yao says she enjoys her trips with the UNHCR, and has learnt much from the collaboration, sharing stories and online diaries after every trip. “So I feel a big responsibility to tell others what I have seen,” she says.
The results speak for themselves: the UNHCR saw the number of donations from the mainland triple between 2012 and 2013.
Yao is proud of one success story in particular, and relates it with gusto.
“After I posted my Africa diary I heard from the UNHCR office in Beijing that there was an elderly woman who kept visiting again and again,” she says. “On one occasion she came in to donate 800 yuan [HK$1,006]. She said she’d read my diary and realised that there were people who needed it more than she did.
“The touching part is that every time she came to the office she would take the bus. One day they asked her where she lived and she said she was way out in the suburbs, so they asked her why she wasn’t taking the subway. Her reply was that the two yuan fare was too expensive, so 800 yuan must have been all her savings.
“Sometimes I feel like I really can’t change enough,” she says. “I can become quite depressed about it all. But then this kind of story gives me the encouragement to carry on.”
Once in a while, Yao’s Weibo posts touch upon subjects that are politically sensitive. In January last year, she subtly passed comment on the censorship of a domestic newspaper, the Southern Weekly, by quoting a Russian proverb – “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world” – and copying and pasting the newspaper’s logo.
On another occasion, referring to Beijing’s pollution, she joked that her son wouldn’t recognise a blue sky unless he saw one in a history book.
In June 2011, she put up – and quickly took down again – a post about an aunt in Hunan province’s Zhuzhou city who had attempted suicide amid a land-compensation dispute. Yao said her aunt took rat poison after being put under house arrest for petitioning against what she considered low compensation for her home, which was to be seized in order to build a reservoir.
When asked why she thinks she can get away with comments that would get others in hot water, she brushes off their significance.
“I’m not interested in politics,” she says, matter of factly. “I just focus on the people in the society I live in. I only comment on things that touch me directly.”
“Does that include your faith,” I ask – Yao is reported to have discovered Christianity when she was 25. This is another sensitive topic in a country where only two state-sanctioned Christian groups are allowed.
“Oh yes,” she says without hesitation. “I often quote from the Bible. I think I don’t need to worry too much about that.” She even admits to attending a “house church”, rather than a government-approved one. Such a gathering is deemed to be unregistered and therefore illegal.
“When I was younger a family member shared the gospel with me,” she says. “And over the course of that summer I read the Bible and it just answered all of the questions I had about life, so, very soon after, I was baptised.”
When someone is as frank about their personal life as Yao is, it is inevitable that they will have their detractors. She admits she has taken hurtful comments to heart, especially those relating to her private life. She came under scrutiny following her divorce, having got together with her current partner soon afterwards.
“Sometimes people’s comments really hurt when I look back,” she says, her voice small for the first time. “But in the end this is normal for someone in the public spotlight. Whatever people said, when it comes to divorce there are no winners or losers – everybody loses.”
So what’s next for Yao Chen? Rom-com queen, social-media queen … fashion queen? Her fans go crazy over her outfits, even on the rare occasions when she is snapped looking groggy at Beijing airport.
Her model-like frame does lend itself well to being photographed, and she already has collaborations with Chanel, Adidas and Lanvin under her belt.
For now, though, she is happy just to have time to spend with her son, known affectionately as Xiao Tudou (“little potato”), before her next project.
“I’m happiest when I’m cooking and have the chance to stay in with my husband,” she says. “He loves to play with his cameras and, of course, we love spending time with the baby. Even though he’s so young we can really understand each other. God is really the greatest creator.”
September 1, 2009: Yao Chen starts posting on Sina Weibo (now Weibo).
October 15, 2009: Reaches 100,000 followers.
February 10, 2010: Hits one million followers.
July 24, 2011: Yao writes a post questioning the cause of the high-speed train crash in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province.
July 27, 2011: Yao has 10 million followers, surpassing United States President Barack Obama and American pop star Britney Spears.
July 30, 2011: Yao voices support for Chinese journalists who challenged the official line on the train crash.
January 2013: Yao backs Guangdong newspaper Southern Weekly in its protest against censorship.
August 2014: Yao’s ice bucket challenge goes viral and she donates 50,000 yuan to Beijing-based charity China-Dolls Centre for Rare Disorders.
September 9, 2014: Yao hits 73.2 million followers – she’s the second most followed person on the site, after actor and singer Chen Kun (who has 73.8 million).