The term ’15 seconds of fame’ was coined by Andy Warhol – in reference to how the modern media can make anyone famous, albeit briefly.
In China the phrase might be better updated to ’15 megabytes of fame’, thanks to the all-pervasive power of the internet.
The latest ‘celebrity’ stirring the interest of China’s 342 million internet users is ‘Obama Girl’.
Wang Zifei – aka Obama Girl – is an MBA student at Shanghai Jiaotong University. At the moment she is the most talked about woman in China too.
How so? Well, she had attended Obama’s Shanghai ‘town hall’ meeting and happened to be sitting in a very visible spot: just behind his podium, over his left shoulder. Her face was therefore prominent during the event – which was televised in Shanghai but streamed more widely over the internet.
Netizens soon became intrigued by what they felt to be her natural beauty and poise. Moreover, when Obama went round the room shaking hands with his student audience, they raved about how comfortably she accepted the presidential grip and looked him directly in the eye.
Images of Wang quickly spread online – none more ‘virally’ than an animation that showed her removing a striking red coat at the event.
A measure of her popularity: a search of the phrase ‘Obama Girl in the Red Coat’, throws up more than 6.9 million results.
The New Express Daily quoted a netizen who was won over by her “unique compelling temperament” and noted how her elegant black bun hairstyle made her “markedly noble”. A netizen called Jason also asked “Anyone know what brand her red coat was and how much it costs?”
Initially, Wang was a mystery girl, and many of the online discussion groups tried to track her down. Rumours escalated. One had her related to actress Fan Bingbing (for more on whom, see WiC20); another said she was a niece of China’s Oprah Winfrey, Yang Lan (see WiC10). Neither was true but reflected a general assumption that, for someone so young to be famous or rich, nepotism must be at work.
Less flattering were accusations that she was a flagrant self-publicist who had hired a PR firm and even been professionally coached on how to catch the camera’s attention.
Why else had she chosen to wear such a striking red coat – and demurely disrobed so close to the commander-in-chief? Why had so many other photos of Wang appeared on the web so suddenly? To some, it looked orchestrated. The assumption: Obama Girl had an agenda. Perhaps she was hoping to break into TV, or get noticed by a billionaire.
Wang finally broke cover last week, when she published a blog on popular site, Sina. Within hours, 1.3 million netizens had read her version of events. A bit like Greta Garbo, she said she wanted to be left alone.
She wrote that she was shocked by the “speed of rumours spreading on the internet” and confirmed she was a student, denying she’d been part of a PR stunt.
Instead Wang claimed she has a “natural born self-esteem”. Supporting evidence was that she first played the violin on stage when she was six and had acted in plays.
“I am not a stranger to cameras,” she wrote, and she went on to deny any interest in a TV career. Instead she claims to want to focus on business management.
And as to that red coat? She maintained she took it off before Obama even entered the auditorium.
Wang confessed that all the speculation had disturbed her studies and she hoped her blog entry would put an end to it.
“I hope after this I can continue to be my simple self,” she wrote. And as a sign-off, at the bottom of her blog, she posted a photo of herself and a kangaroo.
Warhol would have been impressed.
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