After many different guises – entrepreneur, China television icon, Manhattan socialite and cosmetics queen – Kan Yue-Sai is now making it her priority to conquer what she calls “the Olympics of Beauty”.
For the last few months, she has been busy training Luo Zilin, who will compete against 80 other contestants in the Miss Universe pageant next month.
“This is like trying to create a gold-medallist swimmer,” argues Kan, who is responsible for organising China’s Miss Universe bid. Her mentoring of Luo has been extensive, she told the Wall Street Journal: “If you don’t train her well there is no way you can throw her into an Olympic-type situation and expect her to win. In the past these women were not trained. That’s why they didn’t win.”
So why is Kan, 61, qualified to coach China’s candidate for Miss Universe?
Having served twice on the competition’s international jury (putting together some of those brainbuster questions on how to facilitate world peace, no doubt) Kan will have plenty of tips for her young charge.
Perhaps more importantly, she also claims a role in teaching millions of Chinese the ways of style and etiquette at a time when the country was ‘opening up’, after 1978.
If she could do it for so many then, why not work some similar magic to bring home the Miss Universe title?
Born in Guilin, Guangxi province, Kan grew up in Hong Kong and moved to Hawaii as a teenager, before arriving in New York. There she scored her first business success, importing Chinese silk.
She got into television by chance, as a volunteer on a local cable station broadcasting to New York’s growing Chinese population. Realising the power of the medium, she set up her own company, producing and hosting the cable programme Looking East. The show, which first aired in 1978, introduced many American viewers to eastern cultures. Looking East was to last for 12 years, the last two on Discovery Channel.
In 1984, PBS also hired Kan to provide English commentary for the live broadcast of the celebrations for the 35th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China – even though Kan wasn’t familiar with Mandarin.
“Thankfully the Chinese Embassy provided a translation of Deng Xiaoping’s speech,” she recalled to Shanghai Talk magazine (Kan, a Cantonese speaker, soon began learning Mandarin).
Impressed by her performance, CCTV, the state-run broadcaster, asked Kan to produce a TV series, One World, but told her that it wouldn’t provide any funding.
So Kan went out to recruit advertisers herself. Companies like Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Colgate-Palmolive – keen to reach out to millions of Chinese viewers – were signed up.
One World turned out to be a hit. Essentially a travelogue, its 104-episode run introduced Chinese viewers to life around the world just at a time when their horizons were beginning to broaden.
It also turned Kan, in bright red lipstick and bob haircut, into a household name.
“At that time, there was only one CCTV channel, which provided five hours of programming a day. So you can imagine the impact,” she told Shanghai Talk.
Capitalising on her fame, Kan then introduced her own line of cosmetics. “Building a business in China isn’t for the faint of heart,” she told BusinessWeek in an interview. “The government is involved in everything. There are a million missiles: we can’t get our products from the warehouse? Our pamphlet hasn’t been approved? But the biggest challenge was creating a market. Chinese women didn’t use a lot of makeup.”
At the time make-up was even something of a taboo: “It was considered bourgeois, politically not correct,” Kan remembers.
But she convinced cosmetics professionals from the West to help her set up the business. She then used her television show to promote her products and wrote several books on beauty – How To Be A Beautiful Woman and Yue-Sai’s Guide to Asian Beauty – which went on to become topsellers.
In 2004, L’Oreal bought her cosmetics company. At the time it reportedly had revenues of $50 million, with products sold at more than 800 cosmetic counters across the country.
Kan then put all her energy into a new TV series, Yue-Sai’s World. The weekly show, aired on primetime in 2005 and 2006, was aimed at raising awareness of international lifestyle trends. It followed Kan on her travels to the US and Europe, where she interviewed famous politicians, artists and celebrities.
Now Kan wants to turn herself into a major brand. Her latest venture is the House of Yue-Sai, a lifestyle store that sells everything from patterned napkins to lacquered paperweights: “I am taking my famous brand name and growing it horizontally across a range of categories. Because China doesn’t really have a lifestyle brand, not to international standards,” says the businesswoman, who now bears some comparison to a budding Martha Stewart.
Just as well: insiders have attributed her success to an ability to appeal to Chinese audiences with her “foreign-ness”.
Certainly, Kan seems to like positioning herself as an American, sophisticated and fashionable.
And the nationality tag has allowed her to claim a few firsts. Her appearance on Chinese postage stamps makes Kan “the first and only living American” to have been afforded the honour. She is also said to have achieved some of highest ratings for a US citizen on Chinese television.
Inevitably, the younger generation is not quite as impressed, with some seeing Kan as matronly and (even worse) irrelevant.
China Marketing, a magazine, reported that sales for her cosmetic line have been dropping because younger consumers associate the brand with their parents’ generation.
Nor is bold red lipstick quite so in vogue (WiC is reliably informed that the shade ‘nude’ is preferred by fashionistas).
But the criticisms don’t seem to affect Kan too much. “I have influenced a billion people, how they dress, behave and look at the world. China has not been open for very long. In 10 years it will be just like Tokyo and Hong Kong. I’ve been at the forefront of that movement.”
Critics say Kan’s help for beauty-queen Luo is much more motivated by business than patriotism (she even owns the Miss Universe pageant rights in China).
But the female mogul is making it her priority that China’s contestant will be ready with a rictus-smile to see off all contenders (she’ll have to out-grin Miss Venezuela, who normally seems to win it…)
Call it beauty-queen boot camp. Luo is taking daily dance lessons (samba, jazz and tap), followed by hours of English-immersion, plenty of sessions on etiquette and then lengthy practice on the cat-walk.
Her chances of winning the contest, which will be staged in Brazil on September 12? First, Luo will need to focus on being less homespun, says Kan. China might be climbing the recognition rankings on a host of commercial, sporting and cultural fronts. But beauty pageants seem to offer a different proposition.
“The girls can’t be all that Chinese – it’s Miss Universe. They’ve got to be quite savvy about the world and what I am trying to do is to expose her to as many savvy things as possible.”
That shouldn’t be too big a challenge for someone who seems to have been pretty astute herself over the last 20 years…
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