Kiss, but don’t tell

Why China’s entertainment stars want to keep their relationships secret

Guan Xiaotong-w

Guan Xiaotong: Lu Han’s relationship with her proved a career setback

A year ago, K-pop stars HyunA and E’Dawn took the unusual step of going public with their relationship. After dating in secret for two years, they didn’t want to keep their romance covert anymore. The next day they were fired by their record label.

“When we manage artists, we consider mutual trust and faith our top priority,” Cube, the record label, said in a statement. “We decided the trust is broken beyond repair, so we are expelling the two from our company.”

‘No dating’ clauses aren’t uncommon in the employment contracts of K-pop stars. The concern is that romances make them less compelling to fans and put commercial returns at risk. Of course, the Korean stars aren’t the first to face the issue. Even John Lennon saw the dangers, keeping his first marriage to Cynthia Powell a secret from Beatles fans for some time.

The dangers of springing a similar surprise on starcrossed fans is now becoming more apparent to Kris Wu, a hugely popular rapper-model in China.

Wu has provoked an anguished reaction from millions of his admirers after being caught out in a paparazzi video last week. In it he is seen holding hands with a woman later identified as Luyi Luna (her social media handle), a drama student from the Beijing Film Academy.

The news sparked uproar among his more ardent followers, many of whom claimed to be heartbroken over the rapper’s relationship.

Others went into sabotage mode, telling Wu that the 21 year-old actress was using the love affair to further her career. Many left messages on the film school’s official weibo account, petitioning it to expel Luyi Luna. Others blamed Wu’s recent weight gains on the budding relationship. Soon the cyber-bullying became so severe that the actress had to shut down her social media account a day after the news broke.

For many male pop stars in China, avoiding romantic entanglements, or at least keeping them under wraps, is an unspoken rule. Rumours of relationships are routinely swatted way by their press agents to avoid unsettling fans.

Few of China’s pop idols have learned the commercial cost of falling in love – and declaring it publicly – than Lu Han.

In 2017, the star posted on his personal weibo that he was in a relationship (still ongoing) with actress Guan Xiaotong. The post generated over a billion views – so much traffic that Sina’s social media platform crashed (see WiC384). But his fans weren’t in a congratulatory mood. After standard service on weibo was restored, millions of fans unfollowed him and many hurled insults at Guan, saying the starlet was not worthy of his affection. And the romance went on to cost Lu a number of his endorsement deals. Companies like Ofo, the bike-sharing company, dropped him as brand ambassador. His concert tour, too, had to slash prices in response to slower-than-anticipated ticket sales.

“The first time a ‘high traffic star’ [celebrities with huge online followings] went public with his love life was also the first time the world saw how powerful the fans are,” reckoned Entertainment Capital.

“Lu Han’s experience shows what happens when a star openly admits that he’s in love. If it wasn’t for him, we would never have known how much money young girls are willing to spend on their idols, based solely on their fantasies.”

Much of the pop idol business is based on the fantasy of fans having pseudo-relationships with the singer. Cash-rich and impressionable, fans can – when they act in concert – hold enormous power over their favourite star . They coordinate efforts to support the stars online, making them appear more influential to brands, and they bulk-buy the products their idols endorse. In Wu’s case, that has meant downloading his album repeatedly to make sure it tops the charts (see WiC432). So to a significant extent, they can make – or break – an idol.

“Let’s think about this: Wu Yifan [Kris Wu’s Chinese name], who relies on his diehard fans, has always played up the sexual fantasy to get fans to spend money on him. Imagine if it was the same song but that he didn’t sing it – would they still pay their own money to make sure it becomes the biggest hit in the charts?” Entertainment Capital wondered.

Sensitive to risks like these, the rapper and his management company avoided comment when Wu’s relationship started to make headlines, refusing to confirm or deny the validity of the video.

However, before Luyi Luna shut down her own social media account, she published a post saying she was an admirer of Wu but that they were not in a relationship.

“For a lot of these celebrities and their management companies, they are now forced to choose between love and rice [material wealth],” Entertainment Capital concluded.

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