Candid camera

Why the only show in town for some Chinese celebrities is reality TV

Bai Bing-w

Bai Bing: one of the stars of A Journey For Love

How difficult is it for divorced women to find love in China? If Hunan Satellite TV’s latest reality series is anything to go by, it is no walk in the park.

In mid-January, the network debuted a new show called A Journey For Love. It follows five starlets – all divorced – as they look for a second chance at love. Many of the women are well-known. One is Bai Bing, 34, who made her name in the 2010 TV series The Myth but left the limelight after a shotgun wedding to Hong Kong model Ding Yi (it is unclear when the two officially divorced). Another is Huang Yi, 43, who got her start in the 2003 series My Fair Princess III. She is better known for a bitter divorce from her second husband Huang Yiqing. The two finally parted in 2014, although the custody battle for their child lasted much longer.

Hunan Satellite TV, playing the matchmaker, now wants to help these women find love again by putting them together with “highly qualified” suitors.

Naturally, there is a gimmick: couples aren’t allowed to see each other on their first date (an approach borrowed perhaps from the Netflix hit Love is Blind).

After the first episode was broadcast, netizens complained that the producers had not done much in the way of due diligence on the selected men. For instance, the internet was soon buzzing about the sexual orientation of one of Huang’s suitors, Lu Jiaying, a 36 year-old lawyer. Men came forward with screen grabs of their chats with Lu, which showed the lawyer lovingly describing them as “husband”.

Another suitor for Huang was Li Zepeng, a former host on state television. He also got short shrift from audiences for appearing vague and non-committal about his reasons for being on the show.

A third male contestant was found to have fabricated his resume in job applications.

Netizens were appalled. “It’s heartbreaking to watch. Producers, have some heart, this woman [Huang Yi] has been through such a lot already,” one wrote.

“The show’s premise is to help mature women find love and also to encourage more women to embrace new relationships with a positive and confident attitude. But it is doing anything but that by sending men that lie about their history to date these women. Show a little more care when choosing contestants!” another thundered.

In response to the controversy, the producers put out a short weibo post saying that the contestants in question had violated their contracts and thus been eliminated from the competition.

There was no mention of how the men made it through the screening process but more cynical viewers reckoned that the starlets were secretly pleased at the way their inappropriate suitors had caused such a stir.

Why so? Because controversy begets more viewers and raises the profile both of the shows and the celebrities themselves – some of whose careers are in need of a boost.

Indeed, given the continued popularity of the genre, celebrities have flocked to reality TV formats to get back in the public eye. In many cases they hop between shows to maximise their exposure.

For instance, Huang arrived on the dating show hot on the heels of her appearance as a contestant on the reality acting competition Everybody Stand By.

Her fellow contestant on A Journey For Love Bai Bing had likewise just concluded her stint on Sisters Who Make Waves (see WiC500), another reality TV series in which older female artists compete to form a girl band.

In fact, a number of the competitors on Sisters Who Make Waves have found stardom in other corners of China’s reality TV universe. Actress Jin Chen, another contestant, popped up recently in dating show Meeting Mr Right. Actress-singer Jin Sha has been working overtime, juggling appearances on Meeting Mr Right and I am the Actor on Zhejiang Satellite TV. Actresses Wang Zhi and Zhang Meng have also branched out from Sisters to feature on another acting competition Everybody Stand By.

Male stars have also embraced the world of reality TV. For instance, Taiwanese actor Ming Dao, who appeared in the first season of Everybody Stand By, is back for another stint in the series Shine! Super Brothers, which takes the much-followed format of a group of male artists competing for a chance to be in a new boy band.

But it is comedian Guo Qilin who takes the crown for the hardest working reality guest, appearing in 12 such shows in the first half of 2020.

All of this confirms what most audiences already know: that there is very little real life in the reality format in China. Series like these have been hijacked by willing-but less-A-list celebrities who treat the competitions like surrogate acting gigs. And increasingly it is the same celebrities moving between the different competitions and channels. In fact, there’s something of a reality ‘circuit’ in play with specialist performers moving from one format to the other, just as retired politicians and aging sports stars soon start popping up on after-dinner speaking tours.

For many stars (and their tirelessly energetic and money-minded agents), the transition to reality TV is effortless and lucrative. After all, the format brings relatively quick and easy money: there’s no need to be on set for months on end (A Journey For Love wrapped filming in just 21 days) and it’s not like they have too many lines to learn.

For many of the competitors – some of whom are being passed over for the typically younger roles in TV dramas – it is also a great way to stay in the public eye.

“In the past, stars who were famous were invited onto variety shows on TV. Now the people that go on reality shows are the ones who become famous,” one netizen mocked.

Other insiders claim that appearing on too many of the reality series brings dangers for the contestants, however. “Some actors reveal their true personalities on reality TV and their images suffer as a result. Other stars appear on too many variety shows and, over time, audiences have a hard time separating their TV personas from their acting roles. That could be detrimental to the career of a lot of the actors,” another critic warned.

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