China Consumer

Brand nightmare

Is this China’s most costly celebrity scandal ever?


Wu: lost Rmb1.5 billion overnight

As the saying goes, where there’s smoke there’s fire. So when allegations about sexual abuse were levelled at rapper-actor-model Kris Wu, he saw not only his stardom going up in flames but also his many lucrative endorsement deals with international and local brands.

Allegations surrounding Wu, 30, started early this month when the 18 year-old student-influencer Du Meizhu began posting claims that the pop icon had date-raped her when she was 17, and lured numerous other young girls – some of whom were 16 and 17, she told – into sexual intercourse by getting them drunk.

Du also claimed that Wu paid her Rmb500,000 ($77,093) to “keep quiet”, but she had decided to speak out anyway. She said she was repaying the money and was ready to face legal action. In one of her weibo posts, she also dared Wu to “stand up, be a man” and own up to his actions.

Wu has vehemently denied her claims, writing on his official weibo: “If there really had been such behaviour, I would certainly willingly go to jail.”

As one of the biggest stars in the country, Wu consistently ranks as one of the highest paid celebrities on the Forbes China Celebrity List. In 2017, he came in tenth, reportedly making Rmb150 million. Last year, he climbed two spots, to eighth place, although Forbes did not publish his annual income on this occasion.

The Canadian-Chinese star was a former member of South Korean-Chinese boy band EXO (along with fellow pop stars Lu Han and Zhang Yixing) before leaving the group in 2014 to pursue a solo career in China. Since then, Wu has enjoyed a meteoric rise. His face has appeared on countless ads and thanks to his legions of ferociously loyal fans, he even grabbed headlines in the US when his first English-language album unseated Ariana Grande at the top of the iTunes chart.

“Over the years, Wu’s savvy management team has portrayed him as a shabaitian [which means silly, honest and sweet] as if he’s just a boy who is innocent and goofy. Even when he was embroiled in sex scandals in the past, he always came out unscathed: the women were often accused of being scheming and fame-hungry; they were also cyber-bullied by his fans and quickly disappeared into oblivion,” Chief Entertainment Officer recounted.

Nevertheless, the allegations this time round look much more damaging, resembling the MeToo moment that rocked Hollywood and the US entertainment world a few years ago.

To that end, all 17 companies Wu works with have either suspended or terminated his endorsement deals. His roster of brand ambassadorships ranges from global luxury goods names – like LVMH, Bulgari, Porsche and Lancôme – to homegrown labels such as skincare brand Kans, beverage giant Master Kong, popular mobile game Honor of Kings and online streaming platform Tencent Video. Wu could have lost up to Rmb1.5 billion in endorsement income overnight, Caijing magazine calculated.

State media outlets have weighed in, with some calling for the show business world to shun him entirely.

The Communist Youth League, too, chimed in. “What we are really concerned with isn’t celebrity gossip, but about good and evil, beauty and ugliness in society, about fairness and justice in a society with rule of law. Being an artist is not just a profession – it’s more about taking on social responsibility,” it thundered.

Other than Wu himself, the mushrooming allegations and bad PR could hurt Tencent Video’s highly-anticipated costume drama The Golden Hairpin, a lavish period production that features the now tarnished star opposite actress Yang Zi.

The series was gearing up for an August release before Wu’s scandal came to light. Now industry insiders reckon that there is almost no chance it will be released any time soon. Tencent even saw its share price in Hong Kong drop 2.6% on Monday, partly driven by news of the scandal spreading across Chinese social media.

“From the hottest commodity to a high-traffic star that everyone despises, Kris Wu Yifan’s show business career has come to an end. Using his image as an ‘innocent boy’ to deceive so many innocent women, his ending has already been written,” Chief Entertainment Office concluded.

“I just don’t want see him anymore, no matter how many PR accounts and posts his studio pays for,” one netizen wrote.

Brands have already got that message. Earlier this week Kans announced, to much fanfare, that it would be the first to sever ties with Wu. That same evening the skincare brand hosted an e-commerce livestream, during which the hosts reminded audiences every 10 minutes that the company had changed its spokespersons (to members of the Chinese Olympic swimming team) and had promoted another brand ambassador Tong Liya (see WiC481) to replace Wu.

Audience numbers on that livestream went up from the usual 20,000 to almost 370,000. Kans saw sales reach a gross merchandise value of Rmb680,000 during the online broadcast. The hashtag #KansbrokeupwithWu was also read more than a billion times.

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