Behind the scenes

Why background checks on celebrities have suddenly become big business

Yang Zi-w

Yang Zi: hit by collateral damage from her co-stars

The year 2021 has been rough for those in Chinese show business. According to Southern Weekend, at least nine high-profile stars have seen their careers experience a sudden demise after scandals. The slew of bad press that followed came amid a crackdown by the Chinese government, leading to many celebrities and their creative output being banned entirely. Producers, advertisers and co-stars incurred financial losses too.

Yang Zi is one of the starlets caught in the crossfire. The Beijing-born actress has not been tainted by scandal but her eagerly awaited costume drama The Golden Hairpin was pulled after Kris Wu – the show’s male lead – was detained on rape charges in July (see WiC550). At least 17 advertisers have since cut their commercial ties with Wu, who last month found himself among the 88 entertainers blacklisted by the China Association of Performing Arts for “illegal and unethical” behaviour. The Golden Hairpin was scheduled for release back in the summer but has now been shelved indefinitely.

Yang’s other TV series The Oath of Love, which stars heartthrob Xiao Zhan, was scheduled to air in September. Its debut has been postponed as well, reportedly because Xiao’s styling is at odds with a new directive for broadcasters to “resolutely put an end to ‘sissy’ men” (see WiC424 for more background on the backlash against niangpao).

Another TV drama, Psychologist, starring Yang was also on the brink of being withdrawn on allegations that co-star Janine Chang supported Taiwanese independence. The Taiwanese thespian’s political allegiance was brought into question after a photo of her postgraduate thesis went viral, with a title referring to Taiwan as “Our Country”.

Yang will be relieved that Psychologist was still allowed to be streamed – exclusively by Youku – in late November. The show has garnered positive word of mouth since its release as well.

This week rumours also circulated that producers of The Golden Hairpin – keen to recoup some of their costly investment – have tapped actor Lin Gengxin to replace Wu in a recut version of the series. This will be good news for Yang, who reportedly spent almost a year filming the high-budget production.

One firm now senses a business opportunity in all of this celebrity carnage: AIMan, an 11 year-old data mining company in Beijing, has now pivoted into background checks on entertainment stars, livestreamers and internet influencers.

In the past three months, the niche service has been busier than ever. The company now performs over 100 background checks a month, accounting for as much as 90% of its business.

AIMan says that it started receiving a lot of inquiries after Kris Wu was detained in late July. Prior to his arrest, the A-list celeb was a favourite for advertisers wanting to reach a younger audience, endorsing global luxury brands like Bvlgari and Louis Vuitton. Not wanting to make the same mistake again, many advertisers sought out AIMan’s services. In fact, hiring the agency has become what Southern Weekend calls “a standard procedure” before signing celebrity endorsement deals.

In an interview with the weekly newspaper, AIMan’s chief executive Cao Yongshou said the most pressing question for his clients is no longer so much about a celebrity’s commercial value and their fans’ purchasing power but “will this artist get into trouble?”

Cao’s investigators usually start by scraping the internet for anything a potential brand endorser may have said or done online in the previous two years that could stoke public anger or regulatory ire.

Clients who want a more thorough longer-dated scrub can pay more. Judging from the experience of Zhang Zhehan, that would be advisable: the actor became embroiled in a scandal over a picture he posted on his social media three years ago, which showed him posing at the highly controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Zhang was the image ambassador for 21 brands before he was ‘erased’ from the Chinese internet (see WiC552).

AIMan assembles a dossier of interviews with industry insiders with knowledge of the celebrities, along with any damaging information that meets specific criteria: i.e. sexually explicit photos, text messages or videos; and any details about murky love lives. Clients that want an even more premium investigation can pay additional fees for checks on a celeb’s overseas social media accounts (like Facebook and Instagram – both of which are banned in China).

Most of AIMan’s clients are brands looking to advertise, but include film and television production firms too. There are good reasons to be cautious. In addition to Wu and Zhang, starlet Zheng Shuang and actress Zhao Wei have all been involved in TV shows that have yet to see the light of day after they were ‘cancelled’. Between the quartet, at least four of their TV series got spiked, resulting in losses of hundreds of millions of yuan.

TV producers suffer even more than advertisers. While brands can quickly terminate the contract of a compromised celebrity, the small-screen dramas and films in which they star are a sunk cost that will never be recovered.

Not everyone in a show’s cast requires background checking, Cao explains. Usually only the lead actors and the most important supporting cast will require a thorough review by the likes of AIMan.

Still, hardly anyone comes out of a background check squeaky clean. “No celebrity report will show that they have ‘zero risk’, the best case is ‘low risk’. More often than not, it’s just a question of how big is the risk and whether or not it is going to derail a career. If a celebrity has no risk, it probably means that they are not very popular,” one brand manager explained to Southern Weekend.

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