After Viya was fined more than $200 million for tax evasion in December, her livestreaming career, too, went up in flames. She has seemingly been wiped out from the internet; her social media accounts completely abandoned; and her former assistants desperately distancing themselves from what used to be the biggest name in e-commerce livestreaming.
Her biggest rival Li Jiaqi, on the other hand, seemed to have dodged a bullet. Instead of going after him, tax authorities asked celebrities and internet influencers to conduct a “self-review” of any tax-related misdoings after Viya’s exorbitant fines made headlines. “Before the end of 2021, correcting any tax-related issues and reporting them proactively to the tax bureau will lighten, mitigate or exempt tax penalties in accordance with the requirements of the notice,” a notice from the tax authorities warned at the time.
Li has publicly denied any wrongdoing but unconfirmed rumours have it that after the supposed self-review, he quietly coughed up as much as Rmb1.7 billion to the tax bureau, which some would argue was a small price to save his lucrative career.
With Viya off the scene many reckoned that Li would – by default – become the most influential e-commerce influencer. Recent figures appears to have confirmed that. The host on Taobao Live, the livestreaming platform owned by Alibaba, raked in as much as Rmb2.8 billion in GMV (gross merchandise value) on the first day of the pre-sale during a promotion around International Women’s Day on February 27, with as many as 70 million viewers tuning into his live broadcast at one point. The total merchandise sold was almost 3.5 times the combined sum offloaded by Viya and himself last year (Rmb790 million).
Nevertheless, many of his fans noticed that Li had gone noticeably quiet the last few weeks. Last Thursday, he again showed up to his show almost half an hour after it started, with his two assistants fielding questions from loyal fans asking when the host was going to appear. The two also made some sale pitches before Li arrived.
Fans were relieved when they finally saw their idol appear on screen, sporting newly coloured ashy-brown hair. Even the new hair-do couldn’t distract from the fact that the 29 year-old looked and sounded tired.
“After years of round-the-clock livestreaming, Li Jiaqi’s voice is not as clear as before, he now sounds raspy and hoarse. He is also likely to be suffering from spring allergy, having to pause the livestream every now and then to blow his nose,” Entertainment Capital observed.
Li usually commences his regular broadcast at 7:30pm. But according to Economic Weekly, a magazine, he has rarely appeared in front of the camera on time since January 13. In fact, he doesn’t usually turn up until an hour or two after the show has started. He has also cut down from five hours of livestreaming a day to no more than three hours. Sometimes he is completely absent from the broadcast, leaving his assistants to do the sales pitch.
“The problem with being a livestreaming host is that is that it is a career that is physically taxing. The only way to sustain enduring popularity is to go live frequently and for a long time. But even a few hours of livestreaming a day consumes a lot of physical energy,” Economic Weekly commented.
Industry observers are not sure whether it is Li’s own wish to cut down his workload or his management company Meione wanting to reduce the dependence on one individual.
After Viya’s tax evasion scandal, many of Li’s assistants have been moving closer to the centre stage. Zheng Qi and Su Chang, for example, are now in charge of fashion products. Meanwhile, Wang Wang has also begun to appear much more frequently pitching beauty products and snacks.
Alibaba, too, is actively cultivating new talents so as not to be so dependent on Li. The e-commerce platform has been vigorously promoting up-and-coming hosts.
“Whether it is Alibaba or Meione, they can’t bear the consequences of completely removing Li Jiaqi in the short-run,” noted AI Caijing, a WeChat-base news site, adding that Li is the only one out of top-four livestreaming hosts (Li, Viya, Luo Yonghao and Xin Ba) who is still working hard in front of the camera.
Luo has been phasing out of his own shows on Douyin. The former tech tycoon is rumoured to be ditching his livestreaming career to launch a virtual reality equipment business. Tech news portal 36Kr reported that his management company has bought out his stake in the social media channel he founded. Meanwhile, Xin Ba is still waiting for forgiveness for selling fake bird’s nests in late 2020.
Meione is not only planning for life after Li as the company is also looking to move beyond Alibaba too. The company recently launched a mini-app “All Girls Member Service Centre” – a play on Li’s famous catchphrase “all girls, buy it!” – on Alibaba’s arch-rival Tencent’s super-app WeChat, so that users can click on the link and directly place their orders on JD.com or the min-app of other featured brands. The move quickly prompted speculation that Meione is planning to move the makeup KOL and his promotional shows to other platforms like Tencent and JD.com. There are also talks than Li might start his own e-commerce business.
To be fair, Li could certainly use a break. In addition to his around-the-clock schedule, the Hunan native also appeared on five variety shows in 2020 to maintain his public profile.
In an earlier interview, the popular salesman said that out of 365 days in a year, he has been hosting as many as 389 live broadcast. He was so tired sometimes he admitted he’d fallen asleep in the shower.
“Li’s skin tone is yellow and ashen. Even concealer could not hide his dark circles. His voice has also become increasingly hoarse,” Entertainment Capital lamented.
Perhaps some fresh faces and ideas are both needed in the e-commerce industry.
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