Profiting from gossip

Celebrity divorce brings sales bonanza for star’s former mother-in-law


Barbie Hsu: her divorce has been a source of much online chatter

When it comes to messy divorces, Barbie Hsu and Wang Xiaofei’s split must rank highly on the list of China’s most high-profile partings. Since the two broke up a year ago – Hsu has since married her former lover South Korean singer DJ Koo Jun-yup – they have continued to provide an endless source of celebrity news and gossip.

Last week, the Taiwanese actress filed a petition with a court in Taiwan alleging that her ex-husband had not paid any alimony since March. Wang quickly issued a statement on social media, claiming that he had been meeting his children’s living expenses (the two share two kids, eight and six years-old) although he had stopped paying the home’s electricity bills after Hsu remarried. He added that he had paid for the house where Hsu, their children and her new husband are living.

“I can ignore the fact that someone else is staying in my house, but can you please change the mattress which we used to share [more on this later], you useless being?” Wang wrote on Sina Weibo. “On top of that, you want me to pay your electricity bills, and want to keep my kids there? They should come back to Beijing!”

Zhang Lan, Wang’s well-known mother, quickly chimed in to defend her son. Once a successful entrepreneur with her high-end restaurant chain South Beauty, Zhang has recently reinvented herself as an e-commerce livestreaming host. During a broadcast on Douyin, she told her audience that the mattress in question was carefully chosen by Hsu and cost “millions” of yuan.

The price tag sent shockwaves across China’s internet, with many expressing disbelief that a mattress could cost that much. “That’s even higher than the downpayment on a house!” one netizen said incredulously.

After much sleuthing, netizens reckoned that the former couple might have bought one from Swedish ultra-luxury furniture maker Hästens, which has a version that costs $390,000. Before long, “Hästens mattresses” became one of the most-searched topics on Sina Weibo. There were also plenty of articles circulating online about what makes the brand’s mattresses so special.

It wasn’t just Hästens that was given an unexpected publicity boost. Hsu’s former mother-in-law has tapped into the debate about her son’s divorce to generate more interest for her new e-commerce venture as well.

Since the feud between Wang and Hsu exploded online, the female entrepreneur has been going live daily – sometimes up to five times per day – to divulge ‘insider information’ about her son and Hsu’s relationship.

While some might accuse Zhang of poor taste, others say she’s merely seizing an opportunity. “The Chinese have long advocated that ‘one should never air one’s dirty laundry outside’ but it doesn’t seem to apply to Zhang Lan. In fact, she has used her family conflicts to lure audiences to her livestreams. Just as many celebrities rely on gossip about their love lives to generate publicity, Zhang has taken another route that is basically the same,” 36Kr mused.

And as the saying goes, no publicity is bad publicity. The number of viewers for Zhang’s sales-pitching channel quickly skyrocketed, with as many as 27 million people tuning in to watch her selling everything from her own brand of hot and sour noodles to packaged sausages. Total gross merchandise value (GMV) for her livestream also soared from an average of about Rmb100,000 per session in early November to Rmb20 million seemingly overnight. Since November 23, the numbers tuning into Zhang Lan’s livestream has almost tripled from 10 million, China Youth Daily noted, with the majority of sales garnered by her own brand Maliuji.

Zhang, together with her son, launched the Sichuan restaurant chain Maliuji back in 2020. It already has 16 outlets around the country though because of the pandemic, it also sells pre-packaged dishes and instant noodles online.

To be fair, the female restauranteur’s work ethic is fearsome. According to Blue Whale Media, as of last week, she had hosted over 700 livestreams over the last three months, sometimes going live up to 12 hours a day, and often addressing tabloid tattle about her family while she plugs her products.

The tactic has worked. Over the course of the past week, Maliuji’s instant hot and sour noodles have become so popular that they have sold out. The hashtag #ZhangLanSuanLaFen (which means hot and sour noodle) even became a ‘hot topic’ on Sina Weibo. The noodle dish is also the number one item on Douyin’s e-commerce platform in the last seven days.

Zhang, 64, was a household name in China even before her son’s high-profile marriage to Hsu. After founding the South Beauty dining chain in 2000, she created a stir when she unveiled a flagship restaurant in Beijing’s World Trade Centre, a prestigious commercial building.

Her goal, she said at the time, was to turn her company into the “Louis Vuitton” of the global dining market.

“China’s catering culture is time-honoured and splendid. But it has suffered due to lack of promotion and the absence of high-end brands. I want to change the cheap price and bad atmosphere tag that most Westerners have about Chinese food,” Zhang told China Daily in an interview back in 2013.

However, to expand Zhang needed capital. She sold a 10.5% stake in her company to domestic private equity giant CDH Investments in 2008 for Rmb200 million. Under the agreement, both parties agreed that if South Beauty failed to achieve an initial public offering within five years, Zhang would have to buy back the stake held by CDH for around twice its original valuation.

Unfortunately, the A-share market shut South Beauty out in 2012. Zhang, racing against the clock, desperately explored listing in Hong Kong instead. But the valuation on offer for South Beauty was so disappointing that she eventually abandoned plans for a Hong Kong IPO.

In order to get enough capital to buy CDH out, she then had to sell most of her South Beauty stake to CVC Capital in 2014. She eventually ran into a legal dispute with CVC, and ended up losing South Beauty completely in the process.

Still, don’t bet against Zhang. This week, the matriarch has found further material for her livestream viewers. On Sunday, private voice messages between Wang and his girlfriend Zhang Yingying were mysteriously leaked online, which led Zhang Lan to storm into a Beijing police station in the middle of the night, with cameras in tow, as she angrily reported the incident to the authorities.

Still, for her livestream to have any longevity, Zhang might need a different strategy. “The most successful livestreamers build a strong fan base based on their personal credibility and daily content. But for Zhang, all the traffic comes from gossip. Once these topics are exhausted, is there anyone who will still want to tune into her livestreams?” asked one critic.

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