When I first searched for livestream star Little Zhouzhou (小粥粥) on search engine Baidu, the search bar automatically completed my inquiry with, “Is Little Zhouzhou male or female?”
The reason for the popularity of that question became obvious when I saw his photos. I was immediately struck by his androgynous good looks. Loose, flowing brown locks framed a pale, narrow face, his large eyes made slightly cartoonish by the gray circle lenses he wears in every photo. His eyebrows are perfectly sculpted, his skin flawless. In fact, he looks rather like a woman — only a certain je ne sais quoi about his expression and perhaps his bone structure hints at his actual gender.
Little Zhouzhou is a top-performing star on Mogu — an e-commerce platform that pioneered livestream selling in China. Without question Chinese e-commerce leads the pack in terms of innovative strategies to reach its audiences, and right now, e-commerce livestreaming is having its moment — a kind of Home Shopping Network for the digital age where you can watch, interact with, and buy from your streamer of choice in real time.
Little Zhouzhou’s job is ultimately to sell beauty and skincare products to women around China. And his androgynous appeal to Chinese women — who helped “little fresh meat” (小鲜肉 xiaoxianrou; a term for young, attractive males) become a multi-million dollar industry — make his job that much easier.
But what’s the actual agenda behind Chinese men who incorporate traditionally female codes of beauty? Is this gender-bending an act of defiance, or even central to their identity? Internationally, celebrities such as Ruby Rose and Eugene Lee Yang infuse their personal politics into their aesthetics, but the censorship-heavy environment in China makes that difficult.
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When I visit Little Zhouzhou in his studio in Hangzhou, I’m taken aback to see that his face is completely free of makeup. He looks more boyish than any images I’d ever seen of him, but with better skin than almost anyone I know.
He addresses my shock with a grin. “I don’t wear makeup unless I have to. I have to test so many skincare products for my work that I try not to burden my face more than I have to.”
I was tickled to hear this from a top tier beauty influencer, but he quickly sets me straight by saying that beauty is something he is born with, rather than something he is obsessed with. When he got his start in e-commerce in 2016, he had just graduated university. He ran an online clothing store on Taobao where he got noticed for the interesting looks he was sharing, and was offered a position as an in-house livestreamer at Mogu. Back then, he just logged on for an hour each night to chat with viewers.
“I was so new that I had to look up things to do when livestreaming on the internet!” he recalls with a laugh. “Before I had a sales KPI like I do now, it was all about engaging people, and occasionally getting tipped in the form of virtual gifts.”
In the first few minutes of meeting Little Zhouzhou, his “it” factor is immediately apparent. There is something disarming about his easy laugh, the way he pulls his face about in conversation, and how he punctuates his sentences with big gestures. But the thing that really helped him accrue so many fans was his distinctive look — and the resulting curiosity about this boy who looks like a girl. When I ask him whether he was annoyed by getting asked about this so often, he waves it off.
“Being exposed to so many different viewers every day comes with the territory. And looking different is what makes me unique, it’s my signature. It’s what makes me who I am.”
I ask if pushing boundaries of beauty is a goal for him, and he shakes his head vehemently.
“I’ve never made a conscious effort to look feminine. It’s just that I’m really quite pretty when I wear makeup!”
As it turns out, Little Zhouzhou is more than just a pretty face — he also has a shrewd mind for business. When his fanbase on Mogu ballooned in 2017, he started planning how to monetize the viewers that tuned in every day to watch him. “Skincare is very important, but I can’t say that skincare is something I am passionate about,” he remarks. “It just made sense to go into selling skincare and beauty products on my channel, because that’s something my female viewers are all very interested in.”
His livestream channel became a runaway success, and he began scouting brands to promote and sell in his Mogu shop. His days became filled with sorting and shipping inventory, testing products, and keeping tabs on the boxes of products piled high in the stock room. Every other evening, he sits in his blindingly white filming room to stream for hours, presenting and demonstrating one product after another. On major Chinese shopping holidays like 11.11 and 618, he and his team work around the clock to keep up with the shopping sprees.
“If you told me when I was still in school that I’d some day run a beauty and skincare shop in a few years I would’ve laughed in your face,” Little Zhouzhou says. “I didn’t even get into skincare until I was learning to apply makeup as part of my broadcasting major. My teacher taught us how to put on makeup for camera — but not how to take it off!”
Little Zhouzhou talks of his non-traditional aesthetic as a professional advantage, rather than something he feels passionate about. But does challenging traditional ideas of masculinity mean something more to him? What does he think about the changing nature of male beauty in a country with such traditional views on gender roles?
Little Zhouzhou has answered all my previous questions without a beat, but now he looks off in the distance for a moment before replying. “A rather deep question!” He smiles, evidently enjoying the challenge.
“So my look can be categorized as a ‘flower boy.’ I’m slender and pretty. On reality talent shows like Idol Producer, where people can vote for their favorites, all the most popular boys don’t look anything like traditionally handsome men. In fact, many can be considered quite effeminate. People who don’t like their looks would complain that they would not be able to pick up a gun and defend their country when they need to, which is pretty ridiculous.”
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So what does he think powers the mindsets of people who support different types of looks?
Says Zhouzhou: “China has so many people, there’s bound to be large groups of different types of people. To me that is a great thing.
“We live in a pluralistic time, and our changing standard of beauty represents progress — advancement of our civilization, even. Years ago, people were called deviants and freaks simply for not getting married and having children. Now gay marriage is legal in Taiwan!”
He looks at me in wonder, as if baffled at himself. “Listen to me go, I sound like a social commentator!” I nod encouragingly at him, and he continues.
“China is becoming more inclusive because people have access to a lot more information and sources of information now. The volume and speed of information is at a historical high, and all you need is a cellphone to plug into that. I get all my news from Weibo, and I really feel like how it has opened my eyes to the complexity of the world.”
“Do you ever talk about this when you’re streaming?” I ask.
“No, it would cut into my sales when I’m not introducing products.” He flashes a smile before adding, “Honestly, my life is pretty stressful right now. I save all my energy to prop up my smiles during my streams.”
So does someone like him worry about burn-out?
“Yeah, I think I will do this for one or two more years, and I will move on to working behind the scenes as a producer, or work on my own brand. Streaming is a profession sustained by youth, and I don’t want to give it all of mine.”
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