TV host Yang Lan is one of China's biggest celebs. Will the propriety and pragmatism that got her there keep her from becoming the mogul she wants to be? A story of fame, ambition, and reality in modern China.
"We have some work to do." Yang Lan, one of China's most famous women, doesn't so much say the words as turn them into a command. It is the last day of taping for her reality show, New Girl in the Office, and in a sweltering Beijing studio, Yang is coaching an audience of college-age women. Despite the heat, the students sit ramrod straight, their eyes glued to the regal star who stands before them in her gold Prada gown and Prada shoes. ("I wanted it to feel more formal," she says later.) She is about to teach them how to clap.
"There are three forms of applause: First, fast and furious," Yang tells the women. They clap feverishly. "When the comedian says funny things, there's the appreciative clap." They clap slowly. "The third is like when a political consultative conference is about to end, and you want it to be over so bad." They flatten palms together robotically.
Yang's face melts, but just a little, into the smile of a teacher pleased with her charges. Pleasant but not too warm, genuine but slightly distant, that smile has, over the past 20 years, become one of the most recognizable in the world's biggest media market. Yang's rise to fame has been unique in modern China. Two decades ago, she answered an open casting call for a slot as cohost on a new Chinese TV variety show. She was picked for her pluck -- when asked during her audition whether she would "dare" to wear a bikini, she replied that at nude beaches in France, it would be too conservative to wear even a bikini -- and has since parlayed her never-say-fail attitude into stardom. She has interviewed both Bill and Hillary Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and Kobe Bryant. When the Shanghai Expo was casting celebrity spokespeople, they chose seven men (including Yao Ming and Jackie Chan) and Yang.
She has sought to turn that fame into a full-fledged business empire. Yang has created new programming for TV -- including one of the first shows targeting women -- and set up sites on the burgeoning Chinese-language Web. She has bought print publications; she sells credit cards; she's even hawking a co-branded jewelry line with Celine Dion. She and her husband, Bruno Wu, are one of China's richest couples; Forbes has estimated their wealth at about $300 million. All of which has led the foreign press -- and her own handlers -- to rarely miss an opportunity to call her the Oprah of China.
Yang Lan, 42, has done wonders to achieve what she has so far, being careful to maintain her above-the-fray image while morphing with the fast-shifting landscape. "You do what you can do," she says with a sigh in lightly accented, fluent English. Some of her ventures have succeeded -- her interview show has been one of the past decade's megahits -- while others, including her Sun TV network, have been huge flops. Through it all, she has held on to her biggest asset: her fame. Liu Yingqi, vice president of China Life Insurance Co., which sponsors New Girl in the Office, says, "She's the audience's Yang Lan, society's Yang Lan."