Fame and celebrity

Amid Fan Bingbing storm, five celebrities who had tax troubles and how they paid for them

As China cracks down on tax avoiders in the television and film industry, we take a look at some of the wealthy stars who have fallen foul of the taxman in various ways

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 June, 2018, 4:33pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2018, 12:22pm

China’s film and television industry is feeling the heat this week after the government launched a tax evasion probe into the sector. The investigation targets actors accused of signing so called “yin-yang” contracts – one contract setting out payment terms and a second one with a lower figure for the tax authorities as a way to avoid paying tax.

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The crackdown comes after an online storm blew up between TV presenter Cui Yongyuan and actress Fan Bingbing. Earlier Cui had published images of documents on his social media account claiming they were copies of different contracts signed by the actress for the same job, the main difference being the size of her fee.

Fan, who had a minor part in the period drama My Fair Princess in 1998 and in 2014 had a role in the Hollywood hit X-Men: Days of Future Past, denies the accusations.

Here are five other celebrities who have got into tax trouble.

1. Liu Xiaoqing

The last time a high-profile Chinese artist was embroiled in a tax investigation was in 2002, when 1980s actress Liu Xiaoqing was imprisoned for a year for tax evasion. The case was connected to her company, Beijing Xiaoqing Culture and Arts Company. As well as the prison term, she was fined 7.1 million yuan.

In 1999, Liu was named one of the richest people in China, appearing at 45 on Forbes’ list of the 50 richest Chinese businessmen and businesswomen.

The actress, star of The Great Wall of the South China Sea (1976), The Burning of the Imperial Palace (1983) and Reign Behind the Curtain (1984), holds the record for having won the most awards in the actress categories of the Hundred Flowers Award, with three for best actress and one for best supporting actress.

2. Nicolas Cage

The A-list actor, who won an Oscar in 1995 for his role in Leaving Las Vegas, made more than US$150 million from acting between 1996 and 2011, including roles in movies such as Gone in Sixty Seconds (US$20 million), National Treasure (US$20 million), Snake Eyes (US$16 million) and Windtalkers (US$20 million). But Cage also became known for his wild spending habits, his stash of expensive stuff, including a rare US$450,000 Lamborghini Miura SVJ owned by the late Shah of Iran, a US$7 million island in the Bahamas and a 67-million-year-old Tarbosaurus skull worth US$300,000.

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In 2009, the United States Internal Revenue Service claimed Cage failed to pay more than US$6.2 million in federal income tax for 2007. The IRS also filed a lien against Cage for more than US$350,000 in unpaid taxes dating from 2002 to 2004.

3. Song Hye-kyo

In 2014, South Korean actress Song Hye-kyo had to do that very Korean thing – publicly apologise for committing tax evasion. The star of hits including Autumn in My Heart (2000), All In (2003), Full House (2004) and That Winter, the Wind Blows (2013) said she “deeply regrets mishandling her tax affairs due to ignorance” and that she “[takes] full responsibility for all tax evasion charges”.

Song, who also starred in the hit drama series Descendants of the Sun, and who was in Hong Kong in 2016 to help launch the ViuTV television channel, declared US$5.4 million of her general income from 2009 to 2012 as tax-deductible without providing relevant documents, and reportedly under-declared her taxable income by about US$2.5 million.

4. Annie Leibovitz

US celebrity portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz hit the big time when an image of John Lennon and Yoko Ono made the cover of Rolling Stone in 1981. She is also hit the headlines for her poor financial management. In 2009 Leibovitz owed US$2.1 million in unpaid taxes for 2004-2007 and was forced to pledge the copyright to every photograph she’s taken, or ever will, to secure a loan to pay off debts.

5. Willie Nelson

US country singer Willie Nelson got in trouble with the tax man in 1990 after the IRS hit him with a bill for U$16.7 million in unpaid back taxes. While he had to hand over many possessions to stay out of prison, it was a light-bulb moment which led to the release of an album poking fun at his plight (he called it The IRS Tapes: Who Will Buy My Memories?) that helped him.

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Fans took the title literally, buying items at auction and then handing them back to the singer. By 1993, Nelson had settled his tab in one of the most high-profile tax cases in music history.