Chinese runner and accidental internet celebrity milks fame to attract sponsors, and show another side to beauty
Mao Dou gained a big social media following after photos of her running in marathons were posted online. She’s bucking the ‘white, thin, beautiful’ trend and using her fame to empower woman and show they can have muscles, too
Mao Dou, whose real name is Li Xue, is a runner and a wang hong – a Chinese internet celebrity. She is one of the most followed runners in China on social media – with almost 300,000 following her on microblogging platform Weibo and more than 20,000 on her commercial WeChat social networking account.
Her nickname means “green soybean” in Chinese. A keen Football Club Barcelona fan – “I even named my dog after Messi” – she chose her name because “green soybean is what fans eat at football games in China while drinking beer”.
Mao Dou started running to beat stress after graduating with a degree in Chinese language and literature, and entering the “adult world”. She is no performance athlete, she stresses: “I am very slow; I run for fun.”
She was “discovered” during the 2013 Beijing Marathon, where she ran as a pacer. A fellow runner snapped a photo of her, and then asked on social media who she was. That photo, which showed nothing more than her back and long hair, went viral. Her identity was immediately discovered, and her Weibo gained 10,000 followers in a single day.
“This one photo changed my life,” she says, still with disbelief in her voice. “I was a young girl, working in marketing, selling washing machines and microwaves, and then suddenly I was a running wang hong.”
The following year, during the Xiamen Marathon, another amateur photographer took a photo of her. Reposted on a commercial WeChat account, the image of the “marathon girl” went viral.
“I was flying back to Hangzhou from the marathon when a local Xiamen paper called me – they said they saw the photo of me, and I gave them a quick interview. When I turned my phone back on after I landed, it crashed because I had so many messages on social media; my number of fans jumped to 100,000 [on Weibo]!”
She quickly monetised her wang hong status. Adidas rushed in to sponsor her, and now provides her with equipment and sends her to races. She started organising trail and road races for women, attracting sponsors and government support. Encouraging women to be active, sporty, and self-confident is her primary motivation, Mao Dou says.
Some people question her methods of empowering women – Mao Dou’s posts on Weibo include shots of her in sports bras, and of close-ups of her toned stomach and legs.
“If men see me as a sex object, it’s their problem,” she responds. “A lot of people think that I post those photos for others, but it is for me. I train every day to maintain my figure. This is hard and very boring, and I tell my fans this. I want to show the other side of beauty; the work that goes into it.”
Most of her fans are women. “Yes, men respond to these photos, but they [usually] make a comment like, ‘oh, you look hot’, and then they move onto the next female wang hong,” she says. “Girls ask me questions, and they stay.
“They think that I am brave; I do what I want, I ignore men’s opinions on what I must look like, or on what a woman’s life must be. And girls ask me for advice on how to exercise, how to eat properly, and other questions about life. I share my daily life with them.”
Mao Dou doesn’t like the traditional Chinese notion of female beauty. “You know what bai shou mei means in Chinese, right? White, thin, beautiful. I am not like that – I have muscles, I am dark. I don’t wear dresses. I run, I work out, I even do boxing. Every weekend I go outdoors – biking, trail running – something that a bai shou mei would never do.”
But her values cause her conflict. “I may have the confidence to pose almost naked, but in my heart, I am still a traditional Chinese woman. I do not like the standards applied to women, but they are applied to me still, and this causes me anxiety. I am now 31 [years old]; I am single and I see myself as a ‘leftover woman’. I share this anxiety with my female fans who are in the same situation,” she says.
Surely, men who are into fitness would appreciate Mao Dou? “Actually, no. They would say, ‘You are sexy’, and then go and find a bai shou mei that they can control. Men cannot control me, and this makes them feel insecure, and they don’t want me as a wife or a girlfriend.”
Her past relationship succumbed to this problem, she says. “My ex-boyfriend wanted me to spend my free time with his parents and friends. He said that I spent too much of my free time on myself. I wanted to go out running, do outdoor things, and he made me stay at home. I had my own life and wanted to live it. We broke up.”
The revealing photos, however were not a problem. “I asked him, ‘Should I stop taking and posting these photos in sports bras?’ He said, ‘No, you trained a lot for this; they are not Photoshopped, they are real’,” she says.
Her parents are not fans of her sports bras, she admits with a laugh. “They always tell me to dress like a lady, and to wear nice dresses and not gym clothes. When I went home for Lunar New Year my mother took me to Walmart and bought me girlie dresses! They think that if I wear these, I will find a guy and get married!”
She has grown a thick skin after more than half a decade of being a wang hong. “I have plenty of haters – ‘You are ugly’, ‘You have a body like a man’, ‘You look weird’ – I am used to it,” she says. “Actually, hate is good, it shows that people pay attention to what I do. To the women who abuse me online, I just say, ‘You better keep an eye on what your boyfriend is doing’.”
She may be an advocate for a healthy lifestyle, but admits to being “an awful cook, and I do not follow any diets. I don’t sleep properly either. Sometimes I sleep for an hour and then go on standby for 23 hours”.
Mao Dou has shifted away from organising races and now works withpao tuan – running groups – some of which are several thousand runners strong – a testament to the growth of sport in China. Amateur runners, men and women, get together for training, small races and social activities that Mao Dou and her team organise, and sponsors – which include Adidas, sports apparel brand UTO and running app Codoon – foot the bill.
“I like this face-to-face interaction with people, especially after spending so much time communicating online,” she says. “Very often you don’t know who you are talking to online, you don’t know the person’s real name, you don’t even know if it is a man or a woman. Pao tuan is different, you run together and just talk. This is real.”
Being real and being herself means a lot to Mao Dou. “I am not a manufactured wang hong,” she explains. “It is now a big business in China – wang hong schools. Young girls are scouted, then they are trained up and the school then takes a cut of the sponsors’ money when they become successful.
“I am me and I am very hard on myself. I have shared online, for six years, all the changes, all the hard work that I went through. This is me, take it or leave it.”
Mao Dou’s five tips for becoming an authentic wang hong
1. Be good at what you do, take pride in your appearance and take good photos. Good images are especially important.
2. Spend time online communicating with your fans.
3. Be productive. Generate a lot of content.
4. Do not be afraid to show your weakness and vulnerability – share your anxieties. If you are 100 per cent perfect, your fans won’t be able to relate to you and will never ask you questions.
5. Business is business. If a sponsor comes to you, their products come first, you second. They pay you, and you are just a billboard.