In the world’s most crowded social media galaxy, where internet stars burn out as fast as they form, Nai Nai was on her way to stardom. A slender migrant relatively new to Shanghai, Nai Nai was a live-streamer. In simpler times, before the coronavirus, she constantly walked around China’s most glamorous city with a mobile phone on a selfie stick, broadcasting to a country that led the world in real-time content. But a cascade of mishaps and heartbreak forced her to give up live streaming, just as China’s coronavirus lockdown focused millions of eyeballs on computer screens. Almost every day last year, Nai Nai worked on boosting her fan count. She woke up around midday in her immaculate 215 sq ft flat, ordered brunch via an app, applied her make-up, then picked up her phone. A selfie app further whitened her skin, enlarged her eyes and chiselled her chin. “Friends, ni hao !” she said cheerfully to her digital image. Nai Nai’s “friends” were mostly Chinese men aged 15 to 30 from all walks of life. She could not see them but they made themselves known by posting messages and virtual gifts, visible to everyone logged on to her chat room. Messages glided across her image: “you are beautiful”, “I love you”, “show us your legs”, “show us your breasts”, “sleep with me”. Nai Nai was a virtual girlfriend to many, a loyal friend to none. If you were to stand next to her during a broadcast, you would think she had gone mad: she might begin a sentence about one subject and switch midway to something else, make a heart sign with her fingers and, in response to a gift, end by saying, “Thank you, big brother!” All punctuated by her signature giggle. The faster her fans sent comments or gifts, the more catchphrases, facial expressions and gestures she deployed in different directions. Fans who accrued a high score on her account by sending virtual gifts – a plane (100 yuan/HK$110), a rocket (500 yuan), a super rocket (2,000 yuan) – received the most attention. Their messages were bigger, brighter and lasted longer on the screen. Tech founder Luo Yonghao’s live-streaming loses its shine the second round A top live-streamer who responds skilfully, puffing up the giver in front of a community of fans, can earn tens of millions of yuan a year. Even a middling one, such as Nai Nai, nets about 100,000 yuan per month, a huge income for a fresh graduate who could normally expect to make less than one-tenth of that. Nai Nai, whose real name is Gan Xiqi, was born in 1996, the year the internet arrived in China, albeit only in Communist Party-approved form . She grew up in a wealthy household in Nanchang, a mid-sized city in eastern Jiangxi province. As a child, she loved to dance and was enrolled in a strict dance school at age 11, which eventually led to her attending an arts college in Xian, Shaanxi province. But after graduating, in 2018, she did not have her heart set on becoming a dance teacher like her friends. Instead, she began to film her daily life with her smartphone and experiment with live streaming. Almost immediately, she drew the attention of a talent agency, Shanghai Yuanqian Culture. Founded in late 2016 by former PwC manager Borix Xu, the company was making big money in China’s US$9 billion streaming and digital gifts market. The country’s live-streaming industry reached 425 million subscribers in 2018, more than half of its total internet user base of about 829 million, according to government statistics cited in Chinese state media. Representing several hundred online celebrities, Shanghai Yuanqian Culture had a revenue of 130 million yuan in its first year. It takes a 10 per cent commission from live-streamers’ gifts in exchange for providing services such as production planning and support, equipment and training. The agency’s chief executive, Zoe Dai, says she chose Nai Nai primarily because of her natural good looks, unscarred by cosmetic surgery. The classical dance training was a plus, but most of all, Nai Nai knew how to talk to men. As a wealthy man, I understand immediately she is the kind of girl other wealthy men would like Borix Xu, founder, Shanghai Yuanqian Culture Xu puts it more bluntly: “As a wealthy man, I understand immediately she is the kind of girl other wealthy men would like.” Xu compares a good live-streamer to the courtesans of imperial Japan and China, where seduction was an art form honed by cultivation and experience. “In the West, you have strip bars. But in China, men are more shy, they first want to buy gifts to show their prospect they have money. Slowly they gain the confidence to approach her,” he says. Stories abound of rich men receiving sexual favours in return for gifts, but it is not in the live-streamers’ interests to oblige with their bodies, according to Xu. “Once you start a relationship with a fan, the gifts stop. It should be a never-fulfilled promise,” he says. Sensing Nai Nai’s potential for drumming up business, the agency awarded the newbie a three-year contract that included a rent allowance in Shanghai and assigned her an agent, Wang Jianbin, 26, and a production assistant. While most female live-streamers broadcast from home or a studio, Nai Nai branded herself as an “outdoor” host, a niche usually filled by men fronting adventure and car shows. She took her fans, many of them stuck in a classroom or office during the day, on virtual walks “so they can get outside, especially when the weather is nice”. These included a springtime viewing of the cherry blossoms, a tour of a street market, a visit to a K-pop dance class and a stroll along Shanghai’s iconic Bund. Professional live-streamers are online six to eight hours a day, and during their downtime they are expected to sweet-talk their most generous fans in private, listening to their worries or playing video games with them. Knowing that many live-streamers give up after a few months because of the relentless working hours, Dai wondered if Nai Nai would last. But Xu points to the success of his agency’s biggest star, Jin He, as a template for Nai Nai. A 22-year-old singer from Chongqing, in southwestern China, Jin rakes in a net income of about five million yuan a year and recently moved to a large, fancy flat in central Shanghai where she has a room solely for her three cats. While beautiful online, Jin is frail in real life. She complains of chronic stress, painful periods and hair loss. Because viewership peaks at night, live-streamers such as Jin have to work until the early hours. The star is in such bad shape that her mother has moved from Chongqing to care for her. Three days into 2019, while live streaming to a meagre 800 followers, a surprise guest appeared on Nai Nai’s screen. It was Jiang Bo, one of China’s most popular “outdoor” live-streamers, sending her a public invitation to do a joint broadcast – it was like being singled out by a famous pop star to perform a duet. Jiang, 25, was visiting Shanghai from his base in Wuhan, in Hubei province, to receive an award. With time to spare, he wanted to do a quick broadcast with a female co-host. Using an app that locates nearby active streamers, he found Nai Nai. He tells me that while he didn’t think much of her performance, she looked attractive enough. Hardly believing her luck, Nai Nai rushed to call her agent for approval and, within minutes, she was online with Jiang in front of his 1.2 million fans. “I was so nervous,” she recalls. “I had just started to live-stream, and Jiang Bo is a megastar with an aura around him.” Fans watched them on a split screen. As the pair tried to outsmart each other with rapid-fire Q&As with fans, their scores updated in real time depending on the value of the virtual gifts they received from fans. Despite the fact Jiang’s fans outnumbered Nai Nai’s 1,500 times over, many flocked to her side during the 10-minute contest. As a punishment for his loss, Jiang’s fans demanded he hand-deliver a pack of tampons to her. He obliged. What it takes to be a live-streaming star in China When Jiang met Nai Nai in her flat, he says that she was more beautiful than the digitally retouched version of herself. He flirted with her, bouncing on her bed, a suggestive nod towards a future encounter. In front of their fans, he invited her to dinner. Throwing on a white overcoat, and trying to look good for the camera, she bent awkwardly to thrust her foot into a black high-heeled boot. Then the pair walked out of her block and into Jiang’s waiting car, a dual-clutch white Ferrari 458 with a top speed of 325km/h and an astronomical price tag. Jiang filmed himself strapping the seat belt across Nai Nai’s thin frame in one smooth motion, but there the gallantry stalled. It took him a few minutes to start the engine and he never did find the button to close the window. Worse, when he overshot the pump at a petrol station, he couldn’t find reverse. Online, Nai Nai giggled at his fumbling. It was obvious that the megastar did not own the fancy car. “Jiang tried to impress me but tied his arms and legs in knots,” she says later, laughing at the memory of their first meeting. She rated him five out of 10 for attractiveness. With both their phones live streaming the evening, Jiang and Nai Nai cruised into the trendiest part of Shanghai, where they met up with another pair of live-streamers – who also arrived by white Ferrari – and ate dumplings. While Nai Nai was unmoved by Jiang, she was overwhelmed by the success he brought her. In a few short hours, her followers shot up to more than 12,000, a number that would generate enough income to pay her living expenses in China’s glittering city. Jiang returned to Wuhan. As far as his fans were concerned, Nai Nai was just another pretty girl passing through the revolving door to Jiang’s live-streaming room. But real life is not always so straightforward. Back home, Jiang says he could not forget Nai Nai. For weeks, he wooed her via text messages and online video games, which they played into the early hours after their live-streaming sessions. Nai Nai melted. Then in February last year, Jiang asked her to be his Valentine’s date for all their fans to see. Wang, Nai Nai’s agent, was displeased. He admonished her, telling her to play hard to get and avoid being seen as Jiang’s girlfriend; a female live-streamer’s currency was sex appeal, he said, and that was undermined when her largely male audience saw her in relationships with other men. But for Nai Nai, this was an offer neither her heart nor her head could turn down – after all, her fan count leapt every time she associated with the megastar. As a million viewers tuned in for the Valentine’s date, Nai Nai disobeyed Wang and was affectionate to Jiang. Almost immediately, her jealous fans began attacking him and his followers online, spurring a messaging war. Jiang quit the bungled broadcast in anger. It’s Nai Nai’s 23rd birthday, last March, and Wang has invited “around 12 selected admirers” from her by now 40,000-strong fan base to an upmarket fusion restaurant in Shanghai. The event will be live-streamedso viewers can congratulate her with online presents. But as the start time nears, Nai Nai and her agent look disappointed. Just two of the expected guests are coming. It is so awkward that Wang pretends to be a fan to boost attendance. Nai Nai and the three men sit at one end of the truncated table, with Nai Nai’s camera angled to make the party appear more crowded. Wang chats her up as if they were meeting for the first time. One guest, a 29-year-old who goes by the name “Monster”, has come from Suzhou, an hour’s drive away. He tenderly gives Nai Nai a silver and gold-plated Swarovski bracelet. He has set aside two hours for the dinner, telling his girlfriend he is in Shanghai for a business meeting. Monster is a clean-cut founding partner at an interior design agency that specialises in decorating boutique hotels. His girlfriend does not know he chats with live-streamers, let alone that he spends up to 20 per cent of his 100,000-yuan monthly income buying them virtual gifts. Following and chatting to live-streamers is a way to unwind after a long day at work, he says. “I have an online life that is as virtual as a video game, insulated from my offline life,” Monster says, having apparently forgotten the bracelet he just gave to Nai Nai. The other guest, 24-year-old video game designer “Number One”, has come by taxi from the Shanghai flat he rents with two friends. Dressed incongruously in basketball kit, he is Nai Nai’s biggest patron, despite his modest monthly income of 15,000 yuan. Live streaming is not like it was at the beginning, four years ago, when anything you put up earned you a pile of money. Nowadays you have to keep pushing the limits with new ideas Jiang Bo, live-streamer Neither of the two fans speak much, preferring to interact with their phones. As Nai Nai stands before them blowing out her birthday candles, they watch her on their screens. The following afternoon Nai Nai is her bubbly self at Shanghai Yuanqian Culture, a high-end start-up staffed by 100 young people in offices that have a fingerprint entry system. Here, a team is plotting her future. Wang, a planner, a creative director and a producer – each with at least two smartphones – walk around organising her week’s events and sponsorships. Xu drops in to check on his company’s fastest rising star. Then, in the middle of the discussions, Nai Nai receives a text. She stares at it and hands the phone to Wang. It is from Jiang. The star has invited Nai Nai to Wuhan to join a three-day military-style training event he has organised with five other live-streamers from around China. Most are heavyweights like Jiang, pooling one million-plus fans each, with earnings to match. They are joining forces for a publicity stunt that will woo viewers in an increasingly stiff market that is competing with new forms of online entertainment such as short videos. “Live streaming is not like it was at the beginning, four years ago, when anything you put up earned you a pile of money,” Jiang says. “Nowadays you have to keep pushing the limits with new ideas.” The ugly side of China’s live-streaming celebrity factories With Nai Nai due in Wuhan in less than 24 hours, Wang shepherds her away for a briefing. He instructs her to play it cool and not be affectionate again with Jiang online. The next morning, Nai Nai just makes the train in Shanghai, rushing onto the platform in a black dress slit thigh high. A high-speed train whisks her to Wuhan. She checks her make-up as it pulls into one of China’s biggest high-speed railway stations. Nai Nai looks around nervously for Jiang, who is nowhere to be seen. Dragging her suitcase, she squeezes through the crowd, past hustling taxi drivers and through a congested bus terminus in search of her megastar. Finally, there he is, far from the station, slouched in scruffy clothes beside a scratched red Hyundai parked on the pavement, waiting for Nai Nai to come to him. The car is full of rubbish – empty cans, bottles and shopping receipts. His carriage has turned from a Ferrari into a pumpkin, and Prince Charming does not seem to care. “I invited her only because we needed one more girl,” Jiang coolly tells me. That night, over dinner at a crayfish restaurant with Jiang’s team to discuss planning, the two fight like lovers. Jiang spots a message on Nai Nai’s phone and grabs it distrustfully, pushing her away as he reads it. When he storms out, she runs after him. Through the restaurant window, the team watches the pair yelling at each other in the rain, Jiang sulkily sucking a cigarette as Nai Nai sobs. He starts to walk away; she pulls him to her. By the time they walk back inside as if nothing has happened, the sizzling crayfish has gone cold. The following day, the other live-streamers, all in their 20s, arrive from distant corners of China. Famous online joker “Old Metal”has flown in from the rust belt of Shenyang with his live-streamer girlfriend, Amy; sports car specialist “Face Mask”） has come from coastal Fujian in a pair of Louis Vuitton trainers; “Ya Ya”, a singer with green hair and pink contact lenses, took a train from Nanjing; Jiang’s sharp-talking business partner, “Big Uncle”, is the only other local. As the host, Jiang has booked a private dining room in a Chinese restaurant. By the time his guests sit down, half have already anchored their phones to mini-tripods, and soon they are all uttering euphoric streams of consciousness as virtual gifts stack up. Old Metal is a live-streaming marvel. He went from working in a ball-bearing factory, earning 2,200 yuan a month, to being one of China’s hottest live-streamers thanks to his line in humour. Last year he earned tens of millions in gifts, netting him three million yuan after commissions and costs – enough to buy his first flat and a Mercedes E300. “Soon I can buy the ball-bearing factory,” he jokes in a hoarse voice. Fans want to control their hosts like a game. They are your patron and critic, they hold you at ransom Jiang Bo Eating with him, you can’t help wondering how he managed it. Between puffs on his cigarette, the overweight 26-year-old swigs from beer bottles opened with his teeth and belches loudly. “Rich guys from tier-three or tier-four cities love watching Old Metal for some fun in between getting titillated by pretty girls,” Jiang says. “They feel he’s one of them and want him to succeed so give him gifts.” The following morning, the live-streamers check into a former army base now used for corporate team-building. They put on military uniforms and spend the next three days with a former soldier, sloshing through mud, waking groggily on night exercises and fighting a “war”. Jiang’s assistants broadcast the event live on their boss’ phone, holding next to it a bluetooth speaker playing military music for the hundreds of thousands of watching fans. On top of the drills meted out by the instructor, fans can give the live-streamers further “punishments”: 50 push-ups for 20 planes (2,000 yuan), or 30 seconds of squats for 99 rockets (990 yuan). Jiang, the most athletic, always comes out the hero. Fragile Nai Nai moans and cries – much to the delight of followers. “Fans want to control their hosts like a game,” Jiang explains. “They are your patron and critic, they hold you at ransom.” Despite his celebrity, Jiang is not as rich as he appears and desperately needs this military training programme to rev up publicity ahead of the annual “idol competition”. Jiang, Nai Nai, Old Metal and the others are hosted on the Douyu live-streaming platform, which translates as “fighting fish”. Backed by internet giant Tencent, Douyu hosts hundreds of thousands of registered live-streamers. More impressively, it has over 200 million registered viewers, whom the hosts are hungry to attract. The competition, run by Douyu, sees live-streamers encouraging fans to buy as many gifts as possible in the hope they will come out on top, get rich and get famous. Ambitious live-streamers such as Jiang often buy gifts for themselves to boost their ranking; the platform turns a blind eye because it retains a whopping 50 per cent fee for converting these gifts into money. So although Jiang amassed 40 million yuan in gifts in 2018, placing him towards the top of the chart, he bought half of them himself using borrowed money. After the platform took its half, his bid for the front page left him breaking even, but three million yuan in taxes and another one million yuan in production costs pushed him deep into the red. He is constantly looking for funds to stay afloat. “I could not even afford to buy a car,” Jiang says, adding that the scratched Hyundai does not belong to him. “It is a destructive spiral where live-streamers are competing to pay the platform.” But Jiang feels it is worth it: rankings are paramount and, despite the relentless competition, he believes his efforts will pay off. Live streaming is very stressful because people attack me and I worry a lot about what they say, especially those loyal fans Nai Nai, live-streamer Back at the barracks each night, the participants return wet from rain and sweat to live stream. The women’s dorm smells faintly of perfume and soap; the men’s reeks of cigarette smoke and unwashed feet. Still, Nai Nai sneaks out of the female dorm window to squeeze in next to Jiang among the beer bottles. “Even though he works with many beautiful girls, he treats me differently and says nice things about me to his fans,” Nai Nai tells me. During a late-night offline chat, Jiang confides to the other men his feelings for Nai Nai are indeed genuine, but he is unsure if and how to share them online. “The stakes are enormous,” he says. “When you fall in love and fans cheer you on with gifts you start mixing the high of their applause with the buzz of the relationship. When feelings turn sour and the fans start attacking you, you come crashing down.” The stakes prove too high for Jiang. As Nai Nai continues to break her agent’s romantic fantasy rules by playing Jiang’s sweetheart, she sows the seeds of her downfall. Fans from both sides pitch a vicious messaging battle. According to Nai Nai, they spread lies about her, falsely claiming she denigrated Jiang’s other female co-hosts, earning her more wrath. Attackers post crude public messages calling Nai Nai ugly and flat-chested, saying she “laughs too much”, or is “too inferior for Jiang”. “Live streaming is very stressful because people attack me and I worry a lot about what they say, especially those loyal fans,” she says. Even Monster, one of Nai Nai’s most devoted fans, deserts her. “To be honest, you cannot stare at the same face over and over again,” he says. As the uproar gains momentum, Nai Nai no longer receives comforting messages from her hero. Jiang says he is too busy to call. Anyone visiting his live-stream, like Nai Nai, would see he is indeed very busy – chasing other girls as beautiful as she is. There are sound economic reasons for his womanising. His manager explains that, by showing his fans he has an entourage of girls, Jiang satisfies his own cheering fans and attracts new ones from the girls’ bases. Nai Nai, disillusioned and depressed, announces her retirement. “I’m leaving you all and hope fate will bring us together again,” she writes on her page in the early hours of May 1. Her fans’ cries for clarification in the comments section go unanswered. Instead, Nai Nai wakes up late the next afternoon feeling free and ready for a new start. She is done with Jiang. She spends two days roaming Shanghai with a girlfriend from dance school. Maybe she will take up her dance career again. “Giving up live streaming feels so right,” she says. But it is not so easy. China’s selfie culture: youth obsessed with the power of appearances Wang gives her time “to vent” before meeting her, and comforts her as she cries. Then he reminds her of her three-year contract, and its 1.2 million yuan termination penalty. “Our company would never let someone come and go like that,” he says. So, the next afternoon, Nai Nai puts on her make-up and powers up her magic mirror. “Friends, ni hao !” she says. The messages roll in, accompanied by gifts. Three months later, however, Nai Nai discovers her agency has sold her internet account, leaving her fees unpaid. She asks Xu for the money, to no avail. She turns to Wang for help, but he is leaving the company and has his own money to chase. Nai Nai leaves the agency, but she can’t start a new contract with another company without paying the severance fee. She moves into a cheaper apartment. And there, during the coronavirus outbreak, locked inside her room and locked out of her live-streaming account, which she no longer owns, Nai Nai watches other live-streamers enjoying the attention of millions of men with time on their hands, and reaping the financial rewards. “Live streaming is no life for me,” she says. When the virus blows over and people can gather in person again, she says she might join her school friends and become a dance teacher.