Chinese voices: The price of e-commerce fame

By Jordan Schneider
4 min read
E-commerce livestreaming star outsold Jack Ma in a lipstick promotion battle
E-commerce livestreaming star outsold Jack Ma in a lipstick promotion battle, captured from Douyin (Image credit: Jordan Schneider)

As an outgoing foreigner, Chinese friends inevitably tell me I should become a wanghong, an internet celebrity along the lines of a Karshasian, a Kloss or a Pewdiepie. But a streamer’s life isn’t all free trips and unlimited product samples. This longform dive into the life of e-commerce livestreamers shows the downside of internet fame in China, how market pressures end up turning livestreaming into something all-consuming.

So who is Li Jiaqi?

In this GIF captured from Douyin, influencer Li Jiaqi shows off the hyperactive manner that has made him a lipstick sales star
In this GIF captured from Douyin, influencer Li Jiaqi shows off the hyperactive manner that has made him a lipstick sales star (Image credit: TechNode/Cassidy McDonald)

Li is leading the charge of men building fashion brands aimed primarily at female customers. Over the past three years, he has gone from a beauty sales assistant with a monthly salary of RMB 6,000/month (about $880) to someone so famous he can outsell Jack Ma on a lipstick livestream battle. Li, who also goes by Austin, makes his living mostly through live streaming on Alibaba’s Taobao platform (a Chinese e-commerce innovation that helped the platform leave Amazon China in the dust). He also has a big presence on Douyin, where he’s received over one hundred million likes and amassed 22 million followers.

So how has he got there? In his own words:

Written by Wang Liuxi for Hugo

 “I have not lived any of these past three years. When I used to work at the counter, I was really happy! I’d start working at 6 p.m., have time to play Mahjong, go to bars, sing KTV, have a midnight snack,” Li said. Since moving to Shanghai three years prior, he hasn’t once gone out to a bar. “I haven’t had any time to sleep, much less go out and have fun.”

So how busy is he?

Every night at 7 p.m., he streams until the wee hours of the morning, takes off his makeup, and heads to bed at 4 a.m. Then from 12 to 5 the next day, he selects products and prepares for the next day’s livestream.  He does not take vacations. In one year, he did 389 livestreams.

In one given livestream, while other livestreamers apply lipstick to their arms, he insists on putting them on his lips. Girls know what after applying two or three times in a day, their lips will start to hurt. Yet in one broadcast, Li Jiaqi tested 189 lipsticks.

So, why the intensity for a guy who once was happy just hanging at the KTV?

He doesn’t dare stop because he is afraid. Every day there are at least 10,000 livestreams on Taobao. If he takes even a little time off, his fans will most likely check out the other 9,999, and maybe the next day no-one will come back to him.

When he came down with a serious case of bronchitis, it was pretty hard, but he didn’t take time off streaming. During a break, he went to the hospital and brought home an inhaler, which he still carries. In his own words: “I need this in case of any emergencies.”

Said Li Jiaqi: “I used to be the kind of guy who just wanted to go out and have fun, and was the one to get all my friends together. But now I don’t have any friends around me, only colleagues.”

The price of his success is loneliness. This is his difficult truth: “We really gave up a lot to get what we have today.” He said “I’m not a fuerdai [someone with rich parents]: I built this all by myself.  

The article also profiled a number of other recent TikTok stars. Quoting a video by Douyin star @WangMengyun, who claims to have had annual earnings in the millions by the age of 30, Hugo wrote that she has not had a day off in 1,125 days.

@TT&SS told Wang:

I just topped 3 million fans on TikTok. All my old friends are jealous how every day I just get to shoot little videos and make money. But what they don’t know is I’ve spent three years making videos at the same time working as a waiter, a delivery person and a driver, never stopping hustling at odd jobs.

Now everyone asks me how to start trending. I always tell them it’s simple: just publish videos every day. My first 175 videos only brought me a few thousand fans. But my 176th had 2 million likes and brought in 200,000 fans. People say that one video can bring you 200,000 fans, but actually it takes 176. People say my content is nothing to write home about, but actually every bit of it I spend a long time practicing.  

Sometimes at night, when I’m laughing in the mirror practicing how to make my laugh more infectious, I start crying. And looking at myself in the mirror, I remembered a line from “A Chinese Odyssey” [a 2014 movie which takes its story from Journey to the West]: “That one you’re looking at really looks like a dog.” I feel really lonely inside.

After I got popular, I didn’t feel like life got any easier. Every day I was worried whether my new video would get good traffic, whether or not my fans would troll me, whether the next day my account would get shut down.

One of my who has even more friends than me one day got shut down. The next day she overdosed on sleeping pills and thankfully her friends found her and took her to the hospital. Nowadays the more attention you get the more pressure you’re under. There really isn’t any profession where you can just make money by chilling and not doing anything.