Wang Yibo, the heartthrob everyone wants a piece of

Society & Culture

Wang Yibo is a 23-year-old from Henan whose raging popularity means everyone wants a piece of him, from multinational corporations to the state, all hoping he'll shill a product or promote core socialist values. His fans won't leave him alone, either.

The sales bonanza of yet another record-breaking Single’s Day in 2020 should have made ecommerce influencers the people of the moment. But a sprinkling of magic sideswiped them. ‘What’s happening?’ asked the usually omniscient Viya (or Wēi Yà 薇娅) as her assistants started screaming at the screen behind her, where (as part of the Single’s Day gala) a gorgeous heartthrob in white was shimmying to Bruno Mars’s “Versace on the Floor,” the shriek of fans all the shriller for those pelvic thrusts.

It takes something very special to stop sellers in their tracks in the busiest shopping season of the year. Perhaps the star of a TV show with 8 billion views. Perhaps Wáng Yībó 王一博.

Who is Wang Yibo?

Wang Yibo is a 23-year-old triple-threat from Henan, frequently paired with the equally fresh-faced Xiāo Zhàn 肖战 after the two appeared together in the hit TV show The Untamed. Unlike his outspoken idol peers, Wang is quiet and low-key, years of struggle and hard work communicating themselves in his quick mastery of whatever activity he sets his mind to.

Despite being known for his acting, Wang started out as a dancer. At 13 he was watching street dance performers on TV in 2010, begging his mom to let him take dance classes. It led to a stint at the Hanlim Multi Art School, a prestigious but grueling performing arts academy in Seoul, Wang learning both Korean and the latest K-Pop moves. Soon he was scouted for a Chinese-Korean boy band called UNIQ, training for four years in preparation. Although Wang was the youngest in the group, he was the first to be announced a full member of the band.

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Success bred success, Wang earning film roles and working his way onto a key reality TV show, Produce 101, as a dance instructor. The show’s 4 billion views were a valuable platform for both his talents and his life story. Seated cross-legged on the floor of a rehearsal room in a hoodie, Wang told of his own painful struggles. During his early years in training he’d suffered from myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart that results in chest pains and palpitations; after a course of medication he had to learn to dance from scratch, training six hours a day to get back on track.

One of the secrets to Wang’s success seems to be his perseverance. Once he chooses to learn something, he’ll throw all his energy into it. He wanted to be a  skater, so spent as much time practicing as possible, even in the airport between events. Developing an obsession for motorbikes in 2017, he qualified as a pro racer two years later, riding with the Yamaha China Racing Team and even winning the D Category at the Asia Road Racing Championships 2019.

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But he’s still a child at heart. During his time off, Wang has said he likes to play with Lego — netizens noted the age bracket of 9 to 16 on the box. He’s afraid of ghosts hiding in the dark, saying in interviews that he always has to sleep with a light on, even if it’s just light from the TV.

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Wang reached the upper levels of fame in 2019 when he accepted a lead role in The Untamed, playing the character Lan Wangji, an aloof but warm-hearted sorcerer. The show’s directors were sold by Wang’s “cold” aura during casting. But over the show’s 50 episodes, fans were wooed by the way he gradually revealed Lan’s vulnerability.

They were also charmed by his relationship with co-star Xiao Wang, the pair close both on and off screen. The show heavily implies an intimate relationship between their characters, which some netizens gleefully speculated as echoed in reality (despite their legions of female fans, the two still appear to be single).

The banter between these two self-proclaimed “brothers” was well publicized during filming.

Wang fever

Wang’s raging popularity with China’s Generation Z (especially women) means everyone wants a piece of him now.

Brands drool over his advertising potential. Already a popular endorser before The Untamed, Wang is now ambassador for a large stable, including Colgate, L’Oreal, KFC, and even Ping An Insurance. Wang happily promotes their merchandise on his Weibo page (reaching 39 million followers in the process). He’s certainly a profitable investment — during 2020, the stock of all his endorsers rose by an average of 32%.

The state is cashing in on his influence, too, using him to promote core socialist values. He has worked as a fireman for the Hunan Volunteer Brigade and has recorded videos for them to raise fire-safety awareness. Red tourism will appear on his Weibo page, and he publicly took an oath against the use of drugs for his latest role as a police officer serving with the anti-drugs bureau in Being a Hero.

Although spared the fan-inflicted disasters of Xiao Zhan, Wang has also been a victim of the fan base that raised him up. When his private phone number was sold online, Wang posted a shot of 194 missed calls from his tribe of self-proclaimed 小摩托 (xiǎo mótuō),“Little Motorcycles.” They recently started inundating Douban (China’s main review platform for books, TV, and film) with fake reviews — making the algorithm treat them as unbiased reviewers — in preparation for a dump of 5-star reviews for the release of Wang’s three upcoming productions.

But Wang is much more than the heartthrob his fans see on stage and screen. “I will prove to them with my abilities that I’m not just eye-candy,” he said in the documentary Wang Yibo’s B-side Life. He’s doing all right so far.

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