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Photograph by Tony Law

Chinese TV Host Yang Lan Stays True to Self to Build Empire

TV host Yang Lan is one of China's biggest celebs. Will the propriety and pragmatism that got her there keep her from becoming the mogul she wants to be? A story of fame, ambition, and reality in modern China.

"We have some work to do." Yang Lan, one of China's most famous women, doesn't so much say the words as turn them into a command. It is the last day of taping for her reality show, New Girl in the Office, and in a sweltering Beijing studio, Yang is coaching an audience of college-age women. Despite the heat, the students sit ramrod straight, their eyes glued to the regal star who stands before them in her gold Prada gown and Prada shoes. ("I wanted it to feel more formal," she says later.) She is about to teach them how to clap.

"There are three forms of applause: First, fast and furious," Yang tells the women. They clap feverishly. "When the comedian says funny things, there's the appreciative clap." They clap slowly. "The third is like when a political consultative conference is about to end, and you want it to be over so bad." They flatten palms together robotically.

Yang's face melts, but just a little, into the smile of a teacher pleased with her charges. Pleasant but not too warm, genuine but slightly distant, that smile has, over the past 20 years, become one of the most recognizable in the world's biggest media market. Yang's rise to fame has been unique in modern China. Two decades ago, she answered an open casting call for a slot as cohost on a new Chinese TV variety show. She was picked for her pluck — when asked during her audition whether she would "dare" to wear a bikini, she replied that at nude beaches in France, it would be too conservative to wear even a bikini — and has since parlayed her never-say-fail attitude into stardom. She has interviewed both Bill and Hillary Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and Kobe Bryant. When the Shanghai Expo was casting celebrity spokespeople, they chose seven men (including Yao Ming and Jackie Chan) and Yang.

She has sought to turn that fame into a full-fledged business empire. Yang has created new programming for TV — including one of the first shows targeting women — and set up sites on the burgeoning Chinese-language Web. She has bought print publications; she sells credit cards; she's even hawking a co-branded jewelry line with Celine Dion. She and her husband, Bruno Wu, are one of China's richest couples; Forbes has estimated their wealth at about $300 million. All of which has led the foreign press — and her own handlers — to rarely miss an opportunity to call her the Oprah of China.

It's not a fair comparison: The clapping session is an apt metaphor for the ways in which the Chinese-media marketplace — and Yang herself — is fundamentally more constrained than the American. There are the constantly changing government regulations; television, says Jeremy Goldkorn of the Beijing media blog Danwei.com, "is the most tightly controlled of all Chinese media because it remains the one truly mass media. There are a huge variety of rules and restrictions on TV content, and they change regularly." And there is her generation's own worldview; China's fortysomethings entered adulthood as their nation simultaneously opened up (under Deng Xiaoping, to get rich was seen as progressively more glorious) and closed down (Tiananmen Square in 1989 imprinted on their young minds that breaking the rules was not the path to glory).

Yang Lan, 42, has done wonders to achieve what she has so far, being careful to maintain her above-the-fray image while morphing with the fast-shifting landscape. "You do what you can do," she says with a sigh in lightly accented, fluent English. Some of her ventures have succeeded — her interview show has been one of the past decade's megahits — while others, including her Sun TV network, have been huge flops. Through it all, she has held on to her biggest asset: her fame. Liu Yingqi, vice president of China Life Insurance Co., which sponsors New Girl in the Office, says, "She's the audience's Yang Lan, society's Yang Lan." But the same country that has embraced her and elevated her to such success has also kept her from being the woman she wants to be — Yang Lan's Yang Lan.

China in 2010 is often painted as a fast-rising giant, a nation of almost unstoppable progress where boundless ambition, construction cranes, and new money come together in a crazy whirl of empire-building. This is all true, but what's often forgotten is that old ways of doing business persist. The regime that rules the whole enterprise hasn't changed.

When I arrived at Bayi Film Studios for an evening taping of New Girl in the Office, I discovered that the soundstage was actually in a big military compound on the outskirts of Beijing. Back in the day, this was where propaganda flicks were made. Two guards stood on pedestals at the compound's entrance. I strolled in, pretending to be oblivious. One guard barked, "You can't go in!" and jumped down from his pedestal to chase after me. Laowai (foreigners) were forbidden. Eventually, one of Yang Lan's assistants came out, bundled me into his car, and drove me away from the entrance out of sight of the guards. Then he transferred me into a car with tinted windows, which spirited me in.

It was, I thought, the kind of subterfuge that might have made me a worthy contestant for New Girl in the Office, essentially a Chinese remake of The Apprentice that began airing on Shanghai's Dragon TV in late July. As with Donald Trump's version, the winners get jobs — a true prize at a time when the Chinese papers are full of articles about the so-called ant tribes, young job seekers who come to the city and rent capsule apartments that are the width and length of a single bed.

There's one big difference from the American version: In China, the top 10 contestants all win. While the guardians of the Chinese airwaves tolerate reality shows, they strongly discourage voting off contestants, which is arguably the whole point and only pleasure of the genre. (On the plus side, the censors also ban advertising for tampons, breast enlargement, and hemorrhoid cream.) The winners' jobs are really more "job opportunities," paid apprenticeships in Web editing or restaurant management, along with scholarships.

One of the challenges on this evening is a debate that focuses on a matter that, from the contestants' grave and apparently heartfelt reactions, is of great importance — Resolved: Professional women should be both in the workplace and in the kitchen. One of the young women vehemently objects, earning applause of the "fast and furious" variety: "We're working women, not superwomen!" Then she adds, "One of the major causes of cancer is stress."

The earnestness of the exchange suits Yang Lan completely. Besides having better hair than Trump, Yang also seems much less ruthless. She's neither cute nor obviously sexy — she's more elegant and respectable, with the cool air of a younger Barbara Walters. This has always been one of her biggest assets, and it has become one of her biggest problems.

When an older male judge launches into a meandering question that winds around to "If your boss's friend asked you to spend the night with him, what would you do?" an awkward silence falls over the room. Yang Lan has none of it. She nixes the scene and admonishes the man: "That's not appropriate for this show."

The awkwardness of the moment and, in fact, of the whole program reflects an internal clash between her sense of propriety and her dreams of an Oprah-size cultural footprint. She seems almost too schoolmarmish to be one of modern China's biggest stars. One of her on-set assistants, an achingly trendy twentysomething with beyond-faux strawberry-blond hair, a matching goatee, and glasses without lenses, would seem to fit the stereotype better. But if you understand the system — and the Communist authorities' insistence on keeping content "clean and ideologically suitable," as Danwei.com's Goldkorn says — you know why Yang has thus far been the chosen superstar.

Yang grew up in Beijing, the daughter of a communications technology engineer and an English-lit professor who occasionally served as an interpreter for Mao's deputy, Premier Zhou Enlai. Economically, her family was quite well-off; politically, it was loaded, thanks to its rich guanxi, or connections, a commodity more valuable than nearly any other in China.

When she was 11, her father brought home the family's first television. He had waited in line for five hours to get the magic box, and later he covered the black-and-white screen with a cheap, translucent piece of plastic with red, green, and blue stripes. "My mother was so happy," Yang recalls. "She said, 'We can watch color TV now.' " At first, the only things available on the box were the state-run news, state-programmed TV dramas, and state-orchestrated singing and dancing shows. A few years later came the debut of a hot new show: Tom and Jerry.

At Beijing Foreign Studies University, Yang majored in English. Toward the end of her junior year, many of her peers were killed in the Tiananmen Square massacre — something she has never spoken about publicly and still declines to discuss. In 1990, she won the cohosting gig for the new Zheng Da Variety Show, and soon the whole country was watching her. Truthfully, it had few other TV options.

In 1994, she quit. She said she was burned out. She moved to New York and went to grad school at Columbia, studying international affairs. Even now, she is rhapsodic about the experience. "It was a mind-opener," Yang says. "It was a free, open, and diverse student body with different ideas flowing around on campus and in New York City."

It was a life changer in another way: In New York, she met Bruno Wu, who would become her husband within months. Both had been married before — she, briefly, to a college sweetheart — but together, the two scions of Shanghai families became a power couple.

Even while studying at Columbia, Yang was already planning her return to the small screen, and her husband was syndicating it through his Hong Kong company. The format they devised was the weekly interview program that has become her signature and her biggest hit. Called Yang Lan Horizon for its 1996 debut, it later was renamed Yang Lan Studio and is now Yang Lan One on One. The show's superprofessional style has remained constant, as has the caliber of her guests. Over the years, she has interviewed more than 600 movers and shakers — most recently U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The tenor of the show is sober and largely emotionless, although once in a while, you see a flash of early Yang Lan in the form of a subtly sharp question. For instance, she began her interview of Hillary Clinton last year with what, in image-conscious China, was clearly a backhanded compliment: "I find you look more relaxed." Clinton's response: "It's getting older, really." (The State Department left that opener out of its online transcript.)

The genius of Yang Lan One on One is that it has offered to many millions of viewers across China not just access but an intelligent guide into worlds that are otherwise off-limits. At a time when Chinese are increasingly curious about the rest of the globe, the worldly Yang, educated in both the East and the West and comfortable with the likes of Clinton, Jack Welch, and Nicole Kidman, has become both a role model and a bridge. She has secured interviews that even the state-run CCTV cannot land. And she has cultivated a polite interrogative style that's just probing enough to elicit personal insights that may seem tame by Western TV standards, but are revelatory in a culture where TMI is not the prevailing practice. For instance, Yang got the novelist Yan Geling to share that she suffered from bipolar disorder, which once kept her awake for 30 consecutive days and nights. In the words of Li Xie, a 31-year-old fan, Yang is "appropriate" — faint praise in English, but high marks in Chinese.

Moving beyond Yang Lan One on One has been the hard part. In 2000, Wu and Yang decided to start a Hong Kong-based TV station. They raised adequate capital and plenty of hype: Forbes proclaimed it a threat to Rupert Murdoch's regional powerhouse, Star TV, whose Chinese affiliate, Phoenix, had aired Yang Lan Studio. Aptly, it was named Sun TV, and it was sold to investors as a foothold into the mainland, a platform to advertise to 1.2 billion pairs of eyeballs. Sun TV raised $28 million in its first equity offering, in Hong Kong in 2000, with Yang and Wu investing a further $11 million. The stock price shot up from HK$0.20 that April to HK$0.36 in August, putting a wildly optimistic value on Sun TV of more than 10 times the estimated revenue.

Yang was equally wildly optimistic about her programming: She wanted to focus on documentaries. "I am just in love with documentaries," she says. "Something to carry the weight of culture, history, and humanity." In China, private firms are essentially banned from creating news shows; documentaries are the closest they can come, as long as they stick to topics that would have been news maybe 500 years ago, with bonus points for glorifying China in the process. So out of 400 hours of programming that the channel created, the most successful was inspired by British amateur historian Gavin Menzies's claim that the 15th-century admiral Zheng He, a Ming Dynasty hero, was "the true discoverer of America," Yang says proudly. She adds that it was broadcast internationally during worldwide prime times.

But almost nobody watched Sun TV. Hong Kong-based stations were not — and still are not — allowed to air on mainland cable networks. Pretty much the only places where you could see Sun TV were in luxury hotels; a visitor to China might have happened upon it while channel surfing, somewhere between BBC World and HBO. The business began hemorrhaging cash as advertisers shied away. Yang concedes: "I was not prepared business-wise."

Yang's first major failure hit her hard. She recalls sitting with Wu "in bed through the dawn. I couldn't get through this. I was thinking, How could I fail, [given my] passionate and strong belief in what I do? I was crying. My husband was comforting me. Sometimes I would seek out arguments with him, and try to blame him for wrong decisions," she says. "Then I realized it was not about one particular decision — it was the business model."

Eventually, in the summer of 2003, Yang sold the station to Stellar Media, a firm controlled by nightclub-baron-turned-media-mogul Qin Hui. (Its mainland broadcasts were shut down in 2009 after political reform was discussed on the channel.) "My husband told me, 'Honey, I have to tell you, we have invested lots of our personal money into this channel, and within this current system, there is no end of losing money in the foreseeable future. If we have a buyer, we should sell,' " she recalls. "Selling the channel made me feel like a loser for a long time." That led to a year of soul-searching.

"I said to my husband, 'So tell me, what is my strength? Should I waste my time doing things that people hope me to do? What do you think my value is?' " she says. "My husband said, 'Maybe you're not aware of it, but you have been the inspiration of many girls. Besides the interview show, you could start a talk show aimed at women viewers.' "

In 2006, Her Village premiered, targeting urban women, the core of China's rising consumer class. Imagine The View, translated for Chinese TV, with the relentless xylophonic riffs and cartoony boings and cymbals that typify a lot of mainland programming. Yang cohosts the show with an ex-model and a former cheerleader, both much younger than she is.

Some of the themes would be familiar to American viewers. On one recent show, Wen Zhang, a 26-year-old film star, was asked about his marriage to a woman six years older, which is considered cougar territory in China. He offered some roundabout talk about how they conceived a baby while she was still on birth control. Later, the former model cohost cracked a joke about how her father used to say that she was perfect in every way, except she was ugly. No, it didn't quite translate on-screen either.

Her Village was built on television greenfields — China had never really had women's programming of this kind. "In the U.S., you have this whole daytime talk-show genre, with whole industries built around this narrow niche," says Kristian Kender, research director of the Chinese Media Monitor Intelligence. "Here, you don't."

Yang has also sought to follow the younger demographic to the Web. When she launched Her Village, she also started a sister Web site, tiannv.com. Her company, Sun Media, claims that both are hits, with a solid 10 million viewers per episode but a more middling 15,000 daily page views. (Because metrics are so unreliable in China, it's impossible to verify those numbers.)

The show might do even better in a more accessible time slot — it airs on Sundays at midnight on the Hunan TV Network. But for whatever reason, it hasn't been scheduled in prime time — we'll never know if the bureaucrats think it's too racy or if they just doubt it will be enough of a draw.

Indeed, while Yang remains studiously silent about politics, it's not hard to see that the apparatchiks haven't always been helpful to her. Yang Lan One on One airs on Shanghai-based Dragon TV. Earlier this year, the city government issued an edict prohibiting, for three months, all programming unrelated to the Shanghai Expo. For that period, her show was almost entirely off the air.

Over the past decade, Yang and Wu have bought and sold, opened and closed properties ranging from print newspapers to new Web sites under the umbrella of Sun Media. They've learned a lot about the difficulties of operating in an environment where profit-and-loss refers not only to finances but also to political capital and whim.

In 2008, the China Business Post, a newspaper that Sun Media bought two years earlier, was suspended by the government for three months after exposing embezzlement at a state-run bank. In response, Yang and Wu shut the paper down entirely. "We have learned to adapt," she says of censorship in general. "I am pragmatic, and in general I am optimistic. I just take it as the growing pains of the whole society. You have to have the strength to endure it, and at the same time you have to get stronger and bigger. If the regulations say you cannot have a private network, we will try to get our message out in as many ways as possible — what I call an integrated-communication solution."

"Every article, every event, talk show, the content of your program has to be in step with the government," says Sun Media president Xing Jing. Most of Yang's current ventures steer away from anything that might offend the authorities. Early this year, she inked a deal with the Chinese site PPTV to produce an online channel for women. She has teamed with the Tourism Ministry to create travel programming. A Sun Media subsidiary produces events; it orchestrated the opening ceremony of the 2009 World Stamp Exhibition in Henan and a Barcelona concert in which Chinese musicians shared the stage with the Spanish soprano Monserrat Caballé. There's also the jewelry-brand partnership with Celine Dion. In the past year, two Lan Jewelry stores have opened, one in the Shanghai Hilton and one in the Beijing Park Hyatt.

When asked what Sun Media's overarching strategy is, Xing says, "We custom-make programming for clients." All the products represent "integrated marketing for government departments and top 100 enterprises. Our strategy is to organize resources and provide better services to the customer."

Again, there's that word integrated, yet it's still hard to see what does connect Yang's various ventures. Most recently, Sun Media has branched out into credit cards. "We have a partnership with ICBC [the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China], the fifth-largest company in the world," Xing says, holding a card that has a hologram of golden sunbeams twinkling behind the numbers. "We help them sell credit cards. We put a celebrity's head on the card: Yang Lan, Jackie Chan, Yao Ming. It started in June."

"Are the credit cards in circulation yet?" I ask.

He nods yes. I look at his assistant, who is shaking her head no. I look back at him, and he nods again. "Yes. Yang Lan is using them."

Yang Lan has always relied on her instincts. That's how she broke through 20 years ago, and that's why she's where she is today. "Almost all the broadcasters before myself were trained in a particular broadcasting school," she says. "They were supposed to read the scripts, not saying whatever was in their own minds and their own hearts."

But if you watch Yang at work now, it's hard to connect her with the girl who offered that retort about the bikini. At a Shanghai conference of Chinese businesswomen, she is so aware of the cameras as to seem, well, programmed. Chin perched on her wrist, it's almost as if she's bending herself into a still life. When she speaks, her voice is mellifluous and gentle, especially next to the screechy oratory of the older speakers, who grew up spewing Red Guard slogans.

That evenness, coupled with her unfailing pragmatism, enabled Yang to thrive in yesterday's China and to survive in today's. You have to wonder, though, whether she has enough daring — though not too much! — to make a difference in tomorrow's. Xing admits that some of her recent proposals — including the travel show she developed with the Tourism Ministry — have been too sedate even for the state-run channels.

"In my business, I always believe that your true personality will prevail. In TV, the camera is like putting an amplifier on you," she says. "If you try to fake, you will fail. So my only strategy is to be myself." When asked to think back to Zheng Da, to her big break, to why she succeeded then, Yang has a ready answer, which she delivers with pride: "It was a horizon-opening, mind-opening show. People accepted me as an unprogrammed TV host." When she says that, you want to clap, but you're not quite sure how.

Photograph by Tony Law

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