The first time Wang Yan was told he looked like Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou, he didn’t even know who the singer was.
It was 2005, the peak of Chou’s career. Wang was a 16-year-old high school student in Jiangsu province. One day, he received a text message from an anonymous student that read, “I love you, Jay Chou. Please be my boyfriend!”
“I had no idea who Jay Chou was at the time,” Wang recalls. “I didn’t understand why that girl was calling me by that name.”
After learning more about Chou, Wang’s interest in him grew, especially once he became aware that his high school popularity was a product of his uncanny resemblance to the pop star.
Now, Wang works professionally as a Jay Chou impersonator.
The money to be made in impersonating Chinese celebrities has led many aspiring singers and actors to drop lifelong dreams of becoming big-time stars in exchange for secondhand fame.
Such was the case with Wang Wenjun, another impersonator who masquerades as Taiwanese pop diva Jolin Tsai.
A graduate of the Central Conservatory of Music, one of the China’s top music schools, Wang aspired to be a singer and signed with a Beijing music label shortly after graduation.
But she soon realized the label’s promise of fame was hot air.
The company kept stalling the date of Wang’s first concert. She spent eight months rehearsing every day for a grand opening that never come, earning a paltry 5,000 yuan ($740) per month.
Since she began impersonating full-time last April, her monthly earnings have increased tenfold.
“Some people criticize me for being a ‘knock-off celebrity,’ but they don’t know how hard it is to be yourself in this industry,” Wang says. “My boyfriend doesn’t like it. He gets jealous at all the attention I get, even though I’m not a real celebrity.”
Wang Yan, the Jay Chou impersonator, recalls getting hate mail early in his career from die-hard Chou fans, who accused him of being “too ugly” to be a faithful rendition of their idol.
Occasionally, impersonators have also been sued by the people they imitate. Although impersonation is not illegal in China, problems arise when promoters use the name and visage of the actual celebrity.
In 2015, Ding Yong, an impersonator of the rock musician Wang Feng, was sued for using a promotional poster that read, “Wang Feng has arrived!”
Ding survived the lawsuit by using an old trick from the impersonator playbook: he pointed out that the name Wang Feng was bracketed in visible, albeit faint, double quotation marks.
Wang Wenjun’s promotional posters use a similar tactic. They include Tsai’s name, along with the word “impersonator” in tiny print.
“I think impersonators like me are good for the celebrity,” says Wang Wenjun. “We help spread the celebrity’s music to places where he or she would never think of going.”
Indeed, most of Wang Wenjun’s shows are in rural parts of China where Tsai will not likely perform. They’re also where Wang gets the best offers.
The more savvy impersonators try to avoid legal trouble by demanding promoters show their publicity material beforehand to ensure it does not inappropriately use the celebrity’s name or picture.
But if this realization is only made after the contract is signed, impersonators might still be forced to go onstage.
“I once performed at a venue that was using a picture of Jay Chou in the background,” says Wang Yan. “When I refused to go up, the organizer brought in a group of knuckleheads armed with clubs.
“But at least I don’t have it as bad as female impersonators,” Wang adds. “They often get sexually harassed after the show by the promoters.”
Fame in their own name
After years of making money in someone else’s shadow, it’s common for many impersonators to yearn for “real fame,” says Zhao Lijuan, a long-time impersonator of folk music legend Han Hong.
Last year, Zhao spent over 50,000 yuan ($7,400) producing her own single. When asked if the investment has paid off, she chuckles and says in fact, she is losing money. Promoting the track costs even more than production.
Nevertheless, it is a sacrifice that Zhao is happy to make.
“You might think I’m foolish, but my only objective in life is to leave behind a song I created that people will remember,” she says.
“They don’t know how hard it is to be yourself in this industry.”
The exponential growth of the impersonation market has only made industry veterans more eager to break free from their persona, even if it means leaving behind a lucrative profession.
“Just like real singers, there are first-rate, second-rate, and third-rate impersonators, all with different price brackets,” says Wang Yan, who earns between 10,000 and 20,000 yuan per concert, putting him in the first-rate category (Wang Wenjun and Zhao are also in this category). “It seems like a new Jay Chou impersonator pops up every other day.”
Although Wang has no problem with these other impersonators—they are all in a WeChat group together—he is resentful of the novices who only care about making a quick buck.
“They really bring disgrace to us serious impersonators,” Wang Yan says. “They draw in promoters with really low prices, but after their shoddy performances, all of us are left with one less employer and a tarnished reputation.”
Still, Zhao, Wang Yan, and Wang Wenjun all hold their professions—and their respective idols—in high regard.
Zhao describes Han as “worthy of being impersonated” for all the charity work she has done. It inspired Zhao to perform at schools for children with disabilities in her hometown.
Wang Yan has shared the stage with Jay Chou multiple times on variety television shows and affectionately refers to the celebrity as his “older brother.” Wang Wenjun’s dream, besides becoming a singer in her own right, is to share the stage with Jolin Tsai.
Many of China’s celebrity impersonators eventually find themselves in this conundrum, eager to step into their own persona but unable to resist the money that comes with impersonation.
Nevertheless, escape is not impossible.
“This year, for the first time ever, I started to notice people on Weibo using my real name,” says Wang Yan. “It may be a small change, but it means the world to me.”