At a nearly sold-out arena in Shanghai in late February, the celebrated Chinese pianist Lang Lang joined the stage with a young singer named Luo Tianyi.
Luo is a newcomer in the industry, but she already has over three million fans on Weibo, China’s Twitter, and tickets to the concert ran upwards of $235.
She has a dedicated legion of fans who memorize her songs, buy her merchandise, and dress up like her.
The only thing is Luo doesn’t actually exist.
She’s a virtual idol, a hologram created by motion capture software.
And that evening in Shanghai, when Lang was sharing the stage with Luo, marked the first time a holographic singer performed with a real-life musician.
Fake idol, real fans
Luo Tianyi is China’s most popular virtual idol among an estimated 30 to 40 holographic celebrities in the country.
The trend originated in Japan, which has a long history of making virtual idols. The most famous is holographic pop star Hatsune Miku, who sings with a synthesized voice and has done several concerts in China, performing in both Chinese and Japanese.
Their fanbase overlaps with the same subculture that’s interested in comic books, anime, and cosplay. In China, this market is expected to reach about $30 billion this year, according to a report by iResearch.
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At the concert, it’s obvious to see why this market has so much potential.
Fans were as dedicated to Luo as they would be with any other celebrity, waving blue glow sticks and yelling Luo’s name. Some even burst into tears.
“She’s not a real person, so she can be whatever you want her to be.”
“When she finished the song Xinliyougui [which roughly translates to “guilty conscience”], I immediately shouted ‘Tianyi, my lover, I love you!,’” says Gao Yu, a university student who traveled more than 1,000 miles from Sichuan province to attend the concert. “People around me laughed and started shouting the same thing.”
Kit Cheung, a high school student who traveled from Hong Kong, about 700 miles away, has spent more than $2,500 on Luo Tianyi memorabilia over the past seven years, using money saved from meals and working part-time jobs.
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“Luo Tianyi is perfect,” Cheung says. “She’s not a real person, so she can be whatever you want her to be. It’s like a customized idol that only belongs to you.”
Cheung spends at least six hours every week managing a Luo Tianyi fan account on Weibo. She arranges events, crowdfunds for followers, and posts fan paintings and novels about their idol.
“I could never imagine being an admin of a fan group or senior manager of fans, but Luo Tianyi gave me the opportunity.”
For the concert with Lang, Cheung raised over $700 through a crowdfunding campaign to buy flowers on behalf of 145 fans who could not go to the event—all this for a celebrity who doesn’t exist in real life.
“I used to be very introverted,” Cheung says. “I could never imagine being an admin of a fan group or senior manager of fans, but Luo Tianyi gave me the opportunity.”
Staging a virtual idol concert takes a lot more resources than one for a real idol.
A team of about 200 people from China and Japan worked for six months to prepare for the two-hour performance, according to Shanghai Henian Information Technology, the company that acquired the full rights to Luo Tianyi’s character in 2015.
Luo’s solo performances were produced well before the concert. Every movement and facial expression was created using 3-D modeling and motion-capture software.
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During the concert, though, her real-time interactions with Lang Lang and fans had to be mimicked by a backstage performer, who was hooked up to the software with wires.
Luo was created in 2012 through a partnership between Thstars, the parent company of Shanghai Henian, and Yamaha, the Japanese electronics company. Her image was developed by fans.
Anyone can write music for Luo using a Yamaha software called Vocaloid. The result is an autotuned voice, but fans don’t seem to mind.
“The more you listen to it, the better it sounds.”
“The more you listen to it, the better it sounds,” says Gao Yu.
Poker Yang has been writing songs for Luo since 2012.
“I wanted China to have a virtual idol that could sing Chinese songs.”
A self-taught composer, Yang became famous when his song for Luo was played over a million times on the Chinese streaming website Bilibili.
(Read more: To access Bilibili, you have to pass a test of 100 esoteric questions)
“I discovered this virtual character after the Japanese virtual idols became popular,” Yang says, “and I wanted China to have a virtual idol that could sing Chinese songs.”
Eventually, Shanghai Henian reached out to Yang to work on some paid songs for ads featuring Luo.
While there are dozens of virtual idols in China, Luo is the only one that has been able to make a profit.
She has been a brand ambassador for Pizza Hut and the Japanese video game For Whom the Alchemist Exists.
She’s also been in ads for domestic makeup brand Pechoin, beverage brand Nestlé, and fast food chain KFC.
(Read more: KFC in China sells egg tarts. Here’s how they got the recipe.)
The advantage of a celebrity who doesn’t exist in real life is that she can be molded into anything.
The Communist Youth League of China has even used Luo in public service announcements warning against sex and drugs.
From subculture to mainstream
Shanghai Henian is not the only company in China working on virtual idols.
Tech company KilaKila has ambitious plans to develop a platform where anyone can create their own character.
“China’s virtual idol industry is still in a very early stage,” says Liu Zizheng, chief executive of KilaKila. “We were in the exploration period up until 2018, so this year might be a big one for the industry in China.”
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Last October, Kilakila raised over $17 million to build China’s first interactive virtual idol platform.
In January, more than 10 companies, including Weibo and Kilakila, launched the country’s first virtual idol fund, with $14 million allocated to help incubate promising projects and hire talent for content production.
“Many people don’t understand it or just see this as cartoons for children,” says Yuki Cao, chief executive of Shanghai Henian. “We’re getting more people involved to help them understand this young, imaginative, and dynamic culture, so that it’s no longer a subculture but one that eventually becomes mainstream.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.