Saturday, May 27, 2017, 12:11 PM CST – China

Essay

The Three Stages of Celebrity

I suddenly caught sight of the crowd of people standing behind my friend also taking pictures of me, without asking. Suddenly, the adoring fans had become the paparazzi.

I look like a typical Norwegian – down to the blonde hair and blue eyes. Traveling outside Europe I tend to garner a lot of attention from the locals. Until I came to China, this attention was mostly negative and uncomfortable. There would be a lot of whistling, cat-calling and commentary from men who passed me in the street. After I came to China, however, I realized that in terms of public treatment of women, as with many other things, the Chinese are often rather different.

In China there have been no comments and no wolf-whistling. I tend to get as much attention from girls as from boys, and instead of feeling objectified, one inevitably starts to feel more like a celebrity. In my imagination at least, when a real celebrity walks down the street, people point and whisper “Isn’t that that actress from that movie?”

As a foreigner in China, you overhear the word laowai (foreigner) everywhere you turn. Instead of discussions about which movies you have appeared in, you can hear people asserting with great confidence which country you are from. I have yet to hear anyone get it right; most label me as Russian. So often, in fact, that hearing the phrase eluosi de (Russian), like laowai, triggers a Pavlovian response in me.

Moreover, as I’m sure most true celebrities know, people will occasionally walk up, camera in hand, and shyly ask to have a picture taken with me. The first time this happened, I misunderstood their intention and thought they wanted me to take a picture of them. But no, they wanted me in the photo, and, bewildered, I duly struck a pose, smiling my biggest smile, not understanding why someone would want to take a picture with a complete stranger. 

Over time, of course, this public attention slowly goes from being incredibly flattering, to being routine, and then to being a little bit of a hassle. Sooner or later, you realize you actually don’t want strangers to take pictures of you. For me this turning point came during      a trip to Beijing, when a friend was going to take a picture of me in front of the Forbidden City, and I suddenly caught sight of the crowd of people standing behind my friend also taking pictures of me, without asking. Suddenly, the adoring fans had become the paparazzi.

Simply saying “no” in such situations is rarely effective – people often just take your picture anyway, so after some deliberation my traveling companions and I concocted a plan. We would ask people for money to take a picture of us or with us. We didn’t really think anyone would actually want to pay, but still we set the price at 10 yuan (less than US$2), and agreed to make exceptions for children.

The next time we were approached, we all froze up. We had agreed to ask for money, but we all felt very embarrassed. How would people react to such a demand? Was it very rude? Was it really that exhausting to just pose for a few pictures? Eventually one of my friends got up her nerve, and, when a camera-toting tourist made his move, curtly countered with “shi kuai qian” (10 yuan). To our great surprise, the target just nodded as if this was perfectly normal, handed us a 10-yuan note, and stood beside us so his friend could take the picture.

When our mark walked away, we were left dumbstruck. Someone really gave us money? And that’s when we realized; we were onto something here! 10 yuan might not be much, but to students every little bit helps, and when you're in a country where 10 yuan can fill your stomach, our scheme seemed ingenious.

We kept asking for money. Partly because we didn’t want to take pictures, and partly because we did want to earn money. About 30 percent of the people who sidled up for a snap were actually willing to pay, and when we went to Beijing’s Temple of Heaven we managed to earn back half of the entrance ticket price by taking pictures with people. The people who didn’t pay, however, were visibly contemptuous of our little scam. And I couldn’t blame them. 

Slowly, however, the novelty of even this monetized form of pseudo-celebrity life too wore off, and I started letting people just take a picture every now and then. The presence of kids, or having a brief conversation with people beforehand, often made charging seem exploitative. Thus, what I can only assume is the third stage of celebrity was reached – resignation. Is it a bit of a hassle to get stopped for pictures? Yes, a little. But that minute of hassle for me might make another person very happy, and send them back home with a story to tell, and if that is the case, isn’t it worth it? 

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