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September 1, 2011

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Everybody thinks they've got talent

WHILE 2005 "Super Girl" champion Li Yuchun is now a real pop star, the finalist "duck neck" singing couple from last year's "China's Got Talent" is still running a store selling duck necks in Shanghai. And there are a lot more "duck neck" contestants than swans in China's ever-popular talent and reality TV shows.

The reality that fame is fleeting or unattainable hasn't affected the aspirations of millions of Chinese, mostly young people, who think they've got talent or want a moment in the spotlight.

Nationwide recruitment is underway for the third season of "China's Got Talent," a grassroots showcase with a sprinkling of talent, quirky acts, plus sad or inspiring stories. And undaunted wannabes from across China are lining up to audition for the show that kicks off on November 13 on Dragon TV. There are 30 recruiting stages nationwide, including stages in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Of course, there are genuinely talented people and grassroots contestants whose lives have been changed as they have moved out of obscurity. But mostly, they are untrained and their prospects are dim.

"Almost all the star-making shows are fast-food businesses," says Li Tian, a veteran TV producer. "The contestants can give us many surprises. But that's all we can expect from them. Compared with professionals, they still lack adequate expertise and experience."

After the initial surprise and appeal wears off, their inadequacies also become apparent to the public. "It's impossible to maintain the public's enthusiasm," he says. "A star needs professional education in art and culture but people are attracted to grassroots performers precisely because of their ordinary background, zest and lack of polish."

"If they are over-polished to become a 'star,' they will gradually lose their appeal," says Li.

In the West, he observes, most people enter talent shows for fun, to showcase their interests and talents and don't pin all their hopes on a show, but in China more people tend to have unrealistic dreams.

The appeal of "China's Got Talent," however, lies in its lack of polish and sometimes rustic charms.

Winners are offered performing contracts with major entertainment companies such as Sony Music Entertainment and local Starlight Entertainment Management Inc. They are likely to be invited on TV programs and commercial road shows and paid for advertisements. But contracts may not be renewed and interest may well dry up, if there's no real talent or lasting appeal in an act.

As for agencies, criteria for a grassroots performer are different from those of professionals and people with training.

"We set lower requirements for grassroots entertainers in singing and dancing," says Fu Zhengguang, deputy general manager of Starlight Entertainment. "We are more interested in their potential, flexibility and inspirational influence."

Images can't be tinkered with too much, he says.

For example, Starlight rejected a client's suggestion that 2011 "China's Got Talent" singer Cai Xiuqing, a confident fat girl, should lose weight. "She might no longer have that appeal of an ordinary overweight girl who makes good," Fu says.

Shanghai Daily asks "where are they now?" and looks at some winners and runners up from "China's Got Talent" and other shows.

Super Girl

Li Yunchun, the 2005 "Super Girl" singing champion, is among the few grassroots stars who remains popular.

The music student attended the star-making contest on a lark, just to have fun and make friends. She was notable not only for her clear and fine voice, but also her boyish, non-girly-girl looks and behavior. She became a superstar when reality shows were really hot.

These days she performs in concerts, appears in fashion magazines and starred, to good reviews, in the historic action thriller "Bodyguards and Assassins."

She will appear in the 3D martial arts film "Flying Swords of Dragon Gate" to be released on December 18. It stars Jet Li, Zhou Xun and Chen Kun. She plays a girl born into a bandit family.

Shanghai rapper

Shou Junchao, finalist in the first "Got Talent" season, signed a contract with Starlight Entertainment Management Inc. At the end of this year, he will release his first original album. He has been invited to create songs for popular online games and an international figure-skating competition.

"We have positioned him as an original rapper who shares the experience and memories of many Chinese young people," says Jin Yun, Shou's agent. "Over the past year, Shou has developed his understanding of rap music. We will try our best to pave the road for him."

Armless pianist

Liu Wei, a 24-year-old armless piano player from Beijing, was the champion in the first season of "China's Got Talent" after he stunned the audience by playing piano with his toes and telling his story.

His motto: "I have only two options - I can die as fast as possible, or I can live a brilliant life. And I chose the latter."

As a contracted star with Starlight Entertainment, Liu performed the Chinese classic "Butterfly Lovers," originally a violin concerto, at the Golden Hall in Vienna in January. He is working on his autobiography and his first album, including original songs. In November he will star in a TV series "My Brilliant Life" in which Liu plays an autistic man.

He has received voice and drama coaching, and feedback from film makers was good, says Fu from Starlight Entertainment. "He's hardworking and truly inspiration." Liu has declined offers to endorse famous brands of watches and digital products, preferring to star in public-service shorts.

He plans to set up a personal charity foundation, give inspirational lectures and help drop-outs to get back into school.

In October he will perform with Taiwan singer Wang Lee-hom at the opening of the 8th National Paralympics in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.

Body popper

Zhuo Jun, a 19-year-old self-taught body popping dancer, took top honors in the second season of "China's Got Talent."

He is the only college student from his small village in southern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and he plans to continue his studies.

Bun seller

Gao Yifeng, a bankrupt millionaire from Anhui Province who sang "Start All Over Again," was a big hit in the 2010 finals of "China's Got Talent." Before he performed, the 50-year-old was reduced to selling steamed bus at a small stall.

But the show made the ruined entrepreneur famous overnight. He now owns a chain of 20 steamed bun stalls in Shanghai and says he plans to open 1,000 more in the next two years.

Auntie Sweetie

Cai Hongping, a middle-aged vegetable seller from a wet market in Anhui Province, sang an aria about vegetables in "China's Got Talent" and charmed the audience who calls her "Auntie Sweetie." The ordinary-looking lady was compared with Susan Boyle of "Britain's Got Talent."

Cai, who is now in Shanghai, has big business plans and is trying to register "Auntie Sweetie" as a trademark, at the suggestion of backing entrepreneurs. The idea is to sell "Auntie Sweetie' brands in a chain of farms, restaurants and supermarkets.

She hopes to start her own business one day and makes no secret of it.

As a result, she has been criticized for being too commercial.

"I don't know if I will still sell vegetables in the wet market, but I'm quite sure I will continue to sing for those who like me and support me," Cai says.


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