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'I will give myself one year to succeed before I graduate'

CRAVING stardom, many young people are flocking to non-televised talent contests. Nie Xin reports.

Ge Yalei waits anxiously for her turn on stage, primping, constantly checking her makeup, her long blond hair, her short skirt and T-shirt to make sure everything is perfect.

Ge, a singer-songwriter wannabe, is one of 30 finalists in a multi-talent competition held by Shopping Mall 353 on Nanjing Road E. The 20-year-old is an English major at Shanghai Normal University and has been entering contests for years, mostly singing contests.

She is one of millions of star-struck Chinese young people who want to be pop stars, and naively think they can succeed. Many enter contest after contest in hopes of improving their performance and one day getting the big break.

"I know it's difficult. I'll be disappointed if I don't do well, but I'll never give up," says Ge.

She admits, however, she has finally made a pact with her family and friends in her performing group: If she doesn't succeed before graduation, she'll try to find a job.

In Ge's contest, "353 Summer Story," the 20 best will perform in an online movie about campus life ("353 Summer Story"). Filming will begin in June. A few will get some kind of talent contract.

The contest is live but not on TV; portions are posted online and Internet voting will help decide the winners, in addition to professional judging. Winners will be announced early next month.

Selection began in January when more than 1,000 young people applied to showcase their singing, musicianship, dancing, modeling, public speaking and conversational talent. They can also demonstrate their specialty - yodeling, photography, basketball - whatever.

This is just one of a number of talent shows around China - recession-proof apparently - and they are crowded with young people who want to be celebrities.

For some, there's a talent-show track.

Some parents, far from telling their children to get real and get a job, groom them for these shows, and China also has its share of "stage mothers." One Shanghai mom, a former local TV actress, has been training her daughter and entering her in talent shows for years. The young woman is now 20.

There was a craze for star-making live TV shows like "Super Girls" (Hunan TV) and "My Hero" (Dragon TV), among others. Some have been banned from the airwaves, in their flashiest-trashiest prime-time form.

The government cracked down on the phenomenon two years ago because shows were becoming a national obsession, and many were vulgar and tasteless. Scenes broadcast live and nationwide of thousands of young girls swooning and weeping in ecstasy, totally out of control, were considered unseemly, to say the least. Winners were chosen largely by SMS voting and vast sums of money were involved.

State directives said they could no longer be live, no longer in prime time, they had to be tasteful and SMS voting would not be a major factor.

That said, some modified shows continue, like "My Show" (STV) and "Happy Boy" (Hunan TV).

And there's good news for Super Girl wannabes.

After a two-year absence, the show will be resumed, probably next month, and renamed "Happy Girls," airing on Hunan TV. It won't be broadcast live until the finals, it won't be in prime time but aired at 10:30pm and it will be toned down. But it will be on and screened nationwide.

As for the Shopping Mall 353 competition, it's being watched by scouts from Shanghai ToWing Culture Development Ltd Co, one of the city's biggest talent agencies. A few winners will get some kind of contract.

With her long bleached blond hair and big black made-up eyes, Ge is quite stylish in addition to being well-mannered. She dreams of being a singer-songwriter like Cheer Chen, a Taiwanese folk/rock singer-songwriter.

Ge plays piano and guitar and wrote her first song when she was 15. She has composed more than 30 tunes, one of them recorded by a local singer and released on an album last month.

"This gives me a lot of confidence and sense of achievement," says Ge.

Since she was eight, Ge has been trying out in musical competitions to boost what she hopes will become a career. Last year, she was among 20 finalists in Shanghai in the Asia New Singer Singing Competition.

Last year Ge and six friends formed a pop music group. She and two others sing and dance; they call themselves 789. The other four work behind the scenes and produce songs; they are called BLAS. It's typical youngster pop.

The group has some online popularity.

"We have our own fan club, around 300 to 400 people," says Ge. "They are all young people like us and love our music."

Talent scouts do check out these contests.

"We scout potential artists from this kind of show. It's a good way to find real talent," says Lin Ying, director of the department of performing arts and assistant to general manager of Shanghai ToWing Culture Development Ltd Co.

For some, the talent show is a first try, as for college student Zhu Zhe, 20. The "cute guy" with a cap and black-framed glasses likes basketball and plays in a lot of basketball demonstrations. His idolizes NBA star Yao Ming and Taiwanese hip-hop singer MC Hotdog.

"Don't you think my pictures look like MC Hotdog?" he asks.

He says the talent show, like basketball, is just a way to have fun and make friends. Apparently, his singing isn't bad.

To his surprise, after videos of him in the talent contest were posted online, Zhu now has some fans, and he's delighted.

"The talent show and online exposure help recruiters," says scout Lin. "Besides proving their talents, they are famous online before we package them and promote them in commercial way," he says.

Another contestant is Liu Shilong, 21, an aspiring film maker who is always going around with his video camera, making short films.

"I hope I can have my own studio and film whatever I like someday," says Liu. "But while I'm young I also want to shine on the stage."

During the contest, he has sung, danced and modeled to promote the Nanjing Road mall. He has modeled fashions for local magazines and posed for railway advertising.

"It's a good opportunity. If I hadn't come here, I wouldn't have so many chances to show what I can do," says Liu.

Stage presence and confidence is very important," says Lin, adding that these shows build talent and experience.

Wang Yuancheng, a 20-year-old college sophomore, is steeped in talent shows and seems older than her years, partly because of her heavy eye make-up and fancy style. She's calm and poised in front of reporters.

Since she was 14, Wang has entered almost 20 competitions for singing, performing and modeling.

She also has a devoted stage mother, Chen Cunyu, who used to be a TV actress. Now mom is determined to help her daughter make a name for herself in show business. She is constantly on the lookout for talent shows to train and groom her daughter - and give her exposure. She never passes one up.

"All the shows are good experience and training to make her a fully talented artist in singing, dancing and performing," says Chen.

The mom buys stylish clothes, shoes and accessories for the daughter and has taught her how to look good on the catwalk and how to act.

As a result, Wang has gotten some supporting roles in TV programs and appeared in advertisements.

"I think my daughter has more advantages than others," says the proud mother.

Lin from the talent agency keeps telling people that it's not easy to be a star. A successful artist, he says, must have talent, confidence, stage presence and charm, a high EQ, ability to communicate and an engaging personality.

"Many people think it's easy to become a star," he says, "and those who enter talent shows have unrealistic dreams of overnight success and a contract with a big talent agency."

Young people's courage and determination is fine, he says, but they need to learn and improve their skills.

And many who initially "make it," at least signing a contract, don't know anything about business and marketing, he says.

"They just want to make the music they like and perform the way they like, but ignore the marketing," says Lin.

This can lead to conflicts with their talent agency that has its own marketing plans and agenda.

"You cannot be a commercially successful artist just with a dream," he says.

Nor is talent enough.

Ge says she is being realistic: If she cannot make a significant success in one year, she will look for a regular job and consider music just a hobby.

"I will give myself one year to succeed before I graduate," she says. "I don't know the future for my music dream, but I'll do my best."


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