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TV talent shows lure wannabes to 'Angel' and 'Happy Girl'

FOR almost two years, since the government demanded a clean-up of vulgar and tacky star-making TV contests, young Chinese viewers have yearned for grassroots idols and dreams-come-true.

Their suffering is about to end.

Stay tuned this Friday at 10:30pm to Hunan Satellite TV's live broadcast of the final rounds of "Happy Girl" ("Kuaile Nusheng").

New regulations prohibit live prime-time broadcasts - presumably to protect young minds - but later on a Friday night is ideal for young viewers who are thrilled to see ordinary people shoot to celebrity.

Two more new shows make their debut this summer - also live after prime time:

Local Dragon TV's "Angel" ("Dongfang Tianshi") will air every Saturday from 10:30-11pm from August 8 to October 10.

Jiangsu Satellite TV's "Sing Aloud" ("Juedui Changxiang") is still in the selection stages and the finals are expected to be aired in September.

These new shows are supposed to showcase genuinely talented young women, who not only sing, dance or play an instrument, but also have intelligence, wit and communications skills. Elegance and "Oriental charm" are essential.

If they pull it off, this will represent a big change from their glitzy predecessors, including some "reality TV," that young star-crazed people considered a shortcut to celebrity.

These shows are a national phenomenon.

For years, vast numbers of young people, mostly young women, were glued to, swooned to, and voted by SMS to live, prime-time shows, often lacking in real talent and good taste. The spectacle of young out-of-control girls was considered unseemly. There were also gaga fan clubs nationwide supporting grassroots idols.

These shows included "My Hero" ("Jiayou Hao Nan'er"), "My Show" ("Wo Xing Wo Xiu") and "Happy Boy" ("Kuaile Nansheng"), and "Super Girls" ("Chaoji Nusheng").

These shows got out of control, however, and the government cracked down in September 2007. Such shows were ordered to be tasteful and involve serious talent. Suggestive banter was banned.

There were to be no more live, prime-time broadcasts and no highly profitable voting off-site by fans using their cell phones, regular phones and the Internet.

"We need a healthy environment to lead our young generation with a more active, heart-warming and inspiring message, instead of vicious competition accompanied by media hype and vulgarity," says "Angel" spokesman Zhou Jie. "Strict regulation is not a bad thing. Our market needs uniform game rules."

Gu Jue from Dragon TV took part in organizing "My Hero." This year's "Angel" will be a new challenge.

"Young people's passion for stardom doesn't fade," says Gu. "Waiting a long time for another show leads to even stronger emotions and longing. From their eyes, we can tell how eagerly they hope to seize the opportunity for sudden fame."

The national selection for "Angel" started around one month ago. The 10 finalists will be decided next month and they will enter more fierce on-stage competition rounds. The winner will be chosen in October.

The show has attracted thousands of actress wannabes, including students at or graduates from prestigious theater and drama schools.

In fact, training at a theater academy can no longer guarantee a promising acting career these days. Many film and TV producers are now driven by profit and quick returns. They seldom take the risk of employing young actors without fame, fan base and much experience.

"A 26-year-old contestant from a film school said that she regretted missing so many chances for stardom while she was in school and said our talent show would be her last chance," says Gu from Dragon TV.

Young people's fever for talent shows can't be cooled by regulations and the old shows still exert powerful influence, she says.

"Happy Girl" on Hunan Satellite TV has chosen its 10 finalists from more than 150,000 applicants. The finals will be televised weekly from this Friday at 10:30pm to the end of August.

All the finalists have signed contract with Tianyu Media to plan for their singing career, says Ma Hao, director of "Happy Girl." The show's elimination rounds received an average rating of 1.9, as high as the channel's popular prime-time entertainment programs such as "Happy Camp" and "Day Day Up."

However, the show's total advertising revenue is expected to shrink to 110 million yuan (US$16.1 million) compared with the 300 million yuan generated by the prime-time 2006 "Super Girl" show.

Fan Xuwen, the channel's advertising manager, says they will diversify programs instead of relying on just one blockbuster star-show to generate income and attract an audience.

This year Jiangsu Satellite TV's "Sing Aloud" has been incorporated into a new program "Great Master and Brilliant Disciples" running through the early September.

Guided by famous Chinese singers like A-Mei Cheung, the 10 finalists will enter a new competition. The best will be given contracts with Typhoon Group entertainment company.

Liu Yuan, an official from Jiangsu Satellite TV, says the new regulations mean producers must be more creative and impressive.

Though the "Angel" producers don't think the new regulations will have much impact on advertising revenue and viewership, they are seeking wider collaboration with film production companies, agencies and overseas media groups. In short, they're making the commercial pie ever bigger.

"Angel" producers recently signed a memorandum with the Disney Co, in which it receives the right to use original scores from Disney's hit film "High School Musical." "Angel" contestants will be trained by the movie cast. Training may be televised.

In September, "Angel" will present a special performance themed on Hua Mulan, a legendary female general in ancient China. It will cooperate with Jingle Ma's epic film "Mulan" to be released later this year. Guided by director Ma, the contestants, clad in war costumes, will play the protagonist in different scenes.

"Angel" aims to be uplifting, not superficial and senseless, says spokesperson Zhou.

World Expo 2010 in Shanghai will also inspire the show. Some programs will feature the Expo theme, "Better City, Better Life." The contestants will volunteer for Expo.

Without SMS voting, the winners will be judged by a panel of famed film makers, actors, music producers and the live audience.

Winners may appear in director Feng Xiaogang's films, try working as a local TV host and make an album. They also can be hired by China Eastern Airlines - a big chance for young job seekers in the financial downturn.

"Our strategy is to build a resource pool for China's next top-notch actresses like Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li," says "Angel" spokesperson Zhou. "New grassroots idols will find a lot of opportunities in this long industry chain."

Though star-making shows have long been criticized for their lack of originality - they are largely clones of "American Idol" and "Britain's Got Talent," they are irresistible.

Professor Yin Hong, a media expert from Tsinghua University, once said the elements of these shows combine to make them more aesthetically stimulating than a Cinderella story. They involve sincere emotions, interactivity, audience-oriented production and a real-life dreamland of overnight fame.

Professor Li Yizhong, a TV and film expert from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, says that programs satisfy teenagers' psychological needs for self-realization.

Further, the huge profits generated by the contests ensure the show must go on.

"People in high-paced modern society want to get stronger stimulation from such 'fast food' TV shows," Professor Li says. "But their energy cannot be released without restraint. Mass media has a responsibility to sound the voice of reason in the face of star mania."

He is concerned the media hype, constant exposure and elevation of young idols will cause excessive material consumption and exploitation of young people.

An example is comedian Xiao Shenyang who became an overnight sensation at this year's national Spring Festival TV gala, but now finds it hard to hook audiences after so much exposure, touring and commercial endorsements in a short time.

The government regulations on star-making shows, in Professor Li's opinion, can limit some of the bad taste and vulgar content, but cannot quench young folks' lust for the limelight.

"The fad will eventually fade," he says, "and be replaced by other fads. The market will decide." Star-making TV shows

Talent/reality shows have become a phenomenon in China. The earliest ones were modeled on international hits like "American Idol" and "Big Brother."

In 2004, Hunan Satellite TV launched "Super Girls" singing contest, and it became famous nationwide in 2005. It made a national celebrity of Li Yuchun, an ordinary music student with a boyish appearance. That she was not conventionally pretty was remarkable.

Li's performance at the finale was watched by 400 million people and received more than 3 million SMS votes from supporters nationwide. SMS polling was hitting its strike.

The success of "Super Girls" inspired other television stations to have a go. The follow-ups include Dragon TV's "My Hero" and "My Show," CCTV's "Star Boulevard," and Heilongjiang TV's national selection of TV hosts.

Though the shows attracted thousands of star wannabes and involved more than singing, none was as famous as 2005 "Super Girls."

"Xidan Girl" Ren Yueli

Before she tried to become an "Angel," 20-year-old Ren Yueli was a wandering street singer, known in the subways of Beijing's Xidan District.

To support her sick mother and father in a village in Hebei Province, it is said Ren dropped out of school and went to Beijing four years ago.

She has already become an Internet celebrity. Her voice, personal experience and spirit have touched millions of Netizens. Many say she sings like an angel.

Happy and Angelic contestants "Little Cecilia Cheung" Gong Mi

The 18-year-old undergraduate at the Beijing Film Academy has attracted attention in "Happy Girl" because of her resemblance, in appearance and voice, to Hong Kong actress Cecilia Cheung.

It is said Gong had plastic surgery to increase the resemblance. Zhu Yonglong, the former agent of Cecilia Cheung, is reported to be a behind-the-scenes promoter.

Gong, after advancing into regional finals in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, didn't show up for the next round. It was said she had withdrawn for health reasons, but some Netizens speculated that she was trying to create buzz.

Zeng Yike

A controversial, out-of-tune contestant in "Happy Girl," the wanna-be from Hunan Province advanced to the final 10.

Zeng's special baby-like voice is praised as a "sheep voice" by her fans. Her advance during the top 20 eliminations prompted judge Tina Bao to quit in anger. "How can a contestant who is out of tune be allowed to continue?" he asked.

Some say the judges are partial to her. Some Netizens have made fun of her distinct voice and unfeminine appearance by naming her "Brother Zeng" in an Internet video parody of her performance. Reciting Hamlet on star-making TV? Sonia Jarrett

I could feel my heart beat faster and faster. Soon, it would be my turn to put my head on the chopping block. Why had I agreed to this?

For the sake of a good story, I agreed to audition for China's latest star-making TV contest, "Angel" on Dragon TV.

Unlike other reality shows such as "My Hero" and "My Show," "Angel" is for women only, and they must exhibit all-around talent.

Organizers say they are looking for China's next female star who embodies Oriental charm, elegance and intelligence.

Contestants will compete in singing, acting, dancing, and will be judged on their communication skills, team-work abilities and creativity.

As a half-Chinese, half-American who has lived in China for over 12 years, I decided that I was at least qualified in the "Oriental" department.

On the afternoon of June 27, I made my way over to Times Square in Pudong for the preliminary auditions.

While on the subway to the audition, I frantically tried to memorize the Chinese lyrics to "The Moon Represents My Heart." I had just about gotten the words down when I arrived at the shopping mall.

Upon arrival, I saw that unlike shows such as "American Idol" where auditions are held in a closed room, the "My Angel" audition stage was completely open to the public in the center of the mall. Of course, being in China where everyone loves a good show, many onlookers had gathered on the floors above to watch the contestants' performances.

With the crowd surrounding me above, I felt as if I had just entered a gladiator's arena.

Luckily, the young women were nothing like gladiators. There was no cattiness or jealousy. In fact, there was an air of friendly curiosity among us. Many asked each other where they came from or what they would perform for the judges.

After registering and watching a couple auditions, I discovered to my chagrin that I needed to prepare not one, but two demonstrations of talent for the judges. I watched in fear and awe as the other multi-talented girls sang, acted, danced, and played instruments. Unfortunately, I could not think of anything else to perform for the life of me.

While some girls came in full costume and makeup, others looked as if they had just been shopping earlier and decided to audition on a whim. Despite the differences, they all expressed similar reasons for auditioning.

"I wanted to test myself," says Yang Yu, 20, from Jiangsu Province. "It would be great if I could make it to the next round, but if not, that's OK too."

Wu Jiajun, 20, from Shanghai says, "Variety is the spice of life. This is a new experience for me, and that's what matters most."

The auditions for "Angel" also attract girls from around the country. Jia Qin, 18, came to Shanghai from Hubei Province after her high school exams.

"Coming here was my reward after exams," she says.

Huang Xiangyan, 23, from Guangdong Province has competed in similar contests before and says she traveled to Shanghai because "I like a good competition."

While chatting, I was slowly moving up the line to the stage. Yet I still did not have another talent to showcase. With only four girls ahead of me, it suddenly dawned on me that there was one thing I could do: recite one of Hamlet's soliloquies.

Thanks to my high school English teacher who drilled "To be or not to be" into our heads, I had committed Shakespeare's famous passage to memory. No, it wouldn't be the most exciting of acts, but it would be different - and it was all I had.

As I mounted the stairs to get onstage, a strange calmness descended upon me. Perhaps it was the calm before the storm?

Somehow I managed to introduce myself coherently in Chinese, and recite the soliloquy with what could pass as grace. Unfortunately, my singing did not fare too well because my nerves finally got the best of my memory and vocal chords.

Afterward, all I could think was, "Thank God the judges didn't kick me off stage." Instead, they were intrigued by my bilingual abilities and even asked me a little more about my background.

Although I did not pass through to the next round (thankfully), I can understand now what the girls meant by testing themselves. As someone who usually likes staying behind the scenes, stepping forth into the spotlight was not easy for me. However, I learned that I could step up to the challenge.

I also gained a newfound respect for people who participate in shows such as "Angel." To succeed, contestants need real skills that take time and effort to cultivate.

So watch out, 'cause these girls got talent.


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