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Seeking Online Stardom? First Buy a New Face

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 4/13/2017 Li Yuan

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Deng Qian has had more than a dozen cosmetic surgeries, to slim her arms, enlarge her breasts and change almost every part of her face.

“Everything above my belly button is fake,” she says.

Above the neck, Ms. Deng’s aim was an “online-star face”—big eyes, long nose, high forehead and sharp chin, a look pursued by young women seeking online celebrity and the big income that can follow.

“Chinese society values a pretty face above anything else,” says the 24-year-old former business major. “If you’re not pretty, nobody will care about you, and nobody will follow you online.”

On live-streaming sites and on Weibo, China’s Twitter, Ms. Deng sings, discusses her life and gives makeup demos. In the ranks of Chinese online celebrities, she’s lower-tier—her Weibo followers number roughly 23,600—and desperate to climb higher. She went on China’s top dating show and top job-seeking show and starred in a documentary about plastic surgery.

In her world, plastic surgery is a necessity, an online-star face an investment in a better future.

Ms. Deng is trying to stand out among some six million live streamers, most of them women, appearing on more than 200 platforms in China, according to industry executives and research. They chat, sing and carry on, seeking viewer rewards of virtual gifts that can be changed into cash. Some report making tens of thousands of dollars a month.

The best get product endorsements. In a two-hour session last June, one online celebrity sold 20 million yuan in fashion products on the Taobao online marketplace.

One commentator known for her acerbic short videos won backing of nearly $2 million in venture funding last year.

Ms. Deng expects to earn about 600,000 yuan ($90,000) this year, mainly by marketing cosmetic-surgery procedures online. That is a steep improvement, she says, from the 6,000 yuan-a-month entry-level finance job she got after college.

“This face is worth 600,000 yuan,” Ms. Deng says.

Beauty procedures are an “efficient upward-mobility channel” for young women, says Liu Di, founder and chief executive of cosmetic-surgery social-networking app Gengmei. “For them, it’s a better investment than getting into a good school or a good company.”

On Gengmei (“prettier”), people interested in cosmetic surgery can share experiences, connect with clinics and get loans for procedures. Gengmei has 18 million users and counts internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. as an investor. Asked about the app’s popularity, Mr. Liu says Chinese are more judgmental about failure than about plastic surgery.

“We value success more than values,” he says.

China is the world’s third-largest market for cosmetic surgery, behind the U.S. and Brazil, according to China’s Association of Plastics and Aesthetics. How much of the spending is driven by social media is hard to quantify.

What researchers call the “online-celebrity economy”—which includes e-commerce sales driven by personalities, virtual gifts and sponsorships—totaled 52.8 billion yuan ($7.66 billion) in 2016, research firm Analysys International estimates. That is bigger than China’s film box office.

Young women used to come in with photos of movie stars they wanted to look like, says Luan Jie, a 30-year veteran at the Plastic Surgery Hospital of the Chinese Academy of Medical Science in Beijing. Now they show him photos of stream queens.

“Successful online stars have a big impact on the aesthetics of our society, especially on the younger generation,” says Dr. Luan. The online-star face, with its attention-getting features, is turning women into cartoon characters, he says, and many look the same.

Liu Shuang, a 20-year-old music DJ in Beijing who uses social media and live-streaming for promotion, blames the online-star face for her career struggles. Her solution: further surgery—a 12-hour procedure last month to give her what she calls “a mixed-race face.”

“Most girls get plastic surgery that makes them look Japanese or Korean. Mine is more exaggerated, so more differentiating,” she says. Ms. Liu got a discount for the procedure, which she says would ordinarily cost more than 300,000 yuan, by allowing the clinic to use her before-and-after photos.

As with other investments, returns aren’t guaranteed. Audiences are tiring of repetitive content and faces, industry people say. Audience numbers and revenue for live-streaming shows are falling this year, says Jason Yang, founder of Mars Digital Entertainment, an online talent agency with 2,000 clients, including both Ms. Deng and Ms. Liu.

Recent government actions to remove edgy content hasn’t helped. Ms. Liu, who often posts suggestive photos and videos, had her accounts deleted on two popular sites.

Her answer to these challenges: more plastic surgery.

As soon as she recovers from her mixed-race-face surgery, Ms. Liu plans operations to enlarge both her bottom and breasts.

“It is a very competitive industry,” she says. “If you’re not perfect, outstanding and beautiful, you won’t have a chance.”

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