Zhong Feifei’s road to variety show fame has been unconventional, to say the least. As a university student at Johns Hopkins studying counter terrorism, she had never performed on stage, nor had any big aspirations to make music as a career. But when producers of the hugely successful Chinese variety show Produce Camp 2020 (创造营 2020) discovered the Congolese-Chinese singer via her beauty blog, she was suddenly flung into the spotlight.
“I remember getting a call right after I’d finished all my exams and I was on Christmas break,” she recalls. “I got a call from my cousin — actually I got ten calls — but I didn’t pick up. Eventually I answered and she said, ‘Do you know this program, they’re asking you if you want to come in and audition?’ We only had about a week, so I booked a ticket, and flew back in and started practicing, and then I went to the final audition. The director said, ‘I think you’re in,’ on the spot.”
Without a single song to her name, and with a career in music little more than a dream at the end of 2019, just a few months later Zhong had become one of the most-talked about variety show contestants in China.
The show was the third iteration of Produce 101 China, a spin-off from South Korea’s Produce 101. First airing in 2018, with the aim of bringing together a successful girl group, the show went on to produce the likes of the mega-famous Rocket Girls 101 in 2018, and Bon Bon Girls 303 in 2020. The show has become massively popular, raking in 4.3 billion views on Tencent Video for its first season.
“I saw the previous two seasons of Produce 101, but I wasn’t a superfan or anything,” says Zhong. “It was like, ‘I’m watching this show, and I never expected to be on the same stage as these people.’ I was planning on coming back home [to China] for Chinese New Year anyway — I didn’t think about it too much.”
Born in Guangzhou, Zhong lived in Republic of the Congo for a few years early in her life before living in China until she was in eighth grade. She eventually moved back to Africa, this time to Democratic Republic of Congo, to finish school, then relocated to the US to pursue studies in international relations and counter terrorism.
While her upbringing was split across continents, Zhong’s early musical tastes were decidedly American. “I loved Britney, Beyoncé and Michael Jackson,” she says. “I recently saw a video of me when I was 5 years old and I was dancing to Britney Spears.” Her mother, who is Chinese, studied opera (the Western kind) at a conservatory in China but would play music by the likes of Cher, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion around the house, creating a musical family environment.
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While Zhong’s fans have been supportive of her roots and interests, her encounters with racial abuse on the Chinese internet, directed at her biracial background, have been well-documented. Not that she’s been afraid of facing down such comments. In a racist repost of a group of her selfies on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo in November of last year, a commenter asked whether ancestors of Chinese people would be angry at her calling herself a descendant of Han Chinese people. Zhong commented back that the poster could go to hell and find out.
Despite these difficulties, Zhong went all the way to the penultimate episode of the show before finally being eliminated, ranking No. 27 out of the original 101 contestants that took part in the show. In the process, she’s gained a huge following on social media sites like Instagram, and a plethora of Twitter accounts devoted to giving updates on her life.
View this post on InstagramA post shared by 仲菲菲 Winnie Zhong (@xxbunno)
A post shared by 仲菲菲 Winnie Zhong (@xxbunno)
“I feel like I gained so much. I definitely gained a lot of friends, because I never got the chance to be with 100 girls who were pursuing the same thing as me. A lot of friends and stage experience, and also learning from A-list artists in China,” she says, referencing the likes of ex-EXO members, Luhan and Huang Zitao, who appeared as judges on the show. “More recently I’ve also gained a lot of fans, which I was surprised by, both within China and overseas. I think that was the biggest plus for me being on the show.”
While most people have applauded Zhong’s ability to juggle her studies and her musical ambitions — she brought books and set aside time to catch up on international affairs via radio during the show — speculative blog posts have commented on her future career, wildly claiming links to the CIA or suggesting ulterior motives for her appearing on the show. Her interest in terrorism and fighting it began earlier than that, however, in Africa.
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“There were two things that made me interested in studying international relations and counter terrorism,” she explains. “The first was that I co-founded a charity with my friends when I was in high school, and we worked with a lot of orphanages. I also did Model UN, and we would travel for conferences. I remember one time we went past this site that I had actually toured the year before. But it had been destroyed. There had been a terrorist attack there.”
For the moment, Zhong is not able to leave China. Though she took a semester off to appear on Produce Camp 2020, it looks likely that her courses will all take place online in the fall. She laughs about the prospect of studying at a US university from China, saying, “I think what I will do is start working in China, and take online classes at midnight in order to get my diploma.”
She’s also planning to put out her first single, which she says will be “more based around R&B,” although a release date for that has not been yet set.
Juggling a budding music career and studies at one of the best universities in the world would be a challenge for any woman of her age, but Zhong is taking it in her stride. When reflecting on the future, she observes levelheadedly, “There will be a lot of things that I will have to sacrifice.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that Zhong was born in Liaoning province; it has been corrected to state that she was born in Guangzhou.
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