Well before Victoria’s Secret launched its first Chinese flagship store in Shanghai in March 2017, Chinese netizens had been watching the brand’s fashion show tour all over the world for years, especially after Hunan-born model Liu Wen made it onto the dream stage as the first East Asian woman to walk the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show back in 2009.
The fashion brand’s ambition of approaching the Chinese market is clearer than ever today, as Victoria’s Secret stages its world-renowned annual show in Shanghai. There will be more Chinese models than ever showing up on stage to represent the international brand — seven in all — a turnout that reminds me of the Houston Rockets during Yao Ming’s golden age.
One of the Angels that will appear on stage at today’s event was selected from a supermodel reality show, Road to the Runway, which was co-produced by video streaming site iQiyi and Tencent. The show — whose Chinese name, 天使之路, literally translates to “angel road” — premiered on August 31, and had racked up 37.6 million views by the following afternoon according to Sixth Tone. (As of this writing, the premiere has been viewed 54.17 million times.)
The first audition, consisting of 30 Chinese models, took place on a catwalk on the Great Wall. Some of the contestants were already famous, some had years of active experience, and others had only been in the industry for a few months. All of them were judged over the course of the show by three Victoria’s Secret staff: casting director John Pfeiffer, stylist Zanna Robert Rassi, and photographer Russell James.
In the episodes following the premiere, these judges made harsh comments on photos of the girls taken in the deserts of Gansu province and Xinjiang in China’s northwest, in the ancient Tibetan buildings of Shangri-La, and in a vintage hotel in Shanghai. The models tried their best to strike the most fashionable poses at the most appealing angles as they were adorned with Peking Opera-style makeup and paper-cut outfits, all the while facing the pressure of knowing that one of them would get eliminated from the contest after each round. The show also invited famous supermodels such as Ming Xi, Shu Pei, Coco Rocha, Alessandra Ambrosio, and Adriana Lima to instruct the contestants during photo shoots.
Eventually, the top four models reached the semi-finals at Beijing’s Water Cube — the National Swimming Center where aquatic events for the 2008 Olympics were held — and the final two, Cristian (储镒恬) and One (王艺) advanced to a final showdown at Victoria Secret’s headquarters in New York.
The series tried to maintain the mystery of the final result until the curtain of Victoria’s Secret Shanghai event went up today. But as with most things internet, social media spoiled the twist: after all of the models arrived in Shanghai for rehearsals, Liu Wen posted a group photo on Weibo, which depicted Road to the Runway finalist One smiling happily — much to the dismay of Cristian supporters. Whoops.
The season finale of Road to the Runway aired last Thursday, November 16, and has been watched 16.916 million times so far. According to iQiyi’s official stats, viewers of both the premiere and the finale were 75% female (they’re listed in this graph as “美女,” “beautiful women,” while males are “帅哥,” “handsome guys”):
Weird? Not really.
Even though it’s a cruel industry that you might get kicked out of just because your hands aren’t placed correctly or your pose isn’t sexy enough, watching these models work so hard to try to get onto their dream stage made the aloof high fashion business a bit more accessible and human to many female viewers, myself included. Being judged purely by appearance is a familiar experience for us.
It was a truly rough road that those girls traveled, but One’s road to Victoria’s Secret’s runway has just begun. She’ll be wearing the luxury lingerie and shiny wings along with all other Victoria’s Secret Angels today in Shanghai, and will presumably continue along a promising career path as China’s newest international supermodel.