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Leah Dou: The Pop Star Who Refuses to be Pigeonholed

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With a striking face tattoo, a short bob of hair and an androgynous fashion sense, Leah Dou (Dou Jingtong) certainly stands out in the often rigidly conventional Mandopop world. But then Dou, much like her famous musical parents, is not your average pop star.

As she makes one of her biggest steps into the acting world to date — with the release of The Eleventh Chapter, directed by famed TV actor Chen Jianbin and starring Suzhou River star Zhou Xun, followed by her lead debut in Queena Li’s Bipolar — here’s our guide to one of the most interesting names in contemporary Cpop.

Little Genius

Born in Beijing in 1997, Dou’s road to becoming a performer seemed almost predestined. The daughter of two of China’s most formative musicians, pop star Faye Wong and rock musician Dou Wei (best known as part of band Black Panther), it’s clear that certain industry doors have been easier for her to open than for the average musical hopeful. Yet having such famous parents can be a blessing and a curse, and her career has sometimes felt like it’s struggled to get out from under the shadow of her mother and father’s success.

Leah Dou was introduced to the music industry before she could even talk. Her debut on record came in 1998 when she contributed the sound of her crying to Faye Wong’s song “Tong.” 

“You can’t learn badly/but you don’t have to be obedient,” Wong sings as part of the track, lyrics that her daughter — consciously or not — has seemingly followed.

As her parents went through a high-profile divorce, Leah spent much of her childhood with her aunt, Dou Ying. As a young girl, she was obsessed with listening to the CDs in her aunt’s car and has recalled how she would revel in her aunt telling stories about the singers and their work.

In 2011, at the age of just 14, Leah started her own band, serving as the lead singer. The following year, she released her first original English single “With You.” 

Blooming

In her teens, Dou spent time studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston before deciding to withdraw from school after two years to couch-surf around Los Angeles instead. 

From early coverage of her music, it’s obvious that Dou has always been perceived as a cool, rebellious artist, knocked off course from mainstream pop music content, gravitating instead towards iconic trip hop music of the ’90s. 

At the age of 19, she released her first solo album, Stone Café. In the same year, her track “It’s not a crime” was shortlisted for Best Original Film Song for the movie Soul Mate in the 53rd Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan. 

In 2017, Leah released her second album Kids Only, a tripped-out, sun-kissed record that was too weird to really be considered Mandopop, and thus caught the ears of more than just mainstream music fans, signalling that Dou was a real talent to watch in her own right. 

Unfortunately, her musical momentum seemed to fade in the wake of that release. Despite a number of tracks coming out in the interim, it really wasn’t until late 2020 that fans of Kids Only were treated to a proper follow-up. Once again, it Dou subverted expectations to some extent with the excellent GSG MIXTAPE. The record felt like a series of sketches but also a collation of Dou’s artistic interests, combining excellent artwork by Alex Gamsu Jenkins with Dou’s trademark lowkey trip hop sound.

“As the character’s environment evolves and becomes more foreboding, the body splits and there is another version of itself — like a snake shedding its skin — waiting to come out and continue the journey,” Kim Shaw writes in the album introduction. “The further the character goes, the more surprises and struggles await. Finally, the journey ends as the character merges back into its original body.”

That’ll make (a bit) more sense if you watch this:

The “mixtape” name suggests that GSG wasn’t a fully-formed album and in places it certainly has that feeling. If it’s an appetizer for something more substantial to follow, it’s an exciting one. But just as it seemed Leah Dou was making a musical comeback, she now appears to have her energies focused on film work.

Bitter Sweet

By all accounts, Leah Dou is a humble, down-to-earth young woman. There’s a sense that she’s not interested in playing the usual games of stardom and cookie cutter pop idols. Her androgynous appearance has led to her earning the affectionate nickname of China’s “national husband” and much speculation over her sexual orientation, but she regularly bats away any questions on that front by simply stating she wants to be natural and different. 

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Such speculation has been hard to shake off however — and has led to wild rumors about Dou’s significant others. In 2018, she hit headlines for her friendship with actress Zhou Xun, who also stars in Dou’s new film The Eleventh Chapter. With Zhou’s marriage on the rocks, media outlets began to theorize that Dou was the cause of the marital discord, with the pair regularly seen out and about together. Those rumors eventually dissipated, and Zhou Xun finally divorced her husband Archie Kao in 2020, but as The Eleventh Chapter prepares for release on April 4, they’ve inevitably reemerged.

Hopefully Dou will earn column inches for more positive reasons associated with the film however. She has already bagged an award for her role in the movie, winning Best Supporting Actress at the Beijing International Film Festival back in 2019 (yes, the The Eleventh Chapter‘s release has been delayed that long).

Regardless, Leah Dou feels like a breath of fresh air amid China’s often staid celebrity landscape, and she is one of a number of leading celebrities who have normalized gender-neutral looks among Chinese millennials. In 2017, she became SK-II’s brand ambassador with the stated aim of hoping to help the brand further explore the concept of gender and offer socially and culturally outspoken young people something of a role model.

The impact of Dou, along with singers such as The9’s Liu Yuxin and Li Yuchun (Chris Lee), has helped shift social norms in the mainstream, even if there remains plenty of work to do in that arena. 

“She grew up in the spotlight, but enjoys writing music to reinforce her authentic self,” SK-II noted when unveiling its partnership with the singer and actress, using Leah Dou as a figurehead for the message, “be the person you decide to be.” 

And whichever direction Dou’s career goes in next, it’s clear she’ll be getting there on her own terms.

Cover image via DepositPhotos

Jocelyn Yang
    Jocelyn Yang is a student journalist at Emerson College and serves as an editorial intern at RADII. Her primary field of interest is writing about Chinese and American cultures. Follows her on Twitter @_jocelynyang_.