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How a Russian Man “Held Hostage” on a Talent Show Captured the Mood of Burnout China

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Lelush can finally go home. 

The reluctant Russian star of Tencent’s staple idol survival show Produce Camp 2021, whose real name is Vladislav Sidorov, thanked his fans on Weibo for their support as the show came to an end this past weekend. After 3 months, Lelush’s “hostage life” on the show has finally come to an end.

Lelush thanks fans

“Thanks everyone for your support, I can finally finish work.”

Lelush became the most talked about contestant on Produce Camp 2021 this year. The show pitted 101 young male contestants against each other in the pursuit of a place in a multi-talented boyband. Yet Lelush was a mediocre artist and made it clear he didn’t want to be there. Instead, he was a breath of fresh air in the stultifying variety show landscape, the type of contestant that audiences have never seen before — someone who doesn’t even want to be on the show in the first place and has shown absolutely no passion for anything his peers on the show are excited by. 

“Lelush first caught my attention because of his refreshing persona,” says Yiyi, a fan of Lelush. “He’s the only one among 101 contestants that’s not even pretending to be trying.” 

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Unlike other pop idol wannabes, Lelush’s appearance on the show was purely a coincidence. He was initially summoned to the set as a translator to assist an unprecedented number of international contestants this year, thanks to his quadrilingual skill in English, Chinese, Japanese and Russian. Noticed by the show’s creators for his good looks, Lelush joined Produce Camp in order to fulfill a quota for international contestants and, he said, to experience new things. That was until he went viral — and was compelled by his fans to stay on the show until the finale. 

Lelush’s screen time in early episodes of the show was minimal, only appearing as negligible laugh material because he performed so poorly, yet remained so unapologetic. After every contestant received a letter grade based on their initial audition, the next challenge was performing the show’s theme song, which promised contestants a chance to get a new grade.

Lelush, who had been put into the F class for his lackluster performances, offered another jestingly sloppy performance that successfully placed him into F again. His face beamed more than ever when the grade was announced, “F means freedom, I can finally go home,” he said on the show. 

No Desire Lelush

Lelush performing in the audition. “A dead-inside laborer who just wants to go home,” the user-generated title reads.

Lelush’s great escape plan also included slacking off at practice, actively avoiding cameras, pretending to speak Chinese poorly and refusing to do makeup for promotions, as per the keen eyes of the internet. In almost every shot he appeared in, he maintained a lifeless poker face alongside his saccharine fellow trainees, showing utterly no enthusiasm for singing, dancing or becoming a pop star.

But his cunningly mapped out plan to escape the show backfired. The dramatic contrast between him and other trainees made him stand out. His sly grin when receiving an “F” went viral online soon after the first few episodes aired. Voting for Lelush became an online fad for a group of young netizens who call themselves “sunsi,” or “shredded bamboo shoots,” meaning prankster. Jokey remix videos of him surged on video streaming site Bilibili and TikTok-like app Douyin.

Disillusioned and burned out youth, who overlap with the show’s audience demographics, found every move that Lelush made refreshingly comical. In a show plagued by over-the-top cringe, exaggerated positivity and result manipulation, Lelush embodied the audiences’ passive-aggressive discontent.

“Lelush is just like me at work,” reads a post by one Weibo user about their anti-idol, “or every other laborer whose soul has withered as a result of their corporate job.” His apathetic demeanor accurately tapped into sang culture, a sentiment popular among Chinese urban youth characterized by a lack of motivation and spirit.

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“The guy’s certainly meme gold”, says Zhao Bokun, 22, a supporter of Lelush. “He’s so good a symbol for those who suffer in silence but dare not to speak.” Despite being a close follower of Lelush and the show, Zhao is critical towards the never-ending slew of idol survival shows that Chinese streaming platforms like Tencent, iQIYI and others churn out, as well as the increasingly formulaic star-making pipeline in China’s entertainment industry. “Everyone knows these shows are all spectacle and no substance,” he says. “It’s not like the capitalists pulling the strings behind all this would actually care about talent or originality, so what’s the harm of indulging in a bit of innocuous practical joking.” 

Zhao’s antipathy for the idol industry is shared by many, as is his criticism of toxic fandom practices. “The internet capital has created a business system with the traction an idol gets as the universal equivalent, in which fans need to be milked till the last drop in the name of love,” Lin Xi, a scholar who studies fan culture, recently told GQ China

Lelush Memes

Zhao shared his favorite Lelush memes. From left to right: “Do I look happy to you?” “Run immediately,” “Don’t you dare leave work” and “Foul play!”

It’s hard to say whether Lelush’s popularity is a pushback against this current, an attempt to pander to it, or if it is both those things. Nevertheless, the fact that the guy is easy to like and root for is undeniable. He speaks good Chinese yet remains very humble. He has no passion for performance but treats every other teammate with genuine respect. He was naturally funny without even having to say a word or being aware. On Bilibili, Lelush’s final performance, which reenacted his audition performance of the song “Jackpot” has collected almost 4 million views, just days after it was aired.

As the show progressed, Lelush held tight to his own personal ideals despite his skyrocketing popularity. “Becoming a boyband member is not my dream,” he said during one episode, issuing a direct plea to his fans to let him escape the show and not vote him back on. “Singing and dancing is so tiring, and I just want to go home. Please let me go.”

A former model and ecommerce surrogate, Lelush’s dream was to start his own apparel brand. Despite his insistence in getting eliminated, he and his newfound fame seem to be here to stay.

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The star-making movement of Lelush might have started as no more than a viral joke, but it did not take long for fans’ appreciation for Lelush to get heartfelt, or “ZQSG,” a popular Chinese fandom slang that abbreviates the initials of the characters “true feelings and honest emotions.”

A sub-group of Lelush’s fandom engages in the practice of Nisu, in which a male idol’s gender is reversed and consumed as the fan’s female lover. Fans compare Lelush with Bao Si, the drop-dead gorgeous concubine that made King You of the Zhou Dynasty tease the entire country just to make her laugh. 

Lelush’s popularity is also reflected in “ships” (fandom slang derived from the word “relationship,” meaning an imagined romantic relationship between two characters). A video shipping Lelush and Russian politician Vladimir Putin has gotten over 2 million views on Bilibili. “Turns out the reason why Lelush wants to go home so much all along was because his real identity is Putin’s bodyguard!” reads the video’s caption. 

Lelush Concubine

“All I want is a smile on concubine Lelush’s face!” posted Cheng Bei, a Nisu-er and Lelush supporter on Weibo

While some supporters indulge in their pie-in-the-sky fantasy, others argued against these textbook fandom behaviors, which kept Lelush on the show until the finale. “I know Lelush is actually low-key okay with this but still, I don’t think it’s ethical to continue voting for him when he clearly does not actually care for this whole idol thing,” says Olivia Zhang, a fan of the show. Zhang also pointed out that continuing to consume Lelush as a personality would play right into Tencent’s hands, the very thing Lelush supporters were trying to rebel against.

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On April 24, the date of the show’s finale, the semi-consensual saga between the Chinese internet and Lelush wound up with a happy ending. Lelush left the show placing in seventeenth — meaning he avoids the final boyband cut. He performed his signature song “Jackpot” once again, rearranged with flashy autotune and dazzling lighting. While he may have sung off-key, he will remain the uncrowned king of the series.

Cover image via QQ Video

Caiwei Chen
    Caiwei Chen is a freelance writer covering culture, internet and their intersections. Her words have been published at Rolling Stone, Vice, South China Morning Post, SupChina, Technode and elsewhere. She is on Twitter @CaiweC.