One evening last December, Bao Bao Wan strode into the lobby of the Landmark Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong, looking like a party chick–meets–Harajuku girl. Sporting coarse strands of long, blond-streaked hair and baggy camouflage pants, she had just come from posing for skin-obsessed lensman Terry Richardson, who was in town for the opening of his show “From Rio to Hong Kong” at the Diesel gallery just across the street. “Five minutes in, and my top was off. It all happened very quickly,” she says. “But I covered myself—no nipple. If that had happened, the Hong Kong press would go crazy.”
Since Wan, 26, became one of the first Chinese women to debut at the Crillon Ball in Paris in 2003, she has been an anomaly among the social set, especially in Hong Kong, where she now lives. In a town full of action-film actors, pop stars and prim socialite wives, Wan’s profile is decidedly different. A child of China’s Communist ruling elite—her grandfather was vice premier of the country for most of the Eighties—Wan is at once a social darling, gossip-page fodder, pop philosopher and, now, jewelry designer. With a fierce disdain for the status quo, she is mischievous but never quite crosses the line. Hence, she’ll get partly naked for a hip, brand-name photographer yet knows when to say when.
This subtle temperance can be lost in a tabloid society in which Wan’s outgoing personality, sometimes-vampish visual appearance and hard-drinking party-girl antics have made her the subject of particular fascination. On more than a few occasions, she’s been photographed in public while drinking, smoking and canoodling with boyfriends. She also dresses to be noticed. At last fall’s Fendi fashion show at the Great Wall, for example, she wafted through the crowd—which included starlets, New York socials and Karl Lagerfeld—clad in electric blue thigh-high Roberto Cavalli boots and a white fur coat of her own design. “I’m a really weird creature,” says Wan. “No one knows how I was created.”
Obviously Wan doesn’t have a problem speaking her mind. “Bao Bao is very open and straight to the point,” says Shanghai gallerist and fellow socialite-in-crime Pearl Lam. “If you grow up in a political family, you learn not to show what you think most of the time. But she’s not like that. She has a lot of sex appeal, and she’s totally outrageous.”
The granddaughter of Wan Li, whose last official post was chairman of the National People’s Congress from 1988 to 1993, Wan is a descendant of one of the country’s most influential families. “Everything she does is watched with a magnifying glass, from her outfit to a love interest to a friend,” says Joanne Ooi, the creative director of Shanghai Tang and a close pal. “What I love about Bao Bao is that she is a modern and liberated Chinese woman, which is really rare.”