Fan Bingbing: 48 Hours with China’s Movie Queen

Can the actress ever be as popular in America as she is in China?

Fan Bingbing
Photographer: Ellen von Unwerth Stylist: Patrick Mackie

The lobby action at the Hotel Martinez during the Cannes Film Festival is nonstop: The fabulous, the talented, the wealthy, and the ridiculous all waltz through the majestic Art Deco space in search of their limo drivers or a drink or, simply, attention. At night, the scene intensifies, resembling an Old Hollywood movie about café society—nearly every frock is spectacular, and the men are all dressed in tuxedos. Because of the high glamour quotient, a kind of nonchalance sets in. The lobby audience quickly becomes inured to the sea of style and fame.

Which is why, at the 2012 festival, the frenzy surrounding a certain appearance in the Martinez made such an impression on me. I was a little bored by the usual parade, when I overheard someone saying in a feverish voice, “Fan Bingbing is coming!” I had no idea who Fan Bingbing was, but urgency is contagious, and I followed the herd of fans with their cellphone cameras to the foot of the stairs (paparazzi are not allowed in the lobby of the Martinez). The excitement over the arrival of Fan Bingbing (whoever she was) was palpable. Finally, a tall Chinese woman appeared. She was wearing a heavily embroidered pale-pink Elie Saab gown with a sweeping train, which cascaded behind her as she walked slowly down the steps, and a matching shimmering cape. Her black hair was pulled into a sleek doughnut-shaped chignon on top of her head. She looked like a cross between a bride, an empress, and a living doll. The total effect was overwhelming.

I asked one of the awestruck fans who she was. “Fan Bingbing is the biggest star in China,” came the reply. “Only Americans don’t know her name.” For the rest of the festival, I became obsessed by Fan’s (Bingbing is her given name) appearances. As a face of L’Oréal Paris and the star of dozens of Chinese films, Fan, 32, was everywhere: She seemed to change ensembles at least six times a day, gathering an enthralled throng at each of her exits. Whether she wore a pastel floral Valentino with a bow at the waist or a strapless gown designed by Christopher Bu that was inspired by a Qing-dynasty vase, Fan was an endless source of fashion fascination.

A year later almost to the day, I was waiting to interview Fan in her suite on the second floor of the Martinez. Much had changed. In 2012, Chinese audiences emerged as one of the primary targets for the American movie business. With box office sales far from robust in the United States, foreign income has become crucial to Hollywood’s financial health. Currently, China is the No. 2 market worldwide for film (after America), and analysts predict that by 2020 it will be No. 1. There are more than 13,000 movie screens in China, and, in 2012, an average of 10.5 new theaters were built every day. Although the Chinese are interested in American movies—2012’s Cloud Atlas, which bombed in the States, was a hit in China, as was Life of Pi—they are partial to homegrown productions. Though criticized for its blatant product placement, a 2013 Chinese movie called Tiny Times 1.0, which depicts the decadent adventures of four Shanghai girls, grossed more than $43 million the week it came out in China. The film quickly generated a sequel and topped Man of Steel, the newest incarnation of Hollywood’s Superman series, which was purported to be a sure triumph in the Chinese market.

And more and more, Chinese audiences want to watch their own stars. Zhang Ziyi and Li Bingbing are Fan’s main rivals. The actresses are fiercely competitive: It is common knowledge in Cannes, for instance, that it is not correct to invite Fan and Zhang to the same parties. If you do, they are sure to find out—and neither will show up. Through her starring roles with directors like the brilliant Wong Kar-wai and the Academy Award winner Ang Lee, Zhang has become better known worldwide than Fan, but Fan is more popular back home. I was told by a fashion executive who dresses both women that Fan’s features are considered by the Chinese to have perfect proportions, while Zhang’s exquisite face is deemed less Chinese and more appealing to Western eyes.

In another time, a foreign actress looking for stardom outside her country needed to dazzle Hollywood. She would have to learn English and appear in a blockbuster. Marion Cotillard took this route after winning the Oscar in 2007 for La Vie en Rose. She mastered the language and took starring roles first in 2009’s Public Enemies, about the gangster John Dillinger, and then, in 2012, in The Dark Knight Rises, the latest installment of ­Batman—both huge American movies. But for Fan, who, according to Forbes magazine, is now “the No. 1 celebrity in China,” it’s the other way around: She is being courted by fashion houses and Hollywood bigwigs alike for her status in China. Vanity Fair put Fan on its best-dressed list (she is the first Chinese woman to be included since Madame Chiang Kai-shek), and she has signed lucrative deals with, among others, Mercedes-Benz, Adidas, Louis Vuitton, L’Oréal Paris, and Chopard. Last February, she flew to Los Angeles to attend the Academy Awards with Chopard’s Caroline Scheufele and the movie producer Bill Mechanic. When Fan decided that she wanted to wear a bright pink Marchesa gown with an asymmetrical bodice to the awards show, the film producer Harvey Weinstein, whom she had met at the amfAR dinner in Cannes, sent her the dress, which was designed by his wife, Georgina Chapman, via private plane. In Cannes, Weinstein told me that “he was simply helping a friend” and that he is keenly aware of the growth potential of the Chinese audience. That kind of personal attention happens when a billion or so people follow your every move.

Clearly, the exposure in China was worth the trouble for both Weinstein and Marchesa, but, interestingly, at the Oscars few people recognized Fan. “She was just another girl in a party dress,” said a friend of the actress. At the Academy Awards, the red carpet has two lanes: one for famous people and another for unknowns. These divisions are strictly patrolled. According to the friend, the guards tried to force Fan to the nonstar side of the ropes, but at the last second a Chinese woman saw her and nearly fainted. At that point, a commotion ensued, and Fan was put on the right path. To her credit, she remained, reportedly, lovely throughout.

“I was just happy to be at the Oscars,” Fan told me through her interpreter, Matthew Aniwar, a slim dark-haired young man dressed in a suit and tie. The actress, who was between gowns and swaddled in a hotel robe and matching slippers, is rarely without Aniwar. Her English is not good—though she understands it better than she speaks it. “My fans in China knew I was going to the Oscars,” she continued. “And they watched me closely.” The director Bryan Singer certainly noticed her: He cast Fan in next year’s X-Men sequel, Days of Future Past. She plays Blink, a teleporting mutant.

Singer has said in interviews that Fan is an extremely hard worker, adapting quickly to the physical demands of playing a mutant. But unless her English improves, it is doubtful that she will have any sort of major American film career. Not that there are so many great roles for her to miss out on. In American movies, Chinese actresses tend to be cast as exotic eye candy, martial arts avengers, or, in the case of Zhang in 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha, as Japanese. Even the great Maggie Cheung, who won Best Actress at Cannes in 2003 for her role in Clean, an English-language film directed by her ex-husband, Olivier Assayas, has had little success in Hollywood.

Fan had flown to Cannes from Montreal, where X-Men was being filmed. Over the previous two days, her schedule in Cannes had been relentless. She had gone from the Great Gatsby premiere to a luncheon for Chopard to a cocktail party where she was honored with a Hollywood Reporter International Artist of the Year award. Cannes has been good to Fan. Her appearance there in 2010, when she quite memorably wore a yellow silk Laurence Xu gown embroidered with gold dragons and crashing waves along the hem, helped her gain, for the first time, recognition outside her country. She was already well known in China, having appeared on the popular drama Princess Pearl when she was 17. Fan played a servant on the show, which was set in the era of the Qing dynasty. “The producer of Princess Pearl saw a photograph of me,” Fan explained. “And he cast me from the picture.” Growing up in a middle class family in Yantai, in China’s Shandong province, Fan studied classical dance, piano, and flute. “I thought I might be a musician or a dancer, but I prefer acting.” Her love of fashion also took hold early: Fan’s mother owned a boutique and would dress her daughter in the least popular clothes from her shop. “She did it because everything looked good on me,” Fan said. “When I wore something, it would sell.”

Princess Pearl instantly made her a household name in China. “My life changed at once,” she said. In 2010, L’Oréal Paris sent her to Cannes as a brand ambassador. “I had dreamed of walking on the red carpet in Cannes,” Fan said. “I imagined that it was a very, very long red carpet. And when I first walked it, I felt it was too short. I wanted it to go on forever, which is why I’ve returned every year.”

After the festival in 2012, thanks to her enormous popularity in China, Fan was cast in Iron Man 3. The Chinese market is hard to predict—­traditionally, it has responded to loud action films featuring comic book heroes who don’t require much dialogue. Films with sexual content or villains of Asian descent are forbidden. At $222 million in ticket sales, Avatar, with its fantasy elements, was the biggest American movie in China, but blockbusters like The Avengers, which brought in $90 million at the box office, have also triumphed. But recently there has been a shift in taste, with Chinese productions outperforming Western action thrillers. So when the producers of Iron Man 3 added a special scene for Fan, shot exclusively for Chinese audiences, the motivation was fairly obvious.

Though that scene was ultimately cut, Fan said she was flattered to be cast at all. By signing with a large Hollywood talent agency, William Morris Endeavor, she announced her intention to expand her career beyond China. She said she dreams of buying a small house in Los Angeles but added that she was “lazy” about learning English. It’s a tricky balancing act. She is no doubt aware that Hollywood wants to borrow her influence, and that gives her clout. But if the Chinese reject her for being too Westernized, her career back home is over. For now, Fan has her priorities in line. “I’m an actress,” she said, eager to take a nap before dressing for another premiere. “And that’s what matters most to me. Sometimes I get exhausted by all the demands of working for these companies. For instance, my hair is so iconic in China—I am known for my hair. But it is my dream to cut it and dye it blue. I’d like to have crazy hair!” She sighed. An envoy from Chopard was knocking at the door with diamonds for her, and the tailor from Valentino was ready with the lace gown that she had agreed to wear that night. “If I ever find a boyfriend who lets me cut my hair and dye it blue, I will marry him,” she said as she went to answer the door. “They’ll see pictures of me in this outfit in China. For now, the blue hair will have to wait.”

No.1 Fan

Emilio Pucci dress and belt; Chopard earrings; Manolo Blahnik sandals. In background: Marc Jacobs dress.

Photographer: Ellen von Unwerth Stylist: Patrick Mackie

Giorgio Armani scarf; Chopard earrings. Beauty note: Classic makeup plays to a universal audience. Try L’Oréal Paris Million Lashes Excess in Blackest Black and Colour Caresse Wet Shine Stain in Endless. Hair and makeup by Christopher Bu for L’Oréal Paris

Photographer: Ellen von Unwerth Stylist: Patrick Mackie

Dior bustier, cape, skirt, and sunglasses; Chopard earrings; Manolo Blahnik sandals.

Photographer: Ellen von Unwerth Stylist: Patrick Mackie