The murky side of going overboard in celebrity idolatry

Ke Jiayun
Giving gifts to pop stars and TV people who host them isn't unusual. But as the value of gifts escalates, so too questions about impropriety.
Ke Jiayun
The murky side of going overboard in celebrity idolatry

From gold bars and luxury accessories to expensive imported electronics, idol fans display online some of the gifts they give to celebrities and to programs that host them.

It’s commonplace for fans of celebrities to buy small gifts for their idols to give to them in person — if they are lucky enough — or to the TV hosts and programs that give their idols air time.

But what if the gift is a gold bar, a Hermes necktie, a Nespresso machine or an 8,500-yuan (US$1,277) afternoon tea spread for the whole program team?

Such expensive expressions of adoration are causing some scandals in the entertainment business.

Several hosts at Hunan Satellite TV, according to a recent online report, have been indulging themselves in such lavish gratuities from fans — sometimes even encouraging them.

Last week, the Hunan Province channel said in a statement that it is investigating the allegation and will punish anyone unethically receiving or using gifts. At the same time, Hunan Satellite TV said it would take legal action against online rumor-mongers trying to besmirch its reputation.

There were additional allegations that the channel’s “Happy Camp” program, involved in charity projects, inappropriately solicited donations from fans and even provided price lists of daily necessities for the needy. Critics said the program was taking unfair advantage of fans, who might be too intimidated to refuse the request.

Hunan Satellite denied the charges, saying all donations to the charity came only from the fundraising efforts of Mango V Foundation, a group co-sponsored by Hunan Broadcasting System and the China Social Welfare Foundation.

But the channel did promise to boost its management of hosts, performers, guests and other program staff to “encourage a good and healthy relationship with fans.”

Actress Shen Mengchen said her boyfriend Du Haitao, a host of “Happy Camp,” often took gifts from fans to give to her parents when they visited.

Du was also found to have deleted nearly 300 items he posted for sale on Xianyu, a domestic online platform for second-hand merchandise run by Alibaba. Some of the items were suspected to be gifts from fans.

It might be understandable why star-struck young fans might want to give gifts to celebrities they idolize, but why give gifts to hosts and staff of programs where their idols appear?

In most cases, fans seem to think that the gifts will persuade programs to give maximum air time and special treatment to their idols in what is a somewhat cutthroat realm for publicity.

The murky side of going overboard in celebrity idolatry

Hosts of “Happy Camp,” a popular entertainment program produced by Hunan Satellite TV, have been receiving luxury gifts from fans of the program’s guests for years, according to recent online disclosures.

Several fans disclosed online that they used to take food to program staff at Hunan Broadcasting. However, after the recording sessions of “Happy Camp” moved to a cultural and creative industrial park in the capital of Changsha, the station is alleged to have told fans to donate money to a third-party organization called Happy Fans Club to provide meals or afternoon tea for staff. The meals were provided by a restaurant named San Shi Sha Lou.

After hosts and program staff stuffed themselves on the food, the organization would take pictures and sent them to the fans.

An insider said San Shi Sha Lou is in the same building as Hunan Broadcasting System.

What’s more, each of the five afternoon teas provided at the restaurant cost more than twice what the restaurant charges for the same food on its delivery app.

It’s also alleged that Happy Fans Club would sometimes approach fans to solicit meal donations.

Too much largesse

Meanwhile, a snippet from an interview with famous Chinese TV host He Jiong from the fashion variety show “Lipstick Prince” triggered widespread social media comment.

He joked that there was no way for him to donate to charity the tons of gifts he’s received from fans of celebrities appearing on his program because the gifts usually bear hard-to-remove stickers with their idols’ names on them.

“I have to keep all these things at home,” said He. “Now I have more than 20 vacuum-insulated mugs. And although I am not that interested in writing, I have received more than 50 pens with stickers on them.”

In his dressing room is a massage armchair sent by the fans of Peng Yuchang, a handsome, young actor.

Last week, He apologized on his Weibo account, saying his quip about gifts was misunderstood and really was aimed at telling fans not to waste their money on gifts.

“I’ve never had contact with fan clubs,” he said. “But entertainers and their teams sometimes brought me gifts, and I couldn’t bring myself to refuse them,” said He. “I’ll take this into account in the future, and I promise that I’ll never accept gifts anymore.”

South Korean entertainment companies cracked down on gift-giving as fans began spending over-the-top amounts of money.

To get around the limits, some fans now donate to charity in their idol’s name, public ads — including on billboards — to boost their profile, or just sent them a meal.

Some fans go to extremes by also providing lunch for the idol’s team or even sending a full snack truck to the entertainers.

Why are fans so willing to lay out a lot of money for their idols?

The answer may lie in the culture of “fan circles” that the Chinese have borrowed from South Korea and Japan. Shanghai Daily asked a few current and former fans of Chinese, Japanese and Korean pop idols to explain their largesse.

One said that fans give gifts to their idols to cheer them up and to demonstrate their strength of their fan base — suggesting that popularity is measured by the volume and value of gifts.

“It also helps the idols’ careers,” said one fan. “Gifts often go to hosts and program directors so that they will give idols special consideration.”

There are even instances when idols buy gifts for members of “fan circles” to express gratitude in return.

Sometimes the fan clubs donate the money they raise to charity in the name of their idols. I think that’s a good thing.

One fan

Fan clubs often have different levels of gifts for members to choose from, depending on their means. Some of these circles even provide rankings of money or gifts donated by members.

For those not involved in fan clubs, gifts are often sent directly to sponsoring entertainment agencies.

“Sometimes the fan clubs donate the money they raise to charity in the name of their idols,” said one fan. “I think that’s a good thing.”

However, the gift-giving culture runs into risks as token gifts turn into expensive merchandise.

According to lawyer Huang Rongnan at the Shanghai branch of Beijing-based law firm JunHe, extravagant gift-giving may in some instances even be unlawful.

“The gifts that fans send are not always for their idols but rather for those playing decisive roles on their idols’ careers,” Huang said. “That may violate the law.”

If the purpose of the gifts is to pump up one idol over others on a program, it may constitute unfair competition, he said. The value of the gifts is a key factor.

“Some of these gifts are very valuable,” Huang said. “The bottom line of what constitutes bribery to a non-government person is 30,000 yuan. If the value of a gift exceeds that amount, it might be construed as bribery. Fan clubs should be very cautious.”

Club fundraising also runs the risk of committing fraud if the clubs make unfilled promises about the use of the money — such as a quid pro quo for a face-to-face meeting with an idol.

Another lawyer, who declined to be named, told Shanghai Daily that it might be difficult to collect evidence of bribery if fans are unwilling to come forth. It may also be hard to prove that a program directly solicited gifts. 

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