China Needs More of the Lipstick King

Online makeup influencer Li Jiaqi is a heartening example of influencers in China slowly changing gender norms

Li Jiaqi, a makeup-selling Taobao superstar also known as the “lipstick king”, grabbed hearts around China and headlines around the world with his unorthodox sales technique: putting makeup on himself.

He has close to 40 million followers, and his popular livestreams and reviews of lipsticks have the power to cause products to sell by the thousands in minutes – or dole out serious reputational damage, as happened with his scathing review of the Hermès Rouge collection.

While streaming, the Lipstick King is confident and genuine, speaking rapidly in a conspiratorial, intimate way to the camera in a way that evokes two girlfriends getting ready for a night out together. This intimacy, plus the obvious hard work he puts in to find the best products and his bursting shouts of real delight when he is particularly impressed with how a color looks on him, make him instantly likeable.

The fact that he wears the makeup himself, admiring his brightly colored lips adoringly in a vanity mirror, along with the distinctly feminine lilt to his voice and bright pink surroundings, make the scene a very feminine one. The popularity of his shows is a happy symbol to me of a changing China.

“Official” China can be stuffily oppressive towards self-expression: tattoos, coloured hair and piercings are still frowned upon or even banned on many TV channels, or for those wishing to enter the military. Though women may be able to wear men’s clothing, the reverse is so unheard of that it may as well be banned. The Lipstick King himself is careful to say that he would “never” wear makeup outside of livestreaming situations, and that he is strictly a salesman.

Chinese society at large is highly hetero- and gender-normative, sometimes aggressively so: A 2021 court ruling upheld the right of a school textbook to call homosexuality a “mental disorder”, and a 2014 study found that 95% of LGBTI people in China remained in the closet, most afraid of losing their jobs. While many countries in the west have normalised male celebrities like Harry Styles, Jaden Smith and Young Thug wearing dresses, the Chinese government published plans for a national education program to prevent boys from becoming “too feminine”.

For years, Li Jiaqi said he was relentlessly picked apart online by those who didn’t think a man should sell makeup. In China’s hyper-capitalist social hierarchy, his wild popularity and the enormous sales power he wields have now bought him immunity, and even a coveted Shanghai hukou under a national “Special Talents” program. 

It’s a pleasure to see that happen, even to just one person. Not only is Li Jiaqi an example of breaking with gender stereotypes, but also of unorthodox economic success. Perhaps livestreaming will be a space where commercialism can actually breed more tolerant attitudes, and a wider definition of success.

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