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BEIJING — Jiang Wen, Li Yuchun, Fan Bingbing. They might not be household names in the United States nor even widely recognized, but when China’s top fashion and lifestyle magazine editors want to sell copies, they are among the hottest go-to cover stars around.

As China’s lifestyle magazine market grows and evolves, editors have gotten to know their audiences intimately. And in the high-stakes game of developing tastes and competition for readers, highlighting Chinese models, actors and intellectuals — both up front and inside their pages — is essential.

This story first appeared in the August 18, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Even though the Chinese versions of international magazines like Elle, GQ and Vogue are at least partly occupied with direct translations from their flagship American issues, localization, both on the covers and inside pages, is critical to growing readership and loyalty here in China. Some international stars can sell, but big Chinese stars almost always sell better.

Finding the celebrities and stories that connect with China’s evolving readership is an ongoing challenge for the country’s editors. The equation — providing compelling content for a domestic audience, often with an international flair — can be complex.

“Chinese readers often get a bad reputation as only caring about image, and all the qualities typically associated with ‘new money,’ but in many ways, that is a misrepresentation,” said Angelica Cheung, editor in chief of Vogue China. “Chinese women are becoming increasingly focused on not only fashion and consumption, but leading a positive, healthy lifestyle. With this in mind, I definitely try to reflect this in our cover choices — whether Hollywood celebrities, Chinese celebrities or international supermodels, they not only need to have style, but also substance, they need to represent this Vogue woman that we wish to portray.”

Cheung noted that her cover stars and content reflect Vogue China as a leading Chinese fashion magazine that reaches an international audience. Chinese stars who have made the cover cut include actresses Maggie Cheung, Fan Bingbing, Zhang Ziyi and Li Bingbing.

The doe-eyed Fan is a favorite across magazine titles in China. Other editors have different top picks, however, and some are surprising.

For Marie Claire China, actress Zhou Xun, pop diva Wang Fei and film star Zhao Wei are big draws. Deng Li, editorial director and publisher of the magazine, noted that some international celebrities, namely Scarlett Johansson and Angelina Jolie, do draw in Chinese readers. For Femina China, Blake Lively and Miranda Kerr have been big-selling international cover stars.

“But there are some additional conditions with this, such as popularity — at the very least, our urban female readers should be familiar with her face — beauty, a colorful image, and the emotional appeal of the star,” said Deng.

For Elle China, the top cover picks are often the same as other titles’, but one international cover celebrity showed that Chinese readers do have the same tastes as those in other parts of the world. “In 2013, Elle China did reuse David Beckham’s Elle UK cover; it was a sensation, and it sold out,” said Xiao Xue, editorial director of Elle China. “The choice of a foreign cover star is very much dependent on its relevancy. For example, does she have a hit movie in China or has she recently won an award, and so forth.”

Often, a fusion of Chinese and international style hits a home run with China’s magazine readership. Xiao Xue noted the magazine’s highly successful March 2012 relaunch, which showcased Chinese model Shu Pei styled by Jean Paul Gaultier.

But then there are those only-in-China issues. Li Yuchun, the tomboyish singer who won a nationwide televised music contest nearly a decade ago, still moves magazines. When she made the Elle China cover in 2005, Xiao said, “A majority of industry insiders were doubtful about our choice, but the truth is, for the consecutive three years, whenever we feature her on our cover, we were shocked by how viral it went.”

In men’s magazine titles the formula is similar but not identical: Hot Chinese celebrities, a few major international stars and localized content draw readership and growth. Li Baojian, editorial director of ElleMen China, said in addition to top actors and singers, athletes like Yao Ming and Kobe Bryant are popular.

Wang Feng, editor in chief of GQ China, said the cover is less important for sales of men’s magazines than women’s.

“Men are more loyal to the magazines and have a better awareness of the brands than women. Aren’t women fickle?” said Wang. “Women follow different people but men comparatively recognize the magazine.

“If you ask me to name the top five people who influence men’s magazine sales, it’s hard to list specific names. Usually readers like Chinese people better on the cover.”

Over the past decade, China’s fashion and lifestyle magazines have worked in a time of continuous growth. Now, they face a new era of market saturation and competition for readers. The race for readers could bring bigger changes and localization to inside pages, not just covers.

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