BEIJING — In 1997, L’Oréal Paris decided to use actress Gong Li as its spokesperson in China. It was a first.

A first for a Mainland Chinese actress to win a spokesperson’s position with an international beauty company. And a first for an international brand to show so much confidence in local star power.

This story first appeared in the July 5, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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Since then, L’Oréal Group remains one of very few international companies that have used a Mainland star as its spokesperson, even though luxury companies do spend large amounts of their budgets dressing local stars. The closest to an actual spokesperson’s position is Zhou Xun’s ambassador position in China for Chanel. Other than that, the relationship between stars and international brands is best defined as “loose.”

There are several reasons for this.

First of all, rumors and gossip can get very nasty in China, particularly on social media. Chinese media are incapable of verifying facts on celebrities; even worse, they sometimes participate in circulating rumors to generate distribution for their papers. This makes signing up a local star riskier than using an international counterpart.

Second, the Chinese film industry lacks professionals who can manage and market celebrities properly. Most film production companies are also agencies, but the split between talent and agency is not regulated, so it is well known that young talent has to give 80 percent of its income to the agency as a fee. So the relationship is one that is characterized by brutal exploitation. Naturally, as stars gain leverage, they break contract with their agency and go on their own. The A-list — Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi and Fan Bingbing — are all on their own.

Third, local Chinese companies are willing to pay much higher fees for Chinese stars to act as their own spokespersons, rather than have them appear as spokespersons for an international brand. But these companies are also unpredictable in how and where they place their ads. Sometimes, it is simply damaging to see an A-list star in a trashy lingerie ad. And once a star has succumbed to this kind of money, she is probably as good as untouchable for the international brands.

But I have an idea. We all know star power for fashion was invented by Armani, Hollywood and Seventh Avenue. Right now, there are lots of Hollywood productions in China looking for crossover talents — those that can hold an audience both in China and the U.S. Wouldn’t it make sense for Hollywood and the U.S. fashion world to get together and discover the next “It” girl from China? Isn’t it a shame to waste all that star power just because there is a lack of good management?

Anyway, just a thought.

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