chris lee, the chinese mega-idol breaking pop’s boundaries in custom gucci
As she prepares to tour her eighth studio album, Growing Wild, the gender-defying, stadium-filling creative powerhouse talks to i-D about making it as an individual in a identikit world — and shares the new video for her single As If.
Photography Trunk Xu
Chris Lee's most recent EP, Wild, sold three million copies in the 16 days following its release in May. For comparison: the current No. 1 on the US Billboard chart, Drake's One Dance, has sold only 1,442,000 copies in twice as long; Beyoncé's Lemonade sold just 974,000 copies in the two weeks after its surprise debut in April.
Lee sits front row at Gucci runway shows. She starred in Givenchy's autumn/winter 15 ad campaign. She's collaborated with British plastic-pop collective PC Music. And in May, she walked the red carpet at Cannes in a six-foot-wide black vinyl ball gown — her signature boyish crop dyed dove grey — topping several magazines' best dressed lists. But, while she may be as famous as Rihanna in her native China, she could probably still walk down a street in New York or London without being asked to pose for a single selfie.
In 2005, Lee, then an unknown 21-year-old music student from Sichuan Province, appeared on one of China's biggest reality TV competitions, Super Girl (full name, courtesy of its sponsor: Mongolian Cow Yogurt Super Girl Contest). She sang power ballads like Bryan Adams' "Everything I Do" in an unconventionally deep, soulful voice. Her loose-hipped dance moves drew comparisons to Ricky Martin's (in keeping with her preference for leather pants and button-down shirts), and her spiky red haircut resembled David Bowie's. She looked something like Beijing's answer to Shane from The L Word. And, more than anyone might have predicted, her powerful individuality captivated audiences. Over 400 million people watched the finale of Super Girl (more than the population of the United States), and over eight million viewers texted in their votes, electing Lee the season's winner.
As a New York Times article pointed out at the time, the show was significant not only because of its democratic voting process — in a country where not even high-level politicians are popularly elected — but also because the winner that audiences voted for "is almost the antithesis of the assembly-line beauties regularly offered up on the government's China Central Television." Though Lee's fashion sense has evolved as much as her musical stylings, what's never changed is her daring individualism.
Just over ten years since winning Super Girl, Lee has released eight studio albums and 52 singles, and continues to sell out stadiums for her annual Why Me concert events — supported all the way by her loyal army of fans, known, amazingly, as "Corns" (a play on the Chinese symbols for "Yu's fans"). Next month, Chris will set off on her third album tour, for Growing Wild (due out in September), dressed in custom pieces designed by her friends Alexander Wang and Alessandro Michele, of Gucci. While her shows won't take her outside of China this time, her boundary-breaking talent and fashion sensibilities mean world domination isn't far off.
Last year, you staged your 10th annual Why Me tour — how has your sense of yourself as an artist changed in the past decade?
My career began with an incident I was unprepared for — the first time I stepped on the stage of Super Girl. I didn't imagine my life would change so dramatically from then on. In the past decade, I've received a lot of praise, but also criticism and loneliness. However, I'm very pleased that I can say to my 10-years-ago self that I'm still who I am.
What do you have planned for your Growing Wild tour?
"Growing wild" is an original and primitive power, it can be seen as something destructive but also praised as revolutionary, promoting rebirth. When a new wave of minority culture appears, it's always considered provocative and a rebellion against the mainstream. However, because of those primitive and wild "subcultures," which keep hitting and penetrating the mainstream, society becomes motivated to develop into something more inclusive and pluralistic. What I try to express and convey is unique personality, free advocates, inclusive pluralism, and growing wild.
How did you and Alexander Wang come together to work on the costumes?
Alex is one of my favorite designers, we're also very good friends. We're the same age, and the year he created his brand was also when I started my career. As young people without much background, we were trying with all our efforts to win recognition in our fields. We knew how hard it was for both of us. And this collaboration is going very well. We're constantly sharing ideas with each other.
Alex has said that he admires your "daring" — what's the most daring outfit you're going to wear on tour?
The most daring thing was actually just that I invited these two talented designers to design the outfits. Besides my good friend Alex, the other is Alessandro Michele from Gucci, who has stunned the fashion industry recently. As Gucci's new ambassador for timepieces and jewelry, I personally like Alessandro's work a lot. The two designers have very different styles: one is inspired by the cool, youthful street culture of New York, the other gets his inspiration from ancient myths and history — it's artistic, vintage. "Cool" and "artistic" exactly align with my external and internal [identities]. So I'm very much looking forward to seeing how [Alex and Alessandro] demonstrate my two sides.
What's the most daring thing you've done in your career so far?
Being myself. That may sound pretty ordinary, but in today's society, women's values are still judged and lead by male chauvinism. Those who can stick to their minds, follow their values, and keep living the life they want mostly do so under heavy judgment and pressure. To me, being yourself is not an idealistic slogan, but something that ensures I'm never kidnapped by secular society. It gives you the power to grow your own, independent personality.
You have an amazingly dedicated fan base — how do you keep that relationship strong?
I host my ["Why Me"] tour every year, and I believe this is the best way to communicate with my fans and friends. I know social platforms are very well developed, and there are millions of ways to interact with fans whenever I want through them. But I don't think they're suitable for me. I use Instagram only because I like photography and I'm curious about the world. But when it comes to the best way to keep such a strong relationship with fans, it must be music.
A lot has been said about how your style plays with traditional gender stereotypes. Is this something you experiment with consciously?
No, this is what I am. I never challenge anything on purpose, and I never want to cater to anyone.
Have you received criticism as well as praise for staying true to yourself? And if so, how have you dealt with that?
There will always be critics. I can recognize which ones are actually trying to understand my work, and which ones are just attacking me.
"Why me?" is a question you ask yourself a lot in your lyrics and shows. In 2016, do you have any clearer idea of why you've been able to accomplish so much as an artist?
I still don't have an answer. Maybe the reason for my success is that I never stop exploring and learning. Starting with my music, I acquire my knowledge and gain my power from movies, drama, photography, fashion, art, and so many other fields. I don't stop. I keep thinking, "How I can create more?" Regardless of my occupation, the most important thing that inspires me to keep moving is the motivation to explore the value of life.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Imagery for "Growing Wild" EP2
Photography Trunk Xu
Digital Comma Studio
Styling Xander Zhou
Makeup Qiqi Liu
Hair Tao Chen