My 9 Months on the Road With Fan Bingbing, China’s Biggest Movie Star
A decade before her disappearance, the Angelina Jolie of China hired me as her tutor. I got a crash course in China’s dizzying celebrity-industrial complex.
The night I got a job as a fake English tutor to the very real Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, I celebrated by treating myself to a new pair of shoes at a knockoff mall in Beijing. The multilevel marketplace was where I went to buy polo shirts with inverted Ralph Lauren logos or ersatz New Era baseball caps that never quite fit. The clothes rarely lasted long, but they always helped me feel a little less homesick. Even a fake Nike tracksuit can do wonders for the soul of an expat.
It didn’t matter that the fresh “Adidas” shell toes I walked out in would start giving me blisters within a week, or that their non-treaded soles would cause me to slip repeatedly on greasy restaurant floors. They looked authentic enough to fool the casual observer, which made them a perfect fit for a charlatan ESL teacher.
A lifelong mumbler, I’d never been particularly good at speaking English, let alone teaching it. I’d even been fired from my former classroom job, at a college in Hunan province, for failing to “inspire the students.” I had come to China in 2005 to follow my dream of becoming a photojournalist, but by 2008, my career as a foreign correspondent had gone stagnant. I needed money, and more than that, I needed a story. The job with Bingbing, which came to me through a Chinese friend, promised both.
They called her the Angelina Jolie of China. Tall, with a slender jaw, a smooth complexion, aquiline nose, and cavernous coal-black eyes, Fan Bingbing was alluring and powerful, a fitting avatar for the material yearnings of an emergent middle class.
When I met her, Bingbing was already a massive star in China, and was just starting to find traction internationally. She was China’s de facto cultural ambassador in places like Cannes and Paris Fashion Week, and with Hollywood beckoning, she was already a sought-after spokesmodel for foreign brands entering the Chinese market. Learning English, at least enough to memorize a script, was the next step in her global…