Li Yugang, with exquisite makeup and his short hair combed neatly back, walks into a meeting room at his studio with his entourage trailing behind. He sits as his helpers inform him of his schedule, handing him a cup of warm, lemon-scented water.
The sharp suit and entourage could accompany any man-of-the-moment in showbiz - but Li is not just any man. His specialty is playing female roles, his performances combining traditional Chinese Peking Opera and pop music.
From the moment the now 36-year-old came to the public's attention in CCTV's popular talent show Star Boulevard in 2006, he has been known for his unique cross-dressing performances. With each show he performs in China and overseas, Li attracts more fans while the voices of his critics grow ever louder.
Some of his most vocal critics are Peking Opera masters, who question his professionalism in performing the ancient art form and condemn him for misguiding young audiences' understanding of Peking Opera. Even his family once doubted his job because they could not understand why their son performed as a woman onstage.
Despite the debate about his work, Li has continued to push boundaries because he values his art.
Li has been immersed in preparing for his upcoming show, Lady Zhaojun, the story of the legendary Wang Zhaojun, a famous ancient Chinese beauty who volunteered to marry a ruler of a Hun tribe in exchange for friendly relations with the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) and was later buried in Hohhot, the Inner Mongolia autonomous region. The show will also be Li's directorial debut.
There is a saying that a man can never truly understand a woman. But Li is confident in portraying Wang, who left her hometown on horseback and began a journey north.
In fact, it is the third time Li has played the role of Wang. In 2010, Li performed the role in his show Flower in Mirror, Moon in Water. A year later, he played Wang again in a chapter of his show The Painting of Four Beauties.
He has been thinking about developing a show about Wang for years but until now, he was unsure if he was ready.
"Frankly, the first two shows didn't give a full presentation of Wang Zhaojun because my acting and singing skills were not good enough," says Li.
The controversy surrounding his performances also made Li confused and sad. "I had many questions about myself. I couldn't concentrate on making a good show about Wang Zhaojun," he says.
After withdrawing from the limelight for three years, Li has found faith in himself and his art. He lived in Taipei for several months last year, where he practiced Buddhism, regained his inner peace and finished completing the idea of Lady Zhaojun.
In 2013, he spent nearly a month traveling from Beijing to Inner Mongolia, following in the footsteps of Wang and getting inspiration for the role.
During the two-hour show, Li will dance and perform songs by Taiwan singer-songwriter Vincent Fang. The stunning set and more than 10 elegant costumes were all designed by Tim Yip, the winner of the Oscar for Best Art Direction and Costume Design in 2000, for his collaboration with director Ang Lee on the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Li says he feels connected to the role because he shares the same loneliness as he pursues his art.
Born in a remote village of Northeast China's Jilin province, Li inherited his talent for performing from his mother, an errenzhuan (a folk dance form native to Northeast China) actress. He dropped out of school in 1996 because his family was too poor to afford the fees.
He left his hometown and sang at bars in nearby cities to make a living. He had little success until one night, thanks to his wide vocal range, he was able to substitute for a woman who was absent for a show.
"It was a duet and I sang both the male and the female parts. That's how I started with female roles," he says.
Li started borrowing the art of nan dan from Peking Opera. Nan dan, meaning men playing female roles, was a practice forged at a time when women were forbidden from public performances.
"I know that compared with professional Peking Opera actors I am an amateur. But I feel proud that I became who I am today from nothing," says Li.
He took lessons from legendary Peking Opera artist Mei Lanfang's disciples, Zhang Qiuhua and Hu Wenge, to learn to sing for the female roles. He also studied with Mao Geping, a well-known TV stylist, to turn himself into a "pretty woman" and was taught by the renowned choreographer-dancer Shen Peiyi to learn to dance like a woman.
"I have been waiting for the moment, which can see my departure from a grassroots pop star to a respectable artist. I believe that Lady Zhaojun is it," he says.