Chinese celebrity lookalikes landing themselves in hot water for cashing in on their resemblances
Being a celebrity lookalike can come with certain perks, not least that you can profit from it. But for Chen Xinling, who bears an uncanny resemblance to international Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing, it became a legal liability.
In September 2020, the 32-year-old was sued by Fan for infringing her portrait rights. At the time, Chen was a popular online influencer whose live-streaming sales channel on Chinese e-commerce site Taobao had a million-strong fan base. (Taobao is owned by Alibaba, the owner of the South China Morning Post.)
While not calling herself Fan Bingbing, Chen adopted a similar-sounding name, Fan Yebing, on her channel, selling a wide range of beauty products and treatments.
Chen believes she was singled out because of her popularity. She says there are, for instance, “thousands of people calling themselves Fan Bingbing” on the short video platform Douyin.
Chen is not alone in taking commercial advantage of her resemblance to a celebrity. Some people even go as far as having plastic surgery to make themselves look more like stars.
He Chengxi, 28, was reported to have spent eight years and millions of yuan on plastic surgery to look like Fan, who was a household name by 2007. The reports came after He joined the reality show Super Girl on Hunan Satellite TV in 2016 and became an overnight sensation because of her strong resemblance to Fan. She now has 1.4 million fans on Weibo and stars in movies and brand advertising.
Zhuo Hengyu, an influencer and lookalike of the famous actress Yang Mi, even went so far as to claim in 2012 that it was Yang who had had plastic surgery to resemble her.
While Chen, He and Zhuo did not use the names of the celebrities they resembled in their promotional activities, some star wannabes do. Cai Yuanfeng used the name and image of singer Wowkie Zhang in commercial performances and advertising for a seafood restaurant. In 2018, Zhang released a public statement saying he reserved the right to sue Cai.
Jiang Caiying, a lawyer who specialises in intellectual property rights, says these celebrity wannabes are acting legally as long as they don’t use the stars’ names.
“It’s difficult to prove two faces are the same, so it’s hard to say one’s face infringes on the portrait rights of another person,” she says. “The stars themselves can have had plastic surgery done too. So on which face at what particular time should we base the legal case?”
Jiang adds that in Chen’s case, the live-streamer never claimed to be Fan Bingbing.
“If she did, then she would have broken the law,” she says. “She has also not imitated Fan’s mannerisms. So the public obviously knows she is not Fan, just somebody who looks like Fan. I suggest Chen should fight to the end so she can further leverage the media attention generated by the case.”
Chen is far from alone in being sued over profiting from her likeness to Fan. Reports from September 2018 claimed that Fan had been involved in six civil cases over her portrait, all of which she won. Further reports from December 2018 claimed that there were 99 lawsuits listed on the Beijing Municipal High People’s Court’s website regarding Fan’s portrait rights.
In Fan’s legal case against Chen, the actress demanded that Chen stop using the name Fan Yebing in Taobao live-streams, pay compensation of 500,000 yuan (S$104,000) and her legal fees, and make an online apology every day for a minimum of 60 days among other demands.
Since the lawsuit, Chen says she has changed her online name and had rhinoplasty in April to “lessen her resemblance to Fan”.
Chen says what attracted people to her live-streams was not her resemblance to Fan but her personal style as a hard-working live-streamer who cares about her fans.
“I remember the names and birthdays of my hardcore fans,” Chen says. “I do live-streams for an average of 10 hours a day, on over 350 days a year.
“Unlike famous KOLs [key opinion leaders] who have a team helping them, I only have one assistant. I have to do online research about the products [I promote] for several hours every day as not-very-famous KOLs like me have to verbally promote a product for half an hour to one hour before it is sold. I also intersperse my sales pitch with talk about my life to make it less commercial.”
Describing Fan as her idol, Chen says her future as a live-streamer is now in doubt.
“I am depressed because I might not be able to do live-stream sales in future,” she says. “My work has brought me enough money to buy a house for my parents. I paid off the mortgage for the house and my car in two years. While I don’t need the money from live-streaming work now, I enjoy doing it.”
The Post has contacted Fan’s agency for comment on this story. The first hearing of Chen’s case was held online in April and a second court date has yet to be set.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.