The Real People Behind China’s Virtual Idols

“Virtual Youtubers” like Vox Akuma and the girl group A-SOUL have built huge followings in China. Often, these fandoms are as much or even more about the performer behind the digital mask as the character they play.

On May 1, 2022, Nijisanji, a Japanese talent agency, opened an account for its virtual idol Vox Akuma on the popular Chinese video-sharing site Bilibili. Before the day was out, Vox had 700,000 subscribers; a 90-minute livestream he held later that week brought in more than 1.1 million yuan ($149,000), according to the site.

Vox belongs to the growing category of virtual Youtubers, or VTubers. Similar to real livestreamers, VTubers entertain their viewers through performances, streaming games, and real-time interactions, earning income from a mix of viewer tips and advertising commissions. The only difference is that VTubers use digital avatars in place of their real faces. Their primary audience consists of young people from their late teens to their early thirties who grew up immersed in “ACG” culture, an umbrella term for a wide range of Japanese-influenced media, including animation, comics, and games.

As that generation grows up, they’re turning VTubers from a niche, albeit popular, fandom into a cultural phenomenon — and a highly lucrative industry.

Today’s VTubers can all trace their lineage to the eternally 16-year-old, blue-haired virtual pop star Hatsune Miku. “Born” in 2007, Hatsune Miku was created by Crypton Future Media using the voice synthesizer software Vocaloid. Her live shows, at which her legions of fans wave glowsticks and cheer for a holographic projection of the singer, can seem like a work of modern-day magic.

Like other pop stars, Hatsune Miku earns money from brand endorsements and shows, as well as a series of licensed PlayStation games. Unlike flesh and blood celebrities, however, Hatsune Miku does not age, go off script, or get caught up in scandals; she never needs a break, and perhaps most importantly, she doesn’t need to be paid. Unsurprisingly, this combination has inspired a wave of imitators. In China alone, Hatsune Miku copycats include Luo Tianyi, Oriental Gardenia, and Violet, all of whom routinely appear at corporate events and in provincial or municipal Spring Festival galas. Continue to read the full article here

– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.