Fan Bingbing was walking the red carpet at Cannes Film Festival in May, but now China’s most famous actress is rumored to be in jail.
Dubbed “Fan Bingbing’s 100-day disappearance” by Chinese media, the megastar’s retreat from the public eye for more than three months has been equal parts mystery and scandal. Prior to accusations of tax fraud surfacing in late May, her international fame was continuing to rise as she went to Cannes to serve as a jury member as well as promote her future film with co-stars Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Penelope Cruz, and Marion Cotillard. Luxury brands were quick to blast out announcements on social media when she made a Cannes appearance wearing their gowns or jewels, as usual with her appearances at the annual event.
But following a TV anchor’s May 28 post on social platform Weibo alleging that a film had given her double contracts to avoid taxes, her downfall has been swift. The Chinese government promptly announced it was launching an investigation into tax fraud in the film industry. While she wasn’t named specifically, she hasn’t been heard from since her last Weibo post on June 2 and her fiancé Li Chen hasn’t posted since June 22.
There are clear signs that this isn’t just self-imposed exile. Chinese state-run media outlet Securities Daily (證券日報) published an article on September 6 stating that she is “under control, and will accept the legal decision” before deleting it a few hours later. And then on September 11, a Chinese state-affiliated research academy and Beijing Normal University released a report ranking Fan dead last among 100 celebrities for “social responsibility,” receiving a score of zero. Her name has also been removed from posters for her new film that co-stars Bruce Willis, which now has a delayed release date.
The wide range of brands she works with have gotten the message as well. Her once-ubiquitous face has disappeared from ads, billboards, and social campaigns. Out of all the brands in Gartner L2’s Digital IQ Index: Luxury China that posted on Weibo about her this year, none have done so since her scandal began.
These include Montblanc, which had just announced that she was the brand’s new global ambassador in April. The relationship was short-lived: since its last Weibo post featuring her in May, it has publicly confirmed that her contract was terminated. De Beers, meanwhile, announced her as its global brand ambassador in October 2017 and was the last luxury brand to post about her. In addition to featuring her wearing its diamonds at Cannes Film Festival in a May 15 post, it also featured her in a video uploaded to YouTube on May 24.
Major international luxury labels rely heavily on their celebrity brand ambassadors for success in the China market. Posts about their official ambassadors accounted for 70% of Weibo engagement for fashion brands and 77% for watch and jewelry brands, according to Gartner L2’s study, even though the ambassadors were featured in only 5% of brands’ total posts.
If this incident becomes part of a broader crackdown on Chinese celebrities’ financial activities, actor Huang Xiaoming is also in a precarious situation as he was reportedly recently interviewed by authorities for stock price manipulation. Sometimes referred to as “China’s Brad Pitt,” Huang is part of a celebrity power couple with his wife Angelababy. The two are also known for their major brand endorsement deals, with Angelababy serving as Dior’s brand ambassador.
As for Fan’s whereabouts, fans are scrutinizing every tiny development for clues. Chinese media jumped on the fact that someone recently logged into her and her fiancé’s Weibo accounts, while her now-inoperative studio’s official Weibo account clicked “like” on her official fan club’s Weibo post about doing charity activities for her birthday on September 16.