South China Morning Post
Thursday, February 9, 2006
Regine Li, the undisputed queen of Taiwan's multibillion-dollar home-shopping industry was, at one point, reduced to living off loans and handouts from friends after she failed at half a dozen careers. Now she earns more than US$1 million a year selling everything from diamonds to sports utility vehicles on Taiwan's largest home-shopping channel. The sales drive she led this year to celebrate the network's 50th anniversary racked up over US$150 million in sales.
And she is also Taiwan's most prominent transgender person. Born a man in a small town in central Taiwan, Ms Li, an only son, became a woman in her early 20s and has since married a man 14 years younger than herself.
By doing so, Ms Li violated the core Confucian teaching that the greatest crime a man can commit is to leave no descendants. She also violated traditional taboos against "injuring" the body her parents gave her and, as a woman, marrying a man significantly younger than herself.
Yet her decision to go public with her transgender identity has only increased her popularity to the point that she has morphed into a full-blown celebrity with her own television talk show, known in English as The Queen of Hot. This can be partly explained by Ms Li's extremely savvy use of new media. Like several Taiwanese celebrities, her blog chronicles the ups and downs of her personal and professional life. Her use of the younger generation's often obscure online shorthand - a combination of Chinese characters, phonetic symbols, and English abbreviations for slang known as "Martian" to the uninitiated - helps her connect with her audience. Her personal website also includes a massive online community through which she shares beauty tips, ironic observations and pet peeves.
But on a deeper level Ms Li's rise to fame can be explained as a combination of two definitions or narratives of success, each of which resonates with different segments of Taiwanese society.
For people born in the late 1950s or 1960s, she is a heroine for a nation of serial entrepreneurs who believe that success despite repeated failure is just around the corner if you can just believe enough in yourself to make other people believe in you, too.
But for people born in the 1970s and especially the 1980s, success is defined less in financial terms and more in terms of self-realisation. As a transgender person, Ms Li is a particularly powerful symbol of personal transformation achieved by discovering one's true self.
Like many successful salespeople, she is selling herself - the experience of her over-the-top personality, her outrageous sense of style, and an ethos of wilful playfulness. Certainly, she has done it her way.
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Published in the South China Morning Post. Copyright (C) 2006. All rights reserved.