CHUANG 2021’s Lelush Explained: What getting ‘stuck’ on an idol reality show really means

“I’m afraid.”

CHUANG 2021, the fourth edition of the Chinese version of Korea’s Produce 101, concluded on April 24th with the debut of the 11-member project group, INTO1. With Japanese, Thai, American, and Chinese members, INTO1 represents a large step forward in China’s pursuit of global appeal. CHUANG‘s casting diversity is a key feature of the production. But internationally, the largest, most meme-able story to come from the show is that of Lelush, the accidental Russian finalist.

To summarize: Lelush (Vladislav Ivanov), a Russian expat teaching/modeling in China, was asked by his friend’s agency to help tutor/translate for some of their foreign trainees on the show. However, after a couple contestants dropped out last minute, the producers of the show asked Lelush to participate. Reluctant from the get-go, Lelush eventually acquiesced, figuring he’d quickly get voted off since he had no idol training and no desire to be an entertainer. Maybe the small burst of fame would accelerate his dream of becoming a designer.

A very important phrase to know.

That’s not how it panned out. His awkward stage presence and nonchalant attitude towards the contest was a huge hit with viewers, who rapidly propelled him into the top half of the rankings.

Lelush did his best to defuse the enthusiasm, showing joy in defeat (“F means Freedom“) and misery in success. Lelush continued to say the quiet part loud, accepting every high vote total with a “please don’t vote for me” or “I don’t deserve to be here“. This hilariously galvanized his fanbase, boosting his ranking even further. Right before the final episode, he peaked at #10, which, if maintained, would have placed him in the final group.

It’s literally a huge joke to everyone.

Lelush at this point was desperate, telling his fans that if they are voting for him, they don’t care about his feelings. Fortunately, his final, heartfelt plea was heard, as he ranked 17th in the final episode, out of the running for debut.

The clip of him joyously sprinting from the stage went viral. He later would post on Weibo “谢谢大家的支持我终于下班了” or “Thanks to everyone for the support, I’m finally off work.

This strange debacle has made its way to western publications, with articles in the The Guardian, Newsweek, Washington Post, VICE, and even Breitbart all weighing in on #FreeLelush.

While it’s funny watching entertainment journalists wrestle with the nuances of Chinese reality TV, the majority of coverage takes political swipes at China, choosing to employ verbiage like “hostage”, “forced”, “against his will”, implying some sort of human rights violation has taken place. But while China’s recent history on human rights is awful, I personally would not deem #FreeLelush worthy of Amnesty International’s attention.

The reality, I suspect, is much more hilarious. From the first episode, Lelush’s attempts at self-sabotage were so peculiar and entertaining that fans, hungry for something new couldn’t help but pay attention. The show producers, seeing how popular Lelush was becoming, started writing storylines for him, giving him a face-turn, to borrow a wrestling term.

The whole “I don’t wanna drag my teammates down” plays as complete hogwash, but it doesn’t matter because the narrative is mutually beneficial to both the show and to Lelush.

It’s difficult to determine just what parts of the saga are genuine and what parts are fabricated, but I think a few basic assumptions can be made. Lelush genuinely seems to get along with the other trainees on the show. Lelush provided a platform for the celebrity teachers to interact with. Lelush most likely played ball because the producers said “just go with this for now, and we’ll make sure you don’t get into the final group”. I wonder if the final vote was manipulated (probably).

What was supposed to be a quick gig became a Kafka-esque reality TV panopticon for the reticent Lelush. Every fit he threw, every groan he uttered, every awkward dance move he dangled for the camera only stoked the fire for more insane content. And content CHUANG provided! Videos of Lelush eating a lemon, Lelush brushing his hair, Lelush celebrating Spring Festival, Lelush emoticons, Lelush stickers, and on and on. He was made a meme because the Idol Economy in 2021 requires memes to sustain itself.

Browsing through the articles in both languages shows a plethora of reasons for voting him: fans who love his honesty, fans frustrated with their own jobs, fans who love an underdog story, trolls who hate idols, trolls who hate Lelush, slacker fetishists, Russophiles, netizens who are sick of the same stereotypical try-hards presented on these shows and will take literally anything else.

Lelush’s popularity, much like Kim Sohye in OG PD101 (or if we stretch the comparison perhaps a little too far, Donald Trump), is a convergence point for those underserved by the Chinese pop industry’s present model. The Anti-Idol became the Anti-Hero. His “success” in CHUANG 2021 should’ve been entirely predictable, in hindsight.

I finally watched both Youth With You 3 and CHUANG 2021 and to my delight CHUANG was definitely a lot better than last year. Mostly because of the editing. I think Youth With You is fine, but CHUANG is definitely more meme-filled, and Lelush is the MVP in that respect.

So what did we learn from all this?

Lelush is still famous but no longer an idol. CHUANG 2021 got its essential meme. And Chinese netizens got their very own White Boy [Spring].

Is there a space in the marketplace for sad, reluctant idol concepts? Will there be a rush for Chinese entertainment agencies signing whatever handsome aloof expat they can find? Probably not, but here’s hoping.

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