Just under a year after the scandal, in 2019, Fan reentered the public eye at an anniversary gala for streaming company iQIYI. Her understated Alexander McQueen trouser suit and De Beers diamonds were a far cry from her red carpet gowns. She arrived with little fanfare, long after most guests had arrived, and didn’t take questions from the media. At the gala’s private dinner, she made toasts and played party games. It seemed she was testing the waters, to see if she’d be accepted once more. When photos circulated on Weibo, the reaction was sometimes vitriolic—some users thought she should be banned from acting for life. She accepts this criticism as part of her job: “The most important thing is whether or not what you’re doing now is right or not, isn’t it?” she says. “To feel no shame inside, that’s what’s most important.”
Fan has a small circle of close friends, who she says stood by her through the scandal. “They made me feel the world was still warm,” she says. On her birthday last year, when she turned 39, she wrote a post in which she appeared to thank the 15 people in the industry who still wished her a happy birthday. She seems sanguine about this loss of fair-weather friends. “I knew at a very young age that not everyone would be your friend,” she says. “There are only three to five people you can call true friends.”
For the last few years, during which Fan hasn’t appeared on the silver screen, there’s no sign she’s given up on a comeback.1 “I’ve never really thought about what life after retirement would be like,” she says. Instead, she’s pivoted, or perhaps “leaned in” to what she’d always been—herself.
Recently, Fan has become a star of the phone screen. In livestreams and short videos, she applies skincare masks and pats serums onto her face. The public have welcomed her back on social-shopping app Xiaohongshu, where she had already started building a following prior to the scandal. Its motto is “find the life you want,” and more than 300 million users share reviews of lifestyle products. Fan now has a following of 12 million on the app, where she posts—among other tips—her pre-flight routine which includes her own 15-minute facial massage technique. She began by advertising products from other brands, but has since started her own line—Fan Beauty. Soon after her appearance at the iQIYI gala, she launched a sea grape face mask. This way of connecting with the public is better for Fan at the moment: it doesn’t rely on industry intermediaries, many of whom are still nervous about being associated with her.
Fan will return to movie screens in The 355, which is due for release next year. Cast before the scandal, Fan joins Jessica Chastain, Penélope Cruz, Lupita Nyong’o and Diane Kruger in a Hollywood spy sisterhood film, where they hunt down a weapon that could destroy the world. She says she learned a lot from filming The 355, specifically, how her co-stars manage their work-life balance. “Because I spend most of my time working, I have less time to see friends, less time for my pets, less time to spend with family,” she says.
“I pass on hope,” Fan says simply, when I ask her what role she plays in her family. Fan’s younger brother, Fan Chengcheng, has followed her into the entertainment industry. He joined the aptly named reality television show Idol Producer where, inspired by South Korean celebrity boot camps, male trainees compete to be part of a nine-member pop group—he made it in.
He is 19 years her junior, and when I ask her what’s changed between when she joined the industry and when he did, she says, “It’s so different.” This is the most forceful statement Fan has given since we started speaking. She proceeds to explain how superstars lived on, in the memories of her generation. “They would be remembered for a long time, respected for a long time,” she says. Now, it’s not the same. “Maybe someone likes a star one day, and then the next day, someone similar comes along.” In the current entertainment scene, she says there’s always someone else who can play the same role—it’s rare to have parts where only one person will do.
Perhaps it’s the machine, perhaps it’s the audience. In any case, Fan thinks the celebrity assembly line doesn’t create many legends any more. Being an icon—being her—is a rarity. Maybe the reason young actors can’t make a lasting impression is because so many of them are trying to be Fan Bingbing.