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    Chujiu: A Master of Disguise

    The makeup artist, who has found fame with her magical transformations, explains the motivation behind the hit “100 Villains” series and the hours of work needed to create just one short video.

    Online influencers tend to be highly recognizable — their face is their brand, after all. Unless you’re Chujiu. Her appearance can change completely from one minute to the next.

    One of China’s most popular social media content creators, makeup artist Chujiu is famed for her fantastical videos, in which she brings to life characters from films, books, and television. In the space of a week, she can appear as the villain Voldemort from the “Harry Potter” series, Bai Suzhen from the Chinese folk classic “Legend of White Snake,” or as a Na’vi warrior from the blockbuster movie “Avatar.”

    Fans would unlikely notice if they passed her on the street, though, with her baggy clothes, hat, mask, and sunglasses. “I couldn’t be less fashionable,” she says with a smile. Even people who see Chujiu almost every day sometimes fail to recognize her. Once, she says, she arrived at the building where she rents a studio with a large bag of props for a photoshoot and a security guard stopped her in her tracks, telling her, “No door-to-door salespeople.”

    As well as sharing short videos on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, and other social media platforms, Chujiu will occasionally livestream herself making the elaborate costumes and props for her characters. It can be laborious and repetitive work, but sharing the process with fans keeps things interesting. However, when fans see this 20-something influencer in her glasses, hunched over a sewing machine, and surrounded by colorful craft materials, they often joke in the comments how much she resembles their grandma.

    During an interval in one of these streams, she steps away from her work table and breaks into a child-like jig. “You’d never guess it, but I actually was a dance major,” she says, giggling. After leaving university, Chujiu worked as a TV director, and then as a portrait photographer. She also spent a year at a martial arts studio studying sanda, a type of self-defense sometimes referred to as Chinese kickboxing.

    Chujiu later decided to relocate to Hangzhou, capital of the eastern Zhejiang province, to become a full-time vlogger. Today, she lives in a residential community just across the road from her studio. When she was looking for a place, she had only two requirements: cheap and close to work. By this time, she had already accumulated more than 1.8 million followers, but she was starting to struggle with engagement — each new video was now receiving only a few hundred likes, leading some people to brand her a has-been. On top of this, her face was beginning to swell up and redden from all the makeup, leaving her with no choice but to slow down and think about the next step in her career.

    She gave herself an ultimatum: She would do a “100 Villains” series, focusing on wicked characters from Eastern and Western literature and cinema; if, at the end of that, her channel’s engagement still had not improved, she would find herself a “sensible office job” instead. To her surprise, the fifth installment in the series — in which she transforms into the Red Queen from Tim Burton’s 2010 screen adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” — went viral, generating more than 1 million views overnight. When that happened, she says, “it felt like, after slowly drowning, someone had finally thrown me a lifeline.”

    Attention to detail

    Chujiu’s life is split between home and work, and she hardly goes anywhere else. When she’s not filming, she’s making props in her workshop. As many of the outfits and accessories her characters wear can’t be bought online, she makes them herself, using photos for reference. She likes to upload new materials regularly, so much so that rather than travel home from the Lunar New Year holiday this year she was holed up in her workshop, transforming herself into Caishen, the God of Wealth, and Xiaoqing, the green snake goddess in “Legend of White Snake.” Often, the comments on her videos are from people urging her to just get some rest.

    In her workshop, when she’s engrossed in her art, she says she loses all sense of time, and hours pass like minutes. If someone tells her how talented she is as a makeup artist, she instinctively rejects the compliment. In her eyes, what she does is a matter of time, not skill. Simpler projects take about four to five hours in front of the mirror, she says, while the more complex characters — those that require facial prosthetics, for example — can take more than ten. Transforming into Imelda from the Pixar movie “Coco” and Scar from Disney’s “The Lion King” took her an entire day.

    A photographer stays with Chujiu throughout to capture each stage in her metamorphosis. As he hovers nearby, humming away, she will often look up from her mirror, her expression almost apologetic. “Nearly ready,” she says with a sheepish grin. Her creative partners say they have become used to Chujiu’s nitpicking, as she pays close attention to even the tiniest of details. When asked what kind of person she is, her video editor looked slightly flummoxed and just replied, “Stubborn.”

    She’s the kind of person who needs to see it to believe it. When her photographer talks about setting up the lighting, for instance, she has to first try his way and then her own before making a final decision. However, the dynamic is more that of friends collaborating than work colleagues.

    In the past year, Chujiu has attracted 6 million more followers on Douyin, a platform with no shortage of makeup artists and cosplayers. So, what separates her from the rest? “There’s nothing extraordinary about what I do,” she says. Her fans might beg to differ.

    After assuming her new identity, Chujiu doesn’t just sit still and pose for the camera — like an actor, she gets into character, channeling their mannerisms, movements, and at times even their voice. It’s an immersive experience. Commenting under the video in which Chujiu becomes Tang Xiaoyi, aka Wing, a character in the “Charlie IX” series of illustrated novels, one fan wrote, “I really felt like it was him saying goodbye to me at the end.”

    Chujiu spends a lot of her time fleshing out her characters, posting with each video her thoughts about their motivations and quirks. Sometimes, she will also talk about the makeup she uses, or other things on her mind, such as what she’ll do once the “100 Villains” series is complete, how to better incorporate traditional Chinese characters into her videos, and of course her search for a boyfriend.

    Blurring the lines

    Chujiu has loved performing since she was a girl. At the start of her career, she landed a job at a media company, where she was given the opportunity to help produce a web series, giving her a taste for making short videos.

    When she started her own channel, on Tencent’s short-video platform Weishi, the notion of a full-time content creator was pretty new. She would go to work in the day and make her own videos in the evening. Her big breakthrough was her “Mirror” series, in which she painted each half of her face as different characters: mother and daughter; man and woman; maidservant and lady of the house; or angel and devil. Over the years, the series allowed her to hone her skills to the point that, now, her illusions blur the line between fantasy and reality.

    Not one to gush about her work, Chujiu’s artistry and passion are obvious through her meticulous dedication. If the silhouette of a garment she’s made isn’t flattering, she will pick it apart. If two accessories are just centimeters further apart than on the original outfit, they must be reapplied. If her voice is raspy from a cold, she will record a video a dozen times or more until it sounds right. Being a perfectionist isn’t a source of anxiety for Chujiu, more a matter of pride.

    Creating the character of Wing from “Charlie IX” so far sets the record for Chujiu’s most challenging and time-consuming transformation. As the book has yet to be adapted into a movie, her only references were a handful of illustrations and her own interpretation of the text. She churned out his jacket and shawl on her sewing machine and styled his hair from a store-bought wig. She also composed and produced the background music that played during the final reveal.

    In the book, Wing and another character leap into a pool, their fate unknown. She had the idea of providing fans with a much-needed sense of closure by reimagining the scene.

    Originally, she wanted to be photographed through the glass of an enormous fish tank, but when this plan fell through, she decided to do the shoot in a swimming pool. Her team needed a photo of her fully immersed in the water, but Chujiu can’t swim. Every time she ducked under, she quickly returned to the surface coughing and spluttering. At one point, she was nearly reduced to tears.

    “But then I remembered that I’d booked the venue, and had gone to all that effort to make my costume for the shoot. If I couldn’t do it, we’d only all have to come back later.” The thought gave her strength — and after a couple more takes, they got the shot they needed.

    Reported by Gao Taotao.

    A version of this article originally appeared in Neweekly Lifestyle. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is published here with permission.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Xue Ni and Craig McIntosh.

    (Header image: Chujiu’s makeup. Visuals from Chujiu, reedited by Sixth Tone)