“They want a foreigner,” she said. “A fat one.”
Standing in her apartment on the north side of the Fourth Ring Road in Beijing, Chloe Wan was saying she wanted me to help out a friend of hers. The friend’s boyfriend was a director, mainly for TV commercials. He was working on an ad for a product called V26, the “American Diet Shake.” And since many Chinese marketing executives believe that using a foreigner in their commercial will convince people that their product is “international” and “world recognized,” he wanted foreigners.
He needed a fat white person to be in the ad. At first I was offended. “No way,” I said. But strange opportunities are not to be dismissed lightly. I had learned that when somebody offers you an outrageous proposition, you can usually learn from the experience, meet interesting people, or get paid. So I agreed to do it. They would pay me 500 kuai (about 60 bucks at the time), and all I had to do was jump around for a few minutes. Plus I would be on TV. I had been in an ad before, back in 1992. That ad was for Ya Di Jiu, a brand of baijiu, which is a strong, clear, flammable alcoholic beverage. My part was to yell: “Made from pure grains, doesn’t go to your head!” in Chinese and then drain the small cup, which was really filled with Sprite. But I had never seen the ad on TV, and this was a chance to actually see myself in a commercial.
I arrived at the “studio,” which was actually a birth control education center that had been rented out to the advertising company to do filming in. I took in the scene. The area was a large auditorium, with cameras and lights everywhere. It appeared that several different scenes were being filmed at once. I greeted Chloe and the director, who explained his vision for the ad. My part of the V26 ad involved a really fat guy, a medium fat guy (me), and a skinny guy, to show the transformation from fat slob to slim stud, effected by drinking V26. The three of us were to jump separately in front of a blue screen, and in the end a gigantic cup of V26 would be superimposed in the frame. In the final version, it would look like two fat guys were jumping into a tall, cool tumbler of V26, and a skinny guy was jumping out the other side. But the really fat guy was Chinese, I am a white American, and the skinny end product was a white Belgian. So by drinking V26 not only are you transformed from fat to skinny, but also from one race to another. Amazing stuff.
I was led off to the makeup chamber. Perhaps this was a family planning counselor’s office? Several layers of goop were applied to my face, as well as lipstick. This was the second time I had had makeup applied. The first time had been ten or twelve years previous when I was in Bye-Bye Birdie in Middle School. Who could have guessed that my acting career would take me from phone-waving teen in Bye-Bye Birdie to playing the “before” guy in a Chinese ad for a diet shake?
I went back out to the main floor, and the costumes person gave me a skimpy, white stretchy piece of fabric and told me to change and get ready. I looked at it as if it were a noodle that was dropped on the floor and put back on my plate. It didn’t look big enough to cover one of my legs.
“I can’t wear this,” I said.
“Mei guanxi,” the director grinned, using the highly versatile Chinese phrase meaning basically: “It doesn’t matter.” The phrase can be used in a variety of situations, where the implied meaning ranges from “you’re welcome” to “don’t worry about the fact that I just ran over your bicycle with my car, you can get it fixed.” In this case it meant: “Don’t worry if you look like an idiot.”
I slinked off to the dressing room to put on the outfit. Closing the door behind me, I tried to will some sort of disaster upon the studio so I wouldn’t have to go back out in the skin-tight outfit. I wrestled with the garment for a few minutes and eventually slid it up over my legs and torso. It was sort of like a weightlifter’s outfit, with short legs and no sleeves. I spent several minutes trying to suck in my gut and look natural.
Coming out of the dressing room, I was relieved that no one paid much attention to me. I looked around at the various parts of the commercial that were being filmed. In one section, about a dozen young Chinese in a disco setting were dancing around to implied music, obviously enjoying their slimness. Behind a desk was a middle-aged businesswoman: slim, successful, and nursing a cup of V26. A pair of lovers; a family; and two friends walking along talking about how great it was to drink V26 were also part of the show. Except for the disco dancers, all of the actors were non-Chinese.
Meanwhile the stage was being set for our big jumps. A giant piece of blue cloth was draped against the wall and part of the floor. This was the blue screen which made it possible to digitally insert the giant cup later on. The really fat Chinese guy had done his jump earlier and so was just standing around in street clothes chatting with people. He seemed to be totally comfortable with the idea that he was totally fat. I chatted idly with the Belgian and he mentioned that he worked for a real estate firm. He had also been lured there by a friend, but he had been waiting all day for just one jump. Finally the director told me it was my turn. He said to jump as far and high as I could. When he said go, I sprang with all of my might into the middle of the blue cloth. I did two takes, and it was over. I wanted to go put my regular clothes back on immediately, but he said to wait. However, I did get a black tank top to put on over the white thing.
As I watched the Belgian do his jump, the director said he had an idea for another scene with me in it. This would be as a healthy, strong boy, not a fat boy, he assured me. The scene was me, shot from mid-torso up, and I had to take a big sip of the strawberry version of V26, look into the camera, flex a bicep and said “Yeah!”
This was the part that finally made it into the ad that appeared on TV all across China. The shot was just me and my arm and lasted less than one second, but some people recognized me from the ad. I had people coming up to me saying: “Hey, was that you in the V26 ad?” All I had to say in response was “Yeah!” and flex a little and they knew it was me.
I was happy not to be shown as a fat person in transition to thin, but rather as a healthy American boy enjoying his shake. The fat Chinese guy and the skinny Belgian eventually showed up in one version of the ad, but the flying middleman in the white leotard was never seen.