How This Openly Gay Influencer and Entrepreneur Is Navigating China

How This Openly Gay Influencer and Entrepreneur Is Navigating China

by Fei Lu

When you first come across Edison Fan's Instagram feed, you may just assume he's another hot Insta-model thirst trap. From "casual" pictures in revealing underwear, to shots with his equally model-esque friends, he clearly knows his audience. What you may not know is that he's also one of China's most well-known openly gay influencers, with more than 1 million followers on the Chinese social media platform, Weibo, along with over half a million followers on Instagram.

Fan, 33, is a model, entertainment personality and the founder of brands OMG Sportswear, a performance gym wear line currently available in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, China, and Taiwan, and U-Touch Underwear, one of China's first premium underwear lines that caters to the Asian market, and heavily features Asian models in their campaigns.

Edison Fan (right) and a model in a shoot for his brand, OMG Sportswear

Born in Nanjing, Fan moved to New Zealand in 2002 and lived there for thirteen years, during which time he met and married New Zealander Josh Taylor (the two later divorced in 2016). In 2015, he moved back to China where his companies are currently based and, a year and a half ago, welcomed the arrival of his son, Frederic Y. Fan.

In a country where members of the LGBT community still frequently face discrimination, Fan — and the success he's had in China — stands out. Starting his entertainment career in 2015, he began appearing on Chinese variety shows and on a Chinese version of America's Next Top Model. But with success and visibility has also occasionally come criticism from fans who wish he'd use his platform as one of the few out gay entertainers in China to be more of an activist for the LGBT community and speak out on their behalf.

Despite homosexuality being decriminalized in 1997 and declassified as a mental disorder in 2001, social and institutionalized discrimination against LGBT individuals in China is still rampant. In a 2018 Human Rights Watch report, the organization reported that China still lacks laws "protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity." In its assessment of LGBT rights in China, HRW also cites incidents like canceling LGBT events to banning dating apps that facilitate "abnormal sexual lifestyles." Another survey, this one compiled by German housing website Nestpick in 2017, ranked Beijing as one of the worst places for LGBT individuals to live.The survey used criteria like dating, LGBT nightlife, openness in the city, safety and LGBT rights on a scale of 1-5 to set the standard. At the same time, China is also a country that's churning out progressive tools like BluedBaby (an app that connects gay Chinese parents with surrogates in America) and has a vocal LGBT community demanding equal rights.

And, adding further complexity, China is currently in the midst of restructuring its entertainment industry (cracking down on both the infamous yin-yang contracts that lead to Fan Bingbing's arrest as well as more heavily censoring hip-hop lyricism, for example). So in a country where gay individuals still suffer stigma and entertainers are starting to be more firmly scrutinized by the government, it's understandable why public figures like Fan may choose to have a more neutral web presence as well as why some critics might see him as being complicit. But is he? What does it mean for a gay man to function — and even thrive — in a culture that still discriminates against his community? And does every marginalized yet privileged person need to be an activist?

We called Fan via WeChat to discuss his thoughts on fatherhood, his unlikely rise to stardom, LGBT life in China, his thoughts on being a gay influencer, LGBT activism and more.

How has it been pursuing an entertainment career in China as a gay man?

I moved to China in 2015 with no knowledge of the industry. I imagined it'd be similar to New Zealand — meet the right people, sign with the right agency, and get where you want to be. That wasn't the case. At first, it was great. I got a guest role on the Chinese version of Top Model for six episodes. Then I was on the Qi Pa Shuo show (奇葩說) (Editor's note: Qi Pa Shuo is a variety show that features celebrity guests, a very common and popular TV format throughout Asia), which got me a lot of Chinese followers, and that lead to some commercial jobs. Then I signed with the show's producing agent and told them I really wanted to act. But then I realized that I only got these gigs because of Qi Pa Shuo's popularity. And once you're less relevant, opportunities dry up because you're cast as an influencer, which only guarantees certain types of jobs.

Then in 2017, the industry changed. Everything became stricter, so producers were not willing to hire "high risk" entertainers — that included those publicly out. They couldn't risk production because they only make money by going on the air. Chasing an [entertainment] career in China is like chasing a unicorn. It's fun at first, but eventually, you realize there was nothing to chase to begin with.

Edison Fan (center right) and models in a shoot for OMG Sportswear

Before the interview, I asked if you feel your sexuality has affected your career — sounds like a yes.

Well, my sexuality put me on the map in the first place. So without that, I wouldn't have gotten my early gigs. But it's different when you go mainstream. And then going towards my own businesses, it's a whole different ballpark. I can't say whether it's been a negative or positive impact, but I do feel satisfied with my career.

Was there ever a moment where you wished you hadn't come out?

I didn't come out for attention. I came out because it was empowering and freeing. Then my first marriage put me on a map, which coincided around digital media's boom. I didn't aim to capitalize on my personal life, but opportunities did come up — like book deals and guest slots on TV shows. Then I realized I could do more with this. Again, wherever you go, you play by the rules. My fan bases were and are in China, so that's where I went.

And while the [industry] game is here, I'm not here to change the rules. That's why I'm not an activist — because I choose to carry my message through my actions and career. I'm not in a position to change those rules. My goal is to survive, live my life, make money, and have a child. And that's what I did.

How is it being a single father in China?

I've actually only lived in China with Freddy for six months. At first, because he was too young, so we barely went out due to the weather. But when we did, most people would say, "Oh it's a cute dad with a cute baby", not "Oh it's a single dad." Maybe they'd notice that Freddy is mixed race and think Is that a Eurasian baby or where is his mom from? but those aren't questions you ask strangers. I don't feel any pressure or judgment from anyone. I have very supportive people around me. Right now, Freddy lives in New Zealand with my parents. Of course, there's no textbook about how to raise a baby, so I'm just very cautious about protecting Freddy's well-being.

Edison and his son, Freddy

With your entertainment career going, why venture into underwear and sportswear?

When I was a kid, I had three dreams: Become a Disney animator, become an actor, and be a fashion designer. Aside for the first one, I've done the second one, and now I'm pursuing the third. Sportswear boomed in China in 2014 because of fitness trends, which directly tied to my personal brand. For me, it was a no brainer. But another reason is because of a conversation I had with an agent. He said if he signed me, I'd have to stop posting sexy pictures on Instagram because luxury brands won't sponsor me and I'd end up only selling Speedos and underwear. And I believed that. But I thought If sportswear and underwear are all I can sell, then why don't I become the best in the field? If I become the best, I'll have nothing to be ashamed of.

In the States, when people think of Asian men, there's a negative stereotype that prevents people from associating them with sex and desirability. Then you come into the picture.

So my underwear brand [U-Touch] has been in development over the last six months. At first, we just focused on the product. Then in 2018, the more we evolved, I got more comments from people — including PoC men — saying that they appreciated me putting Asian men forward. It surprised me because this wasn't intentional. But once I got that message, I wanted to do more. I also noticed that in many Chinese gyms and on party pictures, I only saw Western brands like Addicted and Andrew Christian. I thought, Why don't we have a brand that celebrates our own ethnicity? That's why for 2019, our main hashtag is #AsianPride.

What do you hope your brand can achieve?

Right now [U-Touch] is very new. In November we had a soft launch, and I'm hoping the main launch will be at the end of this month. That's why I can't say our competitors are brands like Andrew Christian yet.

But for my sportswear brand [OMG] we're not copying anyone. It's purely based on my aesthetic and vision. While we're focused on the Chinese markets, we've also spread to Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Japan. And tying back into #AsianPride, I believe this is where we were started and where we should focus on. We've had offers from the UK and US, but I don't think it's the right time yet. As a brand, we need time to grow. Right now we're a team of fifteen only, and I need to learn more about this industry to grow my business.

Edison and Freddy

Tying into the last question: How do your Western and Eastern fans differ? And do you present different images to each different demographic?

Good question. Before on Instagram, I would cater my images, post at certain times and timezones, but now I take it less seriously. Before 2015, most of my fans were in China. And I think it's because I carried a hopeful message. Because even now, many LGBT people in China are depressed. I can't give a specific percentage, but definitely, over 50 percent of them can't come out.

At first, I couldn't relate to that, since I've been out for years. But after living here for a while, I finally understood that my lifestyle isn't easy to duplicate — coming out to your parents, having their support, having a beautiful wedding, making a career out of nothing, living comfortably, having a child. It's not relatable for many LGBT Chinese people. That's why after my divorce, people became really upset. My fans turned on me saying that I disappointed them. Because they could only hear my side of the story, everyone just assumed I had left him. It was a lot of backlash. And after signing with a Chinese agency, they were strict about my posts — I wasn't allowed to post anything gay-related for two and a half years. That's when my Chinese gay fans really turned on me because they felt I'd stopped being vocal for the community.

I left my agency last year around September or August. And while I became vocal again, I grew out of it. While everyone can say a message, I choose to show through my actions: Be who you want to be! Marry the person you love, and if you don't get along, you can get a divorce! Chase your dreams!

Once, I was a civil engineer. Then I became an actor and model. Now, I have my own business. I wanted a child and now have one. Don't let people define you. I don't have to write consistently "it gets better" or "It doesn't matter if you're gay or straight" — it's not my method. We all have our ways of supporting the community, and I do it through showcasing my life candidly.

Going to the West, I believe my US fans grew after shooting for [underwear line] Charlie by MZ. Generally, you get positive comments from the Western fans, especially on Instagram. People are nicer [there] versus China's Weibo users who literally hide behind the screen to say nasty things.

But again, it's hard to offend through a simple picture, unless it's paired with a controversial caption. And I don't want to offend anyone. When you're being vocal about something, it's easy to offend, because you can't please everyone.

So my method of action is to simply post positive things, and post pretty pictures.

All photos courtesy of Edison Fan