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Rise of the Internet celebrity economy

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With demand for icons like Zhang Dayi growing, more incubators are sprouting to teach hopefuls how to generate online content

When Zhang Dayi was called to the stage at Alibaba's Global Netrepreneur Conference in Hangzhou, China, last Tuesday, it was clear to the audience that she was a different breed of speaker.

As she sauntered onstage, she held up a smartphone using a selfie stick and said "hi" to her fans - but these fans were not at the conference; they were watching her through a live-streaming mobile app.

Ever the media-savvy personality, Ms Zhang panned her smartphone camera over to Alibaba founder Jack Ma, who was in the front row of the audience, right before she took her seat onstage. The gesture delighted her fans.

She was quite unlike most of the conference's speakers, including Alibaba executives, start-up founders and even a film director.

It would not be accurate to ascribe a single profession to Ms Zhang. She is what Alibaba describes as a millennial with a "slash career", or one who pursues multiple careers, an increasingly popular concept among the youth of today.

Her profile on the conference agenda read: Taobao business owner / model / WeChat KOL (Key Opinion Leader). But she is perhaps best known in China as a "wang hong" -Internet celebrity.

With more than 5.5 million followers on Taobao, Alibaba's consumer e-commerce platform, she once reportedly sold more than 5,000 items in just two seconds, after she uploaded her latest clothing collection on her Taobao store.

Being a Taobao celebrity has been lucrative for her. According to data from Chinese brokerage Guotai Junan Securities, she made about 300 million yuan (S$61m) in sales in 2015 alone.

To Ms Zhang's fans - mostly young girls - she is a fashion adviser, sister and role model. She told the conference she endeavours to respond to all fan messages, ranging from queries on her clothing line to requests for relationship advice.

Her popularity was evident at the Taobao Maker Festival, a showcase of some of the most original and innovative products by Taobao merchants. Ms Zhang's booth, which saw snaking queues, was easily the most visited.

Her success in retail is being played out against the rise of China's "Internet celebrity economy", which is said to have arisen in late 2014.

Aside from Ms Zhang, other notable wang hong include comedian Papi Jiang and businessman Wang Sicong.

The desire for Internet celebrities in China has led to the rise of incubators, which groom aspiring Internet celebrities by teaching them how to create content or to be media savvy.

Without a doubt, China's Internet celebrity economy is booming. Its stalwarts are all big players with deep pockets: Taobao, which is owned by Alibaba; messaging app WeChat, developed by Tencent; and microblogging site Weibo, backed by Alibaba.

The value of this economy will reportedly surpass 100 billion yuan next year.

If anything, this phenomenon of self-made Internet celebrities only reinforces the democratising effect of the Internet.

Anyone with a web connection can ignite a global conversation.

Social networks have further levelled the playing field, allowing regular people to easily command audiences rivalling those of artistes and politicians.

For brands, it pays to know that with the right content and web savviness, a marketing campaign can positively take the Internet by storm, or, in urban slang, break the Internet.

This article was published in The Business Times Weekend