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Yue-Sai Kan, Famous China Girl

2009-06-02 | SWISS UNIVERSE


At half past six every Sunday evening, up to 300 million Chinese sit down in front of their TV sets. ICS (International Channel Shanghai) is showing Yue-Sai's World, a docu-soap about lifestyle trends around the world. Sometimes the programme is about food with interviews with Jamie Oliver and Alain Ducasse, sometimes about etiquette with Queen Rania of Jordan as an expert or about fashion with contributions from Valentino and Naomi Campbell. But however prominent her guests may be, the focus is fairly and squarely on Yue-Sai Kan, TV host and über-Oprah of the Middle Kingdom.


Her portrait is everywhere: on Chinese postage stamps, telephone cards, magazines and book covers. US People magazine recently named her the most famous woman in China, while Time Magazine dubbed her Queen of the Middle Kingdom. Her regularly proportioned and always perfectly made-up face is not only well known to television viewers but also to captains of industry, who look on Yue-Sai Kan with respect as one of their own. She owns a film production company and designs her own lines of furniture and household accessories, she is the author of China's beauty bible and the inventor of Asia's equivalent of Barbie, she is vice-president of L'Oréal China and ranks as the richest woman in the country. The fact that she fails to appear in the relevant statistics is easy to explain: Yue-Sai Kan is a US citizen.


Thirty years ago, you could only find women like her at the other end of the world; today, they are members of the executive committees and boards of directors of the nation's companies and sit in its government, too. Yue-Sai Kan is part of this transformation, maybe even its driving force. As banal as it may seem, her revolution began with lipstick. When I came back to China from New York at the beginning of the 1990s, it was impossible to get cosmetics here, she explains. Women went about totally without make-up and were badly dressed, insecure and frustrated into the bargain. She decided that something had to be done and set up Yue-Sai Kan Cosmetics Ltd. Her products were launched in Shanghai in 1992 and immediately became a massive success. They were sold through 800 retail outlets and their recognition level with the local population was a staggering 95 per cent. Yue-Sai Kan Cosmetics became the Chinese market leader and was bought by L'Oréal in 2004. Since then, Yue-Sai has had a little more time for her incredibly busy social schedule: hardly a day passes when she isn't expected to turn up at a reception, a dinner or a party.


Uma Chu, one of her three assistants, tells how Yue-Sai Kan is also well known for the parties she throws herself: Whenever she's in Shanghai, she generally invites as many as 60 guests from all over the world to her home at least once a week.That presents absolutely no problem as the 59-year-old occupies a good 1,000 square metres on the 16th floor of an elegant apartment building in the best part of downtown Shanghai. The walls are hung with contemporary Chinese art, silk cushions cover the deep sofas and photographs show Yue-Sai with Giorgio Armani, Paris Hilton, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Prince Charles and many other celebrities. I just love bringing people together,she confides. Good contacts, as she well knows, are vital in China. She had none herself when she returned to the country from the USA: I had no family, no friends, no circle of acquaintances: I really was at a disadvantage,she admits. And laughs. She might not have had an especially good network, but to make up for that she was a TV celebrity. And that always helps.


But this wasn't handed to her on a plate. Her father was an artist, well known for his traditional ink drawings. The family lived in Hong Kong, where Yue-Sai and her three sisters grew up with music, ballet and painting. Her talent at the piano impressed everyone but Yue-Sai herself: There came a time when I realised I was never going to be another Rubinstein. And if you can't be the best at something, why do it?In 1972, she moved to New York and started a successful import-export business. Then she set up her first TV production company and made a number of acclaimed programmes aimed at introducing Asian culture to a growing and receptive American audience. In the end, she came to the attention of the Chinese government. There was interest in opening up the country to the West and what better way of doing so than a TV show explaining the rest of the world to the Chinese? Yue-Sai Kan was asked to provide suitable material. She was the first American to be allowed to put together her own programmes for China's state controlled television. So she returned to the land of her birth and became the most attractive and famous woman on the nation's screens.


Today, she commutes between two worlds. She spent this May in her New York town house on lovely Sutton Place, but in June she is back in Shanghai again for the International Film Festival to personally welcome guests of honour such as Isabelle Huppert, Halle Berry and Quincy Jones. Will she be throwing one of her famous parties? Why not?she laughs. But now I must be off.She tugs her fringe into shape, touches up her make-up and sweeps off towards the door in her floor-length Rena Lange silk skirt. Where am I supposed to be going, Uma?she calls to her assistant. To dinner at the Italian embassy,comes the reply. The car is waiting.