Chinese female livestreamer
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Selling My Soul for Views: Breaking in as a Female Livestreamer

A former female livestreamer shares her story of sexualizing herself to attract big-spending clients

Our narrator today, Xiaoxiao, was a female livestreamer who entered the business this January. It took her only three months to go from making 2 RMB a day to making 100,000 RMB a month. On the outside, this seems like an outrageous figure—but this income all depended on the “big brothers”: fans with deep pockets on the other side of the screen.

The top “brother” is the viewer who sends the largest amount of virtual gifts to the livestreamer, which they can redeem for cash through the livestreaming platform. The brothers are the key to striking it rich in the streaming world.

So how was Xiaoxiao going to catch the eye of one of these lucrative viewers?

The answer might lie in roleplay: In this world, those who can perform their roles well can have what they desire.

Below, we follow Xiaoxiao’s account of her experience with the ups and downs of the livestreaming world.

-1-

My first time streaming

My name is Xiaoxiao, and I'm from Sichuan province. Before I started streaming, I did administrative work.

In my personal life, I'm a very extroverted person, especially when I'm with my closest friends. But if I'm with people I don't know well, then I might be more distant.

I used to be an ordinary office worker, but I didn’t feel satisfied with that life. Prior to when I started broadcasting, I would occasionally watch big-name livestreaming hosts. At the time I was quite envious of them, watching them sit there casually raking in the cash, receiving praises and admiration.

Around November of last year, I quit my job. Because it was already the end of the year, it was not so easy to find a new job—I spent a month looking without success. I got pretty bored sitting around at home, and without really meaning to, I saw a livestreaming prompt in an app and clicked on it. I thought maybe I'd stream for a bit just for fun, not realizing what I’d gotten myself into.

Right away the viewer count started flying upwards, and the screen was filling up with comments, so I hurried into the bathroom to make myself up a bit. Holding my phone, I stood in that bathroom and streamed for over two hours. I never thought that so many people would come watch me—it was beyond anything I’d ever imagined.

It was a wonderful feeling, like a burst of energy pushing you onstage. Everyone was watching you, talking with you, seeing every move you make.

Even though I only made 2 RMB for my first broadcast, I gained three or four hundred fans. Some of them sent me private messages with words of encouragement, saying they really liked my personality, or they thought I was a very accomplished young lady, and that they would keep supporting me going forward. I really was quite moved by those kinds of comment, and felt very grateful toward them. When I first started streaming, I thought that all those comments were sincere.

At the time I had this desire to keep streaming, so I started learning more and preparing content to broadcast the next day. During that time, I would watch other livestreamers every day. I learned how to put in music, how to do lighting. I bought new equipment, and studied how others kept up the flow of conversation. I was always thinking about how I could make my channel seem more professional.

My income was also changing—from the 2 yuan that first day, it gradually increased to 50 or 60 a day. But money wasn't the most important thing. I didn't really consider using this to make a living, or to make millions or anything.

What I feared was disappointing my viewers, or making them think I was boring. I didn't want to be that kind of person.

A female livestreamer in China reveals her face without make to her online viewers 电影《受益人》

A livestreamer reveals her face without makeup to her online viewers (《受益人》)

-2-

Cracking the popularity code

“PK,” or “player killing” battles, are one of the most common livestreaming activities. Usually two streamers start a video call together and “rally their troops” to the best of their ability during a set amount of time, trying to get their audience to vote using virtual gold and silver. When the time is up, the party with the most votes wins, while the loser is subject to a predetermined punishment.

This is the most lucrative part of the streaming business; it is also here that Xiaoxiao discovered a new formula for driving traffic to her channel.

Once, during a PK, I met this other female streaming host. She didn’t really do anything outstanding. She couldn’t sing very well, or dance, and she didn't talk about anything interesting—but she did have a lot of fans.

So how did she do it? Well, she had a very large bosom, to the point that she had to be careful about how she moved, because the platform might flag it as inappropriate content and automatically ban her account.

She couldn't really move and she didn't even talk much. Just sitting there, she had people watching her. That was when I realized what fans really cared about.

In my day-to-day life I wear a lot of sportswear and t-shirts. I dress pretty casually. But at that moment I thought, is it possible for me to do what that other livestreamer did? Even if I didn't get surgery, I could buy padded bras, or clothes that accentuated my curves. As long as I attracted more viewers, I didn't care if I had to go against my own preference to wear those tight dresses and tight pants.

It was like a bottomless pit: Once you fell in, you could only sink deeper. Aside from making more money, the most important thing was driving traffic to your channel. As long as the numbers were going up, I didn't care what I was doing.

In the beginning most of my streams were just me chatting into the camera. Occasionally I’d dance for my viewers, but soon they started getting tired of this.

So I started dabbling with some more suggestive topics, pushing the envelope a bit. As soon as you do this, viewers come streaming in, and they stay for much longer in your broadcast. So as time went on my channel started getting more risqué.

One day I had an inspiration: I wanted to see just how much everyone really liked me. That day, I just wore my pajamas and kept my glasses on. I didn't wear any makeup or turn on any filters.

That day, everyone's reactions were like: “Is this really Xiaoxiao?” “You've got to be Xiaoxiao’s sister, right?” “This is disrespectful. In the future you have to put on makeup before you stream.” “We don't like you this way.”

There's this tacit understanding between livestreamers and their audience. Some livestreamers use such obvious filters that their headphones look deformed. The viewers can tell, but everyone accepts this as normal. They don't care what you're like behind the camera, just want who you are in front of them.

-3-

The first “big brother”

Even with traffic increasing, and my audience growing, attracting a “top brother” was still the most important thing. These heavyweights appear randomly. You never know when one will pop up in your stream.

It was like this with my first big brother—he just showed up in my stream one day. For no discernible reason, he sent me 520 little heart icons, which amount to around 20 yuan. Up until then I’d had to yammer away for a whole night to make that much money.

Later he gave me another thousand “tickets” I could redeem. That night I made about 200 yuan, all on account of him.

At the time I was a bit slow, and overwhelmed by the sudden attention. I even suspected that I’d somehow been scammed.

That night he sent me his WeChat QR code via private message.

I thought, he gave me so many tickets, so I really should add him and say thanks. But then he suddenly video-called me. That scared me—I wasn't used to receiving video calls from strange men in the middle of the night—but I still picked up.

He said a bunch of stuff like, “I think you're not like the others, I really like you,” and so forth. Then he introduced himself. He said he was an entrepreneur in his 30s, single, and very well-off.

At the time I was wondering why he was telling me all this. Of course he went on to say, “You can come find me, or I'll find you—we can see how things grow from there.”

Then I understood. I told him, “Let’s talk more some other time.”

At that time, I didn't understand the ins and outs of “big brother maintenance.” I didn't know I had to tell them good morning and good night, to tease and flirt with them a little. He came into my stream a few times and then never appeared again.

He didn’t last long, but it was still him who made me realize: As long as you can hold on to a big brother, you can easily make several hundred RMB in a night.

Actually, being a female streamer is a little like being in sales. There’s even a “pre-sale” and a “post-sale” process. If a big brother gives you a couple thousand tickets, then you add him on WeChat, and you've got to reply in a timely manner. If you want to do the post-sale professionally, you can’t play hide and seek.

A female livestreamer in China thanks her audience for their gifts ,电影《受益人》

A female livestreamer thanks her audience for their gifts (《受益人》)

-4-

The formula

If you want to talk about the formula for making money streaming, then you've got to talk about PK: one-on-one “player killing” battles.

At the time I was in a so-called “guild” for my streaming platform. We had a WeChat group full of female hosts like myself.

The game usually goes like this: If a top brother comes into your stream, you chat with him a little, just a few lines back and forth. Then you send a message to the group saying, “I've got a big brother here, does anyone want to PK?”

If other streamers are live and see the message, they'll enter the first streamer’s info to join the call. They’ll pretend that they just happened to come in at the right time, but in reality it was all pre-arranged through private channels. And then they'll start to PK.

When both sides have big brothers, they’ll raise the stakes. For example, if someone loses, she might have to do a hundred squats, because this kind of thing can motivate your own big brother to buy more tickets for you to win.

Spending money is the most important thing. You can't believe the things a streamer tells you, like “You're my family” and whatnot—all of that talk is for the big brothers who send them lots of gifts. If you’ve got no money, then you find out what kind of “family” you really are to them.

-5-

Brother Qiu

When they’re online, female streamers need to play the dual roles of siren and salesperson. The top-ranking brothers also have a role to play.

You might think that the streamer is the star of their own channel, but this isn't the case. The real leading role is the top brother.

When a big brother shows up, every other viewer has to go flatter him and suck up to him: “Big brother is so great!” “Big brother is awesome!”

If a big brother says, “Xiaoxiao, that dance was terrible,” everyone parrots him—even me.

The big brothers may not have this kind of status in real life, but in the virtual streaming room, it can happen to them. All they need is money.

Toward the end of March, my most important big brother, Brother Qiu, came into my life.

Originally, he was following another female livestreamer. The two of us had linked up to PK. He would occasionally come over to my stream to send me some tickets, each time spending 1,000 yuan or 2,000 yuan. Within a week, he had spent 5,000 or 6,000 yuan on me.

Later he came over to my channel, and became my top brother. Every day, as soon as I stopped streaming, our private conversation time would begin.

At the very beginning we would only chat for a bit, and it was all over text. After we had talked for two or three days, he thought texting was inconvenient, so he went ahead and called me directly.

The time we spent talking also gradually got longer and longer. At first we would only talk for one or two hours, but later it became three or four hours. One time we talked straight from midnight until 7 the next morning. Midway through, I said I wanted to sleep, but he straight up told me, “You can’t go to sleep, stay with me a little longer.”

In the beginning we stuck to gossip and the news, but later on, he started discussing his personal life. Based on his own description, he was a 30-something bachelor living in Beijing, with his own apartment, an annual salary of 400,000 to 500,000 RMB, and his parents had both already passed away.

It’s the dream partner of many girls: car, house, and no parents to support.

I once asked him in all sincerity: With such extraordinary circumstances, how could it be that you're still single, that you have to go online and watch streams to find a partner? He explained that he's someone who goes by his feelings—no matter how great a girl seems, if he doesn't like her, he doesn't like her. Then he took aim at me: “I have very good feelings about you.”

At first, he kept things ambiguous, but as time went on he became very direct. He’d directly ask me if I'd missed him that day.

In order to maintain this big brother—or you could say client—I would say to him, “I missed you a lot,” when in reality I didn’t miss him at all.

And why didn't I feel anything for him? Maybe it was because he seemed too perfect, which made me feel that things didn’t add up. I also thought, why would something so good happen to me of all people?

-6-

Gifts with a cost

After Brother Qiu became my top brother, he would come watch me stream almost every day. Every day, he would spend several thousand, even 10,000 yuan. Thanks to him, I made 100,000 yuan in April.

To put this into context: Previously, when I did administrative work, I made 4,000 or 5,000 yuan a month; in a year I would only make maybe 50,000 or 60,000 yuan.

Sometimes I would get a bit tired, so I'd say, I'm going to bed now. And he’d say, “OK.” But not two minutes after hanging up he'd call me again, saying, “You’re really going to bed? Don't you know how much you're hurting me?”

As long as I was streaming, he would send me gifts. And as soon as I got off, he would call me. Toward the end, he would even get mad if I didn't call him first.

Our conversation got a lot more intense as time went on. He asked me if I wanted to be his girlfriend, but I very clearly refused him, saying that I wasn’t ready to date.

There was even one time when he sent me a video of his genitals. I thought that was disgusting, but I also couldn't immediately delete or block him, nor could I curse him out, so at the time I just sent a “facepalm” emoji.

Then in later video calls, he wouldn't even be wearing a shirt or pants. By then the little shred of goodwill I felt toward him in the beginning was totally gone.

I was in too deep to quit. I didn't have a way to reject him, unless I told him not to come back to my channel.

In the end, I kept chasing the money, pushing my boundaries further and further.

Watching a livestream on a cellphone, 电影《受益人》

Watching a livestream on a cellphone (《受益人》)

-7-

Hitting rock bottom

Toward the end of April, he called me yet again. At the end of the conversation, he went so far as to say he would come looking for me, saying he wasn't joking, and he was about to book the plane tickets. He even said that he could get his job transferred to my city—as long as I was willing, he would change anything to be with me.

This really scared me, and I said, “Don't be like that, I’m not ready for all that.”

He also said that if he came to where I was, he would have to go all the way—sex was definitely happening, so I had better get ready.

In the moment I thought, no way, everything was taking a wild turn from what I first imagined. I originally thought that he was just bored on the internet, looking for streamers to pass the time with. But coming on to me like this in real life - that was something I simply couldn't tolerate.

I told him over WeChat: “How about we keep talking as friends? I can treat you like I would treat a friend, but if you truly want to start a relationship, that’s not something I can do.”

After that I decided to stop picking up his calls. I started streaming again in May, and he came back to my channel. I came right out and told him during the stream, “I'm truly grateful for all the tickets you send, but let's keep our relationship as it is now.”

Having this said to you in front of the whole audience, now that’s what you call losing face.

We gradually stopped talking, until one day, out of the blue, he sent me a WeChat message, asking me to send him a record of all of his transactions in my channel. That night I went to bed early and didn't finish sending all of them. The next morning I discovered that he had bombarded me with private messages: “Don't play these petty games with me, there's no way I only spent that much. If you dare hide anything from me, I'm suing!”

I explained to him that I had gone to bed early the previous night, and then I sent him the remainder of the transactions.

I was bewildered: What kind of person was he, really?

After that he never again sent me tickets like he did in April. He said that I had broken his heart—in the future he would treat me like any old streamer, and he wouldn't bother me again.

Later on I found out the cycle had started again: Brother Qiu went over to the channel of another female streamer who had PK’ed with me. That was also how he’d originally gotten to know me.

-8-

After big brother

Brother Qiu’s departure had a big impact.

First off, there was the matter of income: My income in May was only 10,000 RMB, and after that it dropped even lower.

More critically, I started feeling anxious—no matter how long I sat in front of the camera, I couldn’t make as much as a few minutes with Brother Qiu. My overall mood got very low, very tired, and viewers started telling me that I was no fun anymore.

I was even getting disgusted with this sexualized version of myself. I wanted to throw away my past achievements and start over. I tried refocusing my channel on dancing in nature—enjoying the wilderness, going into the mountains to do classical dance. But none of this was as popular as when I wore sexy clothes and danced my easy but seductive moves. Whenever there was a sexual element, the traffic would go up.

And I never met another top brother.

In the end I discovered that if I didn't flirt with the big brothers, there seemed to be no way forward. If I kept doing this, I might end up not only selling my soul, but even my own body, all for the sake of viewers and profit. When I thought about that point of no return, I felt very afraid. I had to cut my losses, so I stepped away from streaming.

But how could I return to my old life? I tried looking for work similar to what I did before, but I’d gotten used to getting what I wanted without trying. When I saw jobs that paid 3,000 or 4,000 yuan a month, my heart just wasn't in it. When I saw jobs with 9-to-6 hours, I felt tired. At the back of my mind there was always a voice saying, “Do I really have to return to this kind of life? I’ve already reached the top.”

-9-

Game over

If a guy can send virtual gifts to only one female streamer, and keep it up over time, then maybe she'll have found true love.

But most guys aren't like that. They're just looking for some excitement. After a month or two, they’ll go looking for some fresh material.

Whether it's the streamers or the viewers, everyone is looking for something they can't experience in their daily lives.

Brother Qiu put a lot of time and money into my channel. Did this come out of genuine feelings on his part, or was it only a strategy for winning over female streamers? I don’t know.

But in my heart of hearts, I have to hope that there was some real feeling, or else I really don't what to think about all those nights we spent talking.

If he truly liked me, even if it was only for a short time, that would make it easier to bear.

Translated by Nathaniel J. Gan. The text has been edited for clarity.

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Founded in 2017 by Kou Aizhe, Story FM is one of the most renowned podcast in China. Each episode focuses on ordinary people’s lives and viewpoints, including the difficulties of marginalized people. Through intimate and private interviews, Story FM digs out first-person experiences and lets listeners immerse themselves in another person’s voice and feelings. You can listen to their podcast in Chinese on Ximalaya, Qingting FM, Apple Podcasts, and the 故事FM mini-app on WeChat.

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