In November of 2018, the Chinese-Canadian pop star Kris Wu was at the peak of his fame: young, confident, unstoppable. That month, he released his album Antares, and the record was a phenomenon, with seven songs landing on the American iTunes top 10. Standing six-foot-one, with Cupid’s-bow lips and a V-shaped face, he was known as a Xiao Xian Rou, which in Mandarin Chinese means “little fresh meat,” a slang term describing the new generation of young male idols, revered for their delicate features and alabaster skin. And he was more than just a pop star: he landed film roles playing romantic heartthrobs and ancient action heroes, and he hosted and produced China’s first TV rap competition, The Rap of China, which drew 100 million viewers within a few hours of its debut and more than a billion by the sixth episode. At Madame Tussauds in Shanghai, a wax replica of Wu stood with figures of Vladimir Putin and Nicole Kidman. In the video for the song “November Rain,” Wu is decked out in a leather jacket and silver chains: “I’m a savage,” he sings in English. “I’m a good guy turned bad guy when I crossed the line.”
Wu’s bankability in China gave him a foot in the door to Hollywood. In 2017, he starred as Vin Diesel’s sidekick in a xXx movie and dropped a track with Pharrell Williams. He later collaborated with Travis Scott and Jhené Aiko and played NBA all-star celebrity games alongside Drake and Justin Bieber. He was unfathomably wealthy, with a collection of 21 exotic supercars and luxury homes in Vancouver, Los Angeles and Shanghai. But Wu was leading a secret double life, wielding his fame, looks and status to lure young women for sex. He seemed to get away with it for years—until a series of social media accusations brought him down for good.
In the mid-1990s, China loosened its emigration rules, allowing more people out of the country. At the same time, British Columbia’s government introduced policies to attract mainland Chinese immigrants. Between 1999 and 2009, Canada welcomed more than 30,000 new people from China per year, who comprised some 15 per cent of Canada’s total annual immigrants. Kris Wu was one of them. He was born Li Jiaheng in November of 1990, in the province of Guangzhou on China’s southern coast. His parents divorced when he was a toddler, and he subsequently had no contact with his father, nor did he ever mention his dad to his friends and classmates. In 2000, when he was 10, his mother, Stacey Wu Yu, moved them from Guangzhou to Vancouver. In Canada, Wu went by Kevin Li, using his father’s surname.
Wu landed in the city at a time when being Chinese was near-synonymous with wealth. Vancouver was a hub for China’s nouveau riche, people who had made their fortunes as the Chinese economy boomed and who longed for a more stable life and Western education for their children. But Wu and his mom weren’t rich, living in a small Vancouver apartment.
As the only child of a single mother, Wu grew up quickly. He saw himself as his mom’s protector. As soon as he turned 16, he got his licence to drive himself to school and back; he didn’t want his mom to have to take him. In high school, he held a job as a server at an Asian karaoke parlour, in part to relieve his mom’s financial pressure. “I didn’t want to always have to ask my mom for money, like when I wanted bubble tea,” he told a talk show host in 2016.
Stacey instilled traditional Chinese values in her son that sometimes chafed against his Western upbringing. She urged him to pursue practical fields, like medicine or law—but he wanted to be a basketball star. He spent his teenage years watching Allen Iverson on the court and downloading songs by Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z and Pharrell onto his MP3 player.
Midway through high school, Wu transferred to Point Grey Secondary School in Vancouver’s affluent Kerrisdale neighbourhood. The school is known for its famous alumni—both Seth Rogen and Nathan Fielder went there—and a student population that drove up to class in BMWs, Mercedes and Lexuses. At Point Grey, Wu befriended other Chinese-Canadian students and chatted with them in Mandarin. He wore his hair like his Chinese classmates, keeping his bangs long, covering one eye, and waxing his middle part high. “He looked and acted like a FOB, or fresh-off-the-boat, just like the rest of us,” says an ex-classmate of Wu’s, who had recently immigrated from Taiwan. (He and other former friends of Wu asked me not to name them to protect their privacy.)
But another side of Wu soon began to emerge. Sometimes he was a ride-or-die friend, while at other times he was vain and cocky, manipulating people for his own gain. A few months after his arrival, Wu began hanging out with guys in higher grades. He’d always viewed himself as more sophisticated than his peers, and these new social connections came at the expense of his old friends. “He looked down on us as if we weren’t cool enough for him,” a high school friend says. At one point, Wu befriended a group of Chinese students because he thought one of the girls had a crush on him. He borrowed notes and copied her homework. “If you were no longer useful, he would just ignore you like you were never there,” his ex-friend says.
In 2008, Wu disappeared suddenly from Point Grey. His classmates didn’t know where he went or what happened to him. Most wouldn’t see him again until 2012, when he resurfaced in a music video not as Kevin Li, but as Kris Wu—
a newly minted K-pop idol.
Wu came of age as Korean pop, or K-pop, was sweeping the globe. The worldwide export of South Korean pop culture—known as hallyu—became the backbone of the country’s soft power beginning in the 2000s. In 2004, the K-pop industry generated US$1.87 billion; by 2019, it was worth US$12.3 billion.
When Wu left his Vancouver high school, K-pop was just beginning to make waves in the global music scene. Hugely popular bands like Big Bang, Super Junior and Girls’ Generation were the ancestors of current mega-acts like BTS and Blackpink. The K-pop machine concocted the perfect formula for spawning viral hits, producing songs that were heavy on repetition, catchy hooks and easy-to-copy dance moves, with a few lines of English sprinkled in. The K-pop machine also had one other crucial ingredient: a battalion of young, ready-made, so-called “idols” at its disposal.
In the business world, South Korea is known for its chaebols: the mammoth, family-run conglomerates like Samsung, LG and Lotte that dominate Korean industry. The K-pop world has chaebols of its own. A handful of entertainment agencies write the rules of the industry and fight for new talent. The so-called Big Four labels are SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and HYBE, all of which run “idol” academies where young people aged 12 to 24 train in singing, dancing and rapping, all in the hopes of achieving K-pop stardom.
By the mid 2010s, K-pop houses had embarked on a new strategy: scouring the globe for non–South Korean talent in a bid to expand their international fanbases. Entertainment companies looked for young talent in Asia—China, Taiwan, Thailand and Japan—as well as in North America. Agencies like SM held American Idol–like open auditions in big cities around the world to attract foreign-born recruits. On any given audition day, thousands of young people would line up for hours to get a minute in front of agency judges. Canadian cities with large Asian diaspora populations, like Vancouver and Toronto, were especially ripe for recruitment in North America. Henry Lau, for instance, a Canadian of Chinese heritage, auditioned for SM on a whim in Toronto in 2006. He was offered a contract after delivering a performance of Vivaldi on violin that incorporated popping dance moves.
In 2007, when Wu was just shy of 17, he accompanied a friend to SM’s global auditions in Vancouver. Wu passed the Vancouver tryouts, then made it through several subsequent rounds. Eventually, he was offered an idol training contract in South Korea’s capital. K-pop training contracts typically last from two to four years, during which would-be idols receive lodging and intensive training in singing, dancing, acting and rapping, all in the hopes of being selected to form part of a pre-fab K-pop group.
In the winter of 2007, Wu and his mom visited Seoul to tour the SM buildings where its idols trained. On that trip, he also met his fellow trainees. They didn’t see or hear from him for eight months after that. Then, in the summer of 2008, Wu returned to SM headquarters as a new person: he sported a new haircut, his chin looked shorter, his jaw no longer protruded and his cheeks seemed subtly fuller in all the right places. One source I spoke to, who trained with Wu in Seoul, alleged that SM paid for his plastic surgery and then shuttled him back to Canada to recover for eight months. “The less exposed he was as the old Kris, the better it was for the agency,” the source said.
During his training with SM, Wu lived with dozens of guys, aged 17 to 20, in shared dorm rooms. The building was next door to SM headquarters in Gangnam, the trendy neighbourhood in Seoul. On a regular weekday, trainees took performance classes, as well as studying the proper ways to speak in public—all the skills required to become an idol. Kevin Shin was Wu’s fellow trainee and best friend during this time. He says they trained from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. Trainees’ days didn’t end with their lessons: they were expected to keep up with their school work and practise what they had learned in class in their downtime.
Many former idols allege that SM monitored trainees’ diets closely and pressured the teens to stay below a certain weight. Shin, who was naturally thin, had free rein to eat whatever he liked. Other kids would only eat boiled eggs and drink water. The training was difficult but, as Shin says, “it was kind of self-inflicted.” He explains: “We signed on the dotted line to become a K-pop star. You gotta put in the work, right?” Wu, meanwhile, found the training schedule gruelling. “Every single day, we were going to work. We lived in the same dorm, went to the company to train, then went back to sleep. I did that for four years straight,” he has said.
K-pop companies govern how their stars look, act and dress—some even have “no dating” clauses in their contracts. SM, sometimes called “Slave Master Entertainment,” is notorious for its strict training regimes. Several former idols have launched lawsuits against SM over the years, the most recent being a joint effort from three members of the K-pop group EXO, who terminated their contracts with SM in June of this year and alleged that the company owed them payment. Their lawyer claimed that SM coerced the artists into so-called “slave contracts” that lasted more than 20 years. SM responded, denying the allegations and suggesting that the artists had been influenced by “outside forces.” It promised to pursue legal action against those parties, although the two sides quickly settled later that month. (SM did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
For Shin and Wu, one of the most difficult aspects of the training program was not knowing when they would debut as an idol. Shin was so frustrated he quit SM in 2010 after three and a half years as a trainee: “I didn’t want to be there anymore. I didn’t want to dance. I wanted to join a hip-hop label and to write my own music.” Wu, he says, felt the same but ultimately stayed on because he didn’t want to take chances with another label.
His persistence paid off. In February of 2012, after four years of training, SM handpicked the 21-year-old Wu to debut as the newest member of EXO and EXO-M, the Chinese subgroup of the main band. SM had an eye on China’s billion-strong market: it marketed EXO as a multicultural boy band that could connect with fans in Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean and English. Its debut album, released in 2013, sold over a million copies. Wu was at the centre of it all: the agency had anointed him as EXO-M’s main rapper and vocalist, and they’d officially changed his name to Kris Wu. Soon, his fans started calling him “Galaxy Hyung”—hyung, which means older brother in Korean, referred to his perceived maturity, while fans thought his looks and fashion sense were “out of this galaxy.”
In a move that stunned the K-pop world, Wu left EXO in May 2014, two years after his debut and just as the band was exploding in popularity. He launched a lawsuit against SM, citing creative and cultural differences, as well as health problems caused by the band’s intense touring schedule. Wu claims that he developed myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart resulting in fatigue, shortness of breath and chest pain. (SM later filed a countersuit alleging breach of contract, and the parties settled in 2016.) Wu had grown tired of his lack of creative freedom in South Korea, and he used the lawsuit as his exit ramp. If he cut ties with SM, he could jump ship to China—and make much more money.
If South Korea was Wu’s training ground, China was the launchpad that catapulted him into near-global stardom. When he arrived in China in 2014, he was a ready-made celebrity with a huge fanbase. He was K-pop enough to appeal to Korean fans, Chinese enough to build a Chinese base, and Western enough to draw in diaspora audiences. His timing was impeccable: at the time, Hollywood studios were seeking Chinese financiers and a slice of China’s market, and so they pursued Chinese stars for parts in their blockbusters. Early on, Wu allegedly connected with Qi Jianhong, a prominent billionaire and the chairman of film studio Yaolai Film and Television. Qi purportedly served as Wu’s “patron”—a wealthy and well-connected individual who could back him in entertainment and political circles.
Wu’s first film role in China was a melodrama called Somewhere Only We Know. It topped the box office during its opening weekend, raking in nearly US$40 million and raising Wu’s visibility. In 2015—Wu’s second year in China—the China International Film Festival named him the best emerging actor of the year, and Esquire China crowned him newcomer of the year. Entertainment insiders were soon introducing Wu to famed film directors such as Hong Kong legend Stephen Chow, with whom he collaborated on two movies. In 2016, Wu signed with Jackie Chan’s agency.
The same year, Wu and Little G Na (known as Xiao Gna in China), a then-19-year-old Chinese-Canadian influencer, began a relationship; he even flew her to Toronto for a rendezvous. But, according to Kevin Shin, Wu never thought of G Na as his girlfriend. “He was chatting with multiple girls at the same time,” Shin says.
After their Toronto rendezvous and months of texting, Wu ghosted G Na, and she flew from China to Toronto to find him. When she couldn’t, she publicly accused him of dumping her on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. “Everyday, I’d check my phone and wait for your message, but you’ve disappeared,” she wrote. “Even if you want to break up, say something.”
G Na subsequently posted their chat histories on social media. She hoped it would lead Wu to contact her again. But Wu’s handlers denied everything, and the scandal bounced right off him. Wu’s hardcore fans and trolls attacked G Na online, while Jackie Chan supported Wu and publicly brushed off the scandal. He seemed confident that the drama would soon blow over.
Wu allegedly held parties where he’d pick out girls who caught his eye, then ask his assistants to invite them to his hotel on the pretense
Chan was right: the public soon forgot about Wu’s alleged transgressions. Over the next few years, he cemented his star status in China, becoming the first non-British brand ambassador for Burberry and appearing on the cover of Vogue China with Kendall Jenner. As host of The Rap of China, fans turned Wu’s trademark sayings from the show—“do you even freestyle?” and “skr-skr”—into viral memes.
His next goal was to conquer the Western music scene. Wu rapped “I’m the Yeezus of the East” in a track with YouTube-famous musicians Joji and Rich Brian. In late 2017, Wu became the first-ever Chinese-born artist to hit number one on the U.S. iTunes chart for his single “Deserve” with Travis Scott. The Western entertainment hype machine was there to build him up. According to Billboard, “Wu has talent and potential to really be a force in the game,” and Vice said that he was at the “precipice of Western crossover success.” He eventually amassed more than 66 million followers on Weibo and on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. He scored sponsorship deals from brands like Porsche, Bulgari and Louis Vuitton. He reportedly charged the equivalent of around $400,000 per commercial and at least $2 million for brand ambassador positions. By 2017, Wu’s annual income had ballooned to US$23 million, landing him in 10th place on Forbes’ China Celebrity List.
Wu’s mom managed his companies, contracts and finances. On the Li Jing talk show, Wu said she provided him with a “small allowance.” And yet Wu still managed to amass a collection of multi-million-dollar homes in Beijing, Vancouver and Los Angeles. His collection of supercars included a metallic gold Ferrari 488 GT and at least three Mercedes-Benzes.
Wu’s internet presence was meticulously crafted to cultivate an image of a humble mama’s boy with a rapper’s swagger: he often visited Vancouver, where he was spotted eating jianbing— Chinese crepes—and playing pickup basketball. The bulk of Wu’s fans were based in China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. They built webpages and social accounts dedicated to his professional and personal life; they religiously watched his music videos and vlogs, and even banded together—apparently bypassing China’s strict internet firewalls—to download his songs and boost his numbers on U.S. charts. One Weibo fan account with half a million followers urged his fandom to “buy buy buy on iTunes without stopping. We have 48 hours to get Kris to the top of U.S. iTunes . . . the most important thing in the world is to get to the top of the charts!” Offline, the fans thronged airports when Wu touched down in any city. At fan meet-and-greets, they asked questions usually reserved for doting moms: “Did you eat dinner yet? Do you like your new hairstyle? Do you feel happy now that you’ve finished filming?”
But Wu’s wholesome image concealed a lurid dark side. In December of 2020, Du Meizhu, an 18-year-old acting student at the Communication University of China in Beijing, received a text on her phone. The message was from Wu’s female assistant, inviting Du to a party at Wu’s mansion in Beijing’s wealthy Chaoyang district. Wu’s team was casting girls for his upcoming music video, his assistant said. When Du entered the house, she later alleged, her phone was taken away and Wu and other partygoers pressured her to drink. Wu’s assistant found Du hiding out in the bathroom, secretly using her phone. The assistant allegedly told her that she had to have a good time or Wu would get angry. “I drank foreign wine and cocktails, mixed. I didn’t dare to resist. It didn’t take long for me to fall unconscious,” Du later said.
The way Du tells it, she woke up the following morning in Wu’s bed. She claims they had sex the previous night and that Wu didn’t wear a condom. When Wu woke up, she says, he told her that he was now responsible for her well-being and would take care of her for the rest of her life. Du stayed for brunch at Wu’s home that day and says he indicated that he wanted to pursue a genuine relationship with her. “Sister, I’m in a relationship now with Wu Yifan,” she wrote to her friend Liu Meili on WeChat, using Wu’s Chinese name. “I swear I’m not lying to you.” Three days after the party, Du says Wu transferred her 32,000 yuan (around $6,000) for shopping—a tactic his friends say he used to control romantic relationships and gain girls’ trust.
Their relationship developed over the next few months on WeChat and occasional meet-ups. Wu promised to take Du to meet his mom during Chinese New Year in February of 2021. She thought he seemed sincere.“He was the best actor in the world that day,” Du said. Even after what had transpired at Wu’s party, she was captivated by what she described as the “innocent gaze that softened our hearts.” But Wu’s infatuation with Du seemed to end as swiftly as it had started. After four months of talking and hanging out, he ghosted Du. The next month, Chinese media published photos of Wu leaving a movie theatre with an 18-year-old model.
Du felt gutted and betrayed. And so, motivated by revenge or justice or both, she unleashed a torrent of accusations against Wu. In July of 2021, she publicly posted on Weibo with an account of what she says really happened the first night she met him: he had allegedly raped her after she drank too much at the party and went unconscious. “You loved a lot of girls at the same time, but I was just one of them.” She said Wu, who was 30, had a penchant for young girls. “I’ve learned that your requirements are women born in the 2000s and underage girls who are preparing for their gaokao.” (Gaokao are university entrance exams.) A friend who knew Wu at the time confirmed his interest in teenage girls, telling me that he’d once had a high school–aged girlfriend when he was in his late 20s.
Du described how Wu used middlemen to procure girls for his pleasure. He would lay girls’ photos laid out on a table and “select them like merchandise,” she wrote on Weibo. He allegedly held parties in Shanghai and Los Angeles where he’d pick out girls who caught his eye, then ask his assistants or middlemen to invite them to his hotel on the pretense of a fan meet-up or job opportunities in the entertainment industry. Wu’s former friend corroborated these allegations, telling me that Wu worked with a guy who was “essentially a pimp.” His job was to find suitable girls and bring them to parties for Wu.
Du’s post launched a mini #MeToo movement against Wu. Her original post clocked millions of Weibo views, and in the days that followed, she says, eight women told her about their encounters with Wu. Du said that two of the girls who talked to her were under 18. A couple of days after her post, Du conducted interviews with major Chinese media platforms like Tencent, repeating her claims and her desire for justice for all the girls and women affected. “You are beautiful on the outside, but in fact, rotten on the inside,” Du wrote to Wu on Weibo.
In July of 2021, Wu’s mother, Stacey, filed a police report claiming that Du Meizhu was blackmailing her and her son for three million yuan (about $550,000), and that she’d already wired 500,000 yuan (around $100,000) to a bank account belonging to Du. The Beijing police later released a first statement: the person extorting Stacey wasn’t Du Meizhu, but a 23-year-old fraudster who had impersonated Du online to swindle money from Wu’s mom.
The false report kicked off an official investigation. The police in Beijing corroborated Du’s story that she and Wu met in December of 2020, had sex and kept in touch via WeChat until April of 2021. They said they were investigating Wu for his alleged misdeeds—but they also accused Du of hyping up her story to gain “internet fame.” They weren’t the only ones to accuse her of exploiting her connection with Wu for personal gain: two of her former friends later alleged Du was extorting Wu for money from the beginning. (I attempted to reach both Kris Wu and Du Meizhu several times for this story but did not receive a response from either of them.)
The police accusation against Du only galvanized her supporters, generating a swift and forceful backlash. One post, which received over 100,000 likes and shares, said: “If Du is sensationalizing her story to become famous, I support it, so the whole world will know about Wu’s alleged crimes.” The hashtag #GirlsHelpGirls went viral on Chinese social media, with over 11 million mentions by mid-July.
In China, many women are reluctant to report sexual harassment because the justice system places a disproportionate burden of proof on the accusers: between 2018 and 2020, only six women filed sexual harassment cases against their harassers in Chinese courts, according to research from Yale Law School. Yaqiu Wang, the senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, says that Chinese women turn to the internet to get the government to listen in a system that often discounts female victims of sexual assault. In China, where the legal system is opaque and the free press is non-existent, social media has become a place where victims can publicize their cases.
On July 19, 2021, Wu posted on Weibo. He refuted all the allegations levied against him: “I never selected concubines or date-raped anyone,” he wrote. “There were no underage girls. If any evidence of this were to be found, please be assured that I would enter prison on my own accord.”
The accusations against Wu took place against the backdrop of a sweeping Chinese government campaign designed to clean up what it deems to be toxic behaviour in the private sector, specifically targeting the entertainment industry, tech and education sectors. By 2021, when Wu’s transgressions came to light, the state was becoming increasingly insecure about its global image amid the COVID pandemic and worsening Sino-U.S. relations. Beginning that year, it embarked on a new campaign to control the country’s pop culture landscape. A ban was issued on rankings of celebrities by popularity in an attempt to control online fandoms. TV shows were banned from featuring so-called “sissy” entertainers. Celebrities and influencers were prohibited from promoting values the state deemed immoral and hedonistic—things like infidelity, drug culture and even ostentatious displays of wealth on social media. Meanwhile, stars who the party disapproved of often vanished from public sight altogether.
According to Dan Chen, a professor of political science at the University of Richmond, the authorities’ efforts to support state-sanctioned celebrities who promoted the party’s values were a bid to control the entertainment world and claim its moral authority over its citizens’ values. The government was cracking down hard on what it called “immoral, unhealthy and devil-possessed” fan culture. “The chaos in celebrity fan clubs, exposed by the Kris Wu incident, reflects that bad fan culture has reached a critical moment that must be corrected,” China’s internet regulator said at the time.
The Chinese state eventually sided with Wu’s accusers. The state broadcaster, CCTV, described Wu’s actions as “no longer entertainment gossip, but a major legal case of significant impact and a public issue.” A few days after Wu’s Weibo post denying Du’s claims, the Chinese authorities formally arrested him on suspicion of rape. The police confirmed that they were investigating him for “repeatedly luring young women” to have sex with him.
Wu became a Chinese superstar within a few months; his downfall only took a day. Within 24 hours of Wu’s arrest, all traces of the fallen star had been scrubbed from the Chinese internet. His music disappeared from streaming platforms. Social media companies deleted his accounts. Studios stopped promoting his films. Experts say that the government likely ordered these entities to expunge his presence. His brand partners, including Bulgari, Porsche and Louis Vuitton, quickly cut ties with him. Wu’s downfall will have lasting reverberations for China, symbolizing a new era of heavy-handed state interference in the private lives and values of citizens. “Wu’s case signals to those in the entertainment world that celebrities will have to be very careful about what they say and very careful about their public image,” Chen says.
The country’s legal system is an unknowable black box, sealed off from any public scrutiny. In Chinese court, the conviction rate is 99.9 per cent. All defendants have the right to hire a lawyer, but defence attorneys often lack full access to their clients and case materials, hindering their ability to work on their cases; for example, lawyers aren’t allowed to be present at their clients’ interrogations. Whether or not a person gets a fair trial largely depends on whether lawyers can gather evidence and construct a viable defence for their clients.
Last November, Wu went to trial on charges of rape. The proceedings were closed and all court documents were sealed, ostensibly to protect the privacy of the victims. Du testified, as did two women whose identities were concealed. On November 25, Wu was convicted on two charges: first, of raping three women at his home between November and December of 2020, and second, for assembling a crowd for group sex. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison, after which he would be deported back to Canada. Two hours after the verdict, the court also ordered Wu pay a fine that amounted to US$84 million for tax evasion and unpaid taxes. He appealed his conviction in July in a closed hearing; a decision was still pending at press time.
Fame in 2023 is a tricky thing: Wu, like so many other celebrities, had used social media to cultivate the illusion of a personal relationship with his fans. Their sense of ownership and connection buoyed him to cosmic fame. But, when the public felt he’d betrayed them, they turned against him. “We just want a simple apology. Why is that so difficult?” Du wrote in her Weibo post.