Inside the “Youth Castle” where XFire trainees are practicing, the boys have just finished morning practice, and are going in and out of the practice room in their casual clothes. Xiao Zhan quietly sat on the couch, getting interviewed by a journalist from The Paper.
That morning, journalists watched Ep. 11 of Xfire ahead of time at Tianyu Theatre. With his standout height and bright smile, Xiao Zhan was undoubtedly “Love at First Sight” and even during interviews, the team leader Peng Chuyue kept teasing him: “Xiao Zhan is our team’s popularity king.” Halfway through the competition last year, a marketing account exposed that he would soon appear in a big IP drama. When this was brought up, Xiao Zhan looked “clueless”, and during casual conversation didn’t forget to diss himself: “Hey, I’m just a ’Z-List’ unknown artist…”
In real life, Xiao Zhan is polite, understands the rules, and has a friendly air of an upperclassman next door. His attractiveness isn’t aggressive at all, and it’s no wonder that since the first episode some students have teased that Xiao Zhan is the popular “social butterfly” in their team.
The youths living in the castle rarely communicate with the outside world using their phones, they live an almost “secluded life”, and their awareness of their own popularity and recognition is only as an ever-increasing number. “I don’t know how many followers I have exactly (on Weibo), 600,000?” Xiao Zhan asked. “720,000,” the reporter told him after. (At the time of this post, Xiao Zhan’s Weibo followers had already grown to 840,000). He nodded, and flashed an innocent smile; he recalls that before the competition, he had around 1000 followers.
Before interviewing Xiao Zhan, we went to understand the tales about him, “Most Handsome” “Academic King” “Arts Male God” “School Singer” and other labels he had. In his second year of university, he founded a design studio with his friends, and picked up some logo and VI design work, and also attended the “Shocking Cringe Cup” poster design competition. After graduation, he held a comfortable design job.
“I didn’t have any huge ups and downs growing up.” Xiao Zhan’s eyes widened, and he thought about it seriously, “I really didn’t. I just grew up in an ordinary, and happy way.” That was until XFire directors saw his photo, and got in touch with him through his teacher. He came to Beijing with a “come play” mentality, and only then did he learn that this competition wasn’t so “fun” – he had to learn dance from scratch, to the point where he busted a toenail, and once he was kicked in the chin and couldn’t speak normally with his tongue for a long time. It was also his first time experiencing the intensity of competition, and the cruelty and reluctance of farewell.
During countdown this year, before countless fans at the airport, Xiao Zhan felt that he wasn’t ready to be an idol yet. Deep down, he still feels like he’s the ordinary boy who stays cooped at home playing with his cat, watches movies and variety shows and American dramas, and takes afternoon naps on the balcony when the sun is out. There is still a long way to go on his path to becoming an artist; fortunately, his family gave him sufficient freedom to explore the world.
On February 6, XFire will hold its final competition live. The 8 trainees are divided into two teams of 4, and will fight over the sole chance to debut. The results will be decided by the show mentors, post-1990’s audience panel, and audience votes.
Show staff revealed that the “Big Shot Guest Singer” corner will continue into the finals. “Martian Didi” 90-line musical genius Hua Chenyu is already confirmed to attend, and will perform on stage with the two teams as the “Guest Singer”. On the day of the finals, “Versatile Queen” Jolin Tsai will also perform as the Special Guest Goddess, and join in the judging.
According to sources, there will be at least 4 people selected to debut, but there is no upper limit, which adds a layer of uncertainty to the final fates of the youths. The only reliable news we have currently is that the final song of the Red Team Xiao Zhan is on will be “Brightest Star in the Night Sky”. When asked if there’s anything he would like to do after the competition, Xiao Zhan laughed, lay back into the sofa and said, “Go home and lie around for two or three days, rest up, and not think about anything.”
When it was time to say goodbye, Xiao Zhan was studying a class schedule in the main hall. When he saw the journalist, he touched his chin, and murmured, “Look, recently the schedule is so relaxed and we have time to rest, so I ate too many snacks and grew pimples…”
After this revelation, Xiao Zhan turned to enter the room and practice the song for the final competition. The journalist reminded him, “Your shoelaces are untied!” He replied airily, “Ah?” His voice still trailed in the air but his figure had already disappeared at the end of the hall.
The week before the final competition, the 8 youths all gave it their last effort for the concluding battle. Their experience this winter would become a very important lesson in the course of their lives.
“To me, dance is the biggest challenge.”
TP: You graduated with a design major in university, how did you end up joining XFire?
XZ: Actually, design is also a form of art, and art is interconnected. In private, I’ve always liked to sing. Then in June this year, during the show’s mass audition process, the director got my information through my school teacher, saw my photo, and initiated contact with me. At the time, I had already graduated, and was working in a design studio started by a mass communication teacher, the work environment was quite good. The director asked me, “Do you want to come?” And I said, “Oh, ok, I’ll come play…” At the time I didn’t know what I was even coming for, and I made it all the way to this point. Looking back on it, it feels kind of unbelievable.
TP: Before joining this show, did you have any stage experience?
XZ: I wouldn’t call it experience, I just participated in some club activities at school, choir performances, the school singer competition and such. I wasn’t really a “star figure” at school, I was more like an “active arts guy”.
TP: What was the biggest “shock” attending an idol survival show as an amateur participant?
XZ: It wasn’t just a shock, it was a challenge. Because I didn’t know how to dance at all, I started from scratch here. In July, I entered the training camp and learned together with 30 other students, I felt a lot of pressure. At first, the position I had in mind for myself was to just sing quietly. But it turns out that as the show went on, dance became the main focus, so I was determined and forced myself to learn; there was no alternative. Even until now, I can’t say that I’m totally confident in dancing, I just try to maintain a balance with everyone else, and do my best without dragging the others down, that’s the bottom line I set for myself.
TP: How did you overcome this difficulty of dancing? I heard you injured your toe and knee?
XZ: Yes, I mentioned this in the show, but the nail on my big toe fell off. There were often tiptoe moves in our choreography, and when I practiced, I didn’t use the proper strength and method, so the blood in my feet couldn’t circulate properly and pressured my big toe, my toenail became bruised and necrotic, then it fell off entirely. Now it’s half-grown, but it still looks a bit ugly (laughs). My knees also become swollen with excess fluid, because I didn’t use the correct muscles for many squatting movements. But I’ve gotten a lot better these last few days.
TP: How was the intensity of practice every day during these months at training camp?
XZ: It’s actually been really tiring, at worst I slept one hour a day, and kept singing and dancing. There happened to be a break time these last couple of days, so I got a moment to breathe. When it gets busy, it’s normal to get 4-5 hours of sleep a day on average.
TP: With such intense training, do you feel stressed out? How do you regulate your own emotions?
XZ: It’s not so much stress, but I take things to heart myself, mostly stuff around dance. Like for example if there’s a move I can’t do well, I’ll do it again and again until I can get it down. In terms of my emotions, I’m the type to have a lot of fun in private. Huan Huan and I would occasionally party it up between ourselves, vent our emotions, so the camera always captures our ugly moments when we’re being crazy… (TP: When you’re crazy you even scare yourselves?) I’m not too bad, I’m not as scary as Huan Huan, he’s the most hyper in our Team Shu Qi, no one can control him. Actually, Team Chun Chun has much better emotional control…
“Farewell is more cruel than training.”
TP: From the beginning of the competition until now, what’s been the biggest change in your mindset?
XZ: I think the biggest change is that I’ve become more determined, and know my own thoughts more clearly. Before I was in a state where I didn’t know what I wanted, and didn’t know how I should take this path.
TP: As the only member among the current 8 who switched from Team Chun Chun to Team Shu Qi, and having this additional experience of adjustment compared to the other members, what was this emotional journey like?
XZ: Actually, I’m pretty grateful about how this all happened. Among the 8 of us, I’m the only one with this experience, and this experience enabled me to grow rapidly. When I was in Team Chun Chun, I went along with her style and training method; her method was to conform to each person’s unique characteristic. Like for me, she would adjust to my style, and choose more quiet and emotional songs. But here with Qi-Ge, her requirement of me is to have a breakthrough each round, and she often asks for me to stop looking gentle, to show my more forceful side. Since I came here, my style every round has been varied, and the songs and dances have been different. I’m pretty grateful to this system of competition, as it allowed me to have more opportunities to practice and make breakthroughs.
TP: Which performance in the show were you most satisfied with? And how about least satisfied?
XZ: Haha, I’ll answer honestly about what I’m least satisfied with. It’s that episode immediately after switching teams, where I sang “Freeze”. I wasn’t in the right condition at the time. And I’m quite satisfied with “Close to You” in episode 3. Episode 7 “Team Spirit” where we sang “Why Nobody Fights” was also pretty important me, that episode marked a change for me, a breakthrough in style.
TP: How do you change the impact of your facial expressions?
XZ: I just use the mirror and repeatedly observe myself and adjust my expressions. It’s actually really simple, it’s not difficult; it’s just an issue of time, and there was so little time left for us to practice.
TP: You’re the oldest among all the contestants, what kind of role do you play in the team?
XZ: Yes, I’m a senior contestant, haha. I’m a parent-type, a service-type, I’m responsible for cleaning up after people, cutting fruits for everyone. I call myself the “disciplinary committee member”, whenever everyone’s flying off the handles and can’t hold back, I’m always saying, yeah, calm down, calm down… On stage, like last round, when everyone’s emotions are out of control, the team needs someone to calm everyone down so that the show and the performances and continue on smoothly. I think I suit this role pretty well.
TP: Whenever someone got eliminated, you seem to be more often crying alone.
XZ: I’ve always felt that you need to continuously control your emotions. When it comes to your emotions, it’s better to not let it out excessively. I kept reminding myself that many things don’t need to shown in front of the cameras, just do them quietly, and there will always be people who see your efforts. There’s no need to fight for certain things, and things like fighting for screen time is even more unnecessary.
TP: Which round of the competition did you have the hardest time controlling your emotions?
XZ: I think it would be episode 6, when Bin Bin left, because I’m really good friends with Bin Bin. When we got back from the competition that day, he was still in the dorm and hadn’t left yet, and I hugged him. I really didn’t want him to leave, it was another case of being unable to say goodbye, sigh…
TP: What’s cruel isn’t the competition itself, but rather the farewells.
XZ: Yes yes yes, the farewells are the worst. I think training is tolerable, I can hold on no matter how tough and painful it gets, but to me, goodbyes are a bit too cruel.
TP: That’s why many fans say that Xiao Zhan is responsible for all of the “teary moments” in this show?
XZ: Haha, I think Xiao Wu (Wu Jiacheng) is responsible for those, he cries so much, we call him “Crying Boy.” (TP: He does the crying himself; you hold back but make other people cry.) Me, huh? I’m ok, I’m just ok…
“I’m still not used to getting my photos taken by fans.”
TP: From the start of the show until now, how long have you been “hidden away from the world”?
XZ: It’s been 2-3 months. Our phones were taken away by staff and we could not use them at all. Only when we posted on Weibo did the staff lend our phones to us, and we would have to give them back after we posted. During that brief moment, we could quickly look through Weibo, but only for a very short time.
TP: So do you have any understanding of your popularity now?
XZ: When I post on Weibo I can see my number of followers and their comments, but to me those things are all very abstract. Ultimately, what matters is what we do after the show ends, that’s how I feel personally.
TP: After the show ends, once you leave the castle, you’ll suddenly face a swarming flock of fans.
XZ: During countdown, I did feel the number of fans, and to be honest I was a little shocked. Many people came to the airport back then, of course it was the total of fans of all 16 of us. They took pictures of us with their cameras and asked for our autographs; I wasn’t really used to it. After all, from being a normal person, um, there needs to be a process to go from being someone who takes pictures of others to being someone who gets their photo taken by others.
TP: Do your parents support your work as an artist?
XZ: My parents are pretty supportive. Even though they’re not in art-related industries at all, but my dad worked in Japan for a period of time when I was young, and he often took a more comprehensive approach to my upbringing. He didn’t just look at my academic grades, but had me learn many things since I was young, like violin, drawing, and such. They were like, you’re young, go try it out, have fun, as long as you’re happy it’s fine.
TP: Are you prepared to become an idol? You should understand that there is still a difference between idols and artists?
XZ: Yes, I personally don’t feel that I’m ready to become an idol yet. Idols have greater responsibility, as every action you take will influence your fans. I think that I’m just an ordinary person now, I still have a long way to go.
TP: Are you someone with “big ideas”?
XZ: I’m someone who has clear ideas for myself, and I don’t get easily influenced by others, I follow my own heart more. Of course, I still listen to other people’s suggestions, but I make all my decisions on my own.
TP: There are many rumours from marketing accounts that you’re going to participate in some big IP film projects. You have such an outstanding physical appearance, are you more inclined to take the path of an actor?
XZ: I’m really not sure about these things, at the current stage I still want to put all my energy into the competition at hand. If I have the honour of taking the path of an actor it would be nice, there’s no conflict between acting and singing, and there are many actors who sing, right?
TP: Which actor and singer do you like?
XZ: I like actresses like Zhou Xun and Qi-Ge (Shu Qi). For singers, it has to be Sun Yanzi, she’s a singer I’ve liked since I was young and still like now. I don’t just like her because of her songs, but also because of her personality; I really admire her simple elegance and peaceful nature.
TP: What type of girls do you like?
XZ: I like ones who are a bit gentle and a bit cultured, but at times still has a little temper of their own. (TP: Sounds like two Xiao Zhans looking into the mirror…) Haha, actually in private I’m a little impatient, and I’m not as quiet as I appear, or as miiiiild~