Vladislav Ivanov, 27, a part-time model from Vladivostok, Russia, rose to fame much to his own surprise while working as an interpreter on a Chinese reality T.V show.
While filming one of China’s most cut-throat boy band competitions, Produce Camp 101, the producers on set took a liking to Ivanov’s charismatic features, finding themselves short on members. They pitched for him to show them off in front of the cameras, as a contestant.
After signing a contract he would later not be able to breach, Ivanov was known by a new stage name, Lelush. He used this primarily to protect his privacy by separating his on-screen life from his actual person.
Despite purposely slacking throughout the show, Ivanov found himself rising up the ranks every week. Produce Camp 101’s viewers seemed to love his cold front, and kept voting for him to make it to the final line-up, even though he pleaded multiple times that he wished to be eliminated from the competition. The South China Morning Post reported that in an early clip from the show, Ivanov said,
“I hope the judges won’t support me. While the others want to get an A, I want to get an F as it stands for freedom.”
But Ivanov’s reluctant attitude and half-hearted effort in every performance he was asked to do only increased his popularity. His Chinese fanbase didn’t pay attention to his wishes, and instead seemed intrigued by how little he cared about the show and kept voting for him to stay. They even encouraged him to upkeep his popularity and “let him 996,” a well-known Chinese term referring to chronic overwork in which people work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m, six days a week. Some even went as far as to rent billboards across shopping centres as part of their popularity scheme.
Ivanov’s fellow contestants had the complete opposite approach during their three months of competition on the show. They were all eager and enthusiastic to win. More importantly, they were all performers, something which Ivanov did not share yet still managed to make through without.
“Dancing, singing, and the expressions, are all not good,” one judge remarked during one of his sample performances.
Breaking into the final round of the competition, Ivanov had already reached viral status. The hashtag #FreeLelush was kickstarted after Russian viewers of the show started campaigning for Ivanov and his release. They saw how even the producers and the hosts would take jabs at him. These people reportedly gave him false hope, suggested that he had not gotten enough votes to stay, telling him that the opposite was true and that he had to stick it out until the end.
In late April of this year, Ivanov was finally free. “Once the program ends I will smile more. Now that I’m here I have no mood to smile,” he said in a livestream before the show’s finals. His story gained him millions of viewers, as well as people accusing him of taking part in a publicity stunt.
Ivanov’s plight calls attention to the ethics of reality shows. Their moral wrongs involve the overly strict rules of idol competitions and the attention of an ignorant audience. It was this ‘fandom’ culture that forced an unwilling man to remain in a competition for three months he’ll never get back.