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Chinese showbiz rarely produces icons. Sure, there are the dozen or so movie actors who can carry a film, and the odd rocker who fills a stadium. But seldom does a face on China's small screen really stand out. Even singing, the national pastime and TV staple, seems reserved for an interchangeable lineup of warbling coquettes, husky crooners and jolly fellows in brass stars and epaulets belting out odes to red flags.
Which helps explain how a 21-year-old Sichuanese music student named Li Yuchun has become one of the most popular figures in China. In August, Li won a televised American Idol-like singing contest produced by Hunan province's Entertainment Channel and bearing its own inimitable name: "Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girl's Voice." (Its sponsor makes yogurt.) The show drew the largest audiences in the history of Chinese television. As the competition narrowed, the media covered it like a war or the O.J. Simpson trial. By the time the finale aired, some 400 million people were tuning in.
The Li Yuchun phenomenon, however, goes far beyond her voice, which even the most ardent fans admit is pretty weak: her vocal range drifts between Cher territory and that place your little brother's voice went the summer before seventh grade. As a dancer, she's not much better. Hei Nan, one of the event's judges, told the Guangzhou Daily that Li was "the worst of the top six in terms of singing skills," but noted that she garnered the most audience votes.
What Li did possess was attitude, originality and a proud androgyny that defied Chinese norms. During the tryouts—in which 150,000 contestants were winnowed to 15—Li wore loose jeans and a black button-down shirt, with no make-up and the haircut (and body) of David Bowie during his Space Oddity phase. She auditioned with In My Heart There's Only You, Never Her, an oldie made famous by Taiwan's Liu Wenzheng—a man. In the main competition she sang other songs written for male performers and called herself "a tomboy." For an audience reared on the bubble-gum, lip-gloss standards of Chinese girl pop, Li's disregard for the rule book produced an unfamiliar knee-weakening. Her fans wept openly and frantically shrieked when Li took the stage. The show ruffled feathers among Beijing's commissars. By the final episode, Li and her two remaining rivals had switched their repertoire to patriotic folk songs.
Li's victory was unusual in other ways: like American Idol, but unlike China itself, "Super Girl's Voice" is run democratically. Eight million SMS votes flooded in on the night of the finale. For a few weeks after, the mainland press debated the relevance of this format. "Only something that smashes social norms could elicit such a response," Yu Guoming, a media expert at People's University, told the Beijing News. "After all, in China the opportunities to use votes to choose are relatively few." An editorial in the China Daily wondered: "How come an imitation of a democratic system ends up selecting the singer who has the least ability to carry a tune?" As Li prepares for a nationwide tour with the other finalists, her handlers are loath to discuss the political dimensions of the program or of Li's triumph. Hunan Entertainment Channel refused TIME's requests to interview or photograph Li. According to one of her many agents, they were worried the story would portray Li as more than just an entertainer. But she is more: Li represents unabashed individuality, and that's why she's a national icon.