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Interview with Yang Lan

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  • Yang: Olympics are overall political, economic, cultural transformation of China
  • She repeats: "Let's not fake that we are perfect already"
  • She is currently focused on targeting the growing number of urban women
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BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Hi I'm Anjali Rao, coming to you from the set of a top-rated TV show in Beijing. My guest today is Olympic ambassador and prime-time presenter Yang Lan. This is Talk Asia.


Yang Lan, China's Olympic image ambassador and prime-time TV presenter

She's dubbed China's answer to Oprah Winfrey. One of the country's most famous faces, Yan Lang has an estimated fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars. And has also just been voted China's most beautiful woman. In 2001, she acted as the country's so-called "image ambassador" for its Olympic bid -- and was instrumental in winning the Games for China in 2008.

Educated at Colombia University in the United States, she won an audition to host a prime-time show in Beijing at the age of 21, suddenly exposing her to audiences of up to 300 million people. She then set up her own media company, which oversees her programs and has interests in magazines and Web sites. This week she will be hosting the one-year Olympic Countdown Ceremony and currently presents the show "One on One," which sees her speaking to a variety of heavyweight guests. Her other main program is a music talent show which searches for anthems for the Games -- that's where I joined her.

AR: So this is it, this is your new gig. Tell me about it.

YL: Yeah well, it's a weekly show called "Olympic Songfest." The purpose of the show is to promote and also select the Olympic theme songs, not only the theme songs but also songs for the torch relay, the volunteers program, actually the BOCOG, the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee, wants to select as much as 25 Olympic songs for different occasions and different environments. Some of them are targeted as the theme songs, for the opening and the closing ceremonies, some of them are more for the public to sing.

AR: Right, and it's all done in front of this sort of live studio audience?

YL: Yeah, we have the live studio. This is our band, Space. And we have our live audience. Every time we invite in about four or five musicians and singers to present their new entries of songs as well as some of the very popular songs that they wrote before. And then we'll talk about their involvement and their stories about the Olympic Games.

AR: So, I guess it's kind of an unusual way to pick an Olympic theme tune, isn't it? To have people voting on the song that they want. Kind of like an American Idol sort of thing?

YL: Well, not quite, because we do have a professional, very authoritative committee to select those songs officially. But what our program is doing is to present those songs to the public so that they can hear it more frequently and then they can vote through text messages and through the Web site. So we have a different, like a billboard, what we call the Popularity Board. This of course will be a reference for the selection committee, but we won't really -- how should I say? We respect their authority ultimately.

AR: With something like American Idol, for example, it gets these huge ratings every week. How well do this show do? Do people tune in? Do people care about the song that gets picked?

YL: I think more and more so, because this show only started in January. For the first quarter, I did struggle, because at that time the new round of entry just started so we didn't have enough new songs, but now, more and more often we have new entries, and really good ones, like we just introduced one of the entries for the torch-relay song. It's a cooperation between Hong Kong, Taiwanese and the Chinese singers. And also singers from Malaysia, for example, and the rating is going up, because now you really have good pieces of work.

AR: Ok, perhaps you can show me around a little bit. What have you got here?

YL: Oh, ok. Of course here we have a screen to show some of the sports scenes from previous Olympic Games, and here this is where the singers will perform.

AR: This is where the magic happens?

YL: Of course, they have to touch our audience through their own music and songs, and we have some very glamorous singers who interact with our audience. They want to learn a part of the song on site, so there's some teaching and singing back parts, and that's the most exciting piece of the show.

AR: I could see you before joining in with one of the guys up there singing.

YL: Oh, you can't help it, because you are really touched by the whole thing.

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AR: You were the image ambassador behind Beijing's 2008 winning bid. What does it mean to you that your country is going to be playing such an amazing role on the world stage?

YL: When I was participating in the Olympic bidding, I also have friends from other countries asking me: "Why do you want to give so much of your time and energy into it?" Then my answer was: "I hope China is going forward and never turn back." And as a citizen myself, I will benefit from that, so I want to do this. I think Olympics is not just for sports, not just a game, but it's an overall political, economic as well as cultural transformation of this country. You know, look at us now, I think the government has opened for international media to do reporting freely in this country, and that's the door opened by the Olympics. And I don't suspect that door will be closed afterwards. So that's something we can experience.

AR: Still though, China suffered a humiliating defeat in 2000 when Sydney won the bid to host the Olympic Games there. Why do you think it worked for China this time round?

YL: I actually cried on the flight back, because at that time, Mr. He, who was at that time, who was I think one of the leaders in China's Olympic bidding. He went to me and said, "I'm sorry Lan, I wasted your time for bringing you up to Monte Carlo." And that really touched me and tears were beyond control. But you know, in retrospect, I think it's a better term for Beijing to win the 2008 Olympics because we're better prepared, not only just for the constructions and the hardware, but also the software, about the management skills, about the efficiency of the government as well as the engagement of China overall with the world.

AR: The main concern of course for many people was China's terrible human-rights record. What would be your response to that?

YL: Of course there are still limits, but I think overall the society is progressing, and also with the Internet, with more involvement with the international media, I think this country is on the right track going forward. Sometimes we may have some setbacks, and we have complaints too, but I think the Olympics is definitely working on the positive side of it.

AR: Hosting the Olympics is a huge honor for any country, but being here in China, there's really sort of, almost a palpable feeling of immense pride and determination to make it really special. Why do you think that this country attaches such an importance to the Games and really sporting pursuits in general?

YL: Well, I remember during the Los Angeles Olympic Games, China's delegation, what we call coming back to the Olympic family for the first time. And that time, China was starting to open up to the world, and they have been enclosed for quite long time, for decades right. And we were poor at that time and people may feel they are disadvantaged in terms of economic development. Then athletes winning the gold medals in the Olympic Games really gave a lot of pride to this nation. We really needed the confidence to go forward at that time, so sports, it's never limited to athletes in Chinese society. And I tell you something, during the Olympic bidding, I think the government had a survey among the general public about their supporting rate of the Olympic Games. Then they found out that supporting rate was as high as something like 97 percent. Then some international organizations didn't believe that because none of the previous hosting cities could have achieved as high rate as that. So they did an independent survey and their number was 98 percent. So I tell you, it's a true enthusiasm. It's not just a government initiative, it's really in people's heart and mind to be a good host.

AR: This is really going to be a huge test for, not just Beijing but for the whole country about can it get its arenas up and running on time, how foreigners and also the media are going to be treated, things like tackling for instance environmental issues in time for 2008. Do you think China is ready to be seen by the world?

YL: You know what, on one hand we are, we are ready. But on the other hand, I anticipate that there will also be unseen problems pumping up every minute, because it's not just about a few elites who have been engaged in international activities for some time already, but it's about all levels of society meeting the world. But you know what, I'm not afraid of having problems seen, because that's true. Again in some of the essays and in some of the speeches I gave before I said, "Let's try not to fake something out." If our streets are not sparkling clean, you know, leave it that way. Just do as best as we can, but you don't have to be perfect for those half a month and then back to your old path again. I think it's about, get people in. You understand ourselves as who we are, as what it is. Of course we will create or make any possible effort to make our guests feel at home, and comfortable, but let's not fake that we are perfect already.

AR: Use it as an opportunity for real change.

YL: Real change, yes.


AR: People ask me all the time, "Oh gosh, you've got such a frightening job speaking to millions of people, you must be so scared all the time." But you have a live studio audience here. Do you ever get nervous?

YL: No, I love that. Actually when I first started my career, I started with a variety show with 300 live audience, so I'm accustomed to that. Also I think it gives you very good feedback. I love to have the energy felt, bounce back from the audience. It really gives me the magic of everything. And you're waiting for those moments, you know, for the audience to feedback to what you want them to feel.

AR: We're back on this edition of Talk Asia with the TV superstar and China's Olympic Ambassador, Yang Lan. Lan, you are known as China's Oprah Winfrey, which is a very lofty title.

YL: Thank you, thank you. Well Oprah Winfrey is a great inspiration for me and I don't expect to be an equal name as hers yet, but I'm trying my best.

AR: But you certainly have made a name for yourself. I mean, looking at all those people before, waiting for your autograph and to snap a picture with you, how did you get where you are?

YL: In Chinese we say that you cannot take all the credit, because sometimes part of the credit belongs to something you don't know. For me, as I understand it, I think I'm in a very interesting age. When I was graduating from college, it was the first time a national television had an open audition for college graduates to compete for a leading hosting role in a prime-time show. I hadn't got any professional training before that. None of my family members were in the same business. And my first show, as long as I believe, was the first one on Chinese television that allowed the host and hostess to write our own script. So we could talk about our own growing up, our own families, our true feelings towards certain things. Although there have been some boundaries, but at least we can speak up about some of the true stories about ourselves. And that's how I was recognized and accepted by the audience from the very beginning of my career. At that time, my weekly audience was on average 200 to 300 million.

AR: That's mind-blowing.

YL: I know, I know but you're in such a huge country.

AR: You've certainly worked incredibly hard at what you've done, and it's paid off, because you're now one of China's wealthiest women, worth about 500 million dollars.

YL: No, it's a sum. It's not true. The number is definitely not true, but I'm not going to comment on that.

AR: I just want to know on the back of that though, did you ever think you were going to make it so big?

YL: No, and I don't think I've made it yet. But I think the important thing is I really enjoy what I'm doing. My husband is more on the investment part of the media. That's where most of the asset and profit comes from. But I do enjoy my work. In my terms, I'm more focused on targeting the growing number of urban women. I think they're increasingly more influential in their society and their professions, and also they play a very important role in their families, the carry over of their values, also the transformations of those values. But also at the same time, they're under a lot of pressure from work and from family burdens, from children rearing. They're a very interesting group of people I like to examine. But of course I'm part of that, I'm one of them.

AR: As far as your own experiences in the media industry here in China, you were mentioning earlier the restrictions which are still placed on outlets here. To what extent have you felt tethered, ever? For example, has the Communist government here ever intervened in any of your work?

YL: Well, I'm more optimistic on that side, because over the last 17 years since I started my career, I feel that I'm enjoying more and more space and sometimes even beyond the belief of international counterparts and colleagues. So I'm a believer in making evolution instead of revolution.

AR: When was the last time though that the government got in contact with you, intervened in something that you did or said?

YL: I can't really cite a very recent example. I think it's about, over a long time you kind of have a sense of what you can do in the program. But I remember that we had to have different editions of our interviews. We had different editions for the Hong Kong airing and the mainland airing. But it's not just about my own choices. It's about the networks will have to do their own final editing.

AR: So it was a network policy as opposed to the government saying "Hey, you can't say that, it can't be broadcast."

YL: Well sometimes it's not about you really, really can't say that, it's about...

AR: We strongly advise that you don't.

YL: No, it's not that. The matter is that you submit your program to the broadcasting network and they will do their final editing if they want to. If they find it not appropriate for their guidelines, they will do the final cut, the final editing. And then it ends up with two slightly different editions when you air it in Hong Kong and when you air it in the mainland. But for, I should say, 95% of my shows, it's the same episodes broadcast everywhere.

AR: You're emblematic, I suppose, of sort of a cultural change here in China, taking a very staid government-controlled programming, and bringing in this a much more American style, glamorous razzle-dazzle TV talent shows. How did you do it? How do you think you were able to bring audiences into that?


YL: Well, I think you can only do what you're good at, with so many talent shows are getting more and more popularity. I'm still concentrated on what I like to do. I like to do talk shows. I also see the value in international communication when I bring in all these international personalities and introduce them to our audience. I take a lot of pride in this and when I'm growing older, everyone's growing older, I want to make sure that the things I'm doing are worthwhile. I'm not doing something someone forced me to do, or just tempted for money, but it's something I feel really proud of doing.

AR: Lan, it's been a real pleasure meeting you today. Thank you very much. It's been a delight turning the interview tables on you. Thank you for your time. And that brings us to the end of this edition of Talk Asia. My guest today has been the Beijing bid ambassador for the Olympics, Yang Lan. I'll see you again soon. I'm Anjali Rao. Take care. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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