The three of us could barely finish a small pot—but Mini ordered a large one, enough for four people. Then she ordered five more. After ordering, she sat at a big table, waiting for her food as her camera crew set up the equipment.
It was already 1:30 pm and the restaurant was almost empty. The usual clanking of cutlery had given way to the sound of a portable video studio being set up; a crew of young people chattering and giggling. Usually, Mini and her team shoot at off-peak hours to avoid interrupting customers, and vice versa. That day’s set was a famous luzhu (pork intestine) restaurant in the outskirts of Beijing, which Mini loves.
Mini is a cute girl with a cheerful personality: She smiles at the end of every sentence and generously hands out childlike laughs to everyone she talks to. She maintains this adorable quality as she devours mountains of food—something most “cute” girls don’t do on a daily basis.
But Mini is not like most girls. She is a uniquely successful professional livestreamer with over 10 million followers on Weibo. Being adorable whilst demolishing massive quantities of food are key parts of her job description as a mukbanger; a livestreamer who binge eats.
Two weeks before Singles Day, China’s biggest shopping festival, we spent a week chasing Mini around Beijing but barely managed to gain access to her. Mini’s schedule was packed with all kinds of promotional video shoots and Taobao Live broadcasts.
We ended up filming one of her shoots at the luzhu restaurant. Her camera crew had two cigarette breaks during the shoot. She had to reheat her food twice. Mini said she didn’t mind at all.
After watching the marathon meal in amazement, we finally heard: “Today’s last bite! Thanks for everyone’s company, follow me if you like me, bye-bye.”
Six dishes lay empty in front of her.
Before meeting her, I watched many of her videos. They are fun to watch: She visits different restaurants and tries all kinds of dishes.
Seeing her eat in person was an entirely different experience. One of her 10-minute videos is just right to satisfy my appetite for food. Seeing her eat for nearly three hours is downright overwhelming.
Mini is one of thousands of online celebrities who specialize in the online video trend known as mukbang. It’s a genre that combines a simulated dinner with friends with the shock appeal of competitive eating.
Like many trends, it started in Korea—the word is a portmanteau of the Korean for “eating” and “broadcasting.” There, this genre of livestreaming became popular very quickly because it challenges traditional food culture, where dining is constricted by strict etiquette.
Mini was one of the first people in China to try mukbang. After winning first place in 2016 in an eating competition, she was signed as a full-time mukbanger by an agency which manages social media influencers, known as key opinion leaders (KOLs) in China.
“I saw many competitive eaters in Japan and Korea and I thought: ‘This is so cool’,” Mini said. “I thought I could do the same because I can also eat a lot, just like them.”
Her first viral success was a video of her eating an entire roast lamb in 2017. She still remembers how nervous she was when filming it. “I was eating with my right hand and my other hand was shaking off the camera. But I focused more as I ate more,” she said.
Before that video, she used a smartphone for her livestreams. But her team wanted to do a professional short video to promote Mini’s conquest of the “lamb mountain,” as she called it, on social media platforms. They upgraded their gear in preparation.
More than a big stomach
Add the magic of a KOL agency onto a big appetite—especially on a small, “cute” person—and you have the makings of a star.
Much like the success of her lamb mountain video, her rise has been far from coincidental. It is the result of serious investment and careful planning.
We saw it first hand. Every detail of her livestream is planned meticulously: from her clothes, to her makeup, to the placement of the dishes. Her filming crew is made up of three people, fully armed with cameras, microphones, and lights.
Kingkong Culture, the multi-channel network (MCN) company that signed her, knows how to pick mukbangers with the potential to go viral, and how to get them there.
To reach Mini’s success, a mukbang host needs more than a big stomach and a professional crew. The genre is about bringing a sense of companionship and joy to the audience. Mini told us that the most important thing is to present the food to everyone and “share the joy together.”
Most mukbang livestreams last over an hour. Throughout the meal, the host interacts with the audience, replies to their comments, and creates a warm atmosphere akin to a friend’s dinner party.
Mukbang’s popularity relies on a deeper social reality in modern urban China: Many people live and eat by themselves. Watching mukbang videos can help dispel some of that loneliness during their meals.
“I think eating by oneself is a very lonely thing and one tends to be happier and eat more if accompanied by other people,” Mini said. “Many of my fans eat alone, and they will watch my videos while eating.”
Running a business
In the early days of the mukbang industry, Mini would make most of her money from gifts sent by viewers during her livestreams. Today, fan gifts are only a small part of her income. She makes most of her money from advertising products, mostly food.
The change is evident in her videos. I’ve noticed she spends more time advertising than binge eating these days.
Mukbang hosts started making short videos in 2017, condensing the marathon livestreams so that they can be posted on social media. Mini’s team was able to monetize them on online platforms like Youtube.
This video format attracted the interest of food brands, which saw the opportunity to advertise their products. By 2018, Mini and her team were paid to produce short video ads and post them on their channel.
Eventually, advertising started trickling into her livestreams.
The mukbang format lends itself well to product placement. Mini eats the advertised dish and recommends it to fans. Her huge fan base loves watching her eat—and follows her recommendations faithfully.
Today, paid promotional content is Mini’s biggest stream of revenue, of which the majority comes from product placement in her livestreams.
Kingkong Culture is trying to increase its clientele of brands. Mini mostly works with food brands, but has also advertised makeup products and clothes.
The KOL agency has even started its own snack food brand. The mukbangers that work with Kingkong Culture promote the company’s snack products in their broadcasts.
As Mini and her team grew the number of advertisements on her videos, some of her fans started to complain.
A user named BeryEeaxxy commented on Weibo: “If you have fewer advertisements you will have more followers. As a long-time follower, I really hope your goal remains the same as before when you first started being a mukbanger” (our translation).
Mini doesn’t take these comments to heart. She knows she is running a business:
“I became a mukbanger because I love food but it’s also my career. I love what I’m doing but I really hope my fans can understand this.”—Mini, mukbang host
Pivot to Taobao Live
Like many other livestreamers in China, Mini wants to join the Taobao Live wave. We were lucky to see her and her team in the midst of this pivot. We watched her film one of her first livestreams for Alibaba’s platform.
Taobao Live has been massively popular with consumers and livestreamers alike since early 2019. It allows viewers to buy the products on the spot during the broadcast, and includes several features like coupons, creating a seamless shopping experience.
During the broadcast, Mini and Yang promoted 40 products in total, all of them food. Mini introduced and ate them one by one, giving each product its own time on camera. The livestream lasted for about five hours. It was watched by tens of thousands of real-time viewers.
It came out very well and they decided to do more in the future, her team said. Mini is confident that she can do well on Taobao Live since livestreaming is her bread and butter.
Qiu Er, a staff member at Yihai Tiancheng, a media company working for Alibaba, is also confident in Mini’s potential to succeed on the livestreaming platform. He flew to Beijing from Chengdu just to see Mini shoot her livestream. He was amazed by Mini’s ability to sell products.
“Mini has a huge fan base,” Qiu said. “I think we will work more closely in the future.”
An uncertain future
During our week following Mini around, every interaction with her was closely supervised by her team.
When we sat down for an interview, we found that our question list had been heavily edited by her company. We weren’t allowed to ask her basic facts about herself such as her real name and what she studied in university.
The company said it was for the sake of her future development.
Questions about Mini’s health were met with pre-written answers: She goes for a physical examination every year and gets positive results. She has more enzymes than the average person and a stomach that can expand to fill her whole belly. She doesn’t vomit after binge eating and never has.
It is hard to tell if she gave us the whole story.
When we asked her how long she will continue with her career as a mukbang host, she couldn’t give us an answer. She couldn’t imagine a life without food in its epicenter.
“I’ve always considered my work as my life and I think it’s inevitable that one day I will be over the hill,” she said. “But even if I’m not a mukbanger, I will probably still do the same thing as I’m doing now because I love food.”