Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
Contributors Teele Rebane, CNNLizzy Yee, CNN
A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, a three-times-a-week update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it impacts the world. Sign up here. For followers of freestyle skiing and fashion alike, the buzz surrounding Winter Olympian Eileen Gu at this year’s Games has come as little surprise. The 18-year-old’s gold medal performance in the big air competition thrust her into the global spotlight Tuesday, sparking such a furor in China that social media platform Weibo crashed under the weight of interest. But Gu has spent years establishing herself as both a top athlete and a hugely bankable model who appeals to brands in both Asia and the West.
In 2021, as she won gold medals at the skiing World Championships and Winter X Games, Gu was also forging lucrative partnerships with fashion houses and luxury labels. Signing for IMG Models, the agency representing Bella Hadid, Kate Moss and Hailey Bieber, she has penned deals with Louis Vuitton, Victoria’s Secret and Tiffany & Co., as well as the luxury Swiss watchmaker IWC and cosmetics brand Estée Lauder, among others.
In fact, the California-born athlete is among the most heavily sponsored athletes at these Olympics. She arrived in Beijing with more than 20 commercial partnerships, ranging from Beats by Dre headphones to Cadillac.
A promotional image from Gu’s recent campaign with Louis Vuitton. Credit: Louis Vuitton
But it is Gu’s mass appeal in China, where she is known by her Chinese name Gu Ailing and has been nicknamed the “Snow Princess,” that makes her especially valuable to brands.
Having switched her sporting allegiance to her mother’s home country in 2019, Gu’s fluency in Mandarin has helped secure her place on Chinese TV ads, billboards and even milk cartons (as the face of Inner Mongolia-based Mengniu Dairy). E-commerce giant JD.com, cafe chain Luckin Coffee and telecoms firm China Mobile are among the growing list of mainland brands that she’s modeled for in recent months. China is on track to become the world’s largest luxury market by 2025, according to consulting firm Bain. The Asian edition of marketing and advertising industry magazine Campaign estimated that new endorsements there could be earning the athlete around 15 million yuan ($2.5 million) apiece — and that was before her gold-medal success.
Eileen Gu seen on a JD.com advertisement at a bus stop in Beijing, China. Credit: Tingshu Wang/Reuters
According to Bohan Qiu, whose Shanghai-based creative agency Boh Project works with major fashion brands, Gu’s surging popularity in the country comes at a time when nationalist pride in China has seen “the relevance of Western celebrities” decrease.
“For this generation, a lot of the celebrities here are quite domestic-oriented — so (Gu) being half-American half-Chinese, and speaking both languages fluently, has a very global appeal,” he said over the phone, adding that the country’s Gen Z demographic contains “third culture kids” who simultaneously understand Chinese and Western contexts. “She is definitely a once-in-a-decade type of talent.”
Gu has coupled big-money deals with reputable magazine features and appearances at A-list fashion shows. Spotted at events like Paris Fashion Week as far back as 2019, she has since been seen on Louis Vuitton’s front row and the notoriously exclusive Met Gala, where she arrived on the red carpet wearing a Carolina Herrera bubble dress. “The fashion world has helped balance my training,” she told Vogue Hong Kong, appearing on the cover of the magazine’s July issue. “Just like skiing, modeling requires incredible expression and personality. It requires creativity, confidence, and the ability to learn and adapt… The transition between modeling and skiing became a break and a practice for each other that helped me eventually feel more motivated in each area.”
Eileen Gu pictured with Stacy Martin (left) and Venus Williams (right) at the Louis Vuitton Womenswear Spring/Summer 2022 show at Paris Fashion Week last October. Credit: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Gu has also appeared on the cover of Chinese editions of GQ and Elle. And as guest editor of Vogue China’s Gen-Z-focused bimonthly issue, Vogue+, the athlete recently explored the complexities of her identity under the theme “code switch.”
“I wanted to explore and showcase the inherently malleable nature of adolescent identities, Gu wrote on Instagram, “a quality I’ve found myself tapping into time and time again as I display different facets of myself (athlete, model, student, Chinese, American, teenager, writer, public persona, etc) in different environments. Everyone code switches, and I think it’s time we start celebrating that multifaceted nature.”
The skiing star guest-edited an issue of Vogue China’s Gen-Z-focused bimonthly issue, Vogue+.
A ‘safe bet’ for brands
Gu’s social media is also littered with fashion. Whether posting to Instagram or writing to millions of followers on Xiaohongshu and Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Instagram and Twitter, respectively), her feeds flit between sport and style, with pictures from the slopes posted alongside modeling shots and her latest fashion editorials.
Her unguarded approach has helped her connect with young fans, in both China and the West, who want to see “above and beyond the training, the sports, the more official side of things,” said Qiu. “A lot of Chinese celebrities are much more protected by their agent or management, or they have a hard time sharing the more real sides of their lives.”
Shortly after last Friday’s opening ceremony, Gu posted a “lookbook” of outfits she had worn at the Games so far. Elsewhere, she has shared messages support from supermodel Karlie Kloss and a viral video of her unboxing gear from Chinese sportswear brand Anta for an impromptu fashion show in the Olympic village.
“My god, that vest and down jacket give off supermodel vibes,” wrote one user beneath the latter video on the Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin. “The Frog Princess is so fashionable,” read a comment on another video, using another Chinese nickname given to Gu on account of a green ski helmet she wore as a child. “Cheering you on to be the best at the Winter Olympics.”
An advertising billboard shows Eileen Gu promoting the Chinese dairy company Mengniu Dairy. Credit: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images
Even in the heat of competition, Gu has used her public platform to boost her fashion credentials and promote Chinese culture. Speaking to reporters after qualifying for the big air final on Monday, she pulled up her race bib to show the cameras a black jacket embroidered with a golden dragon. “This is a piece of clothing I designed, with Chinese elements,” she said in Mandarin.
Gu’s ascent comes at a time when Western labels frequently find themselves subjected to consumer boycotts for perceived missteps — everything from casting models that don’t fit Chinese beauty standards to printing T-shirts listing Hong Kong and Macau as countries, rather than cities. Her refusal to be drawn on political matters may bolster her reputation as a low-risk ambassador. The skier has remained tight-lipped on the many controversies surrounding China at these Games, including Beijing’s alleged treatment of Xinjiang’s Uyghur population and concerns over the well-being of tennis star Peng Shuai. “There’s no need to be divisive,” she recently told the New York Times after saying she would “pass” on questions about China. “I think everything I do, it’s all about inclusivity.” Asked about Peng at a press conference this week, Gu simply welcomed her attendance and expressed gratitude that the tennis player was “happy and healthy and out here doing her thing again.” Gu has also dodged questions about whether she was forced her to forfeit her US passport, as China does not formally recognize dual citizenship.
Related video: Reporters press Eileen Gu over her citizenship. See her response
Her diplomatic approach echoes that of tennis star Emma Raducanu, who also won praise from state media and trended on Weibo after winning the US Open last year. (She too has a Chinese mother and has addressed fans on social media in Mandarin). Raducanu has since signed with the likes of Dior, with talent manager Jonathan Shalit, telling CNN last year that he expected her to make “well over $100 million” in sponsorship deals in 2022.
But unlike the tennis star, who continues to represent the UK, Gu’s decision to ski for China makes her an even more bankable name, according to Qiu.
“Sports heroes are definitely the new idols here,” Qiu said, adding: “They’re national heroes, which makes them a very safe bet for brands to work with.”
Top image: Eileen Gu in a campaign for Louis Vuitton.