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Meet Timmy Xu, China’s Breakout Multi-Hyphenate

By Kames Narayanan

Timmy Xu in Coach jacket, shirt and trousers.
Wei Lai
Timmy Xu in Coach jacket, shirt and trousers.

When Chinese actor Timmy Xu debuted on Chinese web series “Addicted” (an onscreen adaptation of Chinese gay romance novel “Are You Addicted?”) three years ago, he was a relative unknown — save for his role in “Gaming Madness”, a coming-of-age short film released the year before.

Three years on, Xu has unequivocally grown into a whole other animal as he saunters into the studio in Shanghai for T Singapore’s cover shoot, with a posse in tow.

In the taxonomy of the Chinese entertainment industry’s leading men, the 24-year-old finds himself amongst the endearing boy-next-door set. A beguiling mix of fresh-faced charm and striking good looks, Xu’s dark doe-eyes, perfectly defined nose bridge and full pouty lips paint an inviting, pleasant front. By default, his flawless genetic-make is a quotient to his success.

Wei LaiXu in Coach vest, top, trousers and sneakers.
Xu in Coach vest, top, trousers and sneakers.

This winsome appeal may have landed Xu his breakthrough role as a brooding teenager in 2016, but on screen, his acting prowess is something to be reckoned with. Playing the part to a fault as would a seasoned actor, he internalised and later translated the deep-seated emotional turmoil that underscored his character in nuances of body language. Beyond being a stellar performance on the whole, the gay nature of the role lent itself to a defining moment early on in his career. The particularly controversial move for any actor, much less a novice, in the tightly policed, conservative landscape of the Chinese entertainment industry ended up working in Xu’s favour.

Since the formative years of his life, Xu has had his toes dipped into the different facets of entertainment. “When I was in high school, I took an interest in music. Later when I was in senior high, I was accepted into Beijing’s National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts where I majored in acting,” says Xu.

“It came naturally to me,” he continues.

Wei LaiXu in Loewe jacket, shorts, sneakers and Hermès top.
Xu in Loewe jacket, shorts, sneakers and Hermès top.

Scouted by agents post-university, the opportunities fell into his lap as naturally as he deemed his flair for acting to be. “I was lucky to be casted to act when I graduated,” says Xu.

Alongside his acting debut on the web series, Xu simultaneously showcased his knack for music as he composed and sang its opening and closing theme songs. Unlike most celebrities who christen themselves as one or the other, Xu’s introduction was that of a multi-hyphenate, equally apt in both the realms of music and acting.

The former, however, is what Xu claims as his first love. “Music has always been my dream. It was a fortuitous opportunity for me to have become a singer and officially release my album,” says Xu.

Wei LaiXu in Gucci coat, trouser and bag; Ermenegildo Zegna XXX t-shirt (worn inside).
Xu in Gucci coat, trouser and bag; Ermenegildo Zegna XXX t-shirt (worn inside).

In 2016, he released his debut album titled “Light”, a sonic mélange of pop, rock and hip hop influences. In the same year, Xu embarked on his “First Light Asia Tour” in three Chinese cities and made headlines as the first artist hailing from mainland China to headline in South Korea and Thailand. Xu is a literal hot ticket: his album sold over 10,000 copies with 15 minutes of its release; the tickets to his first concert in Beijing sold out in three minutes while the VIP tickets to the concert in Bangkok sold out within a mere 35 seconds.

Following the success of his first album, Xu released his second one titled “The Time” — segmented into four quarters — over the next two years. Veering away from the archetypal discography of a studio album, Xu outlined his as an emotional journey that segues from high-octane effusions of joy to stripped back, sentimental acoustic artistry. Xu, the musician, reveals vulnerability that hides behind the characters he plays.

“When I’m acting, I am an actor who is living the life of someone else. The job of an actor demands him to understand the different states of human condition — and experience it fully. But when I’m performing on stage, I am my most authentic self,” says Xu. “Yet, I love both the singer and actor in me and I give my full effort to each.”

Wei LaiXu in Prada jacket, shirt, shorts and sneakers.
Xu in Prada jacket, shirt, shorts and sneakers.

In just three years, Xu has charted a meteoric rise to fame as a multi-hyphenate singer, actor and model — the latest addition to his portfolio. Last year, all-American heritage brand Coach appointed him as their first Coach Men spokesman for China. Xu also cuts a prominent figure at the fashion weeks as he fast cements a permanent front row spot at revered fashion houses.

From a burgeoning fan base of more than 10 million followers (as of press time) on Weibo and Instagram combined to an international lineup of clientele, Xu’s prominence, which spreads far and beyond mainland China, marks a poignant moment not only in his career but for an entire nation. It signals an uncharacteristic openness between the largely separate Chinese and western counterpart.

Xu, whose work takes him across the globe, was duly named the ambassador of The European Travel Commission in October last year. “In recent years, I have been visiting Europe on numerous occasions. When I travelled to Croatia and Italy, it was an eye-opening experience that broadened my horizons,” says Xu.

Wei LaiXu in Celine by Hedi Slimane jacket and sweater.
Xu in Celine by Hedi Slimane jacket and sweater.

“Travel, to me, is as simple as going out there to enjoy yourself. No matter where you go, there is always a new experience awaiting you. They are all unforgettable journeys,” he continues.

Unlike any other Chinese entertainer of our time, Xu has, since the beginning of his career, inadvertently caused a ripple beyond home, and in the process taking an entire nation on his back. The sheer influence of his popularity is monumental to an on-looker. Yet, Xu is seemingly built for the pressure having grasped the conundrum of celebrity not long after he stepped into it.

“My state of mind has changed over time. I am no longer as concerned about what others say as compared to when I debuted. Now, I know what I have to do and that is to be the best version of myself,” says Xu.

Related Story: On Set | Behind the Scenes with Timmy Xu
Photographs by Wei Lai
Creative Direction and Styling by Jack Wang
Grooming: Zhang Jin
Subject: Timmy Xu