WHITE BABE IN BEIJING
The Cinderella story that led to her huge success portraying a sexy Yankee vixen on the top-rated Chinese prime-time soap Foreign Babes in Beijing is fun and compelling, a Hollywood fantasy in an exotic land. Rachel trashes every Generation X stereotype that infects pop culture. She's the anti-slacker--a brilliant and well-traveled China scholar, fluent in Mandarin, who graduated with honors from Columbia University where she majored in English and studied Latin. She also excelled in theater and art, composed music and rap ("Mainly to irritate my two brothers," she says) and even found time to master karate ("I learned how to throw people over my shoulder and step on their heads.")
Her musical taste runs to Sarah Vaughan and Hank Williams rather than Pearl Jam, and she loves to dance to jazz when she's alone in her gothic Beijing apartment. Although Rachel admits to extended Beavis and Butthead marathons when she's in the US, she would much rather digest The Brothers Karamazov or Anna Karenina than watch MTV.
"I love to read those books even though Tolstoy and Dostoyevski hated each other," she says. "They stay so relevant. I love the sexy, smart princess characters, and I love Lenin and Dmitri and the devil."
Not quite what one might expect from a pouting and puckering soap opera wench.
Her discovery and overnight success as China's hottest TV star is the stuff of Hollywood fantasies, but clearly without a Hollywood payday. Rachel earned $80US for each of 20 episodes. She plays Jessie (Je Xi), a wealthy American foreign exchange student who ruthlessly chases and seduces an innocent married Chinese man, Tian Ming, played by popular actor Ye Hui. In traditional American fashion, she steals him from his devoted, hard-working wife and child. The series' initial run ended in February, but the episodes are rerun constantly in China. Many provinces will see it for the first time. Some will tune into pirated telecasts.
It was pure chance. While working as an account executive for an American public relations firm in Beijing, Rachel happened to meet with a friend of the Foreign Babes producer at the Beijing Friendship Store. The producer's friend urged her to try out for the show.
"At first I didn't plan to get involved, but I thought it would be a kick to see the studio," she says. "I was shy and at least a touch cynical. The 'studio' was bizarre and wild and there was something dark and totally unfamiliar about the scene. I was two months into my fresh-off-the-boat job and not in a position to take on extra-curricular fantasies. But I was curious and I snuck out of my office one afternoon to meet director Wang."
After Rachel did numerous scenes in Mandarin with another American actor, she was immediately offered the role of Amy (Ai Ni Ya), the nice American student. She turned it down at first, obsessed over it for a day, then had a change of heart. She stumbled through the nighttime streets of Beijing, back to the studio to accept the role.
"It seemed like such a bizarre opportunity, and a rare one for foreigners living in China," she says. "My boss agreed to scale back my hours, so I decided to do it--but when I got back to the studio, they told me they wanted me to play Jessie, the bad girl, instead of Amy. They said, 'You're a perfect Jessie, and a typical American.' I was thrilled! The idea of playing a bad girl sounded a million times more fun."
Her life changed overnight: Suddenly, she was hounded by adoring crowds, signing endless autographs, posing for photos with locals, her face splashed all over Chinese entertainment magazines. Rich strangers propose marriage while she browses Beijing's Silk Alley, and teenage girls trail her through stores and buy whatever brand of cosmetics she picks up. Chinese police give her the thumbs-up sign and taxi drivers yell out her character's name. PAGE 2