“I think it’s so fascinating how people communicated intimate thoughts with each other,” she says, sipping her tea in an empty cafe on Sunset. She’s speaking about Marco Polo, the American adventure show based on the famous explorer’s romping about in 13th century China, wherein she plays “blue princess” Kököchin, and therein a glorified prisoner slated to marry royalty but hot for a merchant’s son, Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy). “Nowadays, people are more shy because of technology,” she continues. “Then, the communication was so direct. We didn’t express ourselves through WhatsApp. And sometimes, during long periods apart, you had to express yourself through letters or other unique ways. I was playing the romance part of Marco Polo, and was really in love. Sometimes if I couldn’t see him face to face, I would perhaps tie a ribbon on a tree or things like that. I am always so curious about that kind of life.”
Zhu’s life, while wedged into the modern entertainment machine, has its traditional hues. Born in Beijing, her grandfather’s a general in the Party, her father a businessman, she tickled the ivories at 3 years old, commenced theatre in middle school, and graduated from the Beijing Technology and Business University an engineering major. Then came a gig at MTV China as a presenter, an album release, a screen debut in 2010, and it’s been full throttle since (notably Cloud Atlas, The Man with the Iron Fists, and Shanghai Calling). When asked about the pressure such an ascent has posed on her, she suggests an incremental journey towards self-centering has been key. “I would say [that] I didn’t care about the criticism because I used to think I didn’t care about it,” she says. “But when the attention is on you, and the judgments about you are thrown in your face, you will get hurt and be confused by those things. And I think now I’ve kind of learned to deal by asking myself about their truth. I think those things can only hurt you if you agree with them. And I’ve been working so hard, too. I think when I look back it was childish to try to prove myself by working so hard, but it did work and when you’ve proven it to yourself you don’t need anyone else’s approval anymore.”
Much like the East-meets-West themes in Marco Polo, as Zhu transitions more and more into American entertainment, her self-approval will be a process of melding her Chinese values with America’s rampant individualism. When asked about the challenges of coming from a culture that values collective ideals, Zhu remarks, “I think it’s all a realization of humanity for me. I don’t think the two things are in conflict with each other. For me, the way American people think about the individual is important. You want to liberate yourself, which is one of the first things you have to do to not take yourself so seriously, and that’s a big part of finding your center. I am also a very traditional Chinese girl. For example, in relationships, you have certain obligations, or ways of dealing with things. It’s okay for me to give more, to devote more, or to follow other people’s opinions more than to always have everything come from me. I really appreciate the traditional Chinese way and the differences in Chinese women—they give a lot to their love, to the family and the children. I think it’s great.”
Zhu may be upholding Chinese female values as she pilots her career, but in so doing, she’s become a source of inspiration to millions throughout China. “I had meetings with brands and they did research on my social network,” she says. They learned my fans are 25 to 35 years old, and 78 percent women. I wasn’t actually surprised by it. I knew that I’ve always had a connection with girls like myself. But other people are surprised because they’ll think I have more male fans [Zhu is a stone cold fox] but not true. I think these women want to find their experience in my experience, their way of dealing with life and love. And a lot of other things, too. Fashion, style, that sort of thing.” If you are one of the men, though, in that 22 percent fan base, odds are pretty favorable that should you have to go warring and exploring like Marco Polo, your heart would stay true, and you’d ever be on the eye out for a ribbon in the tree, even if it’s a Hollywood palm.
Photographer: Carlos Serrao for beautyandphoto.com. Stylist: Sean Knight for jedroot.com. Hair: Jamal Hammadi for wschupfer.com using Hamadi Organics Haircare Products. Makeup: Kathy Jeung for themagnetagency.com. Manicure: Tracy Clemens for opusbeauty.com. Photography Assistants: Ron Loepp, Roger Pittard, and Amy Mauth. Set Design/Props: George Segal. Digital Tech: Damon Loble.
Asymmetrical dress with striped crêpe suiting by Proenza Schouler.
Esther dress in navy silk twill by Altuzarra, Navy snakeskin mules by Giuseppe Zanotti, and Sterling silver and white sapphire rock crystal bolt choker and Sterling silver and white cubic zirconium gash cuff by Lynn Ban.
Sequin top, Lace dress, and Lace and leather skirt by Louis Vuitton.
Silk and gabardine embellished dress and silk printed scarf by Miu Miu, Tempest gladiator sandals in Elaphe snakeskin and suede by Paul Andrew, and Sterling silver lightning bolt ring by Lynn Ban.
Silk cady long sleeve crew neck gown with tubular crystal detail by Gucci and Sterling silver with black and white diamond pavé lightning bolt earring and Black rhodium with silver and grey diamond pavé star stud by Lynn Ban.