Society Goes Gaga for Yue-Sai, The Most Famous Woman in China

Yue-Sai Kan, the most famous woman in China, was sitting in her office in her enormous, opulent townhouse on Sutton Square on Manhattan’s East Side. I had been gazing longingly out the window at the huge backyard she shares with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, architect I.M. Pei, singer Robert Goulet and eight others.

“You should see the view from my bedroom,” Ms. Kan said, before getting down to business. A TV personality, author and cosmetics mogul, Ms. Kan is not shy.

“By the year 2008, China will be a whopping place, a real big economic power to contend with,” she said. “I have been part of the China ‘open door’ policy. I opened up China with television. Why do you think they call me the most influential woman in the last 20 years? I opened China up. I opened it up in television, truly the first one. I opened up color in their lives, cosmetics. I even have dolls, I have books.

“Many parents will say, ‘I named my daughter Yue-Sai because we are such great admirers of yours,'” she said. “You have to remember, when you watch me on TV, I am there. When you see me in newspapers, I am there. Magazines, I am there. When you go home, you wash your face, you use a Yue-Sai product. Your children are going to go play dolls? It’s a Yue-Sai doll. You go into a bookstore, a Yue-Sai book is there. And later you go into an intimate-apparel department, you’ll be wearing mine, too. So that’s a really very interesting situation.”

Ms. Kan was wearing a red jacket, black shiny pants, a jeweled choker around her neck and black heels. She’d just returned from a four-day visit to a health spa in Thailand. She is petite, 5-foot-4, with a perfect nose, perfect cheekbones, perfect lips. Lips with character . Everything mathematically aligned, black hair framing it all perfectly.

Ms. Kan has assistants. One of them popped in a video.

There’s Phil Donahue at a podium, telling a crowd about Ms. Kan. “She has used the television medium to build single-handedly a two-way street between Asia and the rest of the world,” he says.

“She’s beautiful, gifted, and I like her,” says Kitty Carlisle Hart at a party.

“And just how famous is ‘more famous than anyone’?” says the video’s narrator. “Witness the public hysteria when Yue-Sai made an appearance to autograph a book.”

The camera closes in on a young man close to tears. “She is … in my heart,” he says.

Ms. Kan spends about half her time in New York. She moved here in 1973, first to Queens and then to a small studio apartment a few blocks from her current townhouse. “I came to New York with $150; I didn’t know anybody,” she said. “I came in January, and I was freezing cold. I didn’t even have a coat, and I asked my girlfriend, ‘Please allow me to use your credit card,’ and as usual I bought the most expensive coat. It took me a year and a half to pay for the coat.”

Now, in addition to the six-floor townhouse, which she bought in 1988 and which is filled with antiques, Asian art and pictures of herself, she also has a sumptuous apartment in Shanghai. Yue-Sai Kan Cosmetics-which dominate the market in China, and which will be available in the U.S. next fall-employs approximately 1,800 people in New York, Paris and China. She published a book, Etiquette for the Modern Chinese, which was a best-seller in China . Earlier this year, noticing that Chinese girls were playing with Barbie dolls, Ms. Kan created Asian dolls in her own likeness. She said she wanted to help Chinese girls overcome the insecurity of believing beauty means blond hair and blue eyes. More than 100,000 Yue-Sai Wa Wa dolls have been sold in China and in the U.S. at outlets such as F.A.O. Schwarz, Toys “R” Us, on QVC and on her Web site.

Ms. Kan said her hair style is known as “the Yue-Sai” in China.

“If you go to a beauty salon, you say you’d like to have a Yue-Sai cut, they know exactly what to do,” she said.

“I think the closest in Western famous-haircut history would be Louise Brooks,” said Sara Vass, her publicist. Ms. Kan was not smiling. Ms. Vass quickly added, “But it’s very Yue-Sai.”

She said she wears her own brand of lipstick at all times. “Especially when I’m in China and I’m giving a lecture,” she said. “Six hundred people, a thousand people. Someone says, ‘What lipstick are you using today?’ If I say ‘Chanel No. 5,’ I’m in big trouble, you know?”

Above the desk were photographs of her with Andy Warhol, Cicely Tyson, Michael Douglas. There was one of her being escorted to a benefit at Radio City Music Hall by Ted Turner. In fact, he’d just called to ask her to dinner.

“He’s coming into town,” she said. “Ted is lots of fun. I used to go out with him.” Ms. Kan was married to an American businessman from 1990 to 1995. She said she isn’t seeing anyone right now. “Nobody would be stupid enough to go out with me,” she said. “I travel so much, it doesn’t make sense. But I like men. Very much!”

Laughter, a pause. “You asked me what is latest,” she said, then mentioned her lingerie line while running her perfectly manicured fingers down the front of her body.

I asked her about fame.

“What is wonderful about being famous is that lots of people are willing to do things for you that you didn’t expect them to,” she said. “For example, if you’re ever having trouble with your luggage, and they take a look at you and they say, ‘Oh, you have 500, you’re overweight. No problem!’ People are just very nice to you. In China, if I make a phone call to try to get some information-if I am the one to make a phone call, that’s a big deal. You know, I can get anything. Just because of me . Me being me. I’m used to it. People are so nice to me.”

‘An Audience of Two’

Yue-Sai Kan grew up in Hong Kong in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Her mother, who died in 1994, oversaw the family’s finances and ran a theater company. Her father was a well-known Chinese painter and currently lives in New York. Artists and people such as Cambodian Prince Sihanouk came to dinner.

Ms. Kan recalled an “idyllic” childhood. “My daddy used to buy me dolls, and within two minutes the doll is finished,” she said. “I was always curious how did this doll move, and I would pull the hair out; I was trying to find how did they put it into the head. Unless you break it open, you don’t really know how. I was a very curious child, that is for sure. I was extremely popular.

“My mom, my dad told me that when I was a little girl, I was the favorite of all the neighbors,” she said.

“We may not have been the richest family, but I never was in lack of anything, and my parents always gave us the best,” she said. “If I wanted to take piano lessons, they would find the most famous teacher for me, and if I wanted to dance the ballet, it would be the best ballet school. Never, ever did we feel that we were not very rich. We may not have had 10 servants, but we always had servants.”

At 16, she left Hong Kong with $1,500 to attend Brigham Young University in Hawaii, where she studied music.

In 1973, she moved to New York and soon became a U.S. citizen. With her sister Vickie, she started an import-export business between the U.S. and China. In 1978, she created and hosted a Manhattan cable show, Looking East. The New York Times gave it a rave: “Few people are able to bridge the East and West, but Yue-Sai Kan can, and does it with beauty, intelligence and grace.”

“I think I had an audience of two,” she said. “One was my mother. It was real tough. If I made 100 phone calls and got one person to call me back, that was really very lucky.”

But she found sponsors: the Hong Kong tourist association, Kikkoman soy sauce. She started shooting segments in Asia. Discovery Channel eventually picked it up. Sixty Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace said the show was “one of the unsung glories of television.” In 1984, PBS hired her to host a program celebrating the 35th anniversary of the People’s Republic. The Chinese government called. They asked her to create a series for the state-run TV network. She filmed episodes for that while still producing Looking East.

“I was horrible-I was down to 98 pounds,” she said. “I was exceptionally skinny. I worked so hard that every night when I went to sleep, every bone in my body was hurting.”

One World premiered in China in 1986. She would eventually do 104 episodes, including interviews with Mother Teresa, Gore Vidal, Steve Allen, Tommy Lasorda and Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. Three hundred million Chinese tuned in to this Westernized Chinese woman, and many got their first look at Paris, Rome and Hollywood.

“These are the pyramids-one of the seven wonders of the world!” Ms. Kan would tell them. “Behind me, the River Thames, that flows through the center of London …. I’m Yue-Sai Kan, in front of the residence of the royal family in Stockholm, Sweden.” The show ran until the end of 1987.

“You know the Chinese saying that the time makes the hero, not necessarily the hero makes the time,” she said. “Obviously, this is the case. I happened to be voice of that time. It was a very unique time in China. It probably will never happen again. It will never happen again! Look, it was like walking on the moon. You do a program for Chinese Communist government? Every media was interested in talking to me about it, because it was truly so unique. It’s not very easy to have done that.”

But despite appearances here on Merv Griffin, The Today Show and David Letterman (“You know, Connie Chung’s job might be open here,” he told her), and despite an Emmy Award for producing an ABC documentary, China Walls and Bridges , she has yet to blow up big in the West.

She said she doesn’t mind. “Here, I can take a breather,” she said.

“I never go out of the house; I hardly go out of the house,” she said. “First of all, I love it here. Really, it’s because the house is so big. When I’m in China, I’m surrounded by hundreds of people constantly. It’s so nice to find a haven like New York. I go to the garden.”

On a recent Sunday, she had 30 people over for lunch. She got out of bed at 11:20 a.m. There were a few U.N. ambassadors, the opera singer Anna Moffo Sarnoff, the actress Tina Louise, a young Italian banker, an older banker from Bear Stearns, and an “image guru” sporting a pumpkin blazer and Ben Franklin glasses who said he had “revamped” Katie Couric. Robert De Niro’s ex-wife Grace Hightower and son Elliot were expected, but didn’t make it. Neither did Bobby Short, who Ms. Kan said was a regular. But there was a wealthy Cuban widow named Ava, who gave Ms. Kan an adorable-yet-repulsive, anatomically correct pig sculpture which appeared to be defecating.

Ms. Kan’s 84-year-old father was there in a three-piece suit, along with her 24-year-old niece, Jaimie Chew, who works in advertising.

The hostess addressed her room. “First of all, welcome,” she said. “I just want you to know this is the first lunch since I came back-I’ve been away for a long time. I heard you haven’t had lunch on Sundays for a long time!”

Everyone laughed. “This is a little report,” she said. “I cannot understand why in China nobody cares about 9/11, only we do. There is no recession-obsessed feelings in China; there is no sadness. In fact, the economy in China is booming like you cannot believe.”

She introduced people and said, “Make yourself at home!”

Champagne was flowing. There was an elaborate buffet.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t really realize that my aunt was anybody,” said Ms. Chew. “And the whole family went on a trip to China, and I remember getting out of the taxi with her from the airport, and of course we had special privileges because everyone in the government knew her. But when we got out of the car, she was mobbed by people-people wanting autographs. And she had security guards, and when you’re like 12, you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s kind of cool.’

“I loved it because she would buy me all the things that my mother would never let me eat,” said Ms. Chew. “Like chocolate milk and eggs and bacon. Of course, she never really knew how to cook it. She only had Champagne in her fridge, because she was so busy she never had time to shop for groceries, and she had parties.”

Another guest was Barbara Conroy, a former war correspondent and currently special-events producer for ABC anchor Peter Jennings. “Yue-Sai has a heart of gold,” she said. “I’ve actually brought some friends of mine from The New York Times and the New York Post who have gotten to know her, and they have just fallen in love with her. She has such an innocence about her.”

The guy from Bear Stearns, Maurice Sonnenberg, said, “When you look East, you think of Yue-Sai before you think of China.”

Later that night, after all the guests had left, I asked Ms. Kan if she had everything she wanted in life.

“Well, personally, you know, I’m single, and I don’t know what the future will bring to my life,” she said. “I think that these are kind of things that we cannot ask for, that will happen. I’m very Buddhistic in this: If things happen, it will happen. I’m not going to get myself all frustrated and try to think, ‘What am I missing?’ It’s silly to do that. We have to know that life just happens, and a lot of that is karmic. For example, you came into my life, right? That is a karmic encounter. You did not come in for no reason. You know, people meet people for a reason. And whether we become very good friends, I don’t know. But there is an encounter here.” Society Goes Gaga for Yue-Sai, The Most Famous Woman in China