“I hope the judges won’t support me,” Ivanov, who competed under the stage name “Lelush,” said during one recent segment, begging viewers to vote him off. “While the others want to get an A, I want to get an F, as it stands for freedom.”
Finally, after appearing in 10 weekly episodes since mid-February — not to mention several vlogs, a spinoff game show and 24/7 closed-circuit television feeds — it appears he has achieved his goal: Ivanov did not receive enough votes this weekend to make the final cut for the boy band.
“Thank y’all for your support. I am finally clocking out,” he told his 1.5 million Weibo followers on Saturday.
“Produce Camp 2021,” also known as “Chuang,” reflects the massive growth in popularity of Chinese boy-band groups, a kind of answer to K-pop. The TV show, which is produced by the entertainment arm of Tencent, is one of several like it in recent years and has reportedly been viewed more than any other program in China so far this year.
While previous seasons included mostly Chinese performers, “Chuang 2021” brought together 90 male trainees from countries around the world — including China, Thailand, Ukraine and the United States — to form an 11-member boy group as voted by its massive global audience.
Ivanov, a fashion marketer and part-time model, said he had only come to the set, on a man-made island off China’s tropical province of Hainan, to serve as an interpreter for two Japanese friends who were competing. But when he was confused for a contestant, the show’s director persuaded him to join.
“The director saw that I am fluent in Mandarin and they thought I’m good-looking, so they asked if I’d like to have a try and experience a new lifestyle,” he said in one backstage interview. “Dancing and singing every day, I’m really exhausted and now starting to regret my decision.”
His Chinese fan base, known as “Sun Si” or bamboo shoots — a pun that also means pranksters — financed LED billboards of him in a dozen Chinese cities and voted him into the top finishers during early rankings.
“According to the rules of the show, I won today. But to me, I’ve lost again,” he said during the second ranking. “I don’t want to be in the group. My dreams are to make designs, enjoy freedom and be a model.”
Over the course of several months of competition, contestants were filmed 24/7 as they practiced dance routines and songs in groups. Their phones were confiscated until they were eliminated, and anyone who wanted to leave early would face steep fees to break the terms of the contract.
Despite his intentionally lackluster performances of a Russian rap song, Ivanov — much to his dismay — only skyrocketed in popularity. One plea earlier this month for fans to stop voting for him drew 55 million views, making it the second-most watched interview clip to come out of the show.
“I’m standing here feeling scared, but I still believe that my fans will respect my choice of not to be in a boy group. I believe they know how far they should go,” he said earlier this month, before a final set of rankings were announced before the finale.
Some skeptical viewers had theorized that Ivanov was putting on a nonchalant attitude to stand out from a crowded field of contestants all vying for the same spot. But his makeup artist on the show told one Chinese vlogger that the stint on the show had in fact cast him into a depressive state.
On April 18, Ivanov’s fan club announced they would “respect Lelush’s choice” and halt their campaign to keep voting for him. He did not receive enough votes to make it into the final group chosen for the band INTO1, as revealed during the finale on Saturday.
The following day, once the contestants got their phones back, Ivanov posted a meme of himself clad in a bright yellow hoodie. Sporting a rare smile, he wrote that he felt “happy as a clam.”