Clad in a gown that was one-part va-va-voom Vegas showgirl and one-part wedding dress, Chatterbox lead singer Jenny O’Toole sashayed across the stage. Between verses, she’d wave and blow kisses to the crowd before her: a surging sea of 10,000 screaming Chinese concert goers, most wielding selfie sticks and multicolored neon glow wands.
Fueled by pre-show shots of Chinese rice liquor, guitarist Morgan Moores and bassist Alex Smith ran about the massive stage, leapt off amps, sat on each other’s knees, and posed for the HD camera drones that buzzed around their heads.
"I rocked out hard—so hard—and the crowd loved it," Moores said. "Everyone was going crazy."
And as O’Toole got to the chorus of the "Marry You" Bruno Mars cover she was performing, both men pretended to vie for her attention.
They did everything except actually play their instruments.
Sure, O’Toole was singing, but everything else was fake. The instruments weren’t plugged in. The music blaring from the speakers was only a CD track. Which was probably for the best, considering Smith had only been playing bass for two weeks, and drummer Yuri Snachov’s wife, Anastacia, was filling in for piano. She had never played before. The track also had cymbals, which Snachov’s drum set did not. And those seemingly routine rock-and-roll moves Moore and Smith were doing that the crowd loved so much? They’d searched YouTube for old AC/DC clips and had spent the morning mimicking them while jumping on their hotel beds.
But nobody questioned it. As far as the crowd was concerned, they were watching Chatterbox, a "famous American band."
The Making of Fictional Rock Stars
Two weeks prior, the original four group members were simply 20-something English teachers in a poor Chinese province.
Moores and O’Toole, a couple from Minnesota, had come to China two years prior and had just left a job teaching outdoor education in Taiwan to teach English majors at a university. It was at that university that they met Ukranian Snachov and Smith, who had only been in the country for two months. No matter. When the call went out for a Western band to perform at a hotel opening (to give the company some fictional international cred), they decided why not. They could do it. They could totally pretend to be rock gods.
So they assembled their makeshift band, picked a name that the Chinese population would be able to pronounce, borrowed some instruments, recorded two pop songs on one of their phones and sent it in. Two days later, they were onstage, doing their best Mick Jagger impersonations to Philip Philips and Adele cover songs.
"That first show was fun and absolutely ridiculous," Moores said. "And because it’s China there were plenty of setbacks." While performing their first song of the night, a cover of "Rolling in the Deep" by Adele, fireworks started shooting from the stage, mere feet from where O’Toole was singing. "I had no idea they were going to do that," O’Toole said. "We sort of did a dress rehearsal earlier that day, if you can even call it that, but they didn’t say anything about it."
A frantic light show and a bubble blitz followed the fireworks. The triad of special effects caused the power to blow on the last verse, which sent the giant inflatable sign that had been looming above the stage crashing into the audience. Though despite all hell breaking loose, the band didn’t miss a beat and finished the song singing at top volume.
Not bad for a group whose collective prior experience includes a seventh grade talent show, a number of bar bluegrass and individual sets, and college musical theater performances in Fargo.
That initial performance was what caught the eye of the recruiter, who would then hire them to play the show for 10,000 people two weeks later.
Soon after, a career change took Snachov to Australia, but another co-worker, Gus Donnelly, stepped in as drummer. Since then, Chatterbox 2.0 has played a myriad of shows, the most recent of which inexplicably had them singing Elvis’s "Blue Christmas," during the May monsoon season.
"They always want it to have a certain theme and look a certain away," O’Toole said. "One show I brought a couple dresses and they kept telling me they weren’t ‘Broadway’ enough. I had no idea what that meant."
Though there is a ridiculous nature to the events, O’Toole said she’s starting to understand it. "I know they love to see the dazzling lights, gimmicks and decorations," she said. "That’s the thing with China—it needs to look good and look a certain way."
But those brilliant lights and foreigner star power aren’t just about putting on a good show. It’s more about making a sale.
The Rise of the Rent-a-Foreigner Phenomenon
So-called rent-a-foreigner jobs are becoming increasingly popular throughout China, particularly outside the metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai where foreigners aren’t as common.
The jobs require no resumes, no language skills, and no understanding of the culture. The one requirement is a foreign face. Usually, the foreigner is just hired as a prop for photos and hand shaking.
It’s not the first rent-a-foreigner gig the group members have done. Moores and O’Toole once posed as an American businessman and his sexy secretary for a cruise ship commercial, Donnelly pretended to be a businessman for a hotel opening, Smith donned a Santa costume for a Christmas party and Snachov frequently took jobs with his model wife.
Last month, The New York Times released a documentary called Rent-a-Foreigner in China.; In it, a Chinese recruiting agent explains that having foreigners "employed" by the business shows that the company has international status—whether that’s real or, more often than not, imaginary.
It explains why Chatterbox frequently plays for hotel or apartment complex openings, especially in the middle of nowhere. A real-estate bubble has filled the countryside with ghost towns of empty apartments. These shows turn those flagging complexes into seemingly lively international cities. The (sometimes literal) smoke and mirrors act tricks investors into continuing to funnel money into these projects.