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."
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.
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.
The band said that nobody ever questioned their authenticity, whether they were actually performing or not.
"The audience always seems pleased with whatever’s happening on stage," Snachov said. "As long as they can post that up on social media afterwards."
The foreigner privileges don’t end on stage. At the schools the band teaches at they make considerably more money than their Chinese co-workers, despite the fact that only O’Toole has a degree in teaching. The fact that the school employs foreign teachers makes it simply more appealing to students. More eager students means more money coming in. "The fact that we’re foreigners and that’s exotic is a huge advantage to us here," Smith said.
Having Western faces acts as reassurance for people that they made the right choice in investing in that company or buying that product. It implies quality, wealth, power. "Once you put a foreigner out there, everything changes," said a talent agent in the documentary. "It is no longer some remote building built by an unknown developer. It becomes an international city of the future."
If Moores had to guess, he’d say it’s because China only did away with dynastic rule a generation or two ago.
"I think China looks to Western cultures as an example," Moores said. "There’s a romanticized view of the U.S. here. They see Friends and think that’s how everyone lives their lives. That translates into Westerners in China being automatically seen as the top of the social wrung, and anywhere you go people will want to take a picture with you. Because if you know a Westerner or take a picture with one, your own social status gets boosted up."
While the documentary notes that there is no way to accurately gauge foreigners’ effect on property sales, "the widespread nature of the phenomenon suggests that it works, at least in the eyes of real-estate developers."
Either way, the band says for now they’re just having fun and enjoying their time performing.
"This is just one of those things you can only do in China," Smith said.
At their concert for 10,000 fans (the name of the event translates to "Exotic Amorous Feelings of the Communist Party"),Chatterbox was just one of the performances in the entertainment bombardment.
"It was really funny, because the stage was just set up between some rice fields in the middle of nowhere," O’Toole said. "They picked us up from the Nanning train station and drove us a couple hours down this bumpy road to the boonies."
Like their first show, few things went as planned—the tape started playing before the band even got on stage. But the audience never noticed. And the band had nothing to worry about.
"The fact that we weren’t actually playing took a lot of pressure off," Smith said. "We knew we weren’t real rock stars. I knew I was not able to screw up. All I had to do was fake play, dance around, and smile."
The show ended, and outside, the group was mobbed by a hoard of screaming fans. Police eventually needed to step in to stop their admirers—so desperate to get autographs and selfies with the celebrities they knew and loved.