Fame came quickly for Zhao Wei. In 1998, the actress became a household name almost overnight for her leading role in the popular TV series, Huan Zhu Ge Ge (The Princess of Huanzhu). She has remained as one of the most successful Chinese actresses ever since.
Zhao was in Shanghai recently for the launch of a new line of cosmetics and despite an unexpected storm which erupted when Zhao was supposed to show up, her loyal fans chose to wait in the heavy rain for more than an hour.
"I'm very grateful and touched by my fans," she said. "For more than 10 years, they have always been there for me, accompanying me to get through all the ups and downs in my life."
Zhao is easygoing, relaxed and approachable. She cares about people around her, smiling at everyone, listening carefully to "boring" questions and responding accordingly.
It was hard to relate the slender figure to the roles she has portrayed on screen lately, most of which are linked with yellow sands, battle horses and combat, such as Hua Mulan in Mulan and Sun Shangxiang in Red Cliff -- both are wartime heroines in ancient Chinese tales.
Zhao described Mulan, which is scheduled to hit the big screen in December, as "the toughest film I have ever worked with."
It was an unforgettable experience. For three months, she had been working under the scorching sun and in massive sandstorms in northwest China, dressed up in armor that weighed as much as 25 kilograms almost every day.
But she liked the role a lot.
"Hua Mulan is such a legendary character that everyone has his or her own understanding of the great heroine. Through the character, I'd like to demonstrate all the good qualities of a woman -- kind, independent, thoughtful, humble, forgiving ?"
She also became "thinner, tanned and stronger -- like Angelina Jolie," thanks to the hard work in filming the epic.
When she was in her 20s, she was just like any other girls of her age and did not understand the importance of taking care of her skin and the importance of resting.
Now, even if she was in the middle of endless filming, she would insist upon applying a facial mask every other day.
She rejects heavy makeup even when attending formal events.
"Compared with where I was born, northern China is much dryer -- so moisturizing is very important, especially in the upcoming winter time," said the Anhui-native who lives in Beijing most of the time these days, when asked about her skincare tips.
For the Shanghai event, where she was an ambassador for Aqua Sprina, a new line designed by Japanese cosmetics manufacturer Kanebo for Chinese women from 25 and 40, Zhao wore an elegant yet slightly edgy black Alexander McQueen dress, which was nicely complemented by her exquisitely done hair.
She was once known for her fashion faux pas on the red carpet until earlier this year, when she impressed the press with her sweet, feminine Christian Dior strapless gown at the Cannes Film Festival.
Her sense of style has been impeccable ever since.
"I have always been working hard on presenting a better image to the audience," she said. "Personally, I like evening gowns in light pink the most.
"I didn't attach so much importance to my looks in the past because I thought it's my film work that counts the most, instead of the clothes I wore," she said. "However, nowadays I have come to learn to take more care about my image, so that the audience will feel more pleasant when they see me."
Recently, the 33-year-old was elected as the youngest vice president of the Chinese Academy of Film and Performing Arts, an organization set up in 1985 to improve the standards of Chinese film. Today, it has more than 1,000 members.
"Starting from kindergarten and elementary school, I have never held any kind of position. So this is my first, and it's for the Academy of Film and Performing Arts -- I'm very excited."
Apart from acting, Zhao also sings and her seventh album, "We Are All Great Directors," is released next month.
There are rumors she married recently. "I'm not married yet but I do have people wooing around," she laughed. "The rumors only made me long for marriage more. Anyway, my 'market' is not bad at all, so don't worry about me!"
Zhao Wei's life and times
Born in March 1976, in Wuhu, Anhui Province, Zhao Wei is considered one of the leading young actresses in China today, along with Zhang Ziyi and Zhou Xun.
In 1996, Zhao was recruited by the Beijing Film Academy. She studied at the Performance Institute of the film academy and graduated in 2000.
Zhao's breakthrough was playing the lead in 1997's Huan Zhu Ge Ge, a popular television series. Two years after it aired, Zhao began her singing career with the first album, Swallow.
In 1999, Zhao won Best Leading Actress at the 17th Golden Eagle Awards -- the highest television awards of China. In 2002, she was nominated Best Supporting Actress in the 39th Golden Horse Award.
In 2004, Zhao was nominated as Best Actress and won Favorite Actress at the 11th Beijing College Student Film Festival. She also nominated Best Actress in the 27th Hundred Flowers Awards the same year.
In 2005, Zhao won the 8th Shanghai International Film Festival's Best Actress Award. That year, Zhao also won Outstanding Actress of the 11th China Movie Awards.
Zhao has collaborated with many famed filmmakers including John Woo, Wong Kar-wai and Jiang Wen in works including Painted Skin, Red Cliff, The Postmodern Life of My Aunt, Chinese Odyssey 2002 and Green Tea.
(Shanghai Daily September 20, 2009)