While the new Chinese boyband Produce Pandas’ ethos represents pretty standard pop idol fare – promoting positivity, acting as good role models – there is a progressive twist. Aged between 22 and 31 years old, practically geriatric in boyband terms, Otter, DING, Mr 17, Cass and Husky were recruited because they don’t fit the standard physique displayed by everyone from the Backstreet Boys to BTS. Or, as Mr 17 puts it: “This is a plus-sized, all-singing, all-dancing idol band, which has never been seen before in the whole world.” It’s right there in the name, too: “We just look like a group of pandas: huggable, chubby shape, relaxed and happy attitude.”
It took a while to refine that attitude, however, with an intense, K-pop-style training process, that started in May last year in Beijing and was only relaxed slightly last month following the release of their naggingly catchy debut single La La La, leading to some scary moments. “Husky passed out during training and some of us got injured,” remembers DING, who used to be a plus-sized model. “So our management hired a team of trainers and physical therapists, just like a professional athlete has.”
There have been further sacrifices, too. Having quit their jobs – ranging from Amazon customer representative to pub singer – to join the band, each member felt resistance from their family. It was hardest for their eldest member and main dancer Mr 17, who risked being disinherited after leaving the security of a career working in a petroleum refinery. “[My family] know I love dancing and singing, but they doubt at my age, and with my overweight body shape, that I can ever succeed,” he says. “I want to prove to my family that I can do it.”
They have also had to deal with social media. “When we announced what we are trying to do there were negative tweets,” says Husky. “I can imagine that’s similar to other larger-bodied men who attempt to do something outside of society’s norms.” A boost did come in the shape of a sweet video message of support from two of ‘NSync, and they have already had a taste of the pop star life: the sun-kissed, near parodic video for their breezy new single Sui Sui Nian was filmed in Bali.
Like all their output, it presents the band as a perfectly choreographed rabble who just want to have fun. But, as with all new boybands, there is a palpable mix of desperation and determination that runs through each arm waggle, and they are keen to be defined by more than just their (perfectly average) body shape. “All five of us went through hell-like training because we want to be as professional as other idol groups,” says Husky. “Gimmicks do not last: we’re determined to pursue a long-term career together as a team.”