China's Billionaire Actress Zhao Wei

The world's wealthiest working actress is a former kindergarten teacher with such keen investing acumen that she's been nicknamed “China's show-business Buffett” by her country's media.

Combining brains and beauty with a Midas touch, Zhao “Vicki” Wei (赵薇) has parlayed her TV and movie acting salaries, her hefty endorsement fees, and her smart investment moves into a personal fortune, shared with her husband Huang Youlong, that recently zoomed past the billion-dollar mark.

As one of China's biggest stars, Zhao has earned millions from her acting roles, and even more from an extraordinary range of brand endorsements. She's touted over 120 products ranging from Chinese health and beauty supplies to wines to motorcycles, as well as western brands like Mercedes Benz, DeBeers, Versace, Zegna, Dior, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Motorola and others.

Successful investments in real estate, a French winery, and a Singapore jewelry retailer have further boosted her fortune. But it has been her shrewd stock market picks that have put Zhao Wei in the “three comma club” (billionaire status), as HBO’s “Silicon Valley” character Russ Hanneman would put it.

Zhao’s biggest and most lucrative score has been her December, 2014 investment in close friend Jack Ma’s Alibaba Pictures Group. Back in June, 2014, Ma had acquired a 61 percent stake in a money losing movie operation, then called ChinaVision, at a valuation of $10.4 billion Hong Kong dollars (USD 1.3 billion). To boost the stock market value of his investment, Ma, a novice in the film business, asked Zhao Wei to bring a touch of celebrity to the film unit.

According to a Hong Kong stock exchange filing, Zhao purchased a 9.18 percent stake in Alibaba Pictures for HKD 3.1 billion (U.S. $400 million) through Gold Ocean Media, an investment company she owns with her husband. Six months later, after a frenzied rise in Hong Kong stock prices, Alibaba Pictures’ market cap has soared to HKD 74.3 billion (USD 9.6 billion), making Zhao’s stake worth $880 million. Combining that windfall with their other holdings, Zhao and her husband Huang’s net worth has now topped $1 billion.

Born in eastern China’s mountainous Anhui province, Zhao has claimed that she never planned to become famous, explaining, “I thought actresses had to be beautiful, and I thought I was ordinary.”

The 39-year-old actress caught the acting bug at 17 when the film Hua Hun starring Gong Li came to her hometown and she was chosen to appear as an extra. Soon after, she quit her job as a kindergarten teacher and headed to Shanghai to enroll in a new film arts academy founded by legendary director Xie Jin. Then, at the age of 20 she earned the highest score in the entrance exam to enroll at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy.

While still a student there she rose to national prominence when she starred—along with now world-famous actress Fan Bingbing—in the smash hit TV drama My Fair Princess. For that role she became the youngest actress to win China’s Golden Eagle Award, the equivalent of America’s Emmy Award. She went on to more awards recognition for a string of film appearances, most notably John Woo’s Red Cliff, the epic adventure Warriors of Heaven and Earth and the Painted Skin films.

Beyond acting, Zhao’s talents also extend into other artistic fields. She had a successful career as a singer, recording seven albums between 1999 and 2009, scoring numerous top 10 hits on the Chinese music charts and an MTV Asia award as Favourite Artist from Mainland China. In 2013 Zhao made her movie directorial debut with the youth romance So Young. The film became a big box office hit, earning USD 118 million at mainland multiplexes which made it the fifth highest grossing film in Chinese box office history at the time.

Zhao has put some of her money and her time to work for charitable causes, with active involvement and donations to such organizations as the China Youth Foundation’s Hope Project, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and to China Red Cross. In 2011 Zhao received the China Charity Billboard Award for her contributions to others in need.

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