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Alice in Wonderland

Alice Longyu Gao, a New York-based DJ, songwriter, fashionista and artist, talks with NewsChina about her struggles at a military-like prep school, her creative adventures in the US and the freedom of self-expression

By Li Jing Updated Feb.1

Some people say I look very sad / I’m just having my resting bitch face. [?-] Rich bitch juice is champagne and lime salt, get it? / I’m fucking tired, exhausted / I need my rich bitch juice.”  

On her latest single “Rich Bitch Juice,” which she wrote in 10 minutes, Alice Longyu Gao hits back at the social prejudices and restraints on women, such as slut-shaming and rigid beauty standards.  

“If a boy dates 10 girls, his bros would say ‘dude, you rock!’ But if a girl does the same thing, men say ‘what a slut.’ It’s always like that,” Gao said. 

Recently, Gao has caught the ear of leading pop artists. David Byrne included her song “Quarantine Rly Sucks” on his website radio playlist on September 1. Selena Gomez twerked to”Scam” in November on Instagram, where a month later The Weeknd used “Rich Bitch Juice” in a video of his dog at home. On Spotify, the same track was featured on Lady Gaga’s “Women of Choice” playlist on March 8. 
Rainbow-striped Tights 
The 26-year-old has made her creative mark in multiple areas, from DJing and songwriting to fashion, beauty and installation art. But growing up in China, her unique personality and talents were not celebrated.  

At 17, she dropped out of Maotanchang High School, in Lu’an, Anhui Province, a grueling test-prep boarding school, to head for the US. She took the English name “Alice” after British author Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And much like Alice jumping down the rabbit hole, Gao’s life changed drastically after she entered the art worlds of New York and Los Angeles.  

Born in 1994 to an upper-middle class family in Bengbu, Anhui, Gao said that throughout her childhood she never met the expectations of her father, a glove factory owner who thought a girl should always be compliant and well-behaved.  

Her father had been hoping for a boy so much that when Gao was born, he gave her a very masculine name - Longyu, which means “dragon” and “universe.”  

“I hated the name a lot [growing up],” Gao said. “Every time a new teacher came to our class and said, ‘now let’s find a boy to answer the next question,’ my name was often called.”  

As she grew older, Gao came to identify with how the name reflects her stubbornness, perseverance and unyielding nature.  

Young Gao was curious about the world. She enjoyed hanging out in bookstores and libraries, devouring news about everything from music and fashion to social issues and foreign affairs. Her father discovered that no matter the topic, his daughter had something to say about it.  

“My father detested me for that. I’m not exaggerating. He thought a girl shouldn’t be that way. In his eyes, a girl should stick to girly things, wear white shirts and blue trousers and behave well,” Gao told the reporter.  

After Gao graduated from middle school in 2010, her father enrolled her at Maotanchang High School, a four-hour drive from home. A cram school with a reputation for churning out top scorers in China’s difficult national college entrance examinations, Maotanchang is notorious for strictly controlling every aspect of student life. 

Gao’s father hoped the boarding school would help smooth her rough edges and direct her focus toward the exam.  

At first, Gao did not resist. “I wasn’t afraid of hard work. If it was a tough trial that I had to endure, then I would take it on and say, ‘OK, try me,’” Gao said.  

But her time at the school was tough. “That place tries to get rid of every speck of individuality and personality from a person and mold everyone into identical test-taking machines with only one purpose - score high on the test,” she said.  

The school has been criticized in media as a test-prep factory for its military-like approach. Aside from meals and sleep, students face an 18-hour daily regimen of classes, exams and coursework. They are allowed only a few free hours on Sundays. All students wear uniforms. 

One Sunday afternoon, Gao put on her favorite rainbow-striped tights and strolled on a street near campus. An instructor at the school spotted her and informed her teacher.  

“My teacher humiliated me in front of the entire class. He called me a ‘slut’ or a ‘bitch.’ I can’t remember what word he used, but I’m pretty sure it was one of them. That cutting feeling of shame is etched into my memory,” Gao told NewsChina.  

The incident was the final straw. Gao began looking for a way out.  

“The only idea I had was to study abroad,” Gao said. “And once I made up my mind, I didn’t rest until I made it reality. After I decided to study abroad I’d think about how to make it happen, every second, every minute of every day.” 

Alice Longyu Gao (left) with singer-songwriter Madison Emiko Love

lice Longyu Gao

Down the Rabbit Hole
Gao first applied to the University of Tokyo but did not get in. Inspired by a friend online who was about to study in the US, Gao changed her plans. She passed the SATs and was admitted to Boston University (BU) in 2012, where she majored in communications and minored in philosophy.  

The 17-year-old arrived in the US alone with two suitcases in September. She finally achieved “aesthetic freedom” - she could wear whatever she liked, whenever she wanted. 

At BU, Gao’s American classmates often came to their early morning classes dressed in pajamas, but she refused. “I always wore makeup and dressed nicely in college. I didn’t do it for my professors or classmates. I did it to make myself happy,” Gao said.  

After years of being mocked by classmates in China for her plump figure and asymmetrical eyes, Gao developed anxiety over her physical appearance. Now her face was a canvas for colorful makeup.  

Gao would get up at 6am to choose her outfit for class. She likes to dress in Harajuku style, an eclectic mix of Japanese street fashion that originated in the trendy Harajuku district in Tokyo. 

With her flamboyant clothes, pastel-colored hairdos, unusual accessories and colorful nail polish, the style is very individual and seeks to break from mainstream aesthetics. Gao saw it as the embodiment of freedom. 

She refined her style while on a Harvard summer study program for Japanese history and Eastern religion in Kyoto. She draws inspiration for her makeup and fashion ideas not only from Tokyo’s Harajuku but also Kyoto’s Kabuki theaters.  

Gao’s fashion sense stood out. In her junior year at BU, the Boston Globe featured her in an article. Also that year, Gao met the New York-based British DJ and model Chelsea Leyland, who took Gao on as her DJ assistant, opening the door to the fashion industry.  

During her last year at BU, her father’s factory hit hard times. Gao covered the tuition on her own. Every day she shuttled between Boston to attend classes and New York to work as Leyland’s assistant - and still managed to graduate a semester early.  

Over the next three years, Gao gained fame in New York’s fashion and DJ circles. She was featured in pop culture and fashion magazines such as Nylon, PAPER, Dazed, and The Fader. She hosted her own webcast, Tea With Alice, for PAPER Magazine, where she worked as an intern. 

During New York Fashion Week 2018, Gao displayed an installation she designed, PERICURA 2.0, an all-pink interactive fashion experience at the Moxy Hotel. Inspired by Japanese instant photo booths, or “Purikura,” Gao’s installation lets visitors try out accessory workshops, nail stations and manga-style hair salons with Gao and her friends.  

The installation garnered media coverage and followers on social media. In particular, she received a message on Instagram from Japanese-American songwriter Madison Emiko Love, who has produced and written songs for celebrity artists including Lady Gaga and K-pop girl group BLACKPINK. Love told NewsChina that she messaged Gao because of a chance encounter in New York.  

“I was walking south on Bleeker Street in Soho and Alice was strutting up the street toward me. She was in all pastel colors, her dress looked like French pastries, her eye makeup splattered with pink, light blue and glitter. I was starstruck because I followed her on Instagram for her makeup ideas, and because she was a DJ. When I got home, I DMed her on Instagram. I asked if she ever wanted to make music for her own artist project or be a pop star. I was down to work with her,” Love said.  

Gao responded right away, and in 30 minutes, she had booked a flight to Los Angeles. There, Love introduced Gao to a number of people, brought her to sessions with producers and songwriters in the business and helped sign her with publishers Pulse Music Group.  
‘Don’t label me’ 
“I have many things inside me to say about the world and everyday happenings. All I want to do is to convey my own ideas,” Gao told NewsChina, adding she only aims to be authentic and refuses to profit from the labels people put on her.  

However, she found that some fashion brands were inviting her to DJ at promotional events not because of her talents but because she is Asian.  

“A campaign targeting Asian consumers needs Asian faces. They don’t really care about the music, just whether the DJ is pretty and how many followers she has on social media,” Gao said.  

Some people suggested she return to China and sign with a talent agency to leverage her influence in China in the US market. “I don’t want to play that card,” Gao told NewsChina.  

Gao said that before going to the US to study, many Chinese students get a tailored qipao, or cheongsam, made. “Every time I saw that I would think, ‘Come on, you don’t even wear a qipao in China. Why are you wearing one in the US?’ I know many people play up their Chinese-ness, but I don’t want that. 

“I don’t want anyone to define me, no matter if it’s based on nationality, gender or sexual orientation. You’ll only be free when you don’t label yourself and don’t allow anyone to label you. You exist as an independent human being,” Gao told NewsChina.  

“Alice is literally the most unique artist I’ve ever worked with. She is so easy to work with because she knows exactly what she wants creatively and somehow seems to find the exact artists to realize her vision. She seamlessly merges her art with her music. That makes her amazing,” Love told our reporter.  

Despite her success, Gao’s parents are not supportive of her career in the US. Her father still hopes she will come back and take over the family business. “I told my father I was written about in The New York Times twice. All he said was ‘OK.’ Every time we talk, he keeps asking me, ‘You sure you don’t want to do something else?’” 

Gao’s work has received mixed reviews. While some call her art overly eccentric, she wouldn’t change a thing. 

“Honestly, I don’t care about what people think of my work. I just want to express myself. It’s totally OK if you don’t like it. That doesn’t matter. Lady Gaga likes my music. I’ll stick with people who like me,” Gao said.  

“My brand uniquely combines myself, my character, my faith, my music and my art. I don't want to see my fans imitating my style or following me to buy the same stuff I have - that’s consumerism. If people like me, I hope they are inspired by my experiences, realize themselves and become unique in the world,” she said.