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Story highlights

Hour-long broadcast by bronze medalist watched by 11 million

Live-streaming has taken China by storm

Government is trying to regulate the phenomenon

(CNN) —  

Chinese Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui has cemented her unexpected stardom by breaking another record – not in a pool in Rio, but in Chinese cyberspace.

An hour-long broadcast by the 20-year-old Olympian last Wednesday on Inke, one of China’s biggest video live-streaming platforms, had attracted more than 11 million views by midday Monday – a number almost unheard of for athletes.

In recent months, live-streaming apps have grown in popularity in China, prompting firms to balance their users’ videos with the Chinese government’s strict content restrictions.

During Fu’s live chat, fans showered her with expensive virtual gifts – including numerous “resort islands,” each of which cost about $720 to purchase in the smartphone app.

China's Fu Yuanhui poses with her bronze medal for the 100m backstroke on August 8.
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
China's Fu Yuanhui poses with her bronze medal for the 100m backstroke on August 8.

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Overnight sensation

Fu became an overnight sensation in China last week after her exuberant – and at times hilarious – answers in post-competition interviews on state television. Her reactions formed a stark contrast to the usual somber responses from Chinese athletes.

Unaware of her third-place finish in the 100-meter backstroke final, she told a reporter in a deadpan manner that her “arms being too short” caused her very narrow loss.

Once she realized she had won a bronze medal, she started beaming on camera and said: “Oh, that wasn’t bad at all!”

Earlier, when asked to assess her performance at the semifinals, Fu gushed that she had used her “primordial powers” – turning an obscure term into an instant buzzword.

Inke, the live-streaming platform, even created a new gift called “primordial power” (with an affordable price tag of 20 U.S. cents), prompting countless users to buy it and send it to Fu during her chat.

Inke boasts more than 10 million active users everyday and has recently attracted $12 million in new investments.

Fu’s endearing personality has attracted millions of Internet users. Other hosts, however, need to try harder to stand out among China’s fast-growing number of streaming platforms where celebrity status equates to instant profitability.

China's Fu Yuanhui on the medal podium. She charmed fans by eating a muffin during the live stream.
CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images
China's Fu Yuanhui on the medal podium. She charmed fans by eating a muffin during the live stream.

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As popular as TV

“In the next five years, I think online streaming will be as popular as popular as TV, if not more so,” said Liu Xini, owner of a clothing line who gives makeup tips and relationship advice during her sessions.

“Online streaming makes it easier for me to interact with my customers more directly,” she added. Almost two million people spent a recent Tuesday night watching her put on lipstick. “It really helps promote my brand.”

Liu says she has made more than $1.5 million in the past few years using her streaming to help sell her clothing line.

As millions of ordinary people switch on their cameras, competition for attention and gifts – which can be cashed out after the platforms get their cut – becomes more fierce.

The formula for success is varied: Some sell products in a way similar to traditional TV shopping channels, while others showcase their talent (or lack thereof) by singing, dancing, performing magicians’ tricks or acrobatic feats.

Many hosts also appear to cash in on viewers’ voyeuristic tendencies by letting people watch them drive, cook, eat or just sleep. Many popular hosts earn tens of thousands of dollars a month.

People are banned from eating bananas erotically during live-streaming shows.
Sandra Mu/Getty Images/file
People are banned from eating bananas erotically during live-streaming shows.

Erotic eating

And in a country where pornography is strictly prohibited, there are still plenty of streams featuring attractive women and men who strike seductive poses and racy conversations while asking for gifts from their online admirers.

The Chinese government has taken notice.

In April, it announced new but vague regulations requiring websites to shut down any streams that could “harm social morality.” A month later, the authorities got more specific, banning hosts from wearing stockings or eating bananas erotically during shows.

Hosts like Liu, the clothing line owner, say they welcome the stricter rules because it sets a bad example to equate streaming with sex.

“I want to teach my daughter to be an independent woman through my business, ” she said.

Others hosts like swimmer Fu don’t want to think business at all.

“Please don’t send me any gifts – I don’t want ‘islands,’ I don’t want ‘yachts’ and I don’t want ‘Ferraris,’” she kept pleading while eating a muffin during the recent chat.

“It’s not like I can actually drive that ‘sports car!’”

CNN’s Matt Rivers and Nanlin Fang contributed reporting, and interns Sean Zhong and Lavanie Yan contributed research to this report.