It was 2008 when Californian photographer Rian Dundon, while working as a freelance editorial photographer in Beijing, learned about an unexpected job opportunity: tutor Chinese actress and pop singer, Fan Bingbing.
Fan is well accustomed to being in the spotlight since her teenage years. Now 33, she regularly stars in China’s highest-grossing movies and has represented international fashion powerhouses like Louis Vuitton. Still, the ability to speak fluent English was instrumental to advance Fan’s career – with the potential to help her land Hollywood roles, Dundon says.
But Dundon, who had been living in China since 2005, had no idea how grandiose Fan’s fame was, until the day he accompanied her to a live performance in the coastal city of Qingdao in northeastern China. “I was just impressed by the fanaticism, the number of people that were there to see her, the big crowds of college students chasing us down the road, swarming our car as we arrived,” Dundon recalls.
For the next nine months, Dundon joined Fan’s entourage of assistants and traveled frequently in China and Southeast Asia. During the tour, he met celebrities such as prolific American director Oliver Stone and Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan. “It was exciting definitely at first to be traveling, staying at fancy hotels, eating a lot of really good, expensive meals,” Dundon tells TIME.
But soon the excitement wore off, as the photographer often had to put his life on hold to accommodate Fan’s taxing schedule. “I was the last to know when we were making moves,” Dundon says. “Often I would get a call in the middle of the night that said, ‘Be at the airport in a few hours,’ the next thing I knew [we] would be gone for two months filming a movie or a soap opera somewhere.”
Despite the grind, the job gave Dundon the unprecedented opportunity to document the actress’s life, capturing the spontaneous yet intimate moments that largely remained unknown to Chinese tabloids, in which Fan was portrayed as arrogant and pompous.
In one photo, we see the starlet eating out of Styrofoam takeout boxes, minding no one. In another, we see her sitting unaccompanied at a big round dining table, eyes fixed on her phone. Shorn of makeup and designer clothes, Fan is just like any ordinary girl. “After all of the fame, beauty and wealth, she’s a pretty approachable and down-to-earth person actually,” Dundon says.
Although Fan didn’t have editorial control over Dundon’s photographs, he’s well aware of the intent of Fan’s image-conscious management team. “They sought the opportunity to have this foreign, more journalistic, candid perspective on her world that might be more telling,” he says.
After Dundon moved back to the U.S., he was approached by independent publisher Modes Vu, who employs a print-on-demand model that ships books right off the printer to the readers. After 10 book dummies came Dundon’s latest monograph, Fan, in which the photographs of the starlet’s public and private lives as well as the urban landscape in China are seamlessly weaved together.
“I wanted to bring it in to a broader vision of celebrity and entertainment production in the context of urban China at the time,” Dundon says. The book, which resembles a low-cost paperback with a cheap sticker price, reflects the disposability of fame, he says.
He purposefully left out captions, leaving viewers to ponder “when it’s a performance, when it’s on set or when it’s real life.” In one photograph, Fan is seen staring into the camera with two strips of tears sliding down her cheek. The emotion seems genuine but her meticulously groomed hair hints otherwise. “She was crying for a scene in a film,” Dundon says. “It’s real tears but not necessarily real crying.”
Images like these, Dundon says, play with the line between fact and fiction, and ultimately pose the question of whether pictures of celebrity can ever be authentic or unposed. “Everything is curated, for the audience, for the media, for the fans,” Dundon tells TIME.
Although marketing the book in China seems to be a logical idea, Dundon says that it isn’t his intent to sell Fan back to her established audience. “I think part of the intrigue being a Westerner or non-Chinese reader of this book is that you don’t recognize her. You recognize fame and the structure of fame and celebrity. To me, it’s almost more interesting if you don’t know who she is.”
Mikko Takkunen, who edited this photo gallery, is an associate photo editor at TIME. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism.