A social media star is born in Italy: Meet Chinese shop owner Angela, latest sensation

Rome: Renowned for her humorous videos and iconic catch phrases, the 59-year-old owner of a mega-store in Rome has garnered a huge online following. So what has led to Angela’s sudden success – and is she fighting or reinforcing ethnic stereotypes?

It’s this reassuring answer, a deus ex machina come to quell even the most anxious of shoppers, that has become the tagline of Italy’s latest social media sensation.

Meet Angela, the 59-year-old Chinese-born owner of “An Megastore”, a discount shop in Rome’s southern outskirts.

Over the past few months, the local retailer has become a bona fide star and cultural phenomenon. Her Tik Tok and Instagram accounts have amassed half a million followers combined, while her videos have garnered 15.2 million likes on the former platform.

The premise of her videos are simple: Angela helps her clients with any of their requests, however outlandish they may be. But the key to Angela’s popularity has been her cheerful persona and memorable catchphrases, breathing life into online marketing by combining a shrewd commercial strategy with social media-savvy comedy.

So how did the shop owner’s meteoric rise to fame come about? And what broader social implications do her videos entail? Euronews Culture takes a look at the person behind the camera and counter.

A trip down a scruffy side-street in the middle of Rome’s Ostiense neighbourhood will bring you to a storefront, topped by a signboard reading “An Mega” — the gateway to Angela’s kingdom.

As majestic as it may sound, blink and you’ll miss the store as its external appearance is decidedly unassuming. Upon entering the outlet – a labyrinth stocking a dizzying myriad of products – you can find Angela working at the till, hidden behind an oversized pink face mask.

It hardly seems like the setting of a social media phenomenon. And yet Angela is now enshrined in Italian popular culture, making her store a pilgrimage site for fans eager to take their picture with the down-to-earth shop-owner.

So what turned a local businesswoman into internet royalty in the span of a few months?Behind An Megastore’s videos lies a clear, pithy format, one that has struck a chord with viewers.

In each clip, a different client comes to Angela in desperate need of a specific product, to which she whips up her resources and finds a solution, all to prove her key selling point – that her outlet does, as she claims, have “everything”.

The requests are often bizarre in nature, and the videos’ distinct humour relies on Angela’s cheerful demeanour and sweet, yet subtly sarcastic, responses, as well as linguistic misunderstandings.

“I want to change iPhone… but the website says [the 15] comes out in November. I know you can help me, because you have everything in advance, right?” one customer asks in a video. Angela reassures her that she can do the seemingly impossible, but ends up showing the baffled client a set of blow dryers .

Some of Angela’s videos have a more cinematic touch and eschew direct product promotion. Recent clips have seen the shop-owner dress up as Zorro and Barbie, sing Chinese music in a mock talent show (“An.Mega’s Got Talent”), and set up her clients on blind dates.

Throughout her clips, Angela has become especially renowned for her iconic catchphrases.

“Bella fisica!” (a grammatically incorrect rendering of “beautiful physique”), she calls one young customer, Michela, who appears regularly in her videos asking for fashion advice. The phrase has become so famous it’s become fodder for memes and even one music video parody.

Now, merely months into her social media debut, and Angela’s online fame has translated into the real world.

Over at her shop, Angela is regularly stopped by clients, asking for her picture or videos – and she is enjoying every second of it.

“I’m happy, wherever I go people recognise me – in any shop, even at the airport,” Angela told Euronews Culture.

The Italian public may have only just gotten to know Angela and her store, which she has owned for six years. But few know about the journey that brought her to Italy in the first place, and why she decided to bid farewell to her homeland.

Leaving the rural town of Qingtian, China 40 years ago, Angela – who had a background in textiles, clearly visible in her penchant for high fashion – vividly remembers the poverty that drove her to emigrate from her homeland.

“The country was so poor back then… everyone wanted to leave,” she said. “My cousin already lived in Italy, in Bologna, so a group of 10 of us came over.”

But her moving did not stop upon reaching the Bel Paese’s shores; indeed, Angela lived in various Italian cities before finally settling in the country’s capital.

“I lived in Bologna, in Milan, in Palermo, Sicily, even, and then, I came to Rome,” she recounted.

As expected, a life in movement came with significant struggle, and was followed by the looming shadow of ethnic stereotypes and racism.

“Back when I came to Italy, things were harder than now, there were a lot of stereotypes,” she remarked. “People would say things like ‘if you become friends with a Chinese person, they will make you rich'”.

But Angela has not only made a name for herself in Italy, she now has two born-and-bred Italian sons, including the 31-year-old Alessandro who helps in the store – and whose accent immediately betrays his Roman upbringing.

Indeed, Angela has no immediate family left in China, as all her relatives relocated to Italy. But she frequently returns to visit friends, and notes the improving living situation there – despite feeling Italy is her home.

“Things are better, cleaner there than in Europe now!” She quipped. “But I want and plan on staying in Italy now.”

The spontaneous, almost amateurish quality of An Megastore’s videos gives them a carefree veneer, such that one might not think much about what goes into making each clip.

But at the heart of it all lies a carefully constructed marketing strategy.

In reality, the video’s “clients” are professionals hired by a communications agency (Enne), that works with different businesses to help grow their online following.

Attracted by their filmmaking style and desperate to break from the “boring” monotony of shop life, Angela’s son Alessandro contacted Enne late last year. The agency came up with a clear video formula – namely, that of presenting the store as a sort of real-life Amazon, keeping everything in stock – and now runs the outlet’s social media profiles along with Alessandro.

But the megastore’s social media strategy wasn’t free from trial and error. Indeed, Angela wasn’t even the original star of the show.

The first few clips, dating back to January, feature a shop assistant. But after some disagreements with the agency, Angela decided to step in, with excellent results.

“As soon as Angela started appearing in the videos, there was an immediate public interest,” Enne co-founder, Christian Carboni, told Euronews Culture. “The growth was exponential. Having her was the perfect decision.”

Such has been the success of Angela’s videos that even the mock “clients” themselves have garnered their own fame.

Christian’s girlfriend, Michela Rullo (or Angela’s bella fisica) has arguably become the show’s biggest co-star, with some of the videos she features in racking up over a million views.

She claims not to be hired by Enne, and to collaborate with Angela out of friendship and good-will. And she is now feeling the repercussions of second-hand fame.

“I get recognised all the time – by kids, especially, but by adults too,” she said. “I even had people come up to me when I was in Mykonos on holiday.”

On the surface, Enne and An Megastore’s collaboration appears like a match made in heaven. But is everything so rosy behind the scenes?

Earlier this month, it seemed things may not have been so serene over in Angela’s kingdom, following purported disagreements between the store and the agency over the financial management of the social media pages and the videos’ creative direction.

Christian repudiated such claims, stating that there “never was” any friction and that Enne Agency continues to work with the store.

“There were calm discussions over the direction of our content,” he stated. “There are no problems at the moment. Everything is ok.”

This was eventually confirmed by Alessandro himself late last month, who stated that An Megastore and Enne reached an agreement and were maintaining their professional relationship.

As demonstrated by the ongoing appearance of Michela and Christian in recent videos, it seems Enne and An Megastore’s marriage is still intact, under one condition – the agency keeps the entire profits derived from the page’s social media activity.

“We will manage 100% of the social media content,” Christian confirmed.

As Angela’s success continues to grow, her content has started to raise some slightly thornier questions, to which she may not have a quick fix – namely, how Chinese people and culture are represented.

Racism still proliferates in Italy and hostility against the Chinese community grew especially acute after the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, anti-Asian prejudice has become so entrenched that it often creeps into Italian mainstream media channel. Back in 2021, popular TV show Striscia la notizia was widely condemned for including a sketch in which its hosts mocked Chinese accents and facial features.

Within this context, Angela’s success could both be seen as either symptomatic of ongoing racial stereotyping, or sign that Italy is more willing to embrace and engage with immigrant communities.

Part of the humour in Angela’s videos – namely the bella fisica catchphrase – derives from her grammatical mistakes. And some more mean-spirited comments have picked up on it to mock Angela’s pronunciation, alluding to common Chinese stereotypes.

“The An Megastore’s viral marketing strategy sits in the consolidated tradition of exploiting cultural stereotypes for comedy,” said Laura Leuzzi, a Rome-born art historian at Robert Gordon University in Scotland. “The reclaiming of such stereotypes is widespread among Italian, Irish, Indian and Chinese stand up comedians on YouTube and Instagram today for example and has a long tradition.”

“Their success, I believe, is not a sign of an ease up of the racist wave that we are witnessing in Italy,” she added.

Angela’s success may be a double-edged sword, as the shop owner may have alienated the Chinese community, according to her son, Alessandro. Angela, however, believes it’s all a question of technology.

“Our community doesn’t really watch those videos!” she quipped nonchalantly in response. “Only young people.”

But Angela and her son – who both admit to have been on the receiving end of racial prejudice – fundamentally dispute the notion that their videos have any negative implications, and rather, claim it has been a means for them to reclaim their identity.

“If you want visibility, you need to work on the things that will be successful,” Alessandro stated. “And if I can’t criticise or make fun of my community, then who can? I see the good and bad things.”

At the moment, An Megastore shows no signs of stopping. The store’s videos regularly exceed 100,000 views, and there may even be a TV appearance in the works – although details remain confidential.

Whether Angela’s online popularity will continue to blossom and land her in Italy’s pantheon of media deities is hard to predict, especially in the fickle realm of social media.

But the shop owner seems unbothered by such concerns. She has decided to live in the present – and let fate decide what’s in store for her.

“At the moment, I like how things are,” Angela remarked. “Then we’ll see.”