Gathered in a practice room, five generously proportioned young men in baggy black sweaters are patting their bellies and waggling their arms. Bearded with double chins, they shout “Hoo-Ha!” in time to upbeat African drums. The choreography is for the new song “Good Belly,” by Produce Pandas.
DING, Cass, Husky, Otter and Mr. 17 weigh an average of 100 kilograms (220 pounds) and proudly call themselves “the first plus-sized boy band in China.” That’s a radical departure from the industry standard seen in South Korean super groups such as BTS, whose lanky young members are sometimes referred to in China as “little fresh meat.” Yet, it seems to be working for Produce Pandas, who rose to fame after making it about halfway through Youth with You, an idol talent competition hosted by iQiyi, one of the largest video platforms in China.
On the show, mentors and audience voters pick nine finalists, either individuals or group members, to come together to form a new band. “The five of us may not have the standard look and shape of a boy band but we hope to use the term ‘plus-sized band’ to break the aesthetic stereotypes,” Cass said in an interview. The five, two of whom formerly sang in bars, are also unusual for their relatively advanced ages in an industry that worships youth and stamina. Most of their fellow contestants on Youth with You began South Korean-style training while in their teens.