HONG KONG – Liu Xuan energetically walked on stage as the celebrity entertainment for a Mother's Day event at a Hong Kong mall. The 2000 Olympics balance beam champion had traded her tights for a green blazer, blue jeans and white high heels.
Liu made small talk with the host, decorated cakes with two families and watched teenagers carve patterns into different fruits. Fans held up large placards with her name and mobbed her for autographs and photos afterward.
Meet the new Liu Xuan, Hong Kong actress-singer.
A decade after taking gold in Sydney, the 30-year-old former gymnast has launched a second career in this financial center, which is also a hub for the Chinese-language entertainment industry.
After retiring in 2001, Liu has dabbled as an actress, host, gymnastics judge and commentator. She graduated from the elite Peking University with a degree in journalism in 2005. But she has focused on an entertainment career since signing in 2009 with leading Hong Kong broadcaster TVB, the former training ground for the likes of Stephen Chow, Wong Kar-wai and Chow Yun-fat.
This has been Liu's coming-out year — she released her debut pop album with a Hong Kong label in February and starred in a 30-episode TVB kung fu drama released in March.
Liu said she wants to show that elite athletes can successfully reinvent themselves after their days of competition end. She serves as an example for mainland Chinese athletes who trade their childhoods for rigorous sports programs that can leave them with little other career skills.
"We have seen in the mainland many past champions are not leading good lives," Liu told The Associated Press. "What we can do is show that after athletes retire, they don't just coach or become businessmen or political leaders. There are so many professions in the world. I hope they can blend into society."
Others have also had success with the transition, including retired Olympic champions Li Ning and Deng Yaping. Li, also a gymnast, re-emerged as a sports apparel mogul. Table tennis player Deng studied economics at Cambridge, helped manage the 2008 Beijing Olympics and became a media executive.
Liu discussed her athlete-entertainer career switch in a small, stuffy makeshift dressing room after Saturday's mall event.
Recording her new album "Beautiful Faces" taught her that making music can be more about building the right mood than any practice-makes-perfect strategy she may have used for gymnastics.
"The producer said at the recording studio, 'You need to be relaxed when you sing. You need to enjoy the process. But now you are just resorting to rote repetition. That won't work. Come out and take a rest," Liu said.
She said her gymnastics training came in handy for her role as the feisty wife of a kung fu master in the TVB drama "Grace under Fire," but she had to learn how to manage the strength of her kicks and punches.
She also had to endure the notoriously frantic shooting schedules of the Hong Kong entertainment industry, which left her with just four hours of sleep per night.
Still, she says the hardship pales in comparison to her gymnastics training. Liu lived at a sports institute in her southern hometown Changsha before moving to Beijing to join the national team at age 13. After she moved to the Chinese capital, she saw her parents once a year — or not at all.
Liu's native dialect is Mandarin and her new career has required her to master Cantonese dialect used in Hong Kong. She is now fluent enough to speak at public events and be interviewed — although her dialogue on "Grace under Fire" was still dubbed.
The initial response to Liu's career change is promising.
Her duet with Malaysian-Chinese singer Michael Wong from "Beautiful Faces" has done well on Hong Kong pop charts. "Once I Fall in Love You Are the One" reached No. 10 on RTHK, one of the territory's leading radio stations.
"Grace Under Fire" has seen its ratings climb steadily since its debut on March 7, with estimated viewership peaking at just over 2 million people in this city of 7 million for the series finale on April 17.
She is in talks about another TVB drama. Liu says she wouldn't mind becoming an action star although she thinks she can handle non-action roles.
Her music so far has mostly been the mellow ballads that dominate Chinese pop, but Liu said she prefers an edgier rock sound, citing Avril Lavigne as a favorite Western singer. The former gymnast also has written lyrics, penning one number inspired by a female friend hurt by a selfish boyfriend.
Liu is not the only former Chinese Olympic champion eyeing an entertainment career. Former diver Tian Liang, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, is trying his hand at acting. His latest movie, "A Beautiful Life," in which he plays the male lead's autistic brother, will be released in mainland China on Friday.
Liu said she feels that even though she is a rookie performer, the bar is set higher for her because of her successful gymnastics career.
"I need to work even harder," she said.