Yu Ling Wu had not watched The Circle When her sister first asked if she was a fan—but after a quick binge-watch and a sustained campaign from her family, the 26-year-old brand marketing consultant agreed to join the Netflix competition show’s fourth season.
“My sister and my brother-in-law sent me the application every week,” the social media maven told The Daily Beast during a recent Zoom interview. “Like, they were on a campaign.”
Her parents, on the other hand? “They had no idea what I was doing,” Wu said. “Today I asked my mom if she’d watched it, and she said, ‘I saw you; I didn’t really know what it was.”’”
The Circle Season 4 wrapped up on Netflix this week and—spoiler alert—crowned Frank Grimsley its winner. This season was among the diabolical game show’s best—a wild ride that featured a delightful appearance by two Spice Girls, some artful catfishing from newcomers, a franchise celebrity (Trevor, husband to Season 2 winner DeLeesa St. Agathe), and some of the best Circle chemistry we’ve seen to date. (If only Detroit-dwelling radio host Josh “Bru” Brubaker and New York-based sex coach assistant Alyssa Ljubicich were not separated by so many states!)
Although Yu Ling did not take home the grand prize—bumped up an extra 50 grand thanks to some epic catfishing by Baby Spice and Scary Spice—her endless parade of inspired Circle fashions and her skills with a makeup brush commanded viewers’ attention. As she pointed out, this is international television, after all. “I can’t pop the hell off.”
Although she might’ve been a Circle newbie, Wu isn’t surprised her sister thought she’d be a natural fit. She’s centered her brand marketing work around social media—“because I feel like that’s like every millennial, Gen Z cusp’s job,” she squeaks out in a facetiously cutesy voice—and plus, she adds, she’s actually very into games.
“I’m quite competitive, even though I am also extremely unskilled, some would say,” Wu said. She copped to playing something like 600 hours of Animal Crossing when the pandemic first sent us all into lockdown—enough to damage the nerves in her elbow. “It’s essentially tennis elbow,” she explained, “but from your Nintendo Switch.”
Wu’s energy, spunky personality and Circle-friendly pluck made her a hit with pretty much everyone in the cast by the end of the season. Those wondering where her screen presence comes from probably won’t be shocked to learn that in addition to design, Wu also has a background in theater—“in case you couldn’t tell.”
“I wrote my own solo show when I graduated,” Wu said. “I’m kind of a downtown theater kid. I’m less ‘Broadway’ and more like, ‘Let’s be weird and take off our clothes and make out with the floor.’”
Still, Wu did make one extremely controversial decision this season. When she and her fellow players were each challenged to choose one ally to save with “anti-virus” software, she chose a newer player, Rachel Evans, over Ljubicich, an ally she’d known longer.
When Brubaker, too, failed to save Ljubicich, she went home in tears—one of the show’s most shocking eliminations to date.
As Wu explained on the show, she saved Evans on the assumption that another player would pick Ljubicich. “No matter what I would’ve done,” she said, “somebody would’ve been mad.” But at the end, there were no hard feelings and the two were able to become friends outside the show.
“She’s such a sweetheart,” Wu said. Just a gem. In the game, it can feel really intense… But when you come back, you’ve got your life, and you get to know these people as actual people, not just as players behind a screen. You build friendships and you realize, ‘Oh, yes, I understand.’”
This season, Wu added, most players seemed to be in agreement as to whom they wanted to see take home the big prize. “In some way, we were all collectively like, ‘Let’s give it to Frank,'” Wu said. “At least in my head, that’s what it was.”
Even if she didn’t ultimately bring home the big bucks, Wu dressed like a winner episode after episode this season. The makeup influencer stuck to warm hues to match her pink and orange hair, styled in a Japanese hime cut, also known as a “princess cut.” But her most memorable look has got to be those vortex eyes.
At first, Wu’s bold aesthetic was an act of overcompensation—“for the fact that I’m so tiny.” But it’s also her way of pushing back against the pressure she feels as an Asian American woman to conform to certain ideals and standards. “There’s that idea that we’re passive, submissive, quiet—keep our heads down,” she said. “We do the work and then like, that is what it is.”
Even from a young age, Wu said, “I was already like, ‘No.’”
Wu’s fashion inspirations come from all over—her upbringing in San Francisco, the bright colors and “grandma prints” seen in the city’s Chinatown, and her current home in New York. Speaking about the role personal style plays in her life, she said, “I use that as a vehicle to be a cooler, better version of myself that I always strive to be. At some point, I met up with that person that I wanted to be.”
Another fringe benefit of being the girl with the loud looks and the avant-garde makeup? Fewer catcalls.
“People tend to be a little more intimidated—men, specifically,” Wu said with a laugh. “It gets across to the right people.”
In multiple moments during her time on the show, Wu used her makeup and some of the in-game challenges to show off her heritage as a “first-and-a-half gen” Chinese American born in China but raised in the Bay Area . Wu saw the opportunity to celebrate her culture on the show as something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, she explained, “I’m so glad that I get to celebrate my culture and my heritage, especially on such a large platform.” On the other hand, playing the representative for billions of people can be a lot of pressure. “Now I also feel the weight of the entire Chinese diaspora,” she said.
Wu isn’t sure what’s next for her just yet—and more importantly, she added, let’s normalize not knowing. “I’m in that place in my life, and also age, where I’m like, what the hell am I doing?” Wu said. “And what the hell do I want to do?”
“I think that’s the hard part. You’re gonna feel a pressure to capitalize on this moment. And I’m also just kind of like, ‘Or—I just sit here and eat some hot chips.”’”