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Beauty obsession drives China selfie app's US$3 billion valuation

[BEIJING] China's love affair with physical beauty is helping to fuel a selfie-editing app's valuation of US$3 billion.

Meitu Inc is shooting for at least that much in its latest funding round, according to people familiar with the company, a target that would make it one of China's 10 largest private startups and eclipse household-names like Yelp Inc.

It's banking on China's growing pre-occupation with ideals of comeliness, a passion that's inspired countless Internet memes and a surge in cosmetic surgery.

Meitu's apps help 270 million monthly active users slim faces, lengthen legs and otherwise spice up their online appearance - essential among image-obsessed social media mavens.

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"I never post a photo online without using Meitu first," said 26-year-old accountant Pan Nana from Qingdao, who's used the app for more than six years to streamline body parts and conceal acne.

"It's the first app I've ever used to beautify selfies and I haven't come across another that has as many functions."

Meitu, founded in 2008, arrived at an opportune time. Social media use exploded in the wake of years of hyper-economic expansion, while foreign entertainment helped popularize new ideas of attractiveness. 

That ardor surfaced this year through well-publicized social media frenzies, including an online dare encouraging women to cover their waists with a sheet of A4 paper - thus proving they're skinny.

In the same vein, another challenge involved touching belly buttons by wrapping an arm behind their backs.

Meitu's suite of apps can help. They allow people to adjust their photos in almost every conceivable way and with a single touch, from lightening complexion (fairness is considered attractive in China) to adjusting height and slapping on virtual make-up.

The startup, backed by IDG and Qiming Venture Partners, is raising about US$200 million in its latest round of funding, the people familiar with the matter said, requesting not to be named because the matter is private.

It's also planning an overseas initial public offering as soon as this year, with Hong Kong a possible listing destination, one of the people said. It declined to comment in an e-mailed statement.

Meitu joins a bunch of startups playing off the country's newfound mania. SoYoung Technology (Beijing) Co, a developer of an application that helps users find plastic surgeons based on location, is raising US$50 million in its latest financing round, the company said in March.

Meitu completed its third round of investment in 2014, gaining a cumulative amount of US$360 million and a valuation of US$2 billion from backers such as Innovation Works, founded by Kai-Fu Lee, the former China head for Google Inc.

Its apps have already been installed on more than 900 million mobile devices. It's consistently topped photo and video app rankings on Apple Inc's App Store in China this year, according to data provided by market researcher App Annie.

Meitu's using its latest round to expand into facial recognition and smartphones, as it partners with Foxconn Technology Group to expand in Southeast Asia and India. The company is targeting 5 million smartphone shipments for 2016, Meitu Chairman Mike Cai said in an interview last year.

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