The Pretty Life
As Chiang Mai’s annual Motor Show comes to a close, a dozen or so ‘pretties’ put their slinky dresses back into wardrobes wedged between faux leather biker jackets and skimpy Japanese schoolgirl dresses, cover up their cleavages and return home. Muscles sore from standing in teetering heels all day, cheeks aching from smiling, they head out for a night with friends, or another job serving beer to grinning late-night patrons.
Thailand’s ‘pretty’ culture is alive and kicking. Pretty girls and even guys, mostly in their late teens or early twenties, are hired by event organisers to attend an event, stand around in provocative clothing, smile, pose for photos and sometimes flirt with customers. Born from the idea that sex sells (which, let’s face it, it does), the organisers’ hopes are that the girls will use their feminine charms to encourage people (read: men) to purchase whatever may be on sale that day — cars, motorbikes, alcohol, pesticides, furniture and even bowls of noodles and cups of coffee.
Quite simply, pretties are pretty. Standing around looking sexy and getting paid for it…what’s not to like? In recent months, Chiang Mai has seen a surge of pretties from local noodles served by young girls baring deep cleavages who will willingly sit with you if you need a friend, to coffee shop pretties promoting a new frothy cappuccino. Girls as young as 18 are often drawn to the job with seductions of large pay cheques and networking opportunities. And although the promises are genuine, the rosy pictures painted by their peers and employers don’t always meet up to the real challenges of the job.
“I started working as a pretty to get some extra money to support myself and my family after my mother passed away,” said Bee (name changed upon request), a 24 year old pretty who began working part time in between studies when she was 20. “I also pick up extra work to help pay for extracurricular courses. I love learning and I want to better myself.”
“I started when my friend introduced me to the scene when I was 21,” said Pairwa Chayanin, a 28 year old veteran to the scene. “I was hard working and focused on networking — I started earning good money quickly so I stuck at it. I managed myself too so I didn’t have to rely on an agent.”
“You have to quite quickly decide on your abilities, what you are willing to do and not do,” explained Pairwa. “Say there is a motor show and they need ten girls. The organiser may want me as I am a good MC and experienced, but they also want younger girls. I ask around then send them the details of the girls. I send the names, ages, pictures and a small portfolio (read: body measurements) to the organiser and he chooses the girls.”
These ‘abilities’ basically describe what type of pretty you are. The traditional Pretty is paid to look beautiful, often having to stand for a full day, and are not allowed breaks. MCs are pretties who can also manage a microphone. They arrive and are given a brief overview of the product and are expected to stand and talk non-stop about said product for a 20 minute period — five times in one job is the standard. Beer Girls are hired full-time by big brands such as Chang or Singha who send them to bars as and when they are requested. Drink Servers are hired to work as waitresses while dressed in skimpy outfits. Cheer Girls make money from commission earned through the product they are asked to sell. There are also Entertainers, who are expected to sit, flirt and often be touched up by patrons and Coyotes, who dance on tables and bars, sometime asked to expose themselves and are expected to join patrons in private rooms if they are requested.
“Most people just see us all as pretties, so they assume we do all kinds of things from regular work to prostitution,” said Pairwa. “I can’t blame people for these opinions; the culture paints a bad name for itself. Entertainers often say they are pretties to appear more respectable, but in reality it means men think that straight working pretties are up for things that we are most certainly not.”
Being Shown the Money
“I charge around 1,500 baht up for one event,” said Bee; who explained that that was the standard price for Chiang Mai. “MCs often get upwards of 2,500 baht a job, as being a good MC is hard work and you need time to prepare.”
“I sometimes take jobs that pay as low as 500 baht if I know I will get good tips from it,” continued Bee. “Usually that involves being a beer girl or even an entertainer if I have to, but I have taken over 10,000 baht home in tips, so it can be worthwhile.”
“We only take jobs in other provinces if the money is worth the travel,” said Nookzii, Thailand’s Number One Pretty in the 2016 Top Ten Pretty Awards Thailand, while attending the Chiang Mai Motorshow with her friend and Number One Pretty 2015, Skykikijung. For ten grand each, the two ‘million dollar pretties’, as they are called when introduced in public, were flown to the show, interviewed on stage by another MC, allowed an hour’s rest before performing a provocative dance on the showroom floor for three minutes, posed for photos with big bikes or sleek cars and returned to the airport. With over a million followers on social media each, they charge way over the industry standard as they have a large advertising reach. “Sometimes we are simply asked to advertise a product on our social media. For that we can get up to 100,000 baht a time,” smiled Skykikijung.
“I receive explicit pictures and requests for sex in my inbox every day,” laughed Nookzii, seemingly unfazed by it all. “It’s just part of the job. I just delete their emails.”
For high profile pretties such as Nookzii and Skykikijung, online solicitation is bound to be expected, but for the average pretty, the propositions often come face to face.
“Men often ask for your LINE or Facebook while you are working and then try to flirt with you online,” said Bee who seemed to be in two minds on whether it was a good thing or not. “On one hand, I can’t understand why men think it’s acceptable to ask for sex or ask me out on a date when I was clearly just working. It should stop when I go home. But sometimes, if they really push and don’t give up, it makes me think they may actually like me as a person, and sometimes I agree to a date or something.”
A study in Cambodia organised by the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation identified some other ‘toxic’ hazards experienced by beer girls that could easily be extrapolated to the entertainers and beer girls of Thailand. The study found that Cambodian beer girls are regularly subjected to forced drinking leading to nightly alcohol overconsumption (1.5 litres of beer nightly, 27 days monthly) leading to high blood alcohol levels on par with those suffering from alcoholism. Fifty percent of women were underpaid, leading to women seeking extra income through sex work up to 2.5 times a month. And reduced condom usage due to intoxication lead to HIV/AIDS and exposure to verbal and physical assaults from drunk patrons.
Then there is the problem of men assuming that with enough money they can have any girl they want as their mistress.
Pairwa was once approached by a high profile politician in Chiang Mai who asked her how much he would have to spend to have her as his mistress. “I had to decline but I was really scared at the time. He was so powerful I was worried he’d do something out of anger, but he didn’t,” she said. “What is worse is that many girls would have taken up the offer! It paints a bad name for us and that is why the wider society still looks down on us.” According to Nookzii and Skykikijung, the scene in Bangkok is much more cutthroat, so to keep up with the best you need to find a way to climb the social ladder. They admitted that this often includes becoming a mistress to the rich, the powerful or the famous.
“It’s up to us as individuals whether we want to go with him or not. We may even fancy him, so why not!” laughed Bee, who although concedes that being a mistress is not ideal, being a paid for girlfriend for a single man is not all that bad. “You just have to agree on what he will provide for you. A car, a condo, a monthly allowance. It can be quite lucrative, and I have heard of times when they actually fell in love too, so it’s not all that bad. My ex-boyfriend met me while I was working as a Cheer Girl.” Currently, Bee said that she charges for her time if anyone wants to take her on a date. “If someone I meet on the job asks me out on a date to WarmUp for example, I’ll charge them 1,500 baht for my time…free drinks all night too of course!”
Born into Patriarchy
“So many times women claim they are liberated and are free to make their own decisions, but they fail to see the glass ceiling — the fact that they are still working and in fact supporting the patriarchal society and often exploiting themselves without knowing it,” said Romyen Kosaikanont, a lecturer in Social Innovation at Mae Fah Luang University. “A lot of these girls see the money and ignore the fact that they are self-objectifying themselves. If there was no patriarchy, pretties wouldn’t exist.”
Romyen believes that pretties should try and re-define themselves instead. “It is the men who define who is ‘pretty’ and who is not ‘pretty’, and throughout the whole community of pretties you see women exploiting women. Empowerment must come from within; they need to take control.”
“It’s only the women who are not pretty enough to be a pretty who have the problems with the job,” laughed Liz Hilton from Empower Foundation, a Chiang Mai based pro-sex work foundation lobbying for legalisation of the sex industry. “The truth is, the more people that complain about pretties being a bad thing for society or being exploited, just means that more people will begin to see women as bad people again. What should happen is that they become unionised like in Cambodia, and move away from the unsecure freelance career. If women want to do sex-work, they should be allowed, but if they don’t, men should also respect that decision.”
A Plastic Future
To keep up with the younger girls, pretties often invest money into plastic surgery to maintain their youthful appearance. “If you are investing your whole life into making it a career, why not improve your body to be the best,” rationalised Bee. “Just like people take training or get a new suit, pretties may need to get a breast enlargement or inject some Botox to keep on top. However, if like me it is only part-time, it would be stupid to invest in so many permanent body modifications as in the future it won’t be my breasts making me money, it will be my brain.”
“The pressure to stay young is quite hard, and when younger girls come in and undercut your price, or are chosen over you because they are young and innocent, it can be frustrating,” said Pairwa, who has also had some alterations done herself. Nookzii and Skykikijung explained that to keep from losing their fan base, they need to stay youthful. Both have nipped and tucked to a point of no return in hopes that their investment will take them the long haul.
“The trick is, whether you are working part-time while studying or making a full career out of it, to make sure you make it financially worthwhile,” added Pairwa. Bee seconded that opinion claiming that the only reason she ever started the job was to earn good money. “I am lucky to have the looks to pull off the job, but I don’t enjoy it. I expect I will stop once I graduate. It’s not a career for me.”
“Many say that Thailand is quite a progressive when it comes to women,” said Romyen. “They say that women and men have the same opportunities in the workplace, but that is simply not true.” Women in Thailand are systematically told they have enough but in reality, they are just as oppressed as anywhere else. Sexuality and the trivialisation of sexual exploitation is rife. Daytime presenters are being subconsciously forced into exposing more cleavage while in the same breath a preteen cartoon’s chest is blurred by the Ministry of Culture.
Politicians attempt to ban beer girls by day, then go and flirt with pretties by night. The patriarchy in Thailand cry the demise of femininity and traditional culture, yet they are the reason for the existence of the pretty culture. Romyen insists that if a pretty claims she is a feminist, it seems she has been told she is; told by the men who also tell her how to dress, and pay her for a touch. “It is the women who should empower themselves and stand up to the demands of the patriarchy,” concludes Romyen. “They are skilled, and have many talents, but they need to take control and change men’s opinions about them. Only then will they be liberated.”
Yet stuck in the middle of the feminist–patriarchy divide sits the pretties, quietly depositing large amounts of money into their banks, thinking about their futures. “I get why some people see it as a bad job, but at the end of the day I am in control, I set my own boundaries and I work hard for the money I own,” says Pairwa. “I feel empowered that I am independent and successful, but I am not ignorant of the fact that when I get a little older, the work will dry up. Now I have a car, a condo, and I am beginning my own business. The money I have saved will see me through for years,” smiled Pairwa with a twinkle in her eyes.