This issue of
Citylife

Tiaras to Flip-Flops: an interview with Areeya ‘Pop’ Chumsai

A couple of years ago I was taking a walk past a noodle stall along Nimmanhaemin Road when I did a double take at a lady ladling steaming noodles in a bowl in a roadside shop. She was exquisitely-head-turningly stunning…and oddly familiar. It took me a minute to realise that it was 1994 Miss Thailand Areeya ‘Pop’ Chumsai. It was an incongruous sight, what with her face covered in noodle broth steam, rather than Pond’s cream or the latest TV commercial product. But since then, I have seen her scooting along our city soi on her tiny motorbike, trundling home alone at night in a pair of flip-flops and hanging out at art galleries with Sangsom-swilling artists. Glamorous she may be on magazine covers, but in real life Pop is…well, just Pop.

Born in the United States to parents from Trang and Ayutthaya who were both studying for their masters degree at the time, Pop and her family emigrated to Michigan when she was 5 years old.

“While it was a pretty idealistic suburban lifestyle, my parents were very strict and brought me up to be Thai,” said bilingual Pop, whose words, in mild mid-western accent, are delivered at warped speed. “I spoke Thai, ate Thai food, meditated and studied Buddhism, but I was also the only Asian in my school.”

Looking at her outrageously attractive features and physique, it is hard not to roll ones’ eyes when she insists she was a gangly teen with thick glasses and braces. “I was a complete nerd all my life. My passion was always journalism. I graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in it and was a roving reporter as well as intern for many great publications including USA Today, The Oakland Tribune as well as receiving a scholarship from DOW Jones News Fund. I knew I was going to be a journalist, and when I graduated at 21, I decided to take some time off before launching my career, so I took the money I had saved from all my summer and part time jobs, and left for my travels.”

Pop’s 5000 dollars ran out somewhere in New Zealand and she decided to head to Thailand. “In my teens, I was approached a few times in Bangkok by agents looking for models, and I had even done a couple of ads in my holidays, but most of the time my parents wouldn’t let me. So even though the beauty thing was not a factor for me, when I ran out of money, I realised that I could make some by smiling in front of a camera.”

“Incredibly a real estate agent offered me 400,000 baht sponsorship to run for Miss Thailand,” continued Pop at a mile-a-minute. “Considering pageant winners received 500,000, I was very happy, and was already thinking of the rest of my round-the-world trip.”

Pop, who was 22 at the time, was one of the oldest women in the competition and was able to hold her own with journalists; knowing what they wanted to hear and how to present herself. “I had an advantage, I was the novelty educated girl,” she laughs. “It is all about measurements, how you measure up. And since mine were OK – I spoke English, I was tall enough, I was educated, and I had the requirements – I passed the job interview and won the title.”

I had only three weeks to prepare myself for the Miss Universe competition in the Philippines and it seemed as though the entire nation had its hopes pinned on me, it was very daunting. I was reading Gloria Steinem’s account of being a Playboy bunny at the time and decided to take on her attitude that even if nothing comes out of the experience, I can at least write about it one day. So for me my Miss Universe experience was a study in observation. I learnt that Thailand is a pageant nation, unlike most others. I got to keep my Miss Thailand crown, whereas most countries passed them along to each successive winner; Miss Guatemala I found out only received seven pairs of shoes as her prize, Miss Switzerland’s Rolex watch had to be returned at the end of the year, while Miss Namibia had to sew her own evening gown.”

Upon her marginally triumphant return to Thailand, Pop found herself entering a crazy new world. Her prize money came with many strings attached as it was in lieu of future work and her face was seen on just about every major magazine cover, usually simultaneously. There were sponsorship meetings, promotional duties, photo shoots and press time. “I was so busy I once had a French twist in place for a week since we didn’t have time to wash and redo my hair,” she laughs.

“It was hectic and draining. I knew this wasn’t going to last and decided to ride the wave for as long as it did before returning to my journalism career. But one thing I am very lucky with is that I was surrounded by people I could trust and who had my best interests at heart. My business manager taught me an invaluable lesson for Thailand – never say no. So, I had people rejecting jobs for me. I also had great lawyers who made sure my contracts were to my advantage and my parents reluctantly flew back to help me to invest and care for my finances. You can lose everything so fast if you don’t have backup, so my education and supportive surroundings were instrumental in helping me plug all the leaks.”

Pop followed the long trodden celebrity path by doing television commercials, acting as game show host, posing for fashion shoots and endorsing products. She was invited to some of the world’s most glittery events and enjoyed all that fame and fortune entails.

But the life of a glamour goddess was not enough for her. She wanted more…though in many ways she wanted less. After a brief stint as Lieutenant Pop teaching English journalism for graduate students at Phra Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, free spirited Pop decided to get back into journalism. “I was writing for ‘a day’ magazine in 2000, when I heard about a group of kids from Samoeng [district, Chiang Mai] who were to see the sea for the first time,” reminisces Pop about the beginning of her greatest projects to date. “I was asked to sponsor a lunch for 60 kids during their visit to Bang Saen. Seeing the first time they sucked meat out of a crab leg, putting sea water into a bottle to take home to their families and drinking in the magic of seeing ‘ two suns’ – their term for the sunset reflected over the sea – was magical for me. I thought it was a great idea for a movie and in 2002 I went to NYU to study screen writing. After I returned and wrote the story I found that everyone I approached wanted me to actually star in it, which wasn’t my goal. They also seemed to want to add ghosts, transvestites and explosions into the story! So, after many years of shopping around, a friend and I started up our own documentary film company, Pig-O-Nine, and turned the story into a documentary feature film. In 2004, with my mum’s karaoke mic and one camera, we began filming ‘Innocence’ or ‘Dek Toh’ in Thai, based on these children from Baan Mae Toh in Samoeng.

The film eventually went to over 20 international film festivals around the world and was sold to Thai Airways and True Vision as well as winning a prestigious award in Korea. “The proudest moment for me was when the film questioned the Ministry of Education’s food budget cut to the kids. A panel was actually formed after its release and it was found that there was rampant corruption. The previous stipend was reinstated nationwide. Until today the film’s fan club takes the kids to the sea every Valentine’s Day.”

It was over the many years of visiting as well as filming the Samoeng kids that Pop fell in love with Chiang Mai. “Initially I lived up in the mountains, but now live off Nimmanhaemin Road, I am more of a resident of Chiang Mai than anywhere else in Thailand. Chiang Mai feels like my favourite pair of boxers. I just love visiting friends, eating at some great restaurants, and meeting wonderful people here from artists to villagers, tycoons to eccentrics.”

“I have bad scoliosis, so yoga is a lifesaver for me. Teaching yoga in Chiang Mai keeps my life simple and it is how I like it,” said Pop who now teaches classes at Lanna Yoga.

“My journalism editor once told me that the best method for writing – which I have adopted as a life philosophy – is to ‘keep it simple, stupid: KISS’. I don’t make it more complicated than it is. Eat simple, have as much freedom as possible, keep things small. My VW bug is small, my motorbike is small, my townhouse is small, my closet is small. I like a good night’s sleep, waking up early and doing yoga.”

Pop’s ongoing love affair with Baan Mae Toh continues 11 years on. “Just last week I was up there for a sponsored return of the school’s alumni, kids we gave sponsorship to came back to tell stories of their life and success.”

Pop’s documentary business, Pig-O-Nine, continues to shine a spotlight on Thailand’s needy, in Pop’s words on the company’s website, ‘I am not a director; I am a story teller. I am not an NGO; I help Dek Toh kids because I can. I am not working; I am living.’ Her most recent project is to introduce national artists to children, helping to inspire them. “I don’t believe that I can just make a documentary and walk away,” says Pop. “It is my way to connect, to give and to live. I see myself as a farmer, I help them reach their potential.”

“I have more than enough money now, so much more than I ever need, and now I can focus on giving it away. I do it for the soul and am more proud of what I do today than anything I did fifteen or twenty years ago when I was in the spotlight.”

Of course Bangkok often beckons, and we Chiang Mai friends follow her television interviews, admire her magazine fashion spreads, read about her in gossip magazines and hear her on radio. But when she comes home, the tiara is flung into a corner, the make up is wiped off, the six inches are replaced by flip-flops and Pop, well…she is just Pop.