I was on a press trip in Satun, by invitation of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, when I met my first Net Idol. It had been a harrowing boat ride and we were finding our feet on a spectacular deserted island which promised many photo opportunities. I’d taken a few pictures and was proudly uploading them onto my Instagram and Facebook accounts when a good looking young man asked me to take a photo of him. We started chatting and I asked what publication he was from. He told me that he was a Net Idol. I had no idea what that meant, but he told me that he was invited because of his following on social media. I soon friended him on Facebook and discovered that since we had started chatting about 20 minutes previously, the photo I took of him had already generated 3,700 likes on Facebook, a mere fraction of his 80,000 Facebook and 95,500 Instagram followers. It was sobering to realise the impact of his post when compared to the dozen or so reactions I had received during the same time period. When we arrived at Koh Lipe half an hour later, stepping off our speedboat, a gaggle of girls rushed up to him for selfies. I was intrigued.
Netting an Idol
“A net idol is a young woman with good looks and fine skin who is of great interest to masses of people. They must be no older than 22 years old and have achieved social media fame when no older than 18 years of age,” starts an article attempting to define the phenomenon of Thai Net Idols on the website ThaiNationNetwork.com, a website dedicated to current issues being discussed in popular and online culture.
While ThaiNationNetwork appears to be focused on the young pretties of Net Idols, according to readers of Pantip.com, Net Idols are defined as people of both sexes who have a large following on social media for the following reasons: successful plastic surgery or weight loss; interesting, beautiful or provocative photography or selfies; constantly posting photos of travel, shopping or food to show off a luxurious lifestyle; purveyor and promoter of beauty products; revealing and sexy selfies; fake couples who come together for increased ratings and those who photograph better than they are in real life.
Historically (and yes, we are talking less than a decade here), Net Idols were created by fan clubs in schools or universities. Stars, athletes, beautiful students and those with strong personalities, would be admired and idolised by often younger students. With the growth of social media, fame crossed school boundaries and soon students as young as 12 or 13 were gaining followers in the thousands. Many of the early Net Idols went on to become famous models, actors and performers, such as Bebe Tanchanok, 29, whose sexy postings has led to a successful acting career and a following of 1.3 million on Instagram and Toey Jarinporn, 26, whose cuteness melted so many teenaged hearts she is now also a famous actress, followed by 3.9 million on Instagram.
Today, Net Idols come from a wider pool of talent and show, though all seem to be in their teens and twenties. The more savvy have managed to turn their fame into a career path or have found a way to monitise their popularity, while others are mere flashes in the night, their record of likes, friends and followers soon to be relegated to an obscure server farm somewhere in Iowa.
An old Fashioned Idol
Chirdchoo ‘Bank’ Kankayanamit, 27, was my new Net Idol friend and after we returned to Chiang Mai I sat down with him, fascinated to learn more about his world.
“I became a Net Idol the old fashioned way,” Bank told me, tongue nowhere near his cheek. “I’m much older than most of the Net Idols out there, and it all started when I joined Far Eastern University in 2012. I was popular and considered attractive, so I was voted a moon of the university,” he talks of the common Thai practice at schools at universities. “Popular girls would be called stars (dao) and guys called moon (deun). It wasn’t just a title, we had a lot of responsibilities and had to represent our institution at a number of social events and gatherings. It was a very public role and with cross-university activities, I began to be widely known amongst Chiang Mai students.”
“Like everyone else my age, I was on Facebook,” Bank continued. “I really credit the rise of my social media followers to the fact that I was very opinionated. I used to comment on news, politics, crime and I would always try to show a different opinion. For instance, if there was a robbery, and people were calling for the thief to be killed or go to jail, I would instead ask if anyone knew the thief’s background story, and whether there were mitigating circumstances leading him to commit this crime. People really liked that.”
This is when things get truly ironic. Bank was beginning to get modelling and MC jobs and his profile and popularity were on the rise. This was all due, he claims, to the fact that he spoke his mind, he was an individual and he wasn’t afraid to go against the societal grain.
“When I hit around 30,000 [followers] the comments following my opinions began to get really negative and nasty. People didn’t all agree with my viewpoint anymore. They told me to shut up and that they weren’t interested in my opinions. People were creating problems. I had to really sit down and think about where I was heading and it was a tough decision. I knew that I could have a career if I kept developing my online persona, but I also knew that I had to reposition myself. So I shut up. People wanted to see pictures of me without a shirt on at the gym? I gave it to them. My followers grew.”
“I realised that while people liked the way I thought and how different I was, they didn’t want me to go against the mainstream. I made a conscious decision to change the way I portrayed myself when I realised that my followers were much more interested in looking at me and watching what I was doing than reading what I wrote. Of course it is sad, it saddens me greatly. It says a lot about society, but I had committed to this career and that is where I went with it.”
Bank is extraordinarily frank about his online fame and has a humility and insight that is both refreshing, and frustrating to see self-tempered.
“I knew from very early on that I was seen as a role model,” he mused. “I decided right then to take this role very seriously. I have impressionable people, young people and dedicated people who follow me, and I have to be very careful about the language I use and what I say. The way I react to insults or odd comments, the way I let down people who may have requests from me that are untenable, these have all been extremely important life lessons which I do not take lightly. One big realisation for me was that I didn’t hold the power. I may have certain power to attract people and shape their opinions, but at the end of the day it is the public who have the power. It was their demand that I shifted my position and bended to the way they wanted to see me. We are just temporary symbols soon forgotten.”
Bank promised to introduce me to two of his friends, both Net Idols, and not long after our return to Chiang Mai, the three came to Citylife’s office for a visit.
Our photographers were virtually squealing with excitement when they saw Karnrawee ‘Jia jia’ Kinana, 20, walk in. A petite, but buxom, young woman, still in braces, liberally tattooed and with an interesting cheekbone piercing, Jia Jia currently has 99,770 followers on Facebook with a further 38,000 on Instagram, being one of the rising Net Idols to hail from Chiang Mai. She regularly posts sexy photographs of herself, often with well-placed products — sometimes in very risqu้ positions — to promote.
“I joined the all girls’ school Dara Academy when I was around 12 years old,” she shyly told us, her demeanor very quiet and reserved, in stark contrast to many of her posts. “I was quite fat and dark then, but suddenly lost a lot of weight became whiter. That was when I got really popular. Looking back, I realised that it was my makeover that generated the initial interest.”
“I had no plan or strategy with my social media,” Jia Jia quietly explained, “but I started plastic surgery at a young age and people would rush to comment and share every time I had work done; over the years I have done my nose and eyes, and have had botox treatment.”
“These?” she asks, when I pointed to her rather spectacular breasts, “these are definitely real,” she smiles timidly.
Jia Jia is even famous IRL (in real life) and says that she fears going out alone at night because she has had many uncomfortable moments when fans have gotten a little bit too familiar as they often substitute her online persona for real life personality. While her online persona is that of a sex kitten, IRL she appears to be a slightly insecure young woman, still finding her confidence and place in a world which has molded her into something it seems she may not yet be.
She is currently studying business management at Payap University and, like Bank, knows that her current success is likely not sustainable.
“The word Net Idol is a rubbish word,” she tells me frankly. “You take off some clothes and you are famous. Most successful stars who had their starts with online fame refuse to use the word Net Idol, as it is seen as trash. There are too many of us out there now.”
Soon a third friend arrives, this time a slight and gangly teen, blanketed in tattoos. I was introduced to Worapon ‘Mos’ Chomngam who was even shyer and more reticent than his friends. It was a struggle to get him to open up and talk about his 680,000 Facebook and 104,000 Instagram followers. I was later shocked to learn that he was only 16 years old.
“I regret dropping out of school,” he quietly reveals, “but I was a bad boy and while that could have led me down a very dark path, somehow it turned into fame.”
Mos, at the tender age of 14, used to post short clips and photos of him self and his friends doing stupid things, Jackass style, he explained. “I used really bad language, I had no respect for anyone and I used to get into many arguments and fights with my fans and followers. I am learning to control myself now. Meeting Jia Jia and Bank, two other idols with far more experience, has been really good for my growth.” Being so young, Mos dropped out of school in his hometown of Phayao not long after he gained fame, and is currently living on his own, supporting himself in Chiang Mai. He has his regrets, but he is also now learning to take advantage of the many opportunities being presented to him.
What is interesting is that the number of followers don’t always translate to income. Bank, with the fewest of followers, says that he makes about 50,000 baht per month while Mos, whose numbers are creeping towards a million, only makes around 30,000 baht per month. Jia Jia doesn’t appear to know how much she makes, but says that she has never received more than 6,000 baht for an endorsement.
“People are savvier than they were a few years ago,” explained Bank, who said that income has dropped in recent years. “There are so many Net Idols now, many of whom are very obvious about selling products. People can’t see the same girl peddling three face creams in a month, they simply don’t believe it any more. So instead of product placements, advertisers will ask us to ask our followers to share a promotional post for the chance to win a gold necklace or an iPhone. But this is transient. I am developing my career as a DJ, Mos is studying rap and off to see a TV director in Bangkok soon about an acting career, and Jia Jia is studying business.”
“I post around three posts a day,” Jia Jia told me. “You have to be constantly online, or you become irrelevant. I do live streams on Facebook every week,” she says of sharing mundane daily events such as eating, putting on cream or even stretching in the morning (fully made up, naturally).
Mos’s, product mostly-free posts, tend to be of him messing around topless, tattoos prominently featured, like any normal teenager…that is if you don’t look at the 10k likes at the bottom of each photo.
“My followers tend to be middle and high school girls,” explains Mos. “Jia Jia has lots of men following her, as well as early teenage girls who want to emulate her and Bank is followed by many older women and gay men. We all have our own demographics.”
“Being a Net Idols is, for most, short lived,” said Bank sanguinely. “But I have learned so much from it and have been fortunate to have so many opportunities arise. I learned that I respect myself, and in spite of all the requests for topless images, I no longer share them. I also have found my moral core and boundaries, as I refuse to endorse many products I feel uncomfortable with, whether they are sexual or unethical. I have learned how to remain humble and realistic in face of adoration. Amazingly, I have even made many genuine friendships. Fellow Net Idols have become not just a support group, but true friends, and even some fans I have met IRL have become important to me.”
An Artistic Idol
With nearly 54,000 followers on Facebook, 74,000 on Instagram and r 16,000 on other platforms, Maneemejai is a different type of Net Idol, in that her fame and fandom didn’t come from her looks or selfies, but her skills as a photographer.
Supatra Mansawang, 27, is a local Chiang Mai girl who studied art and used to post her images on social media. “I started off separating my accounts so that I could have one for my friends and family, under my own name, and a different one to share my works with fellow artist friends,” she says.
“I had works of art, videos, photos and other types of art works to share and soon I found more and more people following me. I think that it started with friend and family but it soon expanded and I was meeting people’s demands by posting more and more images. Soon Maneemejai became my signature.”
Suphattra says that she is a determined person and once she decides to follow a path, she must do it well. When the followers increased and she realised that she was capturing a large audience with her postings, she knew that this was her opportunity to commercialise her artistry.
“I have a way of thinking that is more fine art than commercial, but now I can combine them and it created my identity without my realising it,” she explained.
Suphattra now uses her account, and fame, to get jobs. People like her style and hire her to do portraits, products, brands and other types of work. She not only gets hired to take photos, she then charges the client to use her social media channels to promote them.
“Most photographers are men,” she muses of her success. “I am one of the few female photographers and I think that it is clear that my photography is very feminine. It offers a different perspective and one that many women like. Let’s not forget that many people who hire photographers are women too.”
As we watch Citylife’s photographers swarm over Jia Jia, spending an inordinate amount of time on her photoshoot, Bank smiles and says sagely, “I’m fully aware that I am riding a great wave, there are highs and lows and soon the wave will break. I am prepared for that day. But I will ride it for as long as I can.”
Follow our idols at:
Facebook: Chirdchoo Bank kankayanamit
Facebook: Karnrawee Kinana
Facebook: วรพล โฉมงาม