Model Power


Thailand's original supermodel brought bags of outspoken attitude to the fashion scene. Now Metinee "Lukkade" Kingpayome talks about tussling with the authorities, beating bulimia and representing Thailand. "It's difficult when your co-workers have seen your butt," she tells Joel Quenby.

As the First Lady of Thai Fashion, her lissom curves and arresting pout have seduced passers-by for over a decade. She's been a television presenter, an actress - even a Thai boxing commentator. But despite her iconic local status, Thailand's foreign residents may not know of Metinee Kingpayome. Her best-selling book, Metinee's Secrets, for example, has had 13 reprints -in Thai script only.

"We didn't know who we could sell it to if it was in English," she tells me.

True to form, "Lukkade" cuts a statuesque figure, with sculpted cheekbones and endless legs. She speaks rapid-fire American-accented English, often beginning her answers before I've finished asking - no dim-witted clotheshorse, this model.

The Bangkok Post described her as: "At the forefront of the women's liberation movement in the Thai fashion industry," and certainly her no-nonsense forthrightness resonates in a culture where people customarily defer to the status quo. She publicly stated that she was "confused and tired" of the Prime Minister's controversial Ministry of Culture, after it aired ideas about regulating fashion shows via a prudish ratings system.

"I've been on top of their [the Ministry of Culture's] blacklist many times," she breezily admits. "I think the first time was when I did the Image [magazine] cover for the year 2000. I was in a small metallic bikini top with a g-string, and I got into some shit with them about how it was so un-Thai-like, and so unladylike."

But while her natural instinct seems to be to confront the prigs, Metinee has learnt to bite her lip. "The only people who make money are the newspapers," she says. "I prefer to stay quiet and later on voice my opinion and say: 'Well, you know what? I did not stand in front of a wat [temple] in my bathing suit. This is fashion; this is what I do.'"

Westernized Thai-ness can be intimidating for native Thais, I think. At one point Metinee declares: "I think Thai people need to be more outspoken".

And why is this?

"If there's a problem they wait till the last minute before they come together, or before they voice their opinion."

Later, she leans back and muses: "The world keeps going round and we just have to follow," but I get the feeling Lukkade finds it hard to remain quiet for long if she perceives an injustice. She animatedly accuses the Thai press of seamy voyeurism. "All they're waiting for is a boob or an ass," she scoffs.

"They're waiting for that second and you see all the shutters go 'Psssshhhh!' And they ask stupid questions like: 'Did you do that on purpose?' and I look at the reporter and say 'You know, the way you think is the reason that Thailand is so slow. Mai pattana [undeveloped].'"

Metinee was born to Thai parents in Washington DC, and moved to New York a few months later. She was a good student "when I put my mind to it," although skipped her SATs (Standard Attainment Tests) and never considered college. She had tried to get on the books of model agencies in the States, but her ethnicity was considered unfashionable at the time.

A family friend, famous country singer Rungrudee Phaengphongsai, had long been touting Metinee's potential to be a beauty queen. So, at the age of 20 and "kind of bored", she quit her job as waitress in a Thai restaurant and decided to try out at modelling in Thailand for six months.

Rungrudee made the relevant introductions and Metinee promptly won the 1992 Miss Thailand World beauty pageant. "That was my foot in the door," she recalls. "My life changed overnight." She subsequently scooped the Continental Queen of Asia title from the Miss World pageant in Los Angeles: "That was supposed to be really major or whatever," she says with a dismissive wave of the hand.

After that, the work came flooding in - more modelling assignments; she was one of Channel V's first VJ presenters; and nominated Best Actress for her first soap opera. She subsequently won the Thai equivalent of an Oscar (the Supannahong Awards) for her debut movie role.

The on-screen accomplishments acquire an extra sheen of kudos when you consider that Metinee's Thai language skills were far from perfect. She thought her Thai "was already good" having spoken the language at home for a couple of hours a day while growing up. "But once I came to Thailand," she admits, "people were like 'What did you say?'" She read her first soap-opera script in transliterated "karaoke English"; by the time her second soap opera was in production she'd graduated to reading in Thai.

Perhaps more complicated were the perceptions of the Thai people. "Growing up in the States," she explains, "you have that mentality where you can be friends with guys without actually sleeping with them." Metinee had to deal with persistent rumours that she was a "joushou [butterfly]" but says it was something that could only be resolved over time.

In the meantime she swerved publicity that might further denigrate her reputation. She's won Durex's Sexiest Woman award a few times but: "I think condoms and sex before marriage are still very delicate issues in Thailand ... so I just said 'Thank you very much, but no'".

Metinee's most salient challenges, however, involved regulating her lifestyle. She smoked, gorged on junk food - "I could never walk past a Dunkin' Donuts" - and partied every night. The nocturnal abuse left her haggard with telltale dark rings around her eyes: "I was like chao-mae Raccoon [Queen of the Raccoons]," she says.

Meanwhile, fashion industry insiders were telling her, ridiculously, that she was fat. At 62 kilograms ("coming from America that's thin") she was actually slightly underweight for her height of 5' 9" (176cms) when she won her breakthrough title. She responded to the weight-related criticism by walking the models' well-trodden path to an eating disorder: "I've tried starving myself," she divulges. "I've tried sticking my fingers down my throat, taking diet pills."

She lost about ten kilograms in the space of three years, as documented in her book. "When I was perhaps my thinnest, I was also the weakest and most run down," she wrote. "If they [people] had seen me when the make-up was removed, they would know that I was in a terrible state of health. I looked just like a zombie."

She bridles at my suggestion that a good friend should have pulled her aside: "No, because all my girlfriends were the same. And the new models are the same too: they party and they drink and they stuff themselves then puke up, so it's nothing new."

Mercifully, she saw a documentary about bulimia and immediately ceased self-induced vomiting. After years of trying to lose weight in unhealthy ways, "I began to appreciate the value of my own body as I started to get older. I realised I couldn't take my body for granted and eat or do whatever I pleased."

These days Metinee's weight is back up to healthier levels (fluctuating between 56 and 58kgs) and she takes care of herself by tucking into salads, carbohydrates and proteins. She likes to work out at the "Combat Cardio" class - a blend of martial arts-based exercises set to music - at California Fitness on Silom Road, whom she also represents as a spokesperson and which hosts "Metinee's Juice Bar".

She tells an amusing anecdote about dashing between jobs on the sky-train while wearing a ball gown. I imagine the banter in the carriage trailing off into stunned silence as Thailand's most celebrated poster girl sashays on, done up like the Belle of the Ball.

Has being famous in Thailand become a chore? Metinee says the press is "getting pretty dirty", but then she herself likes to read trashy American gossip rags like People magazine, so she can't really criticise. She's not precious about being approached for an autograph or snapshot, but she doesn't like people shoving their camera-phones ("Phones on cameras? Not a good thing, actually") in her face without asking, especially if she's eating.

This is a woman who's seized every opportunity sent her way. She says of her prodigious workload: "I'm trying to cut down, but I'm still trying to build my future because modelling is not going to last forever."

She heads up Club F, a marketing agency for celebrities, and hopes the company can move into legally representing its model clients; a wish heightened by fellow model Sara Malakul's difficult ongoing lawsuit against a clothing store that used her images without permission.

At the age of 32, and as "one of the first models to do see-thru on the catwalk", she wants to tone down her sexy image. "People don't really want to see too much," she laughs. "They've already seen a lot.

"And it's difficult when your co-workers - the people I have to meet with in the boardroom - have seen my butt." It's an occupational hazard, I suppose, but one that's seemingly wearing a bit thin. Speaking of which, who's the lucky boyfriend? I already know from our chat that she finds Thai singer Peter Corp-Dyrendal sexy; and Brad Pitt "for sure" (while David Beckham is "OK"). But for once she's hesitant to talk about that side of her life as she's "weighing up my options".

Even Metinee's got to have some secrets.

-- Published in In Residence magazine, 2004


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