Beauty and brains: Areeya ‘Pop’ Chumsai

Areeya ‘Pop’ Chumsai might be best known as a former Miss- Thailand-turned-military-officer, but she’s a journalist by trade and it certainly shows. “I guess you’ll want background information first,” she says thoughtfully when the interview starts. “I’m thinking, how many column inches do we have here? What should be the focal point of the story? I guess we should do this in chronological order, so it’s easier for you…”

This is Pop’s first interview in English for several years. “I haven’t done any interviews lately because there’s been no news really, and I’m usually very busy.”

But the former has changed very recently, with L’Oreal announcing last month that Pop is to be their new ‘ambassador’. Other ambassadors across the globe have included Claudia Schiffer, Andy McDowell and Gong Li. “I’m still in shock over it! I grew up with L’Oreal and the slogan ‘Because I’m worth it!’” she says.

Her first commercial for them, advertising their Plenitude UV Perfect sunblock, will hit televisions this month. The shoot took place outdoors in Malaysia from noon to 6pm for four days, so Pop says she needed the sunblock just to avoid getting a tan during that time: “So I know it’s a high quality product. I wish I’d had UV protection when I was training in the army.”

Such a prestigious appointment has come at the end of a very long road for the Thai woman who grew up in the US state of Michigan – she was the only Asian in her graduating high school class – and was never interested in modelling.

Her family had originally planned to stay just for a few years – they moved there when she was four years old – but ended up settling. “I would come back every two or three years for a visit. When I was about twelve, with braces and all, I came and stayed with my great aunt. She decided that I should start modelling. I was like, ‘Oh, god!’ I was as ugly duckling as could be. I had braces, really thick glasses.”

It wasn’t until she was 17 that the idea of modelling was raised again. Pop had come back to Thailand for several months over summer and Pop’s great aunt arranged for some modelling jobs. “I was a little kid, you know, and the money for modelling was good – better than my allowance. So it just sort of happened.”

Agencies approached her, but she returned to the US and finished high school. “I was always an observer. I spent my time in the library, I read a lot, I started writing, kept a diary.” Unsurprisingly, perhaps, she then won a scholarship to study journalism at the University of Michigan.

By the time she completed her degree at age 21, she had spent several summers completing internships at various publications such USA Today and the LA Times. “As a journalist, every day is an adventure. You meet new people, you’re out of the office, it’s a challenge. You talk to people and you learn something from them. You have to have discipline to take all this information and write it down. It’s like meditation in a way.”

She decided to take a six-month vacation, coming to Thailand and then travelling through Australia, New Zealand, Bali, Singapore and Hong Kong. She came back to Thailand with three months to go and little money left. Her lack of experience prevented her from landing a job in journalism, so she returned to modelling.

Then her great aunt noticed that the Miss Thailand pageant was happening. “I don’t like pageants, to tell you the truth. I’d never entered a pageant in my life. I just don’t like the idea of coming out, answering questions… Maybe it’s the feminist side of me that just thinks it’s really silly.”

But her aunt asked her to do it for her – she’d harboured hopes for her own two daughters to at least enter the pageant, but one was too short and the other refused to wear a dress. “My aunt said to me, ‘Do this for me, please!’ "

She remained reluctant. Then she auditioned for a facial cream commercial, and it got down to three models, the other two of whom were luk khreung. “The studio told me that if you’re ‘pure’ Thai, it’s very difficult to be a model. I was like, ‘Why? What’s wrong with Thai people?’ ”

Pop thought this was even more ridiculous. Her aunt suggested that she enter the pageant, win, and then snub them if they asked her to work for them!

“What turned me around was my aunt found me a sponsor. They offered me $16,000 just to enter the pageant. If you won, you got $20,000. I was almost getting as much as the winner. I was like, ‘I guess I can do it! I can put away my dislike of pageants!’ Lo and behold, I won the thing.”

After the exhausting one-year reign was over in 1995, she decided to do something completely different – “something more productive, more relaxing”. A friend of hers asked her to teach writing and editing at Bangkok University. Then she taught at Chulalongkorn University.

“I never went to school or university in Thailand, so I wanted to see what it was like. I’d wondered what my life would have been like if my parents hadn’t moved,” she says. “It was fun. In a way, being a teacher is actually a way to be a student. They kept me on my toes!”

Then her life took another unexpected twist. She was invited to become an officer at Chulachomklao Military Academy. “I’m a free spirit. I’m not very good with authority,” she admits. “But I thought to myself, this is a chance for me to understand the military and what it’s like inside.”

She could have simply volunteered as a teacher, but instead decided to do the six-month basic training and become an officer. “The cadets were wonderful. I enjoyed the discipline… I’d never done anything that crazy before. People who are journalists are very curious by nature.”

Now Pop’s a second lieutenant – she’ll become a lieutenant next February – and teaches English as required. At the moment, she’s averaging around three days per week. “It’s not too much of my time. I can do other things.”

Such as write. She has three books out – PopSpeak, Bootcamp and Thinking Out Loud, the latter of which she also designed and illustrated. She has plans for a fourth, a collection of columns, and then she’d like to take “a long leave of absence from writing columns which I’ve been doing for the last seven years – and that’s not counting the five years I’ve been writing since university study and internships!”

Currently she’s writing a column for women’s magazine Praew. “I’m hoping as a columnist that I’m like a little needle pricking people to think. I’m questioning authority, questioning life, but also having fun with it.” And early this month she’ll be a judge at the Bangkok Film Festival.

Essentially, Pop is having a ball. “I still feel like I’m on vacation. There’s no road map in life. If you’d told me while I was at university that I was going to become a Miss Thailand I would have laughed in your face! This was supposed to be a six- month holiday. It’s turned into a six year holiday!”

She’s single and contented with that, too. “I have too many male friends and not enough female friends – the gossip columns are having a great time because of this."

When I ask if she is interested in a husband and family eventually, she quotes the answer a woman whom she admires once gave her when she asked the same question. “ ‘I don’t want to be a wife, I want to be a lover!’ she told me. I was like, yeah, that’s it! When I asked her why, she said, ‘Well when you’re a wife, there’s no passion. But if you’re a lover, there’s that passion always there.’

“I don’t want someone’s last name. I’m not being a feminist for saying this, I’m trying to be a humanist. I would like to share my life with another person in equal terms of respect and deep passion. Who knows how long anything is going to last? One should be in a relationship out of choice and not obligation. With obligation, passion dies quickly.”

What would she like to do next? “I don’t know what life has in store for me. Whenever you find that your life is mundane or you’re not being challenged any more, you should move on. I think I’d like to study for a masters – maybe in literature or film.

“With the money I’m making from commercials I have enough to pay for my university degree. So I’m fuelled: my tank is full, I’m ready to have another adventure. I believe that every day really is a gift. I feel that every day, you wake up in the morning and it’s like birth…"

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