You can’t not recognise Kathaleeya McIntosh’s face. She co-hosts a popular talkshow, stars in a soap opera, emcees at all the right parties and squeezes in some modelling in between. Even if you’re the type who sticks to reading newspapers, you’ve probably seen her there too, in her role as an envoy for Unicef.
And that’s just the visible side of 29-year-old Kathaleeya’s work. Behind the scenes, she helps out her elder brother by nearly three years, Willie, at his production company. "It’s good to be using my degree," she says, referring to her bachelors in business and arts from ABAC. "It’s very different from everything else I’m doing now – it’s a job you get because of brains, not beauty. "
It’s true that Kathaleeya – Mam to her friends – got her start in modelling thanks to her beauty. But for longevity in such a fickle business, brains have to be part of the package. And in conversation with her, it’s clear she’s got both.
Kathaleeya, born of a Scottish father and Thai mother, was spotted one day when picking her brother up from a modelling job, but was still wearing braces. By the time she was 16 they were off and she made her magazine modelling debut. A year later she started appearing in advertisements.
Acting was a natural progression, although she first balked at the thought. With two months of acting lessons to give her a basic grounding, she hit the screen, and was soon enjoying her new job. Today she appears on soap La Korn – and preparing and shooting for it can take up to four days a week of her time.
Her emceeing career took off next. She was approached by the owner of talkshow programme Samakom Chomdao, who asked if she would be interested in being an emcee, hosting with another woman. "We’d be the first TV program in Thailand hosted by two women," she recalls.
Kathaleeya was interested – and the show has now just entered its fifth year. It’s one of her more challenging jobs. "It’s challenging, yes, and it’s also a lot of fun. In other roles I act, but for the talkshow, as a host, I’m myself," she says in her slightly-American accent. "The challenge is that every time you meet someone different, you find yourself in a different situation – everyone has a different way of thinking, a different attitude to life."
Another recent challenge has been her role as a Unicef envoy, working with former prime minister Anand Panyarachun to raise awareness and funds for Unicef projects. She took on a year-long contract in November 2000, and has just renewed it.
In mid-2001, her work took her to visit HIV/AIDS patients, as well as children orphaned by AIDS, in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai . "It was very sad… There was one woman who was a mother in her 30s who looked 50. The neighbours told me that she had been very sick, and had been lying on her chair for two weeks without going anywhere. So I went to talk to her. I told her ‘We’ve come to visit you, we want to try and cheer you up a little bit.’ "
The neighbours asked her if she recognised Kathaleeya. "She said yes. I told her I’d come back and visit her again, to please be here when I came back. From the car I waved to her as we left, and she stood up and held on to the fence to wave back. The neighbours were amazed because she had just been sitting there for weeks without getting up."
Her experience has affected the way she thinks about some things. "As a girl, you know, I like to shop. I like to spend money on clothes, shoes, bags… But now I realise that it’s not really necessary to buy all these things. You can save some of your money and give it to people who need it much more than you. Why not spare some, give some extra to them?"
As we talk, we’re occasionally interrupted by a stylist who’ll dab on some extra lip gloss, move Kathleeya’s hair behind her shoulder or readjust the way her dress is sitting. She’s too focused to even notice, let alone lose her train of thought.
Kathaleeya’s long-term goal might not be what you’d expect. In ten years, she says she can see herself owning a kindergarten for maybe fifty children. "I love being with kids. And in terms of work, a kindergarten’s an innocent thing to be involved with – it’s not like working for a very big company, trying to get to the top. I’d much prefer to be with kids."
In the meantime, one place you probably won’t see Kathaleeya is on the nightclub social circuit. "I don’t go out often at night. I love sleeping more! I’d prefer to spend, say, five days diving in Malaysia, Indonesia, or the Similans – anywhere. I’d prefer that to going out at night. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke."
Scuba diving is a hobby Kathaleeya has recently taken up, although she enjoys any sport. "I’m not like a champion – I’m not very good at sports, I’m just average, but I love playing golf, swimming…"
There’s no man in her life at the moment. "Work takes up all my time. But of course, at the age of 29 –there are people coming into my life all the time… I just haven’t decided yet!"
What does she think of Thai men in general? "Oh, that’s a very difficult question! Generally I think they’re very nice – but the one thing I don’t understand is why so many of them have to have second, third, fourth houses…"
"You mean with wives in them?" I prompt.
"Yes! I really don’t understand that."
As for Thai women in Thai society, Kathaleeya thinks the best way forward is for them to work together with men. "Nowadays more women are working, they’re more independent. Thai men are still a little bit old-fashioned and prefer a woman to be behind them. But women can be cleverer than men — which can make it difficult for couples.
"Women don’t need to be in front or behind, but together with men. Sometimes a man needs a woman; sometimes a woman needs a man. We need to help each other get ahead, be better people."
So far in life, Kathaleeya says what she enjoys most about being a woman is dressing up, making up, being given permission to look good. "But my mother and some of my friends who’ve had babies say that there’s nothing like being pregnant for nine months, and delivering a child… They think every woman should have that experience."
Kathaleeya might be happy to load on the makeup for work, but she doesn’t wear a skerrick of it when she’s on her own time. "Sometimes people will say to me ‘Hey! Is this you? No, no, no! You look like her but you’re not!"
For a woman with such a ubiquitous face, a natural disguise is perhaps only a good thing.