Freak like me
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Freak like me

Quirky star Rusameekae Fagerlund talks about his whirlwind childhood, new movie and why self-confidence is good

SOCIAL & LIFESTYLE
Freak like me
PHOTOS: Thanarak Khunton

James Fagerlund was working for a company event in Stockholm when he was approached by one of Thailand's top actors, Saksit Tangtong, who later told him that he had star potential. "You have a unique character that Thai showbiz doesn't have," Saksit told the then 29-year-old James. With those spare, simple words in mind, the American-Thai decided to pack up and go back to his motherland that he had left 19 years earlier to pursue his career abroad.

"There was absolutely nothing to guarantee that I would get a job or become famous here. I came solely because of [Saksit's] encouragement," says James, who subsequently adopted the stage name Rusameekae Fagerlund (pronounced "Fah-guea-lon" in Thai).

And a few years later, this over-the-top, fancy-sounding pseudonym has managed to become a household name.

"The name is such a head turner, right? I think it sounds just as beautiful as, say, Davika," Rusameekae says jokingly.

The actor got the name from his friend's mother, who around 30 years ago played the lead in a Thai movie called Rusameekae. He said he has been intrigued by the name since he first heard it.

"The meaning is also as pretty as it sounds. It means the radiance of the moon. Plus, I needed to change my name for the resident visa, so it took me just seconds before I decided to go with the name Rusameekae," he explains.

For the actor, 2016 was a year that probably only happens in fairy tales -- a year that shot the then newbie actor, who plays the role of Enjoy in Puean Rak Puean Rai (Best Friends, Bad Friends) aired on GMM TV, into stardom. Thanks to the combination of Rusameekae's unique features and on-screen mischievous persona that steals practically every scene he's in, a convention that leading actors gain more attention from a show than supporting actors has been broken.

As a result of his breakthrough, the 32-year-old actor-entertainer swirled through a number of red carpets and was dubbed Scene Stealer of the Year by several awards and media outlets.

"To be honest, the fact that the role turned out to be a remarkable success took me by surprise because I had to suppress a lot while playing the role of Enjoy. It wasn't a character that I would expect viewers to love so much. Back then I had a bit of a feeling that this character might not even be the best chance to show off what I have," Rusameekae recalls.

It was only after Rusameekae got back from his overseas travels that he found out about the rocketing popularity his character was garnering from the drama based on a true story.

"I was hanging out on Khao San and suddenly a lot of people popped up around me, calling me Enjoy and asking me for a photo. And I was like, wait, what happened? So I searched my name on Twitter and Facebook, and I saw many users posting screenshots of my character from the drama. It was a totally baffling moment. I was shocked for like a month.

"I thought to myself, 'How could all of this happen all of a sudden?' I was expecting that the turning point in my career would at least come around when I was 35 years old. And look what happened now.

"It was such a good feeling because the public recognised me for something I actually worked hard for, and not for some tabloid headlines or for me being some kind of an attention seeker on social networks."

Still, Rusameekae needed to pinch himself and tell himself to stay on track after the long roller-coaster ride that culminated in his newfound fame.

During such exhilarating moments, Rusameekae admits the prospect of falling short has been scary. That's when the big boss of A-Time Media, Saithip Montrikul Na Ayudhaya or P'Chod, intervened as a guiding voice for Rusameekae.

"I went to P'Chod, crying. I honestly didn't know how to cope with such abrupt change. There were so many thoughts going through my head, including the stress which had been piling up since the first day I set foot here in Thailand," he recalls.

"'But you have to remember that you are Rusameekae,' P'Chod told me. He gave me these words and I finally felt like I could think straight again. I finally realised that I have to go right back to the beginning and remind myself what my identity and purposes are. As the saying goes, it's easy to get but hard to maintain."

It is evident that his professionalism during photo shoots is the result of plenty of practice. Rusameekae says he learned about postures and angles from studying supermodels.

Growing up, the only TV shows he watched were those that were fashion and model-focused. His favourite show was America's Next Top Model.

"I have always been interested in models and catwalk shows," Rusameekae says.

"I channel the Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell within me whenever I pose. I love watching fashion shows on runways, not necessarily for the clothes though. My focus was on the models. These kind of poses have become a habit to me -- my instinct even. You can see me posing like this in my real-life photographs as well."

Rusameekae says he sometimes misses his life in Sweden, the home of his family and his partner of 10 years, but at the same time he realises the fortunate position he is in and the opportunities he has been given.

"It is a place that's very close to my heart and a big part of who I am. [My family and long-term partner] know me so well and know how much I've been through, starting from zero before getting to this point. So they understand and are happy for me," he says.

"After things are settled, I will probably go back to Stockholm and register for marriage."

Rusameekae started to look for jobs as soon as he arrived in Bangkok. After a series of auditions, castings and a few TV stints failed to deliver his breakthrough, he decided to walk into the GMM Grammy Building to apply for a job.

"I had nothing to lose and this is what I wanted to do. So I thought, well, just go for it," he says.

After getting his hands on real entertainment jobs, Rusameekae realised that acting is not as easy as he thought it was. Not to mention that he also has to weather distractions that others probably don't.

The fact that he looks different from other celebrities is a double-edged sword.

"I am well aware that celebrities in Thailand do have clear, bright skin with handsome or pretty faces. I realise I am not a stereotypical beauty here, so I need to try harder," he says.

He adds that he always makes sure his styling is on point from head to toe whenever he is at a public event. The industry has reshaped him to become more of a compromising person.

"All the glamour we see on screen takes a great deal of time to produce. It takes patience, time and perseverance. After having worked here, I've become a calmer, more understanding and compromising person."

The concepts of diversity, acceptance and compromise also show in the actor's latest work, Thailand Only, the second film in Rusameekae's career.

Rusameekae, or James, was born in Phuket to a Thai mother and an African-American father before moving to Stockholm when he was 10. Rusameekae couldn't have been any more excited when he was told that he would get to act in a movie that shows the beauty of tourist attractions in Thailand, and even work alongside comedian Jazz Chuanchuen, whom he looks up to as one of the best in the business.

The role Rusameekae embodies in this film is a Chinese-speaking tour guide, something anyone who has seen or known Rusameekae, or even Rusameekae himself, wouldn't have imagined him playing.

"This role was such a big leap. Rusameekae as a Chinese-speaking guide -- who in the world would have thought that would happen?" the actor exclaims.

The role was more challenging than he had thought it would be when he was first handed the script. It turns out that the happy-go-lucky guide on-screen had to undergo a painstaking process behind the scenes.

"In some scenes where I was too concentrated on the diction, my expression would become a bit tense and I would forget the light emotion I should be delivering. It was actually headache-inducing."

Thailand Only depicts the story of Chinese tourists who, in the eyes of many Thai people, are mostly seen as excruciatingly disturbing, rude and unclean.

"It can't be denied how negatively most of us feel towards tourists from China. But this movie shows you another side of the story, including the possible factors that cause them to behave in these ways.

"It's not just about the good laughs you are getting. This movie will more or less make you think more deeply and look at all of the sides of someone or something before judging them, and also to reflect on ourselves to see if we are actually good hosts."

Rusameekae's most recent schedule was fully booked for several weeks. But he says he's never become tired of the job.

"I know my friends go party and stuff in their free time. And I can feel that they are genuinely happy about that. But I am also genuinely willing to trade that with the joy I get from doing my job. I always remind myself that I should stay focused," he says with a smile.

Despite having a seven-day working week, he manages to find a work-life balance through morning jogging and exercise.

"My favourite place to go hang out and run is Chatuchak in the morning. I'm telling you, the air there just cleans your lungs. It is extremely exhausting at first, but then you become addicted to it."

As a teenager, Rusameekae had to overcome constant bullying.

"Bullying was always targeted at outsiders. Sometimes your words, which might not even mean harm, can actually hurt people. And it's worse if it happens to a really sensitive person," says Rusameekae, an openly gay man who has proudly been out of the closet since his adolescent days.

In fact, his mother, he remembers, has been totally supportive of his decision to express his feminine side since he was as little as five.

"My mother let me wear skirts to school despite the teachers' objection."

Back in the day, Rusameekae wasn't acutely aware of how he was different from other kids in the class and only started sensing the stares when he realised gender-bending wasn't a common thing to do.

It was a disorienting time for Rusameekae. "It was really, really hard. Children can be such bullies. And that was all because I looked and sounded different."

There was a time when social expectations caught up with his insecurities.

The actor admitted he used to undergo various beauty procedures to change himself and conform to what society valued.

"I straightened my hair until it was damaged and my scalp was burnt. I applied whitening cream products and wished I could wake up with lighter skin. I ate one meal a day and ended up trying to make myself throw up every time I felt like I had eaten too much," he recalled.

One day, when he had enough of all the efforts. Rusameekae decided to let the entire ordeal go and decide to stand out in the way he is.

"In the end, I cannot run away from who I am and my complexion or society and how it may view me.

"Now I don't even know why I did such things when they definitely couldn't change the fact that I am of African-American descent and my father is 190 centimetres tall and black.

"Now I am 185cm tall with a shaved head, dark-skinned and happy. I feel beautiful the way I am now."

Dealing with criticism has been a big part of Rusameekae's transition to fame.

"I used to hear criticism about my appearance all the time and still see some written by internet trolls to this day," Rusameekae says.

"I think anyone who didn't have the same sort of upbringing as me would find that very difficult to cope with. But I absolutely knew I was worthy. I never thought I was ugly because of such words.

"I know some fans might absolutely mean no harm when they greet me by bringing up my appearance. Sadly, I know it's still a part of Thai culture.

"Look at it in another way -- what if I were to call you short, yellow or stick-skinny, how would you feel? I wouldn't say such things because I know they do not bring any good. And such thoughts never cross my mind either.

"Faggot, sissy, homo, King Kong -- all the body-shaming curses. You name it. I've read it all about me. I used to be scared of reading internet comments but I finally told myself that I must be able to live with these without getting upset.

"And I never argue back. In fact, I actually have sympathy for critics. I believe these people need some place to let it out. So write to me. I'm fine with it."

When asked if he had ever considered playing a more glamorous role rather than just funny sidekick roles, he admitted that he hasn't.

"I wasn't really built for that," Rusameekae says. "I never aim for leading roles. But I am always searching for characters who are profound, complicated and indelible."

Rusameekae recently appeared on a catwalk show for men's clothing brand 27 Friday as a model, which Rusameekae, an avid fan of runway shows, describes as a dream-come-true experience.

Determined to make an impact, Rusameekae is setting his sights on new ventures: "It would be great if one day I get to work as a presenter of skincare products. It would be a huge deal for me. I would like to promote and celebrate diversity in beauty."

Rusameekae said he didn't set out with a mission to tell these kinds of stories, but hoped that one day it would happen organically through being a visible figure with influence.

"To be able to use my platform to underline something very important like diversity -- I feel very passionate about that," he says.

"I would be more than happy to take such jobs because people of any complexion should be represented equally. I feel that children growing up need to see somebody different. It's about telling them from a young age that it's OK to be original and proud of their roots and appearance.

"It's not about size or skin colour. It's always about style and grace."

Rusameekae wants to shake up the perception of beauty and challenge an industry inclined towards lightness.

"Everybody compliments Namtarn's [Chalita Suansane, Miss Thailand Universe 2016] beauty but barely anyone would want to be as tanned as Namtarn."

"Right?" he adds, his eyes widening knowingly.

"I'm waiting for the day real Thai beauty becomes a trend in Thailand. Beauty trends have to be diversified because there are more than just people with white or yellow skin in this country."

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