Picture imperfect

Don't laugh at the PM, it's hard to look human during a photo shoot

Here is some news that will have you choking on your morning Irish coffee (it is St Patrick's Day, after all).

This week, the Office of the Prime Minister released some photos of General Prayut Chan-o-cha that absolutely chilled me to the bone. I believe the mot du jour is "it triggered me", but allow me to use a more traditional and sensible analogy.

They were a series of pics of the prime minister in relaxed poses and postures -- a far cry from the usual image we have of him in a stern, staid, military outfit. Prayut staring lovingly at the camera. Prayut, arms crossed, mid-guffaw. Prayut in a baseball cap pulling up the collar of his shirt, which I have dubbed "Prayut In Da House".

I get it. They show a side to the prime minister we haven't seen before during his five-year rule; that is, human. They're nice. So why did they chill me to the bone? I'll tell you why. He and I share the same photographer.

I know it's him. The photographer, I mean. The background is the same. I recognise it. I recognise the studio. The poses are exactly the same ones I was forced to assume. Even the facial expressions: the happy-go-lucky, impish grins conveying a personable and benevolent uncle or, depending on which side of the political fence you sit on, autocrat.

And behind the mugging to the camera, if you look carefully you can see the strains of impatience and annoyance. Been there. Done that.

This is not about the prime minister. This is about me. A couple of years ago I was faced with a minor dilemma. I remember the day clearly: I was sitting in my office working flat out when my general manager and artist appeared out of nowhere.

"What can I do for you?" I asked, quickly putting away the Bangkok Post's cryptic crossword. We were in the throes of opening a new branch of my language school. I figured it was something to do with that. She cleared her throat.

"We need some new pics of you," she said. A sinking feeling immediately.

I hate getting my photo taken. Like you, dear reader, when faced with a group photograph of which I am a participant, I go straight to myself and start subconsciously listing all my physical shortcomings.

But marketing departments require updated pictures. Back when I was doing morning TV some 10 years ago, this was a regular occurrence. Until my general manager and artist walked in, I'd got away with exactly zero photo shoots since that time, utilising pics for book covers and events from old shoots. That was about to change.

"We think the pics we use of you now are rather… old," she said, delicately.

I understood what she meant. After more than a decade, despite tsunamis of self-delusion, it was starting to stretch it a bit to use a 2003 pic of me for an upcoming seminar when it was now 2015. Even I was beginning to notice the surprised looks on the faces of seminar attendees -- a look that seemed to say: "Are you the father of that young bald man?"

And so, they booked a time for the photographer. I hated the whole experience. This is not a slur on the photographer, who was very professional and accommodating. But he was also relentless.

"Just bring along a couple of changes of shirts and ties," he said over the phone the day before. "And jackets. No more than five or 10."

Five or 10? Who has 10 jackets in their closet? I did the best I could, throwing in my single Italian wool tailor-made suit from Raja's Fashions (My best? My only!) along with a few Platinum Plaza knock-offs and Chinese-collar silk shirts I'd quietly lifted from emcee gigs. Carrying them all into my car had the neighbours thinking I was being ejected from my home again.

The shoot took three hours. It felt like an eternity.

I totally get what it feels like to be a supermodel. (Never in my 10 years of writing this column did I think I'd write that sentence.) First, there's the make-up that needs to be applied. I can see from General Prayut's pics, we also shared the same make-up artist, judging by the low-key foundation that fails to hide wrinkles juxtaposed with way-too-glossy lip gloss. Every time I tried to surreptitiously wipe it off with a tissue, the make-up lady was back on set, vigorously reapplying it.

One then stands against an all-white backdrop. It's actually a massive roll of white paper not unlike toilet paper. If you soil it with a footprint, they just roll a little extra down and rip off the offending part. With that toilet paper analogy, I hate to think then what I represent.

Two or three blinding lights are then switched on and the shoot begins. It's hot. It's over the top. It's difficult. For the next three hours, the affable photographer barks a barrage of affable orders: "OK, smile…[click] …move to the side…[click]…fold your arms…[click]…one more time…[click]…just one more…[click]…last one for luck…[click]…OK, one more…[click]…and one more…[click]…go and change."

If you can imagine three hours of that, dear reader, then you can imagine the torture General Prayut and I have been through.

The worst parts are when you have to smile.

"Laugh out loud!" shouts the photographer.

"At what?"

"Anything!"

"Tell me a joke!"

"Can't think of one!"

That only serves to infuriate me. Even the make-up lady can't think one up. I just want out. And so, in a cynical moment, I throw up my hands and let out the greatest guffaw of my life. It's meant to be over the top and stupid. Alas, it is the one laughing pic of mine that is preserved for eternity in all our marketing kits.

The final icing on the cake, or rather, the straw that breaks the camel's back, is at the end when the photographer says: "OK, let's relax it up a little. How about something trendy?" Hence Prayut's baseball cap and my cigarette sticking out of my nose -- or as my staff dubbed it, "Andrew In Da House" (which I plagiarised above).

So many people dream of stardom, but they don't realise it's not all glitz and glamour. It's a hard slog, as general Prayut and I can testify.

And yet the results were OK on both sides, weren't they?

We both turned out looking OK, if not a little stilted, and we both did it for a reason. General Prayut wants to be elected. I want people to stop asking if I am my father.