Confessions of an ugly duckling

It's not always funny business for Thailand's most successful female comedian, but Tukky Ching-roy is making the most of her attributes

For seven years, Tukky Ching-roy has been generating smiles and laughter with her off-the-wall humour and down-to-earth looks across all media as the country’s best-known female comedian. For much of that time, she has also generated criticism for being “the snobby one”. “Tukky is so arrogant in real life.” “Tukky has forgotten where she came from.” “Tukky is not willing to take photos with fans.” These are some of the comments that have stung, and stuck with her over the years.

It explains in part why Tukky, real name Sudarat Butrprom, comes across as so serious while sitting in the make-up chair fairly early in the morning.

“I’m not tired of work, but people do tire me sometimes,” she said before reeling off the list of harsh criticisms that spring to her mind. “But as a comedian, I must be able to handle every criticism and not let them bring me down.”

Her words are calm but her attitude says “give me a break”. Comedy is serious business, and it’s not possible to be amusing and entertaining at all hours of the day.

“Every established comedian has a serious side in real life,” Tukky said. “Yes, all of them are naturally cheerful and humorous, but they sure have stress as well. In the past, I was very happy and could do anything I wanted to do without thinking much. I remembered when I first encountered harsh criticism, I was really frustrated and kept asking myself ‘What did I do to deserve it?’

“If they point out my flaws with reasons, I’d be more than willing to embrace it. But some people, mostly immature, would not stop sending in hateful words. I’ve made up my mind that I will not drain myself by reading such messages. Sometimes these comments [on Instagram] are just plain attacks on my looks, saying I’m so ugly or being such a try-hard, while all I did was pose with my bag.”

Despite the drawbacks, Tukky must have done something right to win over fans — she has more than a million followers on her official Twitter and Instagram accounts, and she is quite proud of the relationship. “Guess what, I’m planning a thank you party for them. It may be a small concert that I will perform and share a good laugh with my fans.”

Tukky owes most of her success to her stint on the long-running variety show Ching-roy Ching-lan, which opened the door to films, stand-up comedy tours and all manner of lucrative endorsement deals. In high demand, she earns 100,000 baht in her 10-minute appearance in the country-wide Ching-roy stand-up tour. She stars in a new comedy-horror film Pob Na Pluak, opening on Thursday, which roughly translates to “Ugly face ghost” as pluak is slang for someone with odd, unattractive looks.

“When I heard there was going to be a movie called Pob Na Pluak I knew right away that I was definitely going to be cast,” she said, beaming with confidence.

The self-proclaimed “pluak face” actress is comfortable with her appearance.

“I’m not pretty. My fans like me because I’m not. They take pity on me because I’m not pretty and probably teased me for that matter in Ching-roy. That’s perfectly fine by me as long as they see my work. I’m thankful [for my ugliness].” Even though her latest film role is made for her, she cheekily claimed that even now she hasn’t yet figured out who the real Pob (a type of ghost in Thai legend that feeds on human blood and intestines) in the movie is.

“This movie showcases the 2014 version of Pob. The plot is different from the usual Pob stories we Thai are familiar with, which is always about a scary undead chasing after people in the village.

“I would say the version of Pob in this movie is the closest to the original legend, which is that the Pob story is made up, but after hearing it people became so paranoid that they started thinking they were the actual ghost themselves.”

Getting to this point in her career was a combination of hard work and good fortune. Life could so easily have turned out differently.

“Admittedly, I was really into performing in high school. But it changed when I attended college. I decided to major in backstage management instead of dancing or performing.”

After graduating in fine arts, her first job was on stage at the famous Phuket Fantasea theme park. She later moved to Bangkok to become a costume designer for Workpoint Entertainment, founded by well-known MC Panya Nirankul. It was there she caught the eyes of veteran comedians Mum Jokmok and Teng Terdterng.

After two weeks cracking them up in the dressing room, she was performing again. A cameo debut in Ching-roy Ching-lan led to regular appearances, and Tukky’s star was quickly on the rise.

“The feedback was great. There were letters sent to the studio asking things like, ‘Where has that funny little girl gone?’ if I wasn’t in an episode. Also, here at Workpoint, we have a section called the ‘scream check’ where they measure a performer’s ability to attract screams from the studio audience. It seemed that I eventually became a regular for the show partly because of these reactions.”

Part of her method for ensuring these reactions is following one strict rule — never grimace. “I took every recording and filming seriously as it is my undertaking to always entertain the audience.

“I always do my best in every job I take on, so I’m not allowed to mix my personal feelings with work. If the problem really bothers me, I should let it bother me only when I’m off-stage, not when I’m on it.”

In her field of entertainment, there is a tradition for certain comedy performers to get bullied. Tukky insisted that such acts don’t irritate her, but rather have helped her achieve recognition.

“I don’t really mind about getting teased or doing embarrassing stuff. I’m not the first one who got teased in this circle. Every comedian was at one point ridiculed by their senior comedians. Mum, Teng, Nong had all been through this before me. It’s not a challenging physical test or anything, but more like the proof of how far our dedication as a comedian goes. One thing that Mr Panya always says is that people like to see us getting picked on. They want to see comedians fail in a game, and by that, they are going to have compassion towards us eventually. As a matter of fact, I’m naturally a very competitive person. I remember one time I was told, ‘Tukky, this time you need to lose,’ ” she laughed.

The drive she has shown in the decade since stepping into showbiz remains fierce. Even as one of the highest-earning comedians, she is not content to rest on her success and has considered attempting more serious films. What makes her wary is the lack of success Thai comedians have had when crossing over into drama. “I always look up to Mum Jokmok. He’s successful with everything he does based on his status as a comedy actor.

“But I remember he once landed a dramatic role, and the feedback was not like he got from his comedy gigs at all. Comedy actors are most likely to suffer from a commercial flop when they bend their path to drama. I think the reason is that the viewers always expect comedians to be funny, that the gag man label is right on their face. I do want to take on other roles in the future, I really do. Yet, if there’s a good chance that it’s going to backfire on me, then I’d better not take the risk.”

Careful as she will be in front of the camera, behind the scenes offers her greater opportunities. She has considered becoming a film producer, but she admits it’s a long-term goal.

“If I shouldn’t act in a drama, I can still make one. I’ve thought about making a movie for quite a while. However, after discussing with Mum Jokmok the complexities of movie production, and the inevitably huge budget, I was so shocked that I felt like I was going to fall off my chair,” said Tukky, to much laughter.

Her idea is a remake of Wanlee, the story of a grateful girl, and the inspiration comes from her impression of Thai youngsters. As children and teenagers increasingly use high-tech smartphones and tablets and watch cartoons on multi- channel networks, volunteering to help parents with the housework is very rare. For Tukky, this is a bad sign.

“I once asked a student from an international school whether he loves his mum or not. He said yes right away. But when I asked for a reason, he couldn’t answer me. I think Thai children, especially kids who grow up in a modern and urban environment, are lacking in this respect. Why? Because social media makes people afraid to express their feelings directly, even to those closest to them.”

Tukky sees a greater distance forming between people as they shy away from human interaction in favour of chatting on smartphones and social media. The youngest generation are most affected by it.

“Another question I asked children is what they would do when they were home with their mum and dad. I think countryside kids who were raised in an environment with fewer technological devices can answer the question better. ‘Watching TV with my parents’ and ‘Having a home-made meal with mummy’ are the only answers I got from the urban kids. If I really get the chance to produce the movie, I will undoubtedly use it to point out this issue and teach Thai kids how gratitude is very necessary for society.”

But what of Tukky’s own relationship to her family? The youngest of three children in a farming family in Udon Thani said everything she did was for their happiness. And she was frank about how that was achieved.

“I unlock the door to their happiness using the key called money. When I was a kid, I got only a 200 baht allowance per week, just enough for a daily lunch. I couldn’t indulge in soft drinks like other kids and had to drink water from the tap only. I can say my parents were not as happy as they are today. They used to sweat their guts out in order to support three children, and barely had any time to enjoy themselves.

“Now that I have more money, I can see that my parents have gained weight, that they work less hard and my mother always smiles when I take her to fine restaurants or to the places she wanted to go. Money can buy everything. Some people might raise their eyebrows when they hear me saying this, but for me, with money I can buy the smiles on the faces of my parents and brothers. Money is not a god; if we don’t die today we can still get it on other days. But I believe we all work hard, exhaust ourselves and struggle every day to get paid so we can have a comfortable life.”

Not only rich in money and assets, Tukky is also rich in love. She and partner Kamthorn “Booboo” Phonamkham, a tattoo artist, have been dating since they met at Workpoint Entertainment 10 years ago. They have been through their share of ups and downs, but Tukky credits Booboo for being a solid supporter despite rumours and criticism that have come their way.

“There was a critical time between us when Booboo was arbitrarily condemned as ‘a guy who clings onto Tukky because of all the fame and wealth’. He’s very sensitive about this, and that kind of talk did hurt him.

“People said such things because they didn’t know the truth. Booboo was actually the one who was by my side on the day I picked up coins from under the cupboard just to buy a pack of ice. No one is 100% good or 100% evil, including me. I know I’m not perfect, but I also know myself well enough to see what the good and bad parts of me are. I’m a short-tempered, whining person. Sometimes I really can’t bring myself to smile because of the workload and lack of sleep, and I guess that is why people claim ‘Tukky is arrogant’. But even with that, I do try to reflect on what I should fix about myself and adjust my habits as well.”

Even though she doesn’t have a stunning face or rocking body, her rapid ascent in showbiz is evidence of her talent and how stardom is about more than looks alone. Many top Thai actors have expressed interest in working with Tukky because of her easy-going and fun personality.

“That’s why they say angels always sympathise with people regardless of their appearance,” Tukky said, to more laughter. “There was one time where Mrs Nid [Orapan Vajarapol] was so done with the phrase ‘Tukky is ugly’ that she decided to get me on the cover of a magazine surrounded by top male stars.”

After playfully demonstrating her poses from the day in front of Oops! magazine’s cameras as Nadech Kukimiya, Pakorn “Dome” Lam and Akapan “Om” Namart fawned over her, the conversation comes back to looks.

How does she feel about the U-word that has become her selling point, and would she ever consider undergoing plastic surgery the way so many other female stars have? Her answer is emphatic.

“I am where I am now because of my natural appearance like this. If the event organisers want a beautiful model then I think they will hire beautiful actresses like Aum Pacharapa. But if they want someone who is ugly and doesn’t mind doing weird stuff, they would instantly think of Tukky. Why? Because Tukky is ugly, Tukky is pluak. So no, I’ve never thought of getting plastic surgery.”

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