The monk turned model breaking all the rules
Mimi Tao's face is seen all over Asia these days, but it's been a rocky road to success for the former temple boy from upcountry.
Flipping through a photo album of her life, Phajaranat Nobantao can’t help but shed tears of mixed emotions. On the outside, the 22-year-old transgender model seems to have it all, but her path has not been strewn with roses.
“It wasn’t easy to get where I am today, and I’m still not where I really want to be,” said Phajaranat, now known as Mimi Tao to the international fashion world.
From being a rich kid in early life, to joining the monkhood, to sleeping in a toilet in Singapore, Mimi has been through more than most her age. She says she has never been chasing fame, but rather a way to get her parents out of debt.
THE ISAN DREAM
Mimi was born to a well-off family in Khon Kaen. Her father was the main breadwinner and worked abroad as a construction foreman, sending enough money home for them all to live comfortably.
Her mother invested in property and rented out land to rice farmers. She also offered loans to local people, using her husband’s savings.
Mimi is the middle child of three, with an older sister and younger brother, all born one year apart. Growing up, they never wanted for anything and received the best private education that Khon Kaen had to offer at an expensive Catholic school.
With plenty of opportunity at their disposal, Mimi’s siblings were making plans for the future from a young age. Her sister decided she would be an entrepreneur, her brother aspired to go to medical school. Mimi wasn’t bothered about what to do, since she believed nothing could go wrong.
But she was mistaken. In 2000, the economic crisis forced her family to leave their comfortable lifestyle behind. Mimi’s mother lost all of her investments and the land she owned was seized. They were about to lose their home, but her father managed to secure work in Bahrain to save the family from total financial ruin.
Mimi and her siblings were taken out of private school. Her sister and brother joined a local school, while Mimi was sent to an all-boys temple school in Ayutthaya, because her mother thought the discipline would be good for her.
A NEW WAY OF LIFE
In a flash, the impressionable 12-year-old went from a strict Catholic environment to a serious Buddhist one. She was upset to be the only child sent away from home, but didn’t resist because she thought it was the only way to help her family.
The temple school required Mimi to become a monk, and after six months she was ordained. She slowly adjusted to monastic life, learning to wake up early, talk quietly and become mindful of the world around her.
But the way she saw herself was also changing. “I started to act like a girl, talk like a girl and become more interested in girlie stuff like make-up,” Mimi explained.
The school was planning a large ordination ceremony for its new monks, and Mimi wasn’t sure if she could go through with it, because she already knew that she wanted to live as a girl. But once her head was shaved and she was wearing the orange robes, she decided to do it for the sake of her family.
After becoming a monk, Mimi was required to live by more than 200 precepts. She could follow them all, since life in the temple school had taught her to be calmer. But behind closed doors, Mimi and four of her young friends did something considered wrong for religious boys.
“We would get together and put on make-up. At the time the best we could do was put baby powder on our faces, draw our eyebrows on with pencil and sometimes put on red lipstick,” Mimi said.
They turned their private quarters into a mini catwalk, where they modified their monk’s robes and put on fashion shows. The group shared their love of “feminine” activities, and in the second year of their monkhood, one boy introduced contraceptive pills to the others. All four started taking the pills, hoping to develop female figures.
EXPOSED AT HOME
Mimi took the pills until she developed small breasts. They were a secret, hidden under her robes, until she was visiting her family in Khon Kaen one day. She was in the bathroom, when her mother accidentally opened the door.
Seeing her young son topless, Mimi’s mother threatened to disown her unless she stopped whatever she was doing. “Then I guess I am no longer your son because I won’t change my mind about who I want to become,” Mimi snapped back. Her mother broke down in tears.
“It was the worst feeling in the world to make my mum cry like that,” Mimi said. “I promised myself I wouldn’t let her down again and would make her proud of who I am.”
After six years in the monkhood, Mimi decided it was time to leave the temple school. Instead of helping her family save money, she set a new goal of earning cash to pay off her mother’s debt. She thought about where a young transgender person could get work, and the first place that came to mind was Pattaya.
With no connections or friends outside the temple, Mimi was clueless about what to do when she arrived in the resort town. She just walked into a beer bar and asked for work. Like so many other transgender hopefuls before her, she was offered a job as a cabaret performer. When Mimi walked into the dressing room, the other performers were bemused about why she had no hair. She explained she had just left the monkhood and come straight to Pattaya for work.
After working for three months, Mimi left Pattaya to find a better paid job in Bangkok. She applied to work for the famous Calypso cabaret show and was successful. She held that position for another couple of months until she realised it wasn’t what she wanted to do.
Mimi was struggling to work out what to do next. She was stressed out, so switched on the television to take her mind off it one day. By chance, she flicked onto a documentary about Thailand’s most famous international supermodel, whose life was ruined by drugs: Rojjana “Yui” Phetkanha. After seeing Yui’s story, she knew modelling was the career for her. She became obsessed with the idea of meeting Yui and followed the model to various events. One day, she finally got face to face with Yui at a fan meeting.
“I was so happy to see her. I ran right up to her and gave her a big hug,” Mimi recalled. “I pleaded with her to teach me. I wanted to be just like her.”
Yui didn’t think Mimi was serious at first, since the idea of a transgender fashion model seemed impossible. She just thought Mimi was a super fan who was a little bit overenthusiastic.
Yui didn’t agree to help until they had met 12 times and Mimi was still asking the same question. The model said she would teach Mimi on one condition, that she took the lessons seriously and stayed focused.
Yui taught Mimi everything she knew: catwalk technique, posing skills, how to get in the best light at a photo shoot and how to book jobs. Mimi spent three months studying with Yui, until she was ready to enter the modelling world on her own.
Though she is transgender, Mimi is pre-operative and has never been drawn to the idea of surgically transforming herself. Tall, tanned, with small breasts and a stunning jaw line, she believed she was ready to take the modelling world by storm after her apprenticeship with Yui.
But she was hit hard by the reality of the Thai modelling industry. Whenever she went to a casting, she would be told: “No, you don’t have the right look for us.” One day she asked an agency to explain why she had been rejected. They simply said: “Thailand is still not ready for somebody like you.”
“It was a wake-up call,” Mimi said. “But I didn’t give up hope. I knew I was a good seed, I just happened to be in the wrong soil.”
Mimi started to explore her options. If this country was not ready for her, then she would try further afield. She searched online for modelling agencies in her dream city, New York. She emailed several with her profile, but all said she had to come in person for a casting.
She couldn’t afford to travel that far, so she searched for options closer to home. Mimi found a number of agencies in Singapore, and one of them agreed to give her a preliminary casting. With no money to her name, Mimi asked her mother and friends to lend her the cash for the plane ticket.
On the morning she left Thailand and landed in Singapore, she had two hours to get from the airport to her casting. But immigration detained her because her appearance didn’t match the gender on her passport.
It was two hours before she was released. By then, she was already too late for the casting. She checked her email and found an angry message from the agency, complaining about her poor time-keeping. Mimi broke down in tears, not knowing what to do.
THE FACE OF ASIA
After missing her casting, Mimi had no money to get back to Thailand. With just S$43, she bought a bottle of water and a local sim card, which she used to call her mother and friends and explain what had happened. One of her friends said she knew someone with family in Singapore. She took down the number of a friend of a friend’s mother and sent her a text message.
Mimi waited all day and heard nothing, so decided to take the train into town and figure out what to do from there. With no money to buy food and nowhere to go, she took shelter in a public toilet cubicle. She put the seat cover down, rested her feet on her luggage and leaned back against the wall so she could go to sleep.
As she dozed off, her phone started ringing. It was the mother of her friend’s friend, who asked Mimi to verify who she was. She told Mimi to take a taxi to her home, and said she was welcome to stay until she found her way back to Thailand.
Mimi wasted no time. She hit the streets and approached every modelling agency she could find. At the fifth agency, Mimi was hired for a photo shoot. After her first job, other agencies in Singapore started showing interest. She wasn’t booked for any big brands at first, but was happy to get her foot in the door.
She couldn’t sign a contract at that stage, because of complications with her identification papers, but she was slowly building up a reputation, working on TV commercials, catalogue photo shoots and as a runway model for local products. By the time she got back to Thailand, several Singaporean agencies were talking about her and had referred her to Thai agencies.
When Mimi was booked for her first job in Thailand, she was overjoyed, despite being paid less. “It meant the Thai modelling industry was becoming more open,” she said.
Mimi Tao is now a well-known name in the Asian modelling industry, and works on everything from major advertising campaigns to high-end fashion shows. Her career is dedicated to paying off her family debt and she never declines any job, no matter how small.
Mimi’s story has touched many people, and one day a woman contacted her offering her the opportunity to advance her career.
Kumaree Kanjanasarathool had read about Mimi in a magazine and said she wanted to help her. Ms Kumaree’s husband happened to be a plastic surgeon, so she arranged for her to have breast augmentation for free.
“I wanted to help her because her story was so inspirational,” Ms Kumaree said. “I like to give people opportunities. I thought Mimi would get even more work with a better figure.”
Mimi received her new breasts four months ago at the Pongsak Clinic in Hua Hin, on the condition she wanted the smallest implant available, so people will appreciate her modelling skills, not her womanly figure.
The model has also attracted celebrity fans including the top fashion designer Kai Ukas, an award winner who has made an impression on the international stage.
“It is easy to find models, but someone like Mimi who is a good model and a good person is unique,” Kai said. “She has the perfect Thai face. I also know about her life story and struggles. I called her in for casting for one of my collections and loved her right away.”
With her international connections, Kai was contacted by a film director from Europe who wanted to make a documentary about transgender models. Kai put the director in touch with Mimi and they are in the process of developing a film about her.
Mimi’s next goal is to travel to New York for modelling. “It is even more open and I believe I have the potential to work there,” Mimi said.
Even though her life seems to be a fairy tale, she still hasn’t achieved her first ambition. “My priority is to pay off my mother’s debt. Once I get all that done, I can think of something else that will make me happy,” she said.
During her six years in the monkhood, Mimi said she found true contentment, which she hasn’t felt for a long time. She said she doesn’t care about being famous, and isn’t even sure she will ever have sex change surgery.
“No one knows the future. I might go back to being a monk once I don’t have anything else to worry about,” she said. “Sometimes I think that was the ideal life for me.”
Asian beauty: Top fashion designer Kai Ukas says Mimi is blessed with ‘the perfect Thai face’.