Marching in high heels

A Thai boot camp whips would-be beauty queens into pageant shape.

By Jack Boulware

Published June 21, 2000 6:27PM (EDT)

Thailand is one of the most successful countries competing in beauty pageants. And now, young Thai models have the option of following an inside track into the dazzling life of a beauty queen. They can go to boot camp.

An unassuming town house in a Bangkok suburb doesn't feature obstacle courses and endless marching around parade grounds, but it comes close. While many training schools exist for Thai models, only this camp takes preparation to the next level. Young babes are whipped into shape, and provided with the rigorous mental and physical training necessary to kick some serious international beauty pageant ass.

Camp owner Srivieng Tanchai boasts a living room of more than 400 trophies from her 30 years of training models. The handful of young, hopeful teenagers who stay year-round under her care follow an extremely strict daily regime.

The girls all have to wake up at the same time, go to school and then attend classes in posture, behavior, makeup and how to answer questions. Their diet is restricted to fruit and vegetables, including spicy papaya salad. And abstinence from sex is essential: Pesky boyfriends are not permitted.

"There is no deviation allowed," one model, Nattanicha Bunyoprakon, told a reporter last week. "Our lives are consumed with beauty contests for the three months to the five years we spend at the camp."

Being in top physical condition is also required of the girls, who are drilled to the limit, almost as if they were U.S. Navy SEALS. To sweat off extra pounds, the models must ride exercise bicycles while wearing thick, heavy coats.

"It is important that the girls stay within tightly defined weight and height ranges," said Tanchai.

It doesn't stop there. In response to the belief that physical perfection is what beauty pageant judges are looking for, models in training are encouraged to do whatever it takes to achieve that perfection, including plastic and dental surgery. "Most of the girls here have surgery on their eyes or nose, to make themselves look more urban Thai, look whiter ... and some have their breasts enhanced so they can compare to Westerners," Tanchai said.

Tanchai pays for all the necessary medical enhancements, and in return pockets half of her students' winnings as payment.

If all this seems relentless and bizarre, it also seems crazy to many Thai social critics and medical experts. Because of Thailand's obsession with beauty contests -- there were at least 20 major pageants in the Bangkok area last year -- women are not encouraged to pursue careers in business and politics, critics say. Teenage girls in Bangkok are developing eating disorders more than ever before, and several Thai universities have threatened to dismiss students who participate in beauty pageants. The country has even organized a "Jumbo Queen" pageant to give support to larger-size Thai women.

None of this fazes Tanchai, who believes that the competitions produce women who are held in high esteem and thus receive greater opportunities. "By winning contests, women can make their lives better. Many of my girls have used their winnings to go through university and go into business or public relations," she said.

And if they don't end up with good jobs, at least they're skinny.

Jack Boulware

Jack Boulware is a writer in San Francisco and author of "San Francisco Bizarro" and "Sex American Style."

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