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Renaissance woman

By Greg Lowe
4 January 2006 15:15
Areeya ‘Pop’ Sirisoda explains how a bizarre combination of books, toothpaste and beauty pageants changed her life

Ask the average beauty queen what her greatest loves in life are and you may expect to hear “children, small animals and world peace.”

“Having my concentration focused” is not the typical reply.

Then again, there is little typical about former Miss Thailand Areeya “Pop” Sirisoda.

The L’Oreal regional spokeswoman has tried her hand at many diverse occupations: journalist, model, soldier (where she enjoyed the “Zen-like experience” of shooting), author and, more recently, screenwriter and director.

Sitting on a day bed in Habitat at Siam Discovery Center, dressed in white trousers, black vest top and grey trainers, Areeya wears her short hair held back with red hairpins. Hands clasped around her knees, she discusses her transformation from a bookish “high school nerd” into one of the Thai fashion industry’s best-known faces, and how her passion for observing other people led to the release of her recent popular documentary, Dek Tor (Innocence).

Areeya’s conversation is accented with an American twang, indicative of the 20 or so years she lived Stateside.

“In the US, most people think I’m Asian. Over here, they think I’m American. Oh, don’t say American,” she says, breaking out into her trademark impish grin. “I don’t want to be known as American.”

Nevertheless, on December 27, 1971, she was born in the US to Thai parents. Her peripatetic lifestyle commenced a year after, when she moved to Thailand. Four years later, her family shifted to Michigan, and it was there that her formative years were spent.

Areeya’s life was transformed in 1994 when she became Miss Thailand. However, the events that led to her involvement in the pageant were far from orthodox. Strapped for cash on a post-graduation trip to Thailand in 1994, Areeya tried her hand at modeling to raise funds, scoring her first job in a toothpaste commercial. On seeing this, a talent scout for a competitor tracked her down and offered her US$16,000 to enter the Miss Thailand pageant, with an additional $4,000 bonus if she won.

The catalyst that sparked this whole chain of events was a novel by one of England’s greatest writers.

“EM Forster’s book, A Room With A View, actually changed my life,” she says. “I came to Thailand and, at that time, my goal was to go to Florence, but I ran out of money. That’s why I entered the pageant: to make money to go see Florence because of EM Forster.”

Aside from enabling Areeya to visit her Italian dream destination, winning the competition catapulted her into unknown territory – a new landscape punctuated by high heels, false nails and telephoto lenses.

While it took time to work out “what the heck does it mean to be a Thai woman,” and to deal with the irritation of being stalked by paparazzi, she soon found her feet and was happy with the financial rewards.

EM Forster’s writing made Areeya yearn for Florence, though she lacked the money to travel.
“There are things in life that you do for money and things that you do for passion. The things that you do for passion, like art or writing, usually don’t pay the bills.”

The glitzy world that Areeya now inhabits contrasts starkly with her earlier days. Life as an Asian schoolgirl was pretty tough in 1970s America.

“I was the only Asian in my class at high school. I was an alien. Everyone thought I was Vietnamese or Japanese. They never figured out where Thailand was.”

Years spent as a loner was not time wasted though. “I love having my concentration focused. Even back then as a child, I loved concentrating on a good book.”

Back then, Areeya was better known for looking like Mr Magoo, with her milk bottle-thick glasses, than for her natural beauty. When she couldn’t be found in the library, her “favorite childhood place,” she was likely to be playing tennis with the boys.

“I never put on makeup or hairspray.” Strange, for a woman who today, at 34, grosses between three and five million baht a year as L’Oreal’s regional spokeswoman.

Early books such as Encyclopedia Brown, Little House on the Prairie, and Anne of Greene Gables were shelved for more sophisticated reads. She describes Tom Wolfe’s books as “cathedrals of description.” Sportswriter Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays With Morrie, inspired Areeya to study journalism at Michigan State University.

However, the book that resonated with her most as a teenager was SE Hinton’s classic The Outsiders (made into a film by Francis Ford Coppola in 1983).

“When you are different from your peers, you tend to be an outsider. You tend to be introspective and grow up faster. You observe things more.”

Five years ago, in Prachuap Khiri Khan, a group of hilltribe kids playing in the sea for the first time in their lives became the genesis of a process that culminated with the release of her documentary, Innocence, last October. The proceeds from it will used to fund the school featured in the film.

“I like to observe people and I saw these kids enjoying a very simple pleasure. For me that brought back my childhood. To watch them enjoy such a simple thing like running into the ocean...I wanted to capture that.”

The contrasts between the lives of those children in the film and the rampant consumerism of urban life signifies for Areeya that much of Thai society has lost its way.

“We’re losing ourselves. We’re overstressed and overworked. We’re going through the process of living without living. We are so imbalanced by the struggle of surviving. We’re like mechanical beings.”

While a host of issues, from stopping “overfeeding your kids,” to “losing your attachment to material things,” could help reverse this downward social spiral, Areeya has one suggestion which, at the end of the day, takes no effort at all.

Her advice for those seeking balance? “Relax, go read a book,” she says.

Greg Lowe is managing editor of Asia Books Publishing’s New Arrivals magazine. Areeya is profiled in the upcoming issue.

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