Strut it: Myanmar’s male modelling industry

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 7 August 2014

Models Kaung Sit Thway (left), Hpone Thaik (middle) and Kyaw Ko Ko Wai (right)
Models Kaung Sit Thway (left), Phone Thike (middle) and Kyaw Ko Ko Wai (right)

Former model John Lwin is the CEO of Stars and Models International and is arguably the most powerful force in Myanmar’s male modeling industry. He has 200 models on his books; some of whom include Myanmar’s best known film stars. In 1995, Mr Lwin organized Myanmar’s first fashion show and in December 2013 he acquired the copyright of Manhunt International, which will give Myanmar’s male models the first opportunity to compete internationally.

Yet Mr Lwin’s entry into the world of male modeling was completely accidental.

“In 1988 Myanmar completely collapsed and my father told me that if I remained here I’d have no future. He enrolled me in a three month English speaking course in Singapore, but I didn’t want to go. At the airport I cried and threw my shoes in protest.”

Stars and Models International poster
Stars and Models International poster

Yet within a couple of months, 22-year-old Mr Lwin began to enjoy his new lifestyle in Singapore and told his father he’d enrolled in a hotel management course. To supplement his father’s $500 monthly allowance, Mr Lwin began working in a cassette factory.

“I worked at the factory from 11pm until 7am and then slept on the bus that got me to college by 9am. I was very unhappy.”

While standing bleary eyed at a bus stop one morning, he noticed a woman sizing him up.

“I thought she was trying to steal my bag so I held it close. But then she said, ‘Do you want to be a model?’”

John Lwin's career as a successful male began in Singapore  in the 1990s
John Lwin’s career as a successful male began in Singapore in the 1990s

Mr Lwin had no idea what modeling involved, but when he was told he could earn up to $10,000 a month, he didn’t hesitate to arrange a meeting. Within a few months he was making $15,000 a month, travelling extensively throughout the region and in 1992 won the title of Singapore’s “Face of the Year.”

“I was the only Burmese model in Singapore at that time and most assumed I was of Malay descent. But it wasn’t that I loved modeling – I was doing it for the money,” he said.

Five years later, Mr Lwin was approached by a famous Singaporean designer called Bobby Chng, whose clothes he’d modeled in the past.

Bobby’s offer to enter a clothing export joint venture was financially unappealing to a highly paid male model, but when Mr Lwin stumbled and fell on a pavement while racing to a fashion show, he started to think twice about his long term prospects (the damage to his chin alone lost him a week of work).

Mr Lwin agreed to set up Myanmar Asia Trading, which involved exporting male fashion wear from Myanmar to Singapore. His network of contacts in the fashion industry expanded and he was invited to organize Myanmar’s first fashion show in 1995. Its success prompted him to set up Myanmar’s first modeling agency, Stars and Models International.

How a male model is born

Along with those enrolled at his training academy, John Lwin regularly scours the streets of Yangon to scout for untapped male beauty.

Kyaw Ko Ko Wai
Kyaw Ko Ko Wai

“I saw one guy in a tea shop – I asked him to stand up to determine his height and asked if he’d like to be a model. He’s now making $50,000 a month,” he said with a laugh.

While Mr Lwin says he can’t put into words what the “X Factor” is, certain traits aren’t negotiable.

“I don’t want anyone over 25 – that’s getting old,” he said.

Unlike much of the rest of the world, a male model’s height (or lack of) isn’t a deal breaker in Myanmar, he said. However long hair and facial hair is. Those who look Korean are far more likely to become commercially successful, he said.

Furthermore, many male models incorrectly assume that advice on regular exercise and eating healthily can be ignored.

“They believe they can make it with their face alone – but that’s an unwise decision to make,” Mr Lwin said.

Some of Stars and Models International's contracted male models
Some of Stars and Models International’s contracted male models

Despite the fact that Myanmar has an abundance of attractive men of Indian descent, this is a no-go zone in terms of Myanmar’s modeling industry.

“I have one singer on our books who’s handsome but looks a little Indian. He’s on a 10 year contract and is doing very well because he has a beautiful voice, but when shooting his music videos, I usually never show his face. He’s Muslim and there are problems with Muslims, so it wouldn’t work,” Mr Lwin said.

Freelance fashion photographer Ko Taik told Mizzima Business Weekly that he often feels frustrated while shooting male models.

“Females are far easier to shoot. Women have more experience and their poses are more original. Males are more difficult because their poses are often awkward. They need a lot of direction from the photographer and getting a male model to relax is hard. They always seem to want to look powerful but a relaxed posture is almost always better. But if a male model has experience with a modelling agency they know what to do. And male models turn up on time, while women usually don’t,” he said.

While male models are, on the whole, less prone to egotism than their female counterparts, Mr Lwin takes a strictly no-nonsense approach when dealing those who step out of line.

John Lwin, CEO of Stars and Models International
John Lwin, CEO of Stars and Models International

“Sometimes I call a model and their mother answers the phone and says, ‘Talk to me – my son is busy.’ I’ve even had to drive to models’ homes, where I then stand out the front and scream at them. Then I freeze the model for at least three months – I give them no work whatsoever.”

“A lot of people in this industry are scared of me,” he added.

Mr Lwin said he’s recently adopted a new approach to keep his talent pool in check.

“I don’t let anyone become famous for at least six months anymore, because their heads just aren’t ready for it and they end up crashing. I make my models go through a lot of training and jobs like ushering before I allow something big to come along,” he said.

Manhunt – Myanmar’s biggest male modelling competition

John Lwin is an unapologetically ambitious entrepreneur and thus in December last year he acquired the copyright for Manhunt International – which for the past three years has been considered the ultimate platform for male models to gain exposure on a purely local level.

The local version of Manhunt has been headed by Htay Min Htun of Myanmar Model Management and attracts more than 300 competitors from across the country. Expats in Singapore also reportedly return to compete for the title. The competition is held in October and is aired twice daily on MRTV4 for a week. The winner receives 1.5 million lakh – half of which goes towards a modeling contract.

U Aung Paing Oo, 26, is a trainer at Myanmar Model Management and he told Mizzima Business Weekly that if further negotiations are unsuccessful, his company will continue to run Manhunt in Myanmar, even if it requires changing the name of the competition.

Model Kyaw Ko Ko Wai, who is also a trainer at Stars and Models International, was awarded second place in Manhunt’s 2013 competition.

Manhunt 2013 runner-up Kyaw Ko Ko Wai
Manhunt 2013 runner-up Kyaw Ko Ko Wai

“It was an experience I’ll never forget because it was so competitive. There was so much pressure to perform.”

The winners of Manhunt are often subject to various forms of gossip and backlash – rumours abound that the competition is predetermined to award those with close relationships with the judges.

“People say nasty things about the winners but our competition is fair and completely unbiased,” U Aung Paing Oo said.

Some are hopeful that by engaging with the internationally recognized Manhunt International competition, Mr Lwin will provide much needed opportunities for Myanmar’s male models, who are often subject to illegitimate business proposals.

For years, Mr Lwin has received a steady stream of emails from China inquiring about his male models, who propose shared contractual arrangements.

“I worry about the possibility of human trafficking – none of these people ever actually come to Myanmar to meet with me in person.”

Photo courtesy of Stars and Models International
Photo courtesy of Stars and Models International

Two years ago, Mr Lwin was contacted by an organization in Indonesia who claimed to be casting male models for a well known TV series that could purportedly lead to three year modelling contracts, international assignments and a salary of $8,000 a month.

“So we selected three models and flew to Indonesia for a meeting. On the first night, a gay man took us out for dinner and asked me if one of my models would accompany him for a drink later that night. I refused. His phone was then permanently off and we ended up having to pay for the hotel bill and airfares – which was contrary to the original agreement,” he said.

“Singapore’s male model industry looks for height, muscle build and a sharp face. Hong Kong’s models most often have chubby faces, while in mainland China, height and strong cheekbones are in vogue. Myanmar models often don’t fit these profiles,” said Mr Lwin.

No pay for editorial shoots

The possibility to work overseas is much needed, as Myanmar’s fashion magazines and journals rarely pay models for editorial shoots – whether it’s a cover or an inside spread.

“The model’s name and agency name is credited – that’s it,” Mr Lwin said.

He said that Myanmar’s models are willing to work for free to gain exposure; even movie stars don’t expect remuneration.

“The problem is that all models will shoot for free – they must come together and refuse to work without pay. I think the time will soon come when this changes,” he added.

While commercial product advertising pays well, the vast majority of local and international fashion labels are unwilling to shoot with Myanmar models.

“When we’ve approached men’s clothing companies for shoots – or even events like Myanmar Fashion Week – they tell us that the collars or what not might get dirty in the process and refuse to provide us with clothing. The local fashion industry has to change: how else can they market their clothes? Most often, models bring their own clothes to a shoot or a designer creates something for them.”

For those like U Aung Paing Oo, who never wanted to divert to the more lucrative alternatives of singing or acting, making a living as a model wasn’t viable.

“It’s difficult to make ends meet through modeling alone. I had to supplement my income by working for my father’s car import company. Working as a trainer is a much better alternative financially,” he said.

U Aung Paing Oo leading a modelling class
U Aung Paing Oo leading a modelling class

“If somebody just wants to be a model – he may get work twice a month and then needs to be ‘happy’ in his home for the rest of the time,” said Hpone Thaik.

Flocking female fans

There are of course upsides to being a male model – such as having a flock of female fans.

“Sure, I get a lot of attention when I go out. I’m a single guy and it’s fun,” Kaung Sitt Thway said with a grin.

Hpone Thaik, 29, is one of Myanmar’s top male models and he’s starred in several TV series, films and commercials. In July last year he married Myanmar’s superstar singer Chan Chan (who also models with Stars and Models International) and the couple have a five-month-old baby.

“I actually have more female fans now than I did before Chan and Chan and I got married. When I post pictures of my baby girl on Facebook, women write lovely things about me loving my family,” he said.

Hpone Thaik does have one memorable stalker though. For more than a year, he received hand-written love letters and phone calls from a young woman in Meiktila. She even posted him a CD containing images of international male models, complete with tips on how to strike a pose.

Hpone Thaik said he never felt stressed by her fanaticism, but was grateful when things finally came to a head. When the woman had learned that Hpone Thaik was in Magwe, she hopped on a motorbike and drove four hours just to see her idol in the flesh.

“When she saw that I was there with Chan Chan her face fell. She cried a lot and after that I didn’t hear from her again,” he said.

This article was featured as Mizzima Business Weekly's cover story on August 7 2014
This article was featured as Mizzima Business Weekly’s cover story on August 7 2014

Discrimination

“Most models come from middle class families. Wealthy young people aren’t attracted to modeling – they prefer to study and go clubbing and look down on modelling,” said Kyaw Ko Ko Wai.

He said that whilst some models have acquired reputations as socially immorally party-people, as well as being money hungry by seducing the wealthy.

However there are also known cases of “rich people dating models for fun – most wouldn’t marry them,” Kyaw Ko Ko Wai said.

According to Hpone Thaik, many sections of society assume that male models are gay simply because they wear make-up.

“Educated people understand the fashion industry and don’t share these views,” he said.

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