As much as the portrayal of gender diversity has been provocatively acknowledged by Thai audiences, Teerawat Thongmitr of Shade of Divas ladyboy troupe still hope for changes for the better, and more doors of opportunity becoming available for transgenderists.
Shade of Divas PHOTO: YINGYONG UN-ANONGRAK
"While male and female actors are commonly cast as different characters in showbiz, when it comes to transgender or transvestite roles, not many producers care to cast the actors. They usually just take the same old actors, let alone adopt scripts that would break the stereotypes involved with the issue," said outspoken transgenderist Teerawat, who prefers to be addressed as Tina.
At the end of last year, while performing a small showcase with her friends in Udon Thani, Tina began to take such thoughts more seriously, and the result was the birth of talented ladyboy group Shade of Divas.
Comprised of members with different career backgrounds - emcee, fashion stylist, former ladyboy band member - as the leader of the group, Tina explained that the idea of the project was also ignited by the fact that she found great talent among her friends, and uniting as a group could possibly gain the attention of others and offer them a chance at success.
"Most people have had very little contact with transgenderists or transvestites, and they usually assume that katoey work only as make-up artists or cabaret performers," she said. "But, actually we exist in various corners of society. Every year, many of us graduate with good degrees or possess great talent, but there are only limited careers available to pursue," said Tina, who received a degree in Fine Art and works as a graphic designer.
Amatya ‘Lukpad’ Chaiyakam
"We hope to create a group or an agency for transvestites and transgender women. For those film or television producers out there, if you are looking for a 'unique' katoey character, you know where to go now," said Tina, laughing.
On top of their full-time responsibilities, members of Shade of Divas have continuously been bombarded with offers for gigs, from modelling to dance shows. According to Tina, for such a new and small project, the feedback has been beyond expectations. Earlier this month, Tina fulfilled her dream by impersonating her admired diva Christina Aguilera as part of a promotional campaign in Thailand for the star's new album. But her most coveted offer came when German theatre director Nir de Volff was in Thailand to stage his debut physical theatre at Patravadi theatre early this year.
"Together with some friends from Shade of Divas, I attended the auditions for the show," said Tina. "Luckily, I was offered the chance. The experience of being part of the show was amazing."
Entitled Ministry of Truth, the performance was inspired by the famous reality show Big Brother, and has gained rave reviews and filled audiences. Tina was allowed to be herself and offered her ideas in order to develop the script with the other performers.
"The show centred around a mixed group of Thais and foreigners who shared days and nights together in a house, with one to emerge as the winner. My role was to express my thoughts on being a transgender woman. I found it fascinating for a show to dig deeper in the issue of gender, going far beyond the usual portrayal of ladyboys. As my first professional acting role, it was a great challenge, but I was so glad to be part of it," said Tina.
Teerawat ‘Tina’ Thongmitr performs in the theatre production, ‘Ministry of Truth’.
"More importantly, while working on the show, I learned to appreciate foreigners in the way respect you for who you are, regardless of your gender. If you have good ideas to share, they will listen to you," she added, noting that although Thai society is amazingly open about issues of gender, there is still a gap in equality to be filled.
"Working as a graphic designer, there have been a few cases where clients seemed to have liked my ideas, only to change their minds when they learned of my sexuality," said Tina.
After the groundbreaking success of the performance in Bangkok, Tina and other cast members of the Ministry of Truth travelled to Berlin last week as the show was commissioned to stage under its new title, On Air, at Tape Pub and Gallery, with the premiere scheduled for Friday.
"I feel lucky to have been given the chance to go to Berlin, I will see if any opportunities arise out of the Shade of Diva performances," she said.
At the photoshoot, Tina introduced 'Outlook' to the magnetic members of the group. An owner of flawless skin, a petite body and a little voice, Amatya "Lukpad" Chaiyakam, who is rather hard to imagine as a boy, was the first to share her story.
"When Tina told me about the Shade of Divas project, I thought it was a great idea to be able to work with our friends and start a strong community among transgenderists and transvestites," said Amatya, who was crowned the first runner-up at Miss Alcazar in 2005 and the winner of Miss Alcazar Lip-sync Contest 2008, marking her name among the top transgenderists in showbiz today.
Tay ‘Taya’ Peeraya, known as Cool Venus during her days with Thailand’s first ladyboy group Venus Flytrap.
Born to a Chinese family with a father who once served as a soldier, Amatya has been through a tough time fighting for her identity.
"My family runs an elephant show in Pattaya and when I was a little boy I helped my family business by riding an elephant and being a tour guide for foreign tourists. I was really good at it and, at that time, my parents thought I was going to be the one to continue the business in the future," recalled Amatya.
"It was very difficult at first. I began wearing make-up during junior high school. My family, my father in particular, couldn't stand it. We would fight often," she said. "I was very obstinate, and he eventually realised there would be no turning back for me, and stopped fighting it."
After years of guilt, she finally made amends with her parents. While competing in the Miss Alcazar beauty pageant, she took to the stage and apologised to her parents for the past and thanked them both for their support and understanding.
"Now, my parents introduce me as their 'daughter'," she said, flashing her sweet smile.
Besides being a member of Shade of Divas, Amatya is among the top performers at the Alcazar, one of the leading cabaret shows in Pattaya.
On the other hand, another member Tay "Taya" Peeraya, has a different background story.
"I was blessed for never having to struggle to be who I am," said Tay. "My family has always been very supportive."
While completing her degree in Textile Design in Australia, Taya followed her friend to attend another renowned transgender beauty contest, Miss Tiffany, and ended up with the first runner-up title in 2005. Shortly after, Taya became a member of Thailand's first ladyboy group, Venus Flytrap.
"I have always love singing and dancing, so being part of the group has been a great experience," said Taya, who currently works as a presenter of an entertainment programme on cable network Live TV's Fame Channel.
This year, her contract with the group has reached the final chapter, however, with the emergence of Shade of Divas, and Taya hopes to be able to do more of what she loves doing with her dear friends.
While the group is waiting for the completion of its official website, Shade of Divas can now be reached at its temporary house, http://www.facebook.com/shadeofdivas. And, an opportunity for other transgender women and transvestites to become new divas is now open.
"Although, all our members have been through a beauty pageant, it is not a prerequisite to join the team. What we need most is talent," explained Tina.
"To make others understand and accept us, we must show them our capabilities," she added. "And one day, a change for the better will come. Who knows? In the future, a member might be the first transgender women to play a born-woman character."