Thailand's First Supermodel
A version of Yui's story appeared in
the Sunday Times magazine in 2012.
In the mid-1990s, a young women was spotted at a noodle stall in Bangkok. Within two years she was strutting the catwalks of London, Paris and New York. Rojjana, 'Yui', Phetkanha was one of the first Asian faces of Chanel and photographed by celebrated fashion photographer Herb Ritts. She was the first Thai model to have truly 'made it' overseas earning close to a million pounds a year. Back home in the closed world Bangkok's fashion industry, she was known as 'the maid'.
Yui grew up tending water buffalo in Thailand’s North East. This impoverished region supplies Bangkok’s wealthy with domestic servants. But it is the pale-skinned daughters of Bangkok’s elite that dominate the fashion industry. The poorer, darker women from the North East are not considered model material. Yui was celebrated overseas for a beauty considered ugly at home.
While abroad, Yui fell foul of drugs and her life spiralled out of control. She returned to Thailand penniless and disappeared for eight years. She was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Although she will be on medication for the rest of her life, she has made a recovery. At the age thirty-six, she knows that she is old in an industry dominated by young beauties from Bangkok’s ‘High Society’. But she is optimistic.
“I think I’m pretty lucky,” she says.
Today home is a small, concrete room on the outskirts of Bangkok where she lives on £4 a day.
Originally envisaged as a book, the idea was to explore Thailand's crisis through the prism of beauty, traversing competing notions of what it means to be 'Thai'.