Anne Jakrajutatip – Thailand’s most recognisable public figure?
Today’s UK Guardian runs a feature-length portrait of Jakapong “Anne” Jakrajutatip, one of Thailand’s most recognisable public figures, reality TV star and trans-rights advocate. Most recently, she made headlines when she bought the Miss Universe pageant for US$20m (700 million baht).
Her story is a familiar one in Thailand in many aspects. Unlike the typical world media mogul, the child of shopkeepers, she felt that she was trapped in the wrong body. At school in Bangkok, she faced constant bullying and stigma, showing her true self to friends, while remaining a good son to her parents.
A local newspaper article about Oprah Winfrey, a child abuse survivor, led Jakapong to want a career in the media and become a TV chatshow host. A microphone seemed like a powerful weapon.
Achieving fame or business clout was the only escape to finding acceptance as a transgender person. She said…
“Because you are seen as the weird person. They don’t embrace the differences. In order to gain respect, you need to have success.”
When Jakapong bought Miss Universe for US$20m (70 million baht), it had been owned by a succession of men, including Donald Trump, who was accused of sexually harassing contestants.
Jakapong is the first woman to own the company, which has recently widened its entry rules, allowing married and divorced women to participate. Trans women were already allowed to take part.
For many, Miss Universe is an inherently sexist institution – and such tweaks to its entrance rules appear bizarrely antiquated. But the pageant continues to be broadcast in 165 countries and retains a loyal international fanbase. Women and the LGBTQ+ community make up 70-80% of the audience, said Jakapong, with many based in Latin America and Southeast Asia.
Jakapong rejects the idea that the competition objectifies women, saying it is instead “uplifting people, empowering women” by raising their voices and that contestants have “brains and beauty.” Competitions that involved contestants wearing swimsuits were intended to show “how you look after yourself,” she added and is only one aspect alongside other costumes. During her era, she hopes to see leadership and an ability to overcome adversity among contestants.
Jakapong told the Guardian…
“The platform is to encourage, to inspire them, all the women, to be able to overcome life’s struggle and to become the global, iconic woman. You can have success of your own when you believe in yourself. You can build everything by yourself as I have done before … I started the business from scratch. I never had a golden spoon in my mouth.”
Jakapong’s career took off when working at her parents’ video rental shop, she spotted the BBC documentary Walking With Dinosaurs and approached the BBC offering to distribute the series in Thailand. She sold a million copies and expanded to distribute content produced in South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Alongside her business, JKN Global Group, she launched the foundation Life Inspired for Thailand (LIFT), which offers scholarships to LGBTQ+ people and women.
Jakapong has spoken frankly about her own experiences as a trans woman, including the sexual harassment she survived as a child, and her experience of transitioning and becoming a mother to two children.
Attitudes towards trans people have improved hugely during her lifetime, she said, although laws in Thailand still lag behind some other countries.
There is no equal marriage for same-sex couples and no legal route for trans people to change their gender identity. Jakapong’s ID still describes her as male, even though she has had sexual reassignment surgery, making foreign travel complicated and in some cases impossible. She is famous, she added, so it is possible to use Google to explain her background to officials. Still, there are certain countries she cannot visit, which limits business opportunities.
“You can imagine some other trans women or trans men, they will face difficulties for sure. You don’t want people to mistreat you, disrespect you.”
As one of Thailand’s most recognisable public figures, Jakapong is advocating for change to the law, but reforms are unlikely with elections early next year. She points to Thai media and the entertainment industry, where trans people have a strong presence, as areas helping to drive greater acceptance, and hopes she can use her role to promote change and inspire others.
“I think Thailand is a friendly country for LGBTQ. We are entertainers. They love us a lot … I’m so lucky to be born in this country.”
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