Gallery: Beneath the glitz of Bangkok's ‘pretty’ industry

Gallery: Beneath the glitz of Bangkok's ‘pretty’ industry

Behind the make-up and the sexy outfits, the city’s product models face low wages and degrading work environments
Bangkok pretties
Pretties at the Bira race circuit get just as much attention, if not more, than the racecar drivers. Not only are there press photographers snapping away, but also pretty ‘fan clubs.’

With the Bangkok International Motor Show kicking off this week, the cream of the city's 'pretties' will be draping themselves across Fords and Ferraris with their slinky dresses and alluring smiles. 

The city's 'pretty' industry -- yes, that's what it's called here -- developed with the specific intention of utilizing feminine charms to encourage the purchase of a particular product or service, be it alcohol, lawn mowers or, most prestigious of all, cars. You would think the life of a pretty girl would be charmed and glamorous. However beneath the glitz the industry is much more complicated.

“I grew up working in the paddy fields,” says Ou, who has been a ‘cheer beer’ pretty since the age of 18. From 4pm til midnight, six days a week, she persuades men to buy beer in various city bars and restaurants. The more beer sold, the more commission she receives.

It's a similar story for many pretties, hired because they are blessed with decent looks. The gender and wealth gap in Thailand has created a population of women who think the only way to achieve anything in life is through men rather than themselves. As a result, many women think that becoming a pretty is an easy way to climb the social ladder, giving rise to reformed definitions of what a pretty really is. 

Bangkok's pretties divided into classes

The general concensus of Thai men is that pretties range from grades A to C, with the former grade being conferred upon only the prettiest of pretties. These are the best paid and are generally used to sell more expensive products. They are also sometimes hired as MCs for corporate or PR events, and generally have developed conversational talents and are more outgoing than other pretties.

Many grade A pretties opt to compete in the annual Miss Motor Show. They believe winning such a competition opens doors, especially into show business. Less attractive pretties are condemned to the lower ranks and may work as lounge girls, coyotes or cheer beer pretties. Lounge girls are expected to pour drinks, mildly touch or be touched and, at times, sing karaoke with customers. Coyotes dance on bar tables and the ‘pretty’ ones can be requested to accompany customers into their private karaoke rooms. Cheer beer pretties are hired by beer companies to encourage men to buy their beer.   

An occupational hazard of all pretties is the prospect of being propositioned for more than just a couple of beers and conversation. Cheer beer pretty Ong recounts an occasion where an army general asked her how much she would charge for the night. 

“I quickly declined; I felt awful. The scary thing is that a lot of pretties nowadays would actually accept, especially the younger ones. Sometimes they see it as a way to climb the social ladder. As a result, men begin to think that all pretties would make similar choices.” 

Most pretties promote themselves by leaving photo cards lying around restaurants, bars and supermarkets with details of their weight, body measurements and even phone number. A select number of particularly popular pretties even have fan clubs. Members of such clubs often go around the city in search of their preferred pretties to photograph. Their fanaticism is not unlike that displayed by Japanese fan boys worshipping their famed ‘hostesses.’  

Plastic surgery, mistresses and suicides

Pretties depend on looking glamorous, and are often being sucked into the world of materialism. This can cause a problem financially, especially if they aspire to the glamorous lifestyles they encounter in other people during their work hours. Though unconfirmed, some statistics say up to 98% of Bangkok's pretties have undergone some form of plastic surgery to improve their aesthetics, hoping to move into the grade A class of pretty whose social spheres are often inhabited by wealthy male patrons who can promise better earnings. 

The majority of pretties who are not freelance are members of agencies, who act as go-betweens to find them work. There are men who request pretties for dinner; a high bid for a short space of time is often an attractive offer to many pretties. However, there is the risk of being asked for more than just dinner company. In theory, pretties are not supposed to accept. However, there are some who will for the prospect of extra money. Some even become mistresses, receiving apartments, cars and monthly salaries for them to be at their provider’s beck and call. 

“This happened to a friend of mine,” recalls Pat, a grade A pretty. “The man got bored and broke up with her, which meant cutting all financial assistance as well. My friend could not bare the thought of going without a brand name bag or the luxury he had been providing, so committed suicide. Sadly, this is not uncommon.”

Many of the girls that become pretties usually have to support at least one member of their family or more. Tan was the eldest in the family and started off as a lounge pretty when she was still in school in order to earn money to pay for her ill mother’s hospital treatment.

“I knew I just had to get the money to my mother… the hospitals wouldn’t continue treatment unless there was money waiting. So I worked all sorts of hours.”

What began as an honest straightforward job with time has developed threads. It is an industry with a huge presence in Thailand, on display at every major event, but has been largely ignored by everyone except those directly partaking in it.

Pay rates 
Grade A Pretties -- US$1000 ++ per month
Coyotes and Lounge Pretties -- US$800 
Cheer beer pretties -- US$500


Thirty-year old Ong has been a ‘cheer beer’ pretty for five years, at a restaurant situated in a railway station. As well as having to send money home to her parents, Ong is also responsible for most of her 12-year-old daughter, in-laws' and husband’s expenses. Her husband, she laments, is a heavy drinker and a womanizer. 

 


Make-up is continuously applied as often as possible until work begins as pretties have to look flawless.

 


Pat and Par represent Singha beer at a golf tournament.

 


At the Bira race circuit, each pretty represents a particular car company and is expected to walk the racecar driver over to his car before the race begins, with an umbrella to shade him from the sun.

 


Before the race takes place, photographers try to get as many pretty photo shoots as possible. There are newspaper columns dedicated to pretties, paying particular attention to the newcomers to the industry.  

 


Ou has been a ‘cheer beer’ pretty since the age of 18. “Being a pretty, the hours are flexible and you also have the chance to make yourself look good on a daily basis. This is much better than my previous job, which was in a factory manufacturing cable parts.”

 


Pretties strike a pose at the finish line.

 


Pretties are interviewed to capture the atmosphere of the car race and to promote the car company they are representing.

 


Pretties spend a lot of time grooming and shopping, not only to look respectable for their employers, but to keep up with the competition. According to Pat, the first few years of her pretty life sent her into depression. “Pretties are capable of hiding other pretties’ shoes backstage before an event begins or telling lies about other pretties.”

 


Nuj is employed for the day to help sell t-shirts for charity. Fan club members are out with their state of the art cameras to capture pretties at work. Pretties welcome this because they are always in need of expanding portfolios to show prospective employers. 

Cattleya Jaruthavee is a freelance photographer and writer. She is particularly interested in socio-economic/political disparities in the world and has several ongoing projects.

Read more about Cattleya Jaruthavee