What is your location, Mimi?
State / Region
talent/work rate per hour?
I have a very good catwalk, and I am a cat walk teacher. My rate 100 per hour. But if you have very good production I can do it free for my profile
Mimi. Tell us ABOUT yourself.
My life interview with BBC
From Buddhist monk to catwalk model
Mimi Tao is a famous model in Thailand. She is a regular on the catwalk, and in advertising campaigns, and appears in photo shoots modelling swimsuits and lingerie. But as a child, Mimi wore the saffron robes of a Buddhist monk. She was born a boy, and it was during training for the monkhood that Mimi started to question her identity. She told Jo Fidgen how she went from the temple to the catwalk.
Mimi Tao's face is seen all over Asia these days, but it's been a rocky road to success for the former temple boy from upcountry.
Newspaper section: Spectrum
Flipping through a photo album of her life, Phajaranat Nobantao can’t help but shed tears of mixed emotions. On the outside, the 22-year-old transgender model seems to have it all, but her path has not been strewn with roses.
“It wasn’t easy to get where I am today, and I’m still not where I want to be,” said Phajaranat, now known as Mimi Tao to the international fashion world.
From being a rich kid in early life, to join the monkhood, to sleeping in a toilet in Singapore, Mimi has been through more than most her age. She says she has never been chasing fame, but rather a way to get her parents out of debt.
THE ISAN DREAM
Mimi was born to a well-off family in Khon Kaen. Her father was the main breadwinner and worked abroad as a construction foreman, sending enough money home for them all to live comfortably.
Her mother invested in property and rented out land to rice farmers. She also offered loans to local people, using her husband’s savings.
Mimi is the middle child of three, with an older sister and younger brother, all born one year apart. Growing up, they never wanted for anything and received the best private education that Khon Kaen had to offer at an expensive Catholic school.
With plenty of opportunity at their disposal, Mimi’s siblings were making plans for the future from a young age. Her sister decided she would be an entrepreneur; her brother aspired to go to medical school. Mimi wasn’t bothered about what to do since she believed nothing could go wrong.
But she was mistaken. In 2000, the economic crisis forced her family to leave their comfortable lifestyle behind. Mimi’s mother lost all of her investments, and the land she owned was seized. They were about to lose their home, but her father managed to secure work in Bahrain to save the family from total financial ruin.
Mimi and her siblings were taken out of private school. Her sister and brother joined a local school, while Mimi was sent to an all-boys temple school in Ayutthaya because her mother thought the discipline would be good for her.
A NEW WAY OF LIFE
In a flash, the impressionable 12-year-old went from a strict Catholic environment to a serious Buddhist one. She was upset to be the only child sent away from home but didn’t resist because she thought it was the only way to help her family.
The temple school required Mimi to become a monk, and after six months she was ordained. She slowly adjusted to monastic life, learning to wake up early, talk quietly and become mindful of the world around her.
But the way she saw herself was also changing. “I started to act like a girl, talk like a girl and become more interested in girlie stuff like make-up,” Mimi explained.
The school was planning a large ordination ceremony for its new monks, and Mimi wasn’t sure if she could go through with it because she already knew that she wanted to live as a girl. But once her head was shaved and she was wearing the orange robes, she decided to do it for the sake of her family.
After becoming a monk, Mimi was required to live by more than 200 precepts. She could follow them all since life in the temple school had taught her to be calmer. But behind closed doors, Mimi and four of her young friends did something considered wrong for religious boys.
“We would get together and put on make-up. At the time the best we could do was put baby powder on our faces, draw our eyebrows on with pencil and sometimes put on red lipstick,” Mimi said.
They turned their private quarters into a mini catwalk, where they modified their monk’s robes and put on fashion shows. The group shared their love of “feminine” activities, and in the second year of their monkhood, one boy introduced contraceptive pills to the others. All four started taking the pills, hoping to develop female figures.
EXPOSED AT HOME
Mimi took the pills until she developed small breasts. They were a secret, hidden under her robes until she was visiting her family in Khon Kaen one day. She was in the bathroom when her mother accidentally opened the door.
Seeing her young son topless, Mimi’s mother threatened to disown her unless she stopped whatever she was doing. “Then I guess I am no longer your son because I won’t change my mind about who I want to become,” Mimi snapped back. Her mother broke down in tears.
“It was the worst feeling in the world to make my mum cry like that,” Mimi said. “I promised myself I wouldn’t let her down again and would make her proud of who I am.”
After six years in the monkhood, Mimi decided it was time to leave the temple school. Instead of helping her family save money, she set a new goal of earning cash to pay off her mother’s debt. She thought about where a young transgender person could get work, and the first place that came to mind was Pattaya.
With no connections or friends outside the temple, Mimi was clueless about what to do when she arrived in the resort town. She just walked into a beer bar and asked for work. Like so many other transgender hopefuls before her, she was offered a job as a cabaret performer. When Mimi walked into the dressing room, the other performers were bemused about why she had no hair. She explained she had just left the monkhood and come straight to Pattaya for work.
After working for three months, Mimi left Pattaya to find a better-paid job in Bangkok. She applied to work for the famous Calypso cabaret show and was successful. She held that position for another couple of months until she realised it wasn’t what she wanted to do.
Mimi was struggling to work out what to do next. She was stressed out, so switched on the television to take her mind off it one day. By chance, she flicked onto a documentary about Thailand’s most famous international supermodel, whose life was ruined by drugs: Rojjana “Yui” Phetkanha. After seeing Yui’s story, she knew modelling was the career for her. She became obsessed with the idea of meeting Yui and followed the model to various events. One day, she finally got face to face with Yui at a fan meeting.
“I was so happy to see her. I ran right up to her and gave her a big hug,” Mimi recalled. “I pleaded with her to teach me. I wanted to be just like her.”
Yui didn’t think Mimi was serious at first since the idea of a transgender fashion model seemed impossible. She just thought Mimi was a super fan who was a little bit overenthusiastic.
Yui didn’t agree to help until they had met 12 times and Mimi was still asking the same question. The model said she would teach Mimi on one condition, that she took the lessons seriously and stayed focused.
Yui taught Mimi everything she knew: catwalk technique, posing skills, how to get in the best light at a photo shoot and how to book jobs. Mimi spent three months studying with Yui until she was ready to enter the modelling world on her own.
Though she is transgender, Mimi is pre-operative and has never been drawn to the idea of surgically transforming herself. Tall, tanned, with small breasts and a stunning jaw line, she believed she was ready to take the modelling world by storm after her apprenticeship with Yui.
But she was hit hard by the reality of the Thai modelling industry. Whenever she went to a casting, she would be told: “No, you don’t have a right look for us.” One day she asked an agency to explain why she had been rejected. They simply said: “Thailand is still not ready for somebody like you.”
“It was a wake-up call,” Mimi said. “But I didn’t give up hope. I knew I was a good seed; I just happened to be in the wrong soil.”
Mimi started to explore her options. If this country were not ready for her, then she would try further afield. She searched online for modelling agencies in her dream city, New York. She emailed several with her profile, but all said she had to come in person for a casting.
She couldn’t afford to travel that far, so she searched for options closer to home. Mimi found some agencies in Singapore, and one of them agreed to give her a preliminary casting. With no money to her name, Mimi asked her mother and friends to lend her the cash for the plane ticket.
On the morning she left Thailand and landed in Singapore, she had two hours to get from the airport to her casting. But immigration detained her because her appearance didn’t match the gender on her passport.
It was two hours before she was released. By then, she was already too late for the casting. She checked her email and found an angry message from the agency, complaining about her poor time-keeping. Mimi broke down in tears, not knowing what to do.
THE FACE OF ASIA
After missing her casting, Mimi had no money to get back to Thailand. With just S$43, she bought a bottle of water and a local sim card, which she used to call her mother and friends and explain what had happened. One of her friends said she knew someone with family in Singapore. She took down the number of a friend of a friend’s mother and sent her a text message.
Mimi waited all day and heard nothing, so decided to take the train into town and figure out what to do from there. With no money to buy food and nowhere to go, she took shelter in a public toilet cubicle. She put the seat cover down, rested her feet on her luggage and leaned back against the wall so she could go to sleep.
As she dozed off, her phone started ringing. It was the mother of her friend’s friend, who asked Mimi to verify who she was. She told Mimi to take a taxi to her home and said she was welcome to stay until she found her way back to Thailand.
Mimi wasted no time. She hit the streets and approached every modelling agency she could find. At the fifth agency, Mimi was hired for a photo shoot. After her first job, other agencies in Singapore started showing interest. She wasn’t booked for any big brands at first but was happy to get her foot in the door.
She couldn’t sign a contract at that stage, because of complications with her identification papers, but she was slowly building up a reputation, working on TV commercials, catalogue photo shoots and as a runway model for local products. By the time she got back to Thailand, several Singaporean agencies were talking about her and had referred her to Thai agencies.
When Mimi was booked for her first job in Thailand, she was overjoyed, despite being paid less. “It meant the Thai modelling industry was becoming more open,” she said.
Mimi Tao is now a well-known name in the Asian modelling industry and works on everything from major advertising campaigns to high-end fashion shows. Her career is dedicated to paying off her family debt, and she never declines any job, no matter how small.
Mimi’s story has touched many people, and one day a woman contacted her offering her the opportunity to advance her career.
Kumaree Kanjanasarathool had read about Mimi in a magazine and said she wanted to help her. Ms Kumaree’s husband happened to be a plastic surgeon, so she arranged for her to have breast augmentation for free.
“I wanted to help her because her story was so inspirational,” Ms Kumaree said. “I like to give people opportunities. I thought Mimi would get even more work with a better figure.”
Mimi received her new breasts four months ago at the Pongsak Clinic in Hua Hin, on the condition she wanted the smallest implant available so that people will appreciate her modelling skills, not her womanly figure.
The model has also attracted celebrity fans including the top fashion designer Kai Ukas, an award winner who has made an impression on the international stage.
“It is easy to find models, but someone like Mimi who is a good model and a good person is unique,” Kai said. “She has the perfect Thai face. I also know about her life story and struggles. I called her in for casting for one of my collections and loved her right away.”
With her international connections, Kai was contacted by a film director from Europe who wanted to make a documentary about transgender models. Kai put the director in touch with Mimi, and they are in the process of developing a film about her.
Mimi’s next goal is to travel to New York for modelling. “It is even more open, and I believe I have the potential to work there,” Mimi said.
Even though her life seems to be a fairy tale, she still hasn’t achieved her first ambition. “My priority is to pay off my mother’s debt. Once I get all that done, I can think of something else that will make me happy,” she said.
During her six years in the monkhood, Mimi said she found true contentment, which she hasn’t felt for a long time. She said she doesn’t care about being famous and isn’t even sure she will ever have sex change surgery.
“No one knows the future. I might go back to being a monk once I don’t have anything else to worry about,” she said. “Sometimes I think that was the ideal life for me."
Would you like to complete our full Editorial interview or skip straight to uploading your photos? (12 more interview questions).
Our readers would love to get to know you more Mimi. Tell us about yourself, what is unique about you?
I spend y six years in the temple as a Buddhist monk before becoming a model.
Mimi, what are your passion and aspiration in life? How did you start as a Model?
I want to be a model since I was very young, but when I was 17, I met Yui Rojjana she used to be the first Asian model for Chanel adv. But she lost everything Her work her life. Because of cocaine but she is fine now. She taught me about modelling. I became a model when I was seventeen I start in Bangkok but not success many people look down me, so I decide to go to Singapore to look for modelling agency with (43 Singapore dollar) in hand and first day I sleep in public toilet. Then my modelling life began from the toilet.
Who is your inspiration in life Mimi? How do you keep inspired?
Yui Rojjana is my inspiration
When I was seventeen, she said to me that if you want to be a successful model you need to work so hard ten times harder 100 times harder than another people because you are a transgender!!! And I keep what she said to me in my mind all the time. ( i need to work hard and harder )
We all make mistakes Mimi; we wish we could take back. Please tell us about time being a Model, you wish you’d handled a situation differently with a colleague.
Of course in the time in my country when I went to Casting, they look at my head to toe and not me why I came here I answer them (I come for casting ) then they laughed at me. And another job I got a job because pictures casting did they ask me to send my ID because they need to book a hotel and for air ticket for me today before work they call me to said cancelling the job. But anyway I will never give up
Mimi , when you’re working with a large number of clients, it’s tricky to deliver excellent service to them all. As a Model, how do you go about prioritizing your clients’ needs?
Who contact me first and which one most important.
Please tell us, Mimi, about a time you had to be very strategic to meet all your top priorities as a Model?
Sorry I don't understand the question
Mimi, please give us an example of a time when you were able to successfully persuade someone to see things your way at work.
Bring them to Time Square to see my billboard
Mimi, please tell us about your proudest professional accomplishment as a Model. There might be many, but there is always this proudest moment that you just want to share with everyone. What is it and why?
I would like to help poor people; I came from very poor family I knew how
Mimi, please give us an example of a time you were able to be creative with your work. What was exciting or difficult about it?
Every difficult thing is excited
What advice would you give to the people who want to be successful as a Model?
Keep working hard and harder
Are you looking for collaboration with fashion talents, brands and creatives? If yes, please state below what type of collaboration you are looking for?
Fashion show, photo shoot and commercial
Photographer; Pysh photography and Ken Rogers