They are the smiling objects of desire promoting brands, hawking products, entertaining men – and sometimes more, as shopping moves online and jobs at commercial events dry up. As the tragic death of a promotional model consumes media oxygen for a second week, the case has shined light into the murky, profitable and potentially dangerous work of the pretty, as such models are referred to in Thailand. But less known is the jargon-laced lexicon of pretties, where terms like EN-Bikinis, EN-Ups and EN-VIPS are used to euphemistically classify women and jobs by how far they’re willing to go to earn a paycheck.
While some are criticizing the vocation as a “risky” career choice for women, one former pretty says it remains a great opportunity for young women to support themselves and their families with real money, and a potential stepping stone to a more established career. “In the recent weeks’ news of Thitim “Bell” Noraphanpiphat, the pretty industry has been getting a bad reputation, and that makes me really uneasy, because it is not a reflection of what the career is actually like,” Naraporn “Mind Mint” Faipongsa, a former model of seven years.
“Being a pretty is a legit and honest job that has helped feed many families. It is also a great starting point for people who want to work in the beauty industry,” she added. Similar to Western “booth babes,” Thailand’s pretty phenomenon is generally thought to have originated as a Japanese import three decades ago. Around 1986, the story goes, Toyota was the first company to hire attractive women to stand around its vehicles to draw male customers. They soon brought the practice to Thailand for a motor show, which has become the event most associated with them. Back in the carefree days, legions of male “photographers” would descend on the events to see highly sexualized models wearing next to nothing. Government morality enforcers began calling for it to be reined in, and late December 2016 saw models forced to cover up.
It was reaching the motor shows, that Naraporn said was a pretty’s “pinnacle of success.”
“I was so happy and proud when I finally started getting hired for motor shows. It was what I was aiming for since I joined the pretty industry,” she said. If the motor show is the pinnacle, the climb begins with small gigs at private parties, nightclubs, and markets. Many pretties looking for work hang out in Line chat groups where jobs are circulated. They contain short, brief notices that specify everything from height, weight, and skin tone to how much the job pays - and what services will be required. Some go into great detail about what kind of touching may be expected - from gentle petting to breast-fondling to hands-inside-underwear contact. The poster usually takes a commission. “How much we get paid solely depends on the client. Only really successful and established pretties get to name their price,” said Naraporn. The pretties themselves are classified as follows in those postings, with the types often written in English:
Event pretties or “booth babes” are the most traditional and common type seen promoting or presenting products or services. They often wear tight-fitting, sexy clothes. Typical rates range from about THB1,500 (US$50) to THB4,000 (US$130) per job.
Much like booth-babe pretties, emcees help promote or present a business, but they also have to speak into a microphone and use their words to persuade customers to come check out the product or service they are helping promote. Anyone who’s walked through a mall or market or festival has heard their rapid-fire pitches, usually made over a small PA. They get paid from about THB2,500 (US$82) to THB4,000 (US$130) per job. Naraporn says emcees usually get paid about THB500 more than a Booth pretty. “Not everyone can be an emcee, because you have to use your language skills. I worked a few promotional gigs before I was confident enough to become one,” she said.
EN stands for entertainment. Such gigs entail solely entertaining customers, like at an event, a party or someone’s house. But it can also mean being hired to hang out with someone, drink or eat with them, and make conversation, like a Japanese hostess. But that’s it – models know En jobs end there without any expectation of sex. Some have asserted online that this is the type of job Thitim was promised – with “100% Safety” on Sept. 16, when she was plied with booze and lost consciousness. These jobs usually pay between THB2,500 (US$84) and THB5,000 (US$164). Though Naraporn said she’s never taken any EN jobs, she said she has much admiration for models that do so. “I’m just not good at entertaining people, so I’ve never taken any En jobs, but I really admire people who do it because it requires skill, charm and talent,” she said.
Similar to regular Ens, but they are required to wear bikinis the entire time. EN-Bikinis are often hired for events with a pool. They’re usually paid from THB2,500 (US$84) to THB10,000 (US$327) per job.
“Up” in this case comes from up yaa, which translates to getting high on party drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine, ketamine or speed. N-Ups take jobs where they’re expected to party hard with illicit drugs. These pretties are usually paid anywhere from THB3,000 (US$100) to THB10,000 (US$330).
Rang basically means “hardcore.” These are gigs that will entail a lot of touching from customers but does not end in intercourse of any kind. Prices usually vary from THB5,000 (US$164) to THB10,000 (US$327) per job.
Finally there are the EN-VIP gigs, which means they are expected to go all the way with clients. These pretties start their nights as entertainers and end up in bed with those they are entertaining. Rates vary according to the pretty’s profile. For example, any celebrity credentials – like appearing on camera or other credits – can see their rates shoot up sky-high, anywhere from THB7,000 (US$230) to 100,000 (US$3,300).
Naraporn first became a pretty during her third year at the University of Khon Kaen in Thailand’s northeast. “I honestly first became a pretty because it was easy money. Back then, my mom would constantly chase me for not making my own money,” she told Coconuts Bangkok with a chuckle. Originally, Naraporn joined the entertainment industry as a runway model, but after doing a few catwalks, she made connections and began taking promotional gigs. “I wanted to make a lot of money, so it was either becoming a celebrity or a pretty. Back then – I wasn’t as attractive as I am now, so I thought becoming a celebrity would be a little too far of a stretch,” she said with a laugh, admitting to the cosmetic surgery she’s undergone to enhance her marketability.
Narapon said her family wasn’t initially happy with her decision. “But then again, they were also mad at me when I got my breasts done, haha,” she said, adding that after a while, her family realized it was a safe and honest job. However, Naraporn admits that she was creeped out by fans several times during her time as a pretty. She recalls one instance when an admirer crossed the line into stalker by following her around. “There was this guy who came to my events five days in a row. He would stand there and just look at me without even leaving to eat or anything. At first I thought he was just an intense fan, but he kept coming back. The second time, he came to my event with a bouquet,” she said.
After attending her fifth event, he asked her to dinner and then for sex. He kept following her, sometimes into the parking lot. She had to call security to get him blacklisted from the event hall. Still, Naraporn said she loved being a pretty and never felt like she was putting herself “at risk.” To her, that meant not taking any “EN” jobs. “But I understand why people who are pressed for money would take the job like Lunlabelle. I read that she’s a single mother, so I can only assume that she only took the EN job because she really needed the money, especially now that jobs have become harder to find.”
Naraporn explained that, since the boom of online retail stores, the need for promotional pretties hawking everything from computer printers to blenders has decreased, and many in the industry have to take more EN jobs to earn a living. “That’s why there are so many different types of pretties now,” she said. “The industry is changing.”