"Believe in yourself. Be yourself. Push yourself."
Kouy Chandanich, 26, Judge & Model, Cambodia's Next Top Model
Kouy Chandanich (who goes by Danich) has had an amazing career as a model. First discovered at 21 by Sapor Modeling Agency, it is hard to believe she once lacked the confidence to be a model. She overcame her insecurities, pushed herself and believed in herself. In 2012 she was the first Cambodian model (and only Asian model) selected to participate in Australia Fashion Week. Now at 26 she is Cambodia’s most sought after and seasoned model, gracing the covers of magazines, walking the international runways, and now being the face of the popular TV show “Cambodia’s Next Top Model.”
She wants more, not only for herself, but for her country. She wants Cambodia to be put on the fashion map. She dreams of Cambodia as a destination where top models are sought after; where Cambodian models grace the cover of Vogue; where people travel to Cambodia not only to see Angkor Wat, but for high fashion shopping. She is determined to help raise the profile of professional modeling in Cambodia and wants to help young Khmer models embrace their natural beauty. She is breaking the mold and helping to bring Cambodia to the next level of fashion.
Danich shares with me what it was like to grow up in Phnom Penh in the early 90s, how she started her modeling career, how she overcame her insecurities, her hopes and dreams for the fashion industry in Cambodia, and what advice she has for new models.
Q: Where did you grow up? What were some of your fondest memories as a child?
Danich: I was born in Phnom Penh. Out of 5 siblings, I am the middle child. We are all very different. My older brother decided to have a simple life working in the rice field. It’s hard work, but he’s happy. My older sister works in the factory. They are both happy with their family. They have their own lives. I have two younger brothers. One is in school and the other one wants to be a singer. We are all so different.
I think some of the fondest memories growing up was spending time with my family. Those moments were really special. We are not a rich family. Every weekend my parents made sure they took us around. Before, there was a kids park and there were less cars in Phnom Penh. My dad would take me to Wat Phnom on an elephant ride. My father used to be a police officer, and my mom is a silk seller and because she’s from Kandal Province, she used to make it by hand. Sometimes we would go to the province and she would show me how to do it. She’s still doing it now. I think the family moments we spent together were really special.
Q: What were some of the difficulties you experienced growing up in Phnom Penh?
Danich: My parents had a bit of a struggle when they moved to Phnom Penh. It was hard back then. My dad had to balance taking care of the family, studying and working. My mom was a supportive wife. They didn’t have a house. They lived with a distant family member in a small room. He was going to school, working, and had to find an extra job to support their family. They wanted a better life for their kids.
Also, I remember back in the '90s Phnom Penh was not safe, especially before the elections. Going to Kandal used to take only one hour, but it took an entire day one time. Everyone was leaving the city. We couldn’t go on a straight road. We had to take an alley road. I remember we drove through forests. It was a scary moment. We heard gunshots back then. I saw a big truck coming to my house. They weren’t coming to kill us, but it was scary. Then my parents decided to leave for the province.
We were away for about a week then came back. It took a while for us to feel safe to walk to school.
I remember every time there was an election I was worried. But in this last election, I wasn’t worried. I wasn’t scared that something was going to happen. Not because of my age, but just remembering what I experienced when I was young. I was happy to see my people stand up to what they believed in. I wasn’t scared, I knew it was going to be OK because we are in 2015 you can’t do what was done in the past. We have really strong people.
Q: How did you get your start in modeling?
Danich: I had a bad time in school. I think most models have a bad time in school. Being the ugly one, too skinny, too tall. I was picked on at school. I didn’t have friends because I was the tallest. No one wanted to hangout with me. They called me names, bullied me in high school. I dropped out of school in the 9th grade because I wanted to work, not because I hated school, but because I wanted to make my own money, and help my family. My mom just wanted me to go to school. I worked as a cashier at a restaurant. Eventually I left the restaurant and went back to school to learn English.
At the end of 2010, when I was 21, I met Sapor (founder of Sapor Modeling Agency) at a housewarming party. We talked and she asked me to come to her agency. If you look at Europe, 21 would be too old, but age doesn’t matter really. International supermodels like Kate Moss are still working. Before, I used to be concerned about my age, but because Cambodia has few models now, I am not that concerned.
I've always wanted to be a model, but never had a chance. I didn’t go the first time, but went the second time I saw her. I wasn’t confident. I was scared of my look. I didn’t think I was pretty enough. Cambodians prefer white skin, and I am darker. Then I joined and thought, it’s not that bad. I can do this. It helped my confidence. I remember my first runway, I was scared, but after I did it I wanted more. I thought, this is it, this is me! After that I pushed myself. It’s never enough. My goal is to have people think of Cambodia as a place for models. When I reach that point, then I can relax.
Q: Who is your role model?
Danich: Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. Kate Moss is short but she broke into the market. She showed that you didn’t have to be tall to be famous. She kills every picture. I look at her and want to be like her. She has something about her. Naomi Campbell was the first dark woman who broke the barrier; she proved you didn’t have to have white skin to be a supermodel. They pushed the boundaries. They showed you have to believe in yourself.
Q: What difficulties and successes did you face early on in modeling?
Danich: Of course you feel pressure, a new face, a new member. It was hard, but I believed in myself, that there was something different about me. I started to believe more and more that I could do it. Sometimes people have passion but they don’t push themselves. I push myself everyday. There is never enough. I want to learn new things. After joining the agency 2-3 weeks, I learned how to walk. I think early on the hardest was building the confidence. It was a bit scary, millions of eyes starring at you, judging you, but afterwards, I got more jobs, I started getting more confident.
My parents were supportive, especially my mom, she’s proud, especially when she sees me on TV. They are so proud. My father is very different from other Khmer dads. He’s very open minded, very supportive. He never really shows his emotion but he said “I’m really proud of what you are doing. If you are doing something, give it your all” When I am down, I remember those words and push myself even harder. My mom says “if other woman can do it, you can do it.” I’m lucky I have really supportive parents of my career. My other biggest supporter is my husband. He's always been there for me, giving me good advice.
For the international runways, my height is still is shorter, but for Cambodia it is very tall. When I heard the news I was going to participate in International Fashion Week in Australia I was very excited. It was in the newspapers. I was the only Asian, the darkest skin there. Everyone had blue eyes and blond hair. Because I was different, I think I stood out. I was the face of Fashion Week. It was a proud moment for me to represent Cambodia.
Q: What is the state of the fashion industry in Cambodia today?
Danich: Cambodia is a hard market to work in. People don’t really believe Cambodia has models. In other countries, you make so much money. Here it’s limited because there’s no appreciation yet, but once they appreciate it, there will be more value. I’m trying to push more, for special models to get more money. At the moment only the singers and actors make good money, but that’s not even a lot.
For events, we have Phnom Penh Designer Week and the Fashion Illumination event. It seems very busy, things happening all the time, but I want it to be good quality. I’m pleased to see the fashion show, but I want them to give their best. There’s no point in having a lot of events if it’s no good. It should be about quality not quantity. It’s OK to have just one big event once a year, but it has to be a really good one. I want people to focus more on that. We, in the fashion industry, have to give our best.
In terms of designers, there are some up and coming designers that just graduated from Raffles International College in Phnom Penh. They do a fashion show every year. One girl in particular, just designed some nice pieces for a recent show. The talent was amazing. They loved her brand, they loved her collection, but she’s still very young. Her collection was different because it wasn’t silk and krama. It was unique fashion; modern, classic, funky, fresh, youthful, and simple colors. There are also some designers that are using recyclable materials to design interesting things.
Q: What are your hopes and dreams for Cambodia and what will it take for the country to get there?
Danich: I want Cambodian models to be on the international runaways: Paris, Milan, New York, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. I want them to be on the cover of Vogue. Not just the models but the brands, the fashion collection (big brands, big cities). To do that we have to bring the quality, to push ourselves more. At the end of the day it’s about the quality, then people will start to pay attention.
I want people to focus on more brands/materials as a local. Local doesn’t always have to mean silk or krama. Make more designs, more fashion. I want people to not only visit Cambodia just to see Angkor Wat. My friends will go somewhere else to go shopping. I want people to spend more time here in Phnom Penh. I want them to come here as a shopping destination.
Now we have Aeon, a proper shopping mall. It’s a good start but there are only a few stores for shopping. There’s no real international “brands”. Now people are willing to pay good money for quality. Cambodian women nowadays, they want brands. They want nice things like good makeup, but they have to leave the country to get it. Cambodians are ready for it.
Q: What advice would you have for new models?
Danich: There are only a few great models in Cambodia. We have lots of people who want to be models. At the same time, some don’t know what it means to be a model. It’s not a bad thing. I’m happy they want to be models, but I don’t want them to ruin the name because I’m one of them. I’m trying my hardest to push it going forward, to give the value of models. I want them to take care of what it means to be a model, to represent. That means to know the designers, brands, how you behave, how you talk to people, go to the gym, waxing legs, and overall, taking care of yourself.
Some don’t understand how important it is yet. It’s not just about looking pretty in pictures. To someone who doesn’t know, the picture may look fine, but it’s the little things that help you, the facial expression. There has to be your own character. When you are on stage, there has to be something defining to remember you. Second, if you have a bad attitude you never will get a job. Being on time, being professional is so important. Being a model is not just about being pretty.
We have models in Cambodia, not as much as international markets, but we are getting there. Back four or five years ago we didn’t have it. But it’s here now. I try to tell the new models, believe in your natural beauty. People ask me why don’t I change my nose, my chin, and get white skin. It’s so popular here. I often say "Why would I do that if I’m successful the way I am? If I change my skin then I won’t be special anymore. My clients want that look." When they say, “I want to be like you.” It’s a problem. I tell them “Please, believe in yourself. Be yourself, push yourself, if you fail, keep pushing.”
Q: You've been able to build a successful career at a young age. What advice would you have to young people who may be struggling but want to follow a similar path.
Danich: First of all, believe in yourself, be confident, push yourself. If you want to be a model, research and learn as much as possible. Being professional is very important. Once you have one client and have a good reputation, more will come. Most of all understand this: it’s not just about your reputation. Think about helping to bring Cambodia to the fashion map.
*See some of Danich's work in the photo gallery below.
*Read the Phnom Penh Post article on Danich's participation at Australia Fashion Week in 2012*
*Follow Danich: Web: http://www.kouychandanich.com
Watch an episode of Cambodia's Top Model where Danich is one of the judges.