He has 200 models on his books and some of them are Myanmar’s best-known film stars. In 1995, Mr Lwin organised Myanmar’s first fashion show since 1962 and in December 2013 he acquired the copyright of Manhunt International, which will give Myanmar’s male models their first opportunity to compete internationally.
Yet Mr Lwin’s entry into the world of male modelling was accidental.
“In 1988 Myanmar completely collapsed and my father told me that if I remained here I’d have no future. He enrolled me in a three-month English-speaking course in Singapore, but I didn’t want to go. At the airport I cried and threw my shoes in protest.”
But within a few months, Mr Lwin, then 22, began to enjoy his new lifestyle in Singapore and told his father he had enrolled in a hotel management course. To supplement a US$500 monthly allowance from his father, Mr Lwin began working in a cassette factory.
“I worked at the factory from 11pm until 7am and then slept on the bus that got me to college by 9am. I was very unhappy.”
While standing bleary-eyed at a bus stop one morning, he noticed a woman paying him close attention.
“I thought she was trying to steal my bag so I held it close,” he recalled. “But then she said, ‘Do you want to be a model?’”
Mr Lwin had no idea what modelling involved, but when told he could earn up to $10,000 a month, he did not hesitate to arrange a meeting. Within a few months he was earning $15,000 a month and travelling extensively throughout the region for modelling jobs. In 1992, he won Singapore’s “Face of the Year” title.
“I was the only Burmese model in Singapore at that time and most assumed I was of Malay descent. But it wasn’t that I loved modelling – I was doing it for the money,” he said.
Five years later, Mr Lwin was approached by a famous Singaporean fashion designer, Bobby Chng, whose clothes he’d modelled.
Mr Chng’s offer to join a clothing export joint venture was financially unappealing to a highly paid male model. But when Mr Lwin lost a week’s work after injuring his chin in a heavy fall while rushing to a fashion show, he started to think hard about his long term prospects.
Mr Lwin agreed to set up Myanmar Asia Trading, which involved exporting male fashion wear from Myanmar to Singapore. His network of contacts in the fashion industry expanded and he was invited to organise the breakthrough fashion show in 1995. Its success prompted him to establish Stars and Models International.
How a male model is born
As well as those enrolled at his training academy, Mr Lwin is always on the look-out in Yangon for untapped male beauty.
“I saw one guy in a tea shop – I asked him to stand up to determine his height and asked if he’d like to be a model. He’s now making $50,000 a month,” he said with a laugh.
While Mr Lwin says he can’t put into words what the “X Factor” is, there are some lines that cannot be crossed.
“I don’t want anyone over 25 – that’s getting old,” he said.
Unlike much of the rest of the world, a male model’s height is not a deal breaker in Myanmar, he said, unlike long hair or facial hair. Those who have a Korean appearance are far more likely to become commercially successful, he said.
Mr Lwin said many male models incorrectly assume that advice on regular exercise and a healthy diet can be ignored.
“They believe they can make it with their face alone – but that’s an unwise decision to make,” he said.
Despite Myanmar having an abundance of handsome men of South Asian descent, this is a no-go zone in terms of Myanmar’s modelling industry.
“I have one singer on our books who’s handsome but looks a little Indian. He’s on a 10-year contract and is doing very well because he has a beautiful voice, but when shooting his music videos, I usually never show his face,” Mr Lwin said. “He’s Muslim and there are problems with Muslims, so it wouldn’t work.”
Another issue in terms of images can be photo shoots and some photogaphers say male models can be a challenge.
Freelance fashion photographer Ko Taik toldMizzima Business Weeklyhe often feels frustrated while shooting male models.
“Females are far easier to shoot,” Ko Taik said. “Women have more experience and their poses are more original,” he said.
“Males are more difficult because their poses are often awkward. They need a lot of direction from the photographer and getting a male model to relax is hard. They always seem to want to look powerful but a relaxed posture is almost always better.”
Ko Taik said the easiest male models to work with on fashion shoots had modelling agency experience.
“And male models turn up on time, while women usually don’t,” he said.
While male models tend to be less prone to egotism than their female counterparts, Mr Lwin takes a strictly no-nonsense approach towards those who step out of line.
“Sometimes I call a model and their mother answers the phone and says, ‘Talk to me?my son is busy.’ I’ve even had to drive to models’ homes, where I then stand out the front and scream at them. Then I freeze the model for at least three months?I give them no work whatsoever.”
“A lot of people in this industry are scared of me,” he said.
Mr Lwin said he recently adopted a new approach to keep his talent pool in check.
“I don’t let anyone become famous for at least six months anymore, because their heads just aren’t ready for it and they end up crashing,” he said. “I make my models go through a lot of training and jobs like ushering before I allow something big to come along.”
Manhunt in Myanmar
Mr Lwin is an unapologetically ambitious entrepreneur and last December he acquired the copyright for Manhunt International?which for the past three years has been considered the ultimate platform for male models to gain domestic exposure.
The Myanmar version of Manhunt has been headed by Htay Min Htun of Myanmar Model Management and attracts more than 300 competitors from throughout the country. Myanmar expatriates in Singapore also reportedly return to compete for the title. The competition is held in October and is aired twice daily on MRTV4 for a week. The winner receives K1.5 million (about US$1,500) – half of which goes towards a modelling contract.
Model Kyaw Ko Ko Wai, 24, a trainer at Stars and Models International, was awarded second place in the 2013 Manhunt competition.
“It was an experience I’ll never forget because it was so competitive,” Kyaw Ko Ko Wai said. “There was so much pressure to perform,” he said.
The winners of Manhunt are often the victims of gossip and rumours abound that the outcome of the competition is predetermined to benefit those who have close relationships with the judges.
“People say nasty things about the winners but our competition is fair and completely unbiased,” said U Aung Paing Oo, 26, a trainer at Myanmar Model Management, which for the past three years has been organising a Myanmar version of Manhunt that is not affiliated with Manhunt International.
There’s some optimism in the industry that by engaging with the internationally-recognised Manhunt International competition, Mr Lwin will provide much needed opportunities for Myanmar’s male models, who are often subject to illegitimate business proposals.
For years, Mr Lwin has received a steady stream of emails from China inquiring about his male models and often proposing shared contractual arrangements.
“I worry about the possibility of human trafficking?none of these people ever actually come to Myanmar to meet with me in person.”
Two years ago, Mr Lwin was contacted by a casting company in Indonesia that claimed to be seeking male models for a well-known TV series. It said being chosen to appear in the series could lead to three-year modelling contracts, international assignments and a salary of $8,000 a month.
“So we selected three models and flew to Indonesia for a meeting,” Mr Lwin said.
“On the first night, a gay man took us out for dinner and asked me if one of my models would accompany him for a drink later that night. I refused. His phone was then permanently off and we ended up having to pay for the hotel bill and airfares?which was contrary to the original agreement,” he said.
“Singapore’s male model industry looks for height, muscle build and a sharp face. Hong Kong’s models most often have chubby faces, while in mainland China, height and strong cheekbones are in vogue. Myanmar models often don’t fit these profiles,” said Mr Lwin.
No pay for editorial shoots
The possibility to work overseas is needed, because Myanmar’s fashion magazines and journals rarely pay models for shoots – whether it’s a cover or an inside spread.
“The model’s name and agency name is credited?that’s it,” Mr Lwin said.
He said that many Myanmar’s models are willing to work for free to gain exposure; even movie stars don’t expect payment.
“The problem is that all models will shoot for free?they must come together and refuse to work without pay. I think the time will soon come when this changes,” he said.
While commercial product advertising pays well, most domestic and international fashion labels are unwilling to use Myanmar models.
“When we’ve approached men’s clothing companies for shoots?or even events like Myanmar Fashion Week?they tell us that the collars or what not might get dirty in the process and refuse to provide us with clothing. The local fashion industry has to change: how else can they market their clothes? Most often, models bring their own clothes to a shoot or a designer creates something for them.”
For those like U Aung Paing Oo, who started modelling at the age of 14 and never wanted to make the shift to the more lucrative alternatives of singing or acting, making a living as a model was not viable.
“It’s difficult to make ends meet through modelling alone,” U Aung Paing Oo said. “I had to supplement my income by working for my father’s car import company. Working as a trainer is a much better alternative financially,” he said.
“If somebody just wants to be a model?he may get work twice a month and then needs to be ‘happy’ in his home for the rest of the time,” said Hpone Thaik, 29, one of Myanmar’s top male models, who has starred in several television series, as well as movies and commercials.
In July last year, he married superstar singer Chan Chan, who also models with Stars and Models International, and they have a five-month-old daughter.
There are, of course, upsides to being a male model?such as having a flock of female fans.
“Sure, I get a lot of attention when I go out. I’m a single guy and it’s fun,” said male model Kaung Sitt Thway.
“I actually have more female fans now than I did before Chan and Chan and I got married,” Hpone Thaik said. “When I post pictures of my baby girl on Facebook, women write lovely things about me loving my family,” he said.
Hpone Thaik did have one memorable experience with a stalker. For more than a year, he received hand-written love letters and phone calls from a young woman in Meiktila. She even posted him a CD containing images of international male models, complete with tips on how to strike a pose.
Hpone Thaik said he wasn’t stressed by her fanaticism, but was grateful when the situation finally came to a head. When the woman learned that Hpone Thaik was in Magway, she hopped on a motorbike and drove four hours to see her idol in the flesh.
“When she saw that I was there with Chan Chan her face fell. She cried a lot and after that I didn’t hear from her again,” he said.
“Most models come from middle class families,” said Kyaw Ko Ko Wai. “Wealthy young people aren’t attracted to modeling?they prefer to study and go clubbing and look down on modelling,” he said.
Kyaw Ko Ko Wai said that while some models have acquired reputations for greed because they have pursued wealthy partners as a means to an end, there are also known cases of “rich people dating models for fun?most wouldn’t marry them.”
Hpone Thaik said it is widely assumed at some levels of society that male models are gay because they wear make-up.
“Educated people understand the fashion industry and don’t share these views,” he said.
This Article first appeared in the August 7, 2014 edition of Mizzima Business Weekly.
Mizzima Business Weekly is available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com
John Lwin. Photo: Jessica Mudditt