Amidst the rows of hardware and machinist shops that multiply on St 355 as it winds its way closer to the mirage-like Camko City, transgender TV star Poppy runs a thriving beauty salon on the ground floor of her parent’s shop house.
Its address, and business model, belies the generic advice of the business consultants who have rushed in from all over the globe over the past few years to grab a share of the cash being tossed around by the country’s tycoons and their often senseless children.
Poppy’s picked an unlikely location, targetted a relatively cash-poor demographic (those whose monthly disposable income would be consumed by a Riverside dinner), and hasn’t even bothered with English or much of a sign to attract business.
When we visited a few weeks ago her clients were mostly young men in baggy shorts and flip flops getting facials.
“I tell them I can make them look five years younger,” Poppy explained during an interview that flitted between chairs around a table in the shop and a couch at the back.
Her focus was mainly on her customers. They don’t read the Post, so we had to wait for her breaks between applying facials and cutting hair. She was also arranging the logistics of a visit to a village where she would emcee a program on inclusive development for SEA TV the next day. She managed all this without forgetting to make a sales pitch (most often successful) for health tonics and beauty products to each departing client.
“I had to fight to be strong. At times I had to really push myself”
The interview was conducted in bits and pieces, as though she was also sussing us out. As it progressed she became less humourous and more revealing: dropping details that added up to a portrait of a woman who – as you get closer – can’t help noticing has eyes like fists.
It’s a strength she is well aware of: one she puts down to a combination of the exercises she went through to become a TV presenter (learning to stare at a candle’s flame without blinking) as well as her decade-long effort to transform social ridicule into respect.
“Nowadays, I use my eyes to show my strength when I’m around powerful people,” Poppy says, but it was when she first began dressing as a woman in public about eight years ago that she started to use them to silence hecklers.
“I was considered unacceptable then,” she says, explaining that people “looked down on her” and made derogatory comments. Her reaction was a rising awareness of other people’s ignorance.
“I felt so disappointed by them,” she recalls. “I just kept silent and stared. I used my eyes to respond to them. I had to fight to be strong. At times I had to really push myself.”
Her shy glance gradually rose from anger and disappointment to one that is capable of erasing disparaging remarks before they can even be thought of by those thinking to insult her. Poppy is quite proud of the surgery she has had to correct her body, especially her breasts which were on full display in a red and black bustier.
“The top in Cambodia; down there in Thailand,” she says, pointing to the space between her long legs, which – when she has time to sit – cross effortlessly about an inch above her knees: left over right.
She wears only a touch of make-up, however: mascara, lipstick and a bit of blush.
“I like the natural look,” she says.
Fame began a decade ago when she was named Miss Lady Boy on the country’s first televised lady boy pageant. The judges based their decision on how the 30 contestants performed in three categories: ladylike behaviour, general social knowledge and Aspara dancing.
Poppy says she was surprised to win. So was her mother, Tout Khun, who did not know her son was a lady boy till Poppy invited her to the taping.
“I felt such love when I saw her,” Tout Khun recalls. “She was so beautiful.”
She had noticed that Poppy was different as a child: most of her friends were girls and she preferred dolls to toy trucks, but says she never discouraged her.
“I don’t think parents of [transgender children] should get angry or upset,” she says. “Just let them be who they are because it is natural for them.”
Poppy is not picky about the words people use to describe her: lady boy, transgender, third sex.
“Just call me Poppy,” she says. “I’m a star.”
The name was bestowed by a judge at the Miss Lady Boy contest, an official with the Ministry of Culture who was fond of a Thai actress popular at the time.
After being named Miss Lady Boy, it took Poppy about two years before she ventured out in public dressed the way she felt comfortable. She decided soon after that she’d have to go into business for herself if she wanted a job so she moved to Bangkok and picked up three certificates in cosmetology and hair dressing.
“Just call me Poppy. I’m a star”
She avoided getting involved with Thai men because she did not trust them, though admits to an affair with a European she met in an elevator.
“It started out with eye contact,” she recalls.
Poppy says she’s freer than most Khmer women because she can have a succession of boyfriends without diminishing her value in the eyes of men. Her current boyfriend has lasted two years, but Poppy seems to be running out of patience with him due to his “jealousy”.
“If he leaves I won’t be hurt. I love myself and my family first. He’s quite handsome but I’m more attractive than him.”
She says social attitudes towards transgender people are changing rapidly in Cambodia, from laughter to respect. Many now work as beauticians and some have even appeared on runways as models.
One gauge of the level of social change was an award she picked up earlier this: Cambodia’s Most Attractive Star.
“It was like crossing a bridge,” Poppy says, adding that she was shocked to win.
When we leave her salon she invites us to become friends on Facebook, but when we tried we received automated messages saying she had reached her limit.