WHEN Miss Thailand 1992, Ornanong Panyawong Awakul, was crowned at a glittering ceremony in Bangkok, the 19-year-old caused quite a buzz by announcing that she had been sponsored by the international charity World Vision when she was a child.
Not every beauty queen would want to reveal her poverty-stricken background on national TV. But Awakul didn’t want to hide behind a facade.
“I am not ashamed of having come from a poor family; it’s my wish that my story will bring hope to others in similar situations,” Awakul, now 37, says through a translator at an interview last week in the World Vision Malaysia office in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
The non-profit relief, development and advocacy organisation is known for its child sponsorship programme in 50 developing countries.
Awakul’s sponsorship began when she was 10 years old and continued, for eight years, until she completed her studies at the Chiang Mai School of Performing Arts, Thailand, where she was trained in traditional Thai dance. An Australian family first began sponsoring her, followed by a Canadian family.
Awakul went on to obtain a BA in Fine Arts from the University of Chulalongkorn, one of Thailand’s top universities. Now, 17 years after winning that pageant, Awakul remains a popular and sought after celebrity in her country. She was even mobbed by some Thai tourists when she arrived at the KL International Airport for her recent visit!
Aside from being an actress and a talk show host and running her own traditional Thai dance school, Awakul is an avid spokesperson for World Vision. Perhaps this is what keeps her grounded in the real world beyond showbiz and the jet-setting circles of Thai society.
“I have never forgotten how my parents had to work day and night to feed my siblings and me,” she says quietly.
“My father juggled jobs as a construction worker and handy man, and in between he operated a tricycle taxi in Chiang Mai town. My mother was a factory janitor and sold fruits in the market.”
Awakul and her six siblings lived with their parents in a hut by a creek. The family would augment its diet by fishing and collecting wild vegetables from the surrounding jungle; they would sell any surplus at the town market. And very occasionally, they’d have the great treat of chicken for dinner.
“It was very hard for me whenever my parents went without food so that we (children) would have enough to eat instead,” says Awakul soberly.
“I always thought that my life was going to be just like that. I thought that I would go no further than becoming a vegetable seller. I was always hopeful, but I never expected to finish my schooling.”
In 1992, three children from Awakul’s school were selected for World Vision’s child sponsorship programme, including Awakul.
As a sponsored child, she had to maintain her grades in school. It wasn’t a problem for she was overjoyed at the prospect of attaining her basic education.
“I was so motivated to know that
I had a chance to finish schooling. I paid extra attention at school and all I wanted was to make my foster parents proud of me,” Awakul recalls.
“I’ve never met them although we wrote letters. They seemed to live in such a very different, interesting world from mine back then!”
The road to fame
So, how did that wide-eyed child from Chiang Mai, then a backwater town in northern Thailand, end up on a stage at 19, accepting a crown? Well, that schooling Awakul had wanted so passionately to complete helped.
Her long-held interest in traditional Thai dance, a mesmerising but challenging art form that used to be performed in the royal courts of old Siam, and the generosity of her World Vision sponsors, led her to the performing arts school.
Once there, Awakul was scouted during a cultural centre performance and persuaded to enter the Chiang Mai beauty pageant – where she won the Miss Photogenic title. She was then encouraged to enter the national contest for Miss Thailand, a very competitive pageant indeed given the country’s reputation for producing stunning contestants for the international pageants.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d end up being in the finals!” Awakul recalls, laughing.
“There were 68 competitors and two were overwhelming favourites. They were of mixed parentage so they were both exotic and beautiful and spoke excellent English, having lived in America for years. But I got through the first round, then went on to the final 10 round, and the last five!”
Awakul’s knowledge of and passion for Thai traditions endeared her to the jury, which was mesmerised by the classic Chiang Mai beauty. It gave her an edge over the two favourites who could barely speak Thai, and she went on to cause a major upset by winning the crown.
A new life
And so the little girl who thought she’d grow up to become a vegetable seller represented Thailand in the Miss Universe pageant held that year, 1992, in Bangkok and at tourism festivals overseas. Surreal, Awakul herself acknowledges!
World Vision Thailand happily informed Awakul’s former sponsors that the little kid they had once helped had become a famous personality in her country.
But perhaps Awakul’s father, who died six years ago, had somehow always known his sixth child would be special; after all, he’d named her Ornanong, which aptly means “slender beauty”.
He did live to see some of his daughter’s success, to know that, for the first time, a member of his family had graduated from university.
A defining moment for Awakul came when, at 24, she saved enough to buy her parents a house.
After her one-year term as Miss Thailand ended, Awakul enrolled in Chulalongkorn University. It was there, during her freshman year, that she met her future husband, a very shy senior. They dated for three years before marrying and now have two boys, Akira, four, and little Chiyon.
And, yes, the couple sponsors children through World Vision; Awakul and her hubby have six foster kids, with the eldest a university freshman.
“The sponsorship amount under World Vision was not large but it was a constant source of support that gave me the hope to finish my education,” says Awakul.
“It set me up for life. How could I keep silent about how this programme has made such a difference in my life? I am happy I have fulfilled my promise to make my parents and my foster parents proud of me.
“I hope that many young people who are from similar poor backgrounds like me will always have hopes and dreams to work hard and rise above their circumstances.”
Source: The Star