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Tea Leaves

In Thai star vlogger's universe, wealth equals happiness

Smash-hit 'reality' show confuses female empowerment with material success

Vatanika Patamasingha Na Ayudhaya

The founder of Thailand's Vatanika fashion brand has some unusual advice for her friends: "Everything in your life should be an art piece."

Vatanika Patamasingha Na Ayudhaya, who is also creative director of her eponymous brand, has taken her own counsel with a "reality" show that has taken Thailand by storm since it was launched on YouTube in August, with at least 1 million views per episode.

"This Is Me Vatanika" is already a Thai cultural phenomenon, documenting its star's life and business in a way that has prompted many to see her as a local version of Kim Kardashian, a star of the U.S. reality show "Keeping Up with the Kardashians."

Vatanika presents herself as an independent and modern working woman, insisting in local media that the show's objective is to "present Vatanika outfits on real people rather than models." This is to help women see that they "don't need to have a perfect body, but can be confident and love who [they] really are."

The show also claims to be an inspiration for women in business, promising a glimpse into how Vatanika and her colleagues -- many of them women -- have turned the brand into a successful business, with designs worn by American stars such as Jennifer Lopez and Taylor Swift.

But in the eyes of critics, Vatanika's claim to be a champion of gender equality does not stand scrutiny. Her show's focus is entirely on her glamorous "hi-so" lifestyle -- a Thai term for people who have made a lot of money or come from wealthy backgrounds. Fashion is a popular career choice for young women like her.

The show revolves around entertaining but ridiculous moments and hinges on a single premise: that Vatanika's world is as rich, glamorous and excessive as she is. We see Vatanika storing bundles of cash in her fridge, hosting an extravagant gladiator-themed birthday party and installing two sinks in her bathroom -- one for her own use and another purely for show.

Celebrities and fashion icons praise her intelligence and work ethic, or wax lyrical about how her clothes have helped Thai women to embrace their sexuality. But in the world of the show only one version of Asian womanhood is on display: the light-skinned, hour-glass figure of the sexy Instagram model. Feminism is reduced to the sight of a group of girlfriends drinking from 200-year-old tea cups, just because they can.

Scenes with real substance or what you might call "real people" are few and far between. The show does feature Vatanika's maid, Sa, and butler, Trent. But their presence does little to relieve its elitist tone. Although Vatanika is never unkind, and there seems to be genuine warmth between her and her staff, the class disparity is never more apparent than when she is waltzing around her expensive apartment while they trot after her, clad in their uniforms, like actors in a scene from "Downton Abbey."

When Vatanika has to disguise herself as an "everyday" person, she does so by removing her makeup and putting on glasses, overalls and a bowl-cut wig. The scene, intended to be humorous, is laced with the condescension of privileged women who equate female empowerment with wealth and a particular type of physical beauty -- a criticism widely leveled at the Kardashians, whose show is an obvious inspiration for "This is me."

By flaunting her lifestyle in this way, Vatanika and others like her are reinforcing the notion that success and happiness can be measured only by social status and material success.

Her brand of womanhood can be dismissed as mindless escapism. But it appears crass against the shocking truth of rising inequality in Asia, where the gap between rich and poor is widening at an alarming rate. A recent study by Oxfam, a charity, found that Asia currently has the largest number of millionaires and billionaires in the world, but is also home to two-thirds of its poor.

And in a society where young girls are bombarded with images that breed self-consciousness, shouldn't influential women do all they can to dispel the patriarchal narrative rather than add to it?

Vatanika might argue that her show merely demonstrates how successful women can "have it all." But the truth is that her version of "all" is an image of female perfection that does not exist. The ideal "Vatanika woman" is as genuine as the fake bank notes that Vatanika blasts out of toy cannons at her parties and fashion shows.

In that light, the show is as damaging as it is absurd. To quote the lady herself: "That's not art. That's eew."

Pim Wangtechawat is a Bangkok-based writer.

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