Before she applied to Cambodia’s Next Top Model, 22-year-old Chan Kong Kar was more familiar with the fashion pages of magazines she leafed through at work than the catwalk.
“I really liked fashion, but I didn’t know anything about it,” she said.
Now she is among 15 candidates – including former TV host Lun Bodalis and the daughter of a police chief – who will compete to be named Cambodia’s Next Top Model, scheduled to premiere November 14.
The program, the winner of which will take home a $20,000 prize, is one of a host of reality television shows giving air time to talented – and not so talented – Cambodians with big dreams.
Reality TV is not new to the Kingdom. It’s Not a Dream, a series that reunites family members separated under the Khmer Rouge kicked off in 2010 and is still running, while Freshie Girls and Boys, a beauty and talent show, has been running in shopping malls and on television since 1999.
However, the past two years have brought a flood of internationally imported and locally produced reality shows, such as The Voice – Cambodia, Hear My Song, Samneng Chean Chang and Penh Chet Ort.
The Voice – Cambodia boasts a Facebook following of more than 146,000 people, while Hear My Song, which has already finished for the year, received more than 90,000 votes.
“Next Top Model, Dancing with the Stars and The Voice are franchises, deals that allow local producers to make local versions of successful ideas, using the original’s reputation to sell the program,” said Vincent O’Donnell,
School of Media and Communication, RMIT, Melbourne.
“The big attraction in a world of increasingly global social media is that the programs are already lodged in the popular consciousness, and the hype from the US or Europe, South Korea, Malaysia or Singapore rubs off, making the local show easier to sell,” continued O’Donnell.
Originally created as America’s Next Top Model by former model Tyra Banks in 2003, there are now more than 30 franchises of the program globally.
“They have similar constructions, similar gimmicks and twists but allowing local variations,” wrote Dr O’Donnell. “They showcase local talent, except the criteria winners are judged by tend to be Western, television criteria.”
The application guidelines for the Cambodian version of the show specified that only women aged between 18 and 27 could apply, and they had to be 165cm or taller – more than 10cm taller than the average Cambodian woman.
In the series, all episodes of which have already been filmed apart from the finale, the women live together in an upmarket apartment in the north of Phnom Penh. In each episode they are set a task – ranging from posing or strutting down the catwalk to applying make-up and preparing for a show. At the end of each, the contestant with the least potential to win is voted out by judges and sent home.
Almost every aspect of the show clashes with conservative traditional feminine culture in Cambodia. The women are asked to wear tight clothing, talk publicly about their personal lives and move out of their parents’ houses.
“Khmer culture is shy, sometimes girls like to hide,” said Kong Kar. “This program will show that Khmer ladies have knowledge and it’s time for us to show the world.”
The show’s producer Ly Onzemardy said the crew filmed the women around the clock, building up their back stories – a technique popularly employed, and critiqued, in the West.
“Everyone wants to have their own person – this one is from my province, this one looks like me, this one has a similar story to me or something like that. It make the story more entertaining,” said Onzemardy.
But some aspects of reality TV culture have not been so eagerly embraced in Cambodia.
When The Voice – Cambodia, a program in which singers compete against each other to receive vocal training, aired in July viewers took to Facebook to complain about the show, accusing the coaches, well-known singers, of a lack of sincerity.
“The coaches’ gestures and speeches seem to be too much – it is disturbing,” 18-year-old Chan Chivy Bamprong told the Khmer youth magazine Lift in July. “It is overacting, the gestures and speeches, and not coming out naturally,” he said.
Assistant director In Tito defended his program to Lift. He was quoted as saying that the coaches were acting naturally. “How do they know that the gestures of the coaches are not natural, or just a show? I have known them nearly 10 years and it is natural.”
When contacted for this article he declined to comment further.
Regardless, the shows’ contestants say that the format is a confidence booster.
One of the women competing to be named top model is 22-year-old Moeung Sopheak. As the daughter of a police chief, she has lived a very sheltered life.
“I come from a very protective family; this is the first time I have been detached from my parents,” she said. “[The show] makes me strong; I can do anything, like a man, and I’m not scared of anything.”
Another contestant, 23-year-old Lun Bodalis, a former television presenter who is now studying business and English, said she hoped to set an example to young people in the villages.
“All the children in the village, they are smart so they watch us and learn from us – they know how to work well and respect people.
“All TV should educate people, so the little ones can learn from us and be really good – better than us.”
It’s also a lesson in perseverance.
“If I don’t get number one, I will apply to another cycle in Cambodia’s Next Top Model until I get number one – this is my dream,” she said.