Soy Thida Vorleak wants to be a star. But at age 22, she is languishing in obscurity
at the Navy Long Beach restaurant in Phnom Penh where she sings karaoke every night
for a crowd composed largely of off-duty police officers. Still, she dreams of greater
"I want to star in concerts, get a recording deal, and maybe become a TV presenter,"
she says. "But to be a famous singer in Cambodia you need relatives in the music
industry or you have to be the mistress of a music company producer."
Her false eyelashes flutter, betraying her distaste, as she explains what it takes
to make it to the top.
"I don't really like discussing it, but it's an unspoken truth," she said.
"Singers, TV presenters, maybe one out of ten has managed to get to where they
are by talent alone, but the rest have had to use their bodies to get a big break."
It is a path Vorleak is not prepared to take. Confident of her talent, she refuses
to compromise her integrity to obtain the fame she longs to achieve.
"I want to sing, I don't want to be someone's mistress," she said. "Yes
they might promote me and make me famous for one or two songs, but then they will
forget about me, kick me out, and I would have no reputation left."
In contrast, for Sapoun Midada, 27, talent, connections, and pure luck was what secured
his path to the top. From a humble career playing his guitar in clubs and restaurants
around Phnom Penh, he has risen to stratospheric levels of fame in Cambodia - most
recently performing in the "Giant Concert" at the Olympic Stadium for Om
"My friend's father is a songwriter at a production company - he had given us
tickets to see a performance," he said. "But the guitarist dropped out
at the last minute and they asked me to step in. This is how I got my first job at
the production company."
Though delighted by his new job as a studio musician, Midada had just emerged from
a difficult relationship and was in considerable emotional turmoil.
"I loved working at the production company but I was nursing a broken heart,"
he said. "Every lunch, instead of eating with my colleagues I would go and sit
on the roof of the building, play my guitar and compose songs to help me express
His broken heart helped propel him from session musician to superstar. One day, the
son of the production company's owner happened to wander on to the roof where Midada
was playing. Enchanted by the song, he demanded to know who had written it. Upon
learning it was none other than Midada, he was astounded.
"At first he didn't believe me and told me I was too young to have written such
a good song," Midada said. "But when he realized I was telling the truth
he was excited and the company decided to give me a chance and release the song."
The song - Niyum Neysne or Meaning of Love -was a runaway hit and Midada is now one
of the company's most successful performers. He believes this is due to the fact
the raw emotions contained in his song struck a chord with Cambodians of his generation.
He's determined to continue writing songs that are similarly appealing to his contemporaries.
"When my first song came out it was very popular with young people who could
identify with the sentiments I was expressing," he said. "Now, I think
about the problems that most affect them and then I try and turn it into a song,
I try to write about things that are real and affecting the youth today."
But Midada readily admits that his big break came as much from luck as hard work.
In recognition of this, some entrepreneurs are seeking to cash in on the younger
generation's desire for fame by offering a way into the industry that relies not
on luck or contacts, but lessons.
Sombor Thavry, 21, and her father run a company called "Freshy Boy Freshy Girl"
which teaches potential pop stars or TV presenters how to make it big.
"Our company was set up to train young people to be famous," she said.
"My father teaches acting, singing and TV presenting skills to our clients -
he is also a production director so has good connections with the industry."
Each client pays between $50 and $100 for a course of lessons which are designed
to help them identify and develop their natural talent and ability.
"We ask people to think 'What about us is most appealing to audiences?'"
she said. "Sometimes we have young people who can sing and perform well but
are not so pretty; sometimes we have very beautiful people who are not very talented
- but we try and help them all to find a way of succeeding."
Thavry disagrees that becoming the mistress of someone powerful within the music
industry is the only way to succeed. While connections or luck are currently crucial,
the very function of her company is to help talented individuals get past nepotism
and opportunistic barriers, she said.
"We don't care who your father is," she said. "Natural talent is what
we are looking for because no one becomes famous unless they have real talent."
Midada agrees that talent is what is crucial to success. Although it may be difficult
to initially get a contract with a production company, once you are in, you are set
for life, he said.
"It can be hard to get a contract with production companies but when you have
one they give you a lot of support," he said. "We are all like one big
But for Vorleak, gaining entry to such a coterie remains out of reach.
"I was offered a contract once," she said. "The production company
owner said that my voice was very good and that I could make a CD but then he changed
his mind and said I wasn't good enough because I wouldn't be his mistress."
Paying a company like "Freshy Boy Freshy Girl" will help you access production
companies without the need to compromise your integrity, but fame is still an elusive
goal and highly difficult to achieve, said Thavry.
"It is hard to get someone a proper job on TV or a recording deal," she
said. "Sometimes we manage to get clients small parts in music videos or TV
shows and then they can start making connections and try and build a career for themselves."
But to achieve fame of Midada's level is still highly unlikely for the majority of
Cambodia's aspiring young stars.
"Before I was just a normal person," he said with a confused smile. "Now
thousands of people recognize me and know me. I go to perform at a concert and everyone
screams my name - it still surprises me so much."
His family and friends were staggered and thrilled by his success, he said.
"All my life it has been my dream to be a famous singer so when I saw myself
on TV, I was so happy as I had finally reached my goal," he said. "When
my mother saw me on TV she was so happy she cried."
His love of creating music has finally paid off, he said.
"I was always playing my songs on my guitar," he said. "I played for
my parents before they went to bed every night, I sang for my friends at parties.
So when they actually heard the songs I had been playing to them on TV and radio
they were overjoyed."
But for all those like Midada who succeed, there are hundreds more like Vorleak who
are still dreaming of making it big.
"It is very hard but I never lose hope," she said. "I believe that
sometime I will be a TV presenter or a singer at a good production company. But in
this industry people are all the same. They want your body and if you are not prepared
to give them this, you will not get a contract or a chance to succeed no matter how
talented you are."