Sapors: Cambodia's Modeling and Beauty School

The Cambodia Series > Stung > Gun Range > Pyongyang > Tuol Sleng > Sapors

I shook my head a couple of times and stared out from the bridge as the moon reflected onto the moat at JR Ichigaya Station. The late stragglers, coats flapping in the wind, hustled by on the sidewalk hoping to catch the last train. Some just finishing work. Some calling it an early evening. I was with the latter. Junior reporter Junko was with the former. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her walking up the sidewalk.

"Now don't jump," she said, pretending to show concern as she approached the concrete railing. "I realize Cambodia is one of your favorite places for 'business' but just be happy you left before Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the closure of all karaoke parlors, pubs, and nightclubs."

Prohibition is one thing. Having Junko gloat about it at my expense is another entirely. I turned my head and stared straight at her, sincerely hoping that a clear view of the blood vessels running down the outside of nose would repulse her enough to get on her way. It didn't work.

"So the girls at the hostess club couldn't cheer you up?" She motioned towards Ichigaya's best hostess club just across the moat. At the time, I didn't know how she knew about my local spot. Since then though I've discovered the phone tap.

"You did consume large quantities of alcohol to help you through this difficult time, right?" she asked, this time feigning a worried expression rather well.

I smiled.

"Well," she said, "I guess you will have to wait until Prime Minister Hun Sen lifts the ban. You probably won't have to go to Cambodia again soon anyway, right?"

Her hold on reality and simultaneous failure to grasp the simple principles that separate what's right and wrong, irregardless of the location, chewed at me worse than the pavement under the fresh quarter-sized hole in my left Bostonian sole.

"In the meantime, you did get around to completing the story on Cambodia's only modeling school, didn't you?" she wondered.

I reached inside my bag and retrieved a report.

She added, "I figure you would gladly complete any assignment where the focus is on women in skimpy..."

Before she could continue, I shook a few peanut shells out from between the clear plastic cover and the front page and thrust it into her hands. I returned my gaze to the moat.

Voleak Rathanak carefully applies the eyeliner to the student in the chair. The student stares straight into a mirror and watches attentively as each stroke of the pencil is made. At a large rectangular table nearby, a half dozen other women are hunched over small table mirrors as they practice applying lipstick, foundations, and various creams to their faces. There is almost no chatting amongst the girls. This is serious business. This is make-up class.

"When she first started with me she had nothing, no confidence. She was sort of like...lost," recalls Sapor Rendell of her understudy Voleak.

During Voleak's "lost" period, she worked at a snooker table in her home village outside Phnom Penh, where she collected $50 per month. Today, fresh on the heels of her successful completion of coursework at Sapors, Cambodia's only modeling and beauty school, not only has Voleak experienced high profile modeling jobs in Phnom Penh, she has also acquired a job as an air hostess for a domestic airline and a teaching position at Sapors. With both these jobs, she now earns $300 a month.

Sapor, a very vibrant and positive woman of 29, is the manager and founder of the modeling and beauty school. With Cambodia often being recognized for its historic architecture and political corruption, Sapor is giving Cambodia a fresh an positive look, one facial at a time.

During the Phnom Penh school's 4-year existence, Voleak is not the only success story. Other SaporModel graduates have gone on to model in billboards, magazine ads, and local TV commercials for such businesses as telephone companies and convenience stores in Phnom Penh.

The instruction - catwalk, deportment, and modern dancing - at the school may be its signature, but it is not the only form of education available. General beauty classes are open to any woman with the will to learn. The six Cambodian teachers, all trained by Sapor, teach 50 students a day in, amongst other things, office skills, communication, fruit carving, dining etiquette, and aromatherapy. The courses range from one to five weeks with up to a dozen students enrolled in each class. A certificate is given for successful completion of each course.

With poverty, farming, garment work, and prostitution, dominating the social and economic landscapes, herbal steaming and make-up application might appear out of place. But to Sapor, that was the point./p>

"I wanted to start something that Cambodia didn't have," she explains of her initial motivation.

After completing her second stint of studying English and modeling in Australia, Sapor realized that Cambodian women needed assistance in social settings. "I saw women at functions who weren't wearing the right make-up. They didn't know how to sit."

Like most businesses, the start was very difficult. For one, she needed models and students in a land where the average wage for a worker is $30 a month, clean water is a luxury, and landmine victims hobble through the streets. Adding to these woes was prime minister Hun Sen's ousting of Prince Norodom Ranariddh's government in 1997 that sent the country into chaos.

Still, even in this unstable situation she continued on. After starting with three classes, she has over the past four years demonstrated tremendous growth. "When I first started, I had three or four students in each class. Now I have about 13. We've since expanded to include hairstyling, food carving, and communications classes."

The motivation, for many, is to obtain certificates for their beauty shops in Phnom Penh. For the well-to-do, it could be self improvement.

"Some already know the basics," Sapor maintains. "So they just come to find out how to apply make-up. They say, 'I don't have confidence to wear make-up.' They want to improve their confidence. If they look nice when they go out, then they have more confidence."

And confident Cambodian women there shall be. Her catwalk class ($30 tuition per month) alone currently has 3 sessions because "catwalk is now very popular for Cambodian women."

Government officials and foreign businessmen are starting to take notice as well. But mostly for reasons that Sapor would rather forget.

"When they first ring, I think they are looking for girls for a fashion show," she says.

But when the caller assures that dinner with one of her girls is what is on order, she asks: "And after dinner? Sex, right?" After a subtle affirmation of such by the caller, she then instructs each of them not to call again as that is not part of her business. But the calls keep coming. Last month she had a businessman from Singapore wanting two girls to come to his hotel.

While this increased image could be seen as a gage of success, albeit a rather backhanded one, Sapor herself, focuses on the development of her students. She tells of one of her greatest joys as seeing one of her students develop into a refined, confident woman. At one such student's wedding, Sapor was brought onto the stage.

"This is Sapor. Because of her, I've learned so many things," the former make-up and hairstyling student gushed. "I am now confident. Many thanks to you!"

Tokyo, Paris, and New York, lace up the gloves, Phnom Penh is ready to rumble.

Note: A special thank you goes to Charles Cheo of Forte Insurance for assistance. Sapors may be reached at

The Cambodia Series > Stung > Gun Range > Pyongyang > Tuol Sleng > Sapors

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