“Asia’s Sexiest Female Vegetarian” on Buddhism, beauty and her Cambodian heritage.

I first met Truong Thi May at the Vietnam International Fashion Week in 2015, and she made an impression on me that I haven’t been able to forget. It was all big names on the catwalk that night; the celebrities and VVIPs were out in attendance, and there were plenty of obligatory flashing bright lights and thumping soundtracks as the beauties and the wannabes strode out in their swanky designer garments. May was one of the headliners; modeling a billion VND’s worth of diamonds for jewelry design group PNJ—which fit her like a Cinderella slipper—she had no reason to be anything but confident.

Yet May stood bowed in prayer; the baubles dangling from her shoulders could just as easily have been a ring of beads and the hood of a saffron robe. Her behavior backstage was entirely different from that of any of the other models, who were all fussing over their hair and making last-minute adjustments to their costumes. Like it or not, there’s a certain vanity and self-involvement that all such events are soaked in; a false glamor that can undermine the genuine celebration of art and beauty that makes the fashion world so compelling. There’s none of that falsehood in May, and there never has been—as a devout Buddhist of Khmer nationality, her worldly career in the modeling industry has never been as important to her as the spiritual truths of her faith.

“Only inner beauty is permanent,” quips Truong Thi May, something rarely heard on the lips of a national beauty icon, pageant winner, golden-kite awarded actress, or successful model—all of which are true of May. Don’t imagine that this is some kind of celebrity fad, either: May’s Buddhism is both sincere and well-informed, rooted in devoteeism since childhood. “I’m lucky that my mom took me to the temples, and to have been a vegetarian, since I was very young,” she says, “to receive the teachings and the Tam Lac (“happy mind”) Dharma by our Master. All of that has helped me to keep my life balanced—as the Buddha taught in Dhammapada, ‘the mind leads, the mind controls, the mind creates.’ Applying the Buddha’s teachings in my life, I’m very conscious of what should be, and what should not be. Religion is our spiritual support, and it gives us a moral foundation. I believe that when your moral foundation is good and your ethics and morals are cultivated on a daily basis, you’re able to keep balance in whatever circumstances. It’s like the lotus, which doesn’t smell like mud although it stands in the mud.”

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Image: Xuan Anh

How a disciple of the Buddha became a noted fashion model is probably something that needs to be explained. Most people understand Buddhism as teaching that a focus on beauty is a distraction brought about by the illusory nature of the physical world, and that to escape from the cycle of rebirth, one must cast beauty aside—this is partly why Buddhist nuns tonsure their heads, to rid themselves of the distraction of the beauty of their own hair. May is quick to disabuse me of this amateurish assumption—the teachings, as she explains, are far more subtle than that.

“Buddhism does not teach that beauty causes a neglect of the spirit,” she instructs patiently, “but instead, that neglect is the effect of one’s karma. Buddhism teaches us to reflect on our mind, and it teaches us that ‘a pure mind and a moral life are the ultimate beauty.’ So we need to learn how to live beautifully—both physically and mentally—since physical beauty is impermanent, and is dominated by the law of impermanence: birth, aging, sickness and death.”

Good Girl

Truong Thi May was born in Phnom Penh, the eldest of five children who actually led a relatively affluent life in Cambodia, having a father who was particularly skilled in business. The family were based in a beautiful house with a large property and lovely garden, and life was very comfortable until May’s father passed away when she was just nine. He’d pampered his wife and children, something that worked to their disadvantage when they were left with no ability to run the family business without him; they were soon bankrupted and migrated to live with relatives in Vietnamese An Giang.

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Image: Xuan Anh

“I was the good girl, the lovely one,” remembers May. “At a very young age, I could help my mother with her errands, and looked after my great-grandmother, feeding her, changing her and bathing her when Mom was away from home. You would never recognize me as a little girl, I was an ugly child, thin and dark skinned, and it wasn’t until I won 1st runner-up in Miss Vietnam Photogenic that I dared to believe the compliments I was starting to get. Maybe I was blessed by my great-grandma; that was in 2006, and by 2007 I had gone on to once again place as 1st runner-up in the competition for Vietnamese Ethnic Minorities.”

By 2013, May was chosen to represent Vietnam in the Miss World competition, by which time she’d become a household name for somehow manifesting a definite purity while standing abreast of an industry that many Vietnamese people regard with suspicion. Perhaps part of what grounds Truong Thi May is her very conspicuous relationship with her mother, who acts as her manager and mentor in every way—as a constant presence in May’s career from tailoring outfits to negotiating film contracts, she has kept May focused on the fundamentals. While at Miss Universe, May had what has to be the most innocuous nickname in the history of the competition: “Miss Friendly.” Even now, her good-girl public image continues to give her a platform to represent her beliefs in public, as well as providing a publicity platform for her extensive charity work—she has campaigned for animals, the environment, and for child heart surgery funding, as well as stood as an ambassador against human trafficking, HIV and LGBT discrimination. In 2014, PETA named her “Asia’s Sexiest Female Vegetarian.”

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Image: Le Thien Vien

“I have found beauty in honesty and sincerity in accordance with the law of nature, summed up in the word fate,” she says of the connection between her life as a model and as a person of faith. “Everything comes to me as fate, I embrace it naturally, and everything I do, I do it wholeheartedly. The beauty of the soul is permanent. The reason I follow a vegetarian diet is that I hope to cultivate a compassion and love toward animals. All of us love to live; the lower animals do too. Moreover, being a vegetarian gives me good health and a good shape with nice skin. I understand that when the soul is beautiful and honest, the face will be naturally bright. Just as our ancestors said, ‘the mind is reflected in the appearance.’”

IMAGES BY XUAN ANH AND LE THIEN VIEN