I promised myself I wasn’t going to ask Kim Khanh about her being single in her 40s. I like to think that this publication has fairly high editorial standards, and there are far more interesting things to say about a woman than whether or not she’s decided to get married. The local media tend to give her a hard time on the issue already, perhaps because Khanh cut something of a wild figure in the 90s as one of the country’s first homegrown sex symbols—something that was an inspiration to Vietnam’s emerging modern-minded women during a time of great cultural transition. I figured we could avoid the topic, and respectfully discuss some of the more salient aspects of Khanh’s career instead.
Yet somehow the subject comes up. Kim Khanh is uncommonly frank, and she has a presence that oozes sexual charisma, something that sizzles even when she sits perfectly still. I ask her—rather too shyly—if she sees herself as a role model for women in a country that is still steeped in traditional Confucian values, where girls are encouraged to be meek and subservient, grow up understanding sex as having an inherently transactional nature, and yearn to belong to a man in marriage. Khanh, who experienced the same pressure to find a husband as most young women in this country still do, has somehow managed to shrug the whole issue off as unimportant.
“I think I just enjoy this,” breathes Khanh in her rich, handsome voice, as if the answer is patently obvious. “Maybe no one chooses to be alone, but I think it’s better to be single than to be with someone and not be happy. I’m single; I’m not married yet, but I’m not alone, it’s different, right? I am in love, I’m always in love, I keep my life in love, so I think it’s interesting—there’s no need to ruin it by getting married. I look around myself; I wonder what the value of marriage is, because a lot of guys who are married still chase me. I don’t believe in marriage, I don’t believe in a piece of paper, but I believe in love.”
Khanh has always been this way—a free spirit who simply is who she is—and there’s nothing that’s pretended about her nature. She’s never attempted to be sexy or faked her confidence: she just is.
When she first came into the public eye, it was as a contestant in a beauty pageant. She came 0.01 points behind the winner—but even that wasn’t something she’d intentionally entered out of some desire to have her looks validated by a panel of judges: her overenthusiastic boyfriend at the time enlisted her in the competition at the last minute, perhaps looking for some validation of his own. That wasn’t her first time on stage, however—by the time she came second in the “Miss Health, Beautiful and Fashion 1991” pageant, she’d already made her first movie, although it wasn’t shown until two months after the win.
“My first role was as an antagonist,” she laughs. “At around that time, usually the directors picked the characters for me, but later when I got to pick the parts myself, I preferred those with a deep mind, good heart, and so on. But they thought I was a sexy girl, so they started me off with a sexy, strong character. So, I was the bad girl. When they asked me to do roles like that later, I refused. I like acting, but not those stupid, boring parts. I don’t mind if it’s a bad character, but I like to explore the transition from good to bad or bad to good, and why and how.”
Let’s Get Physical
Before acting, Khanh had actually started out as an aerobics instructor— this was in the 80s when neon spandex pants and bright-colored headbands were in their heyday, and Vietnam was just getting on the bandwagon. “At that time, I was still in high school,” remembers Khanh, “then I would go to the gym and learn aerobics just for fun—until I was selected to lead the District 1 Aerobics Team. I became a trainer; Miss Vietnam Ly Thu Thao was also in my training team. Sometimes we had to train over 100 people in the class, so we were standing on a high platform and dancing with the music, with three of us taking turns every 20 minutes.”
Aerobics opened the door to modeling and working as a backup dancer for popular singers, until the pageant placing brought her national fame.
Vietnam was still very fresh on the international scene at that time, providing an exciting backdrop to the young actress’s career. “After the contest more people knew about me,” she says, “and I appeared on calendars a lot. I sang too, and did a bit of acting at some theaters, television, and direct-to-video movies. At that time, Vietnam still hadn’t quite opened up to the world, so there was nothing to entertain people beyond watching videotaped movies at home, or perhaps watching traditional opera performances, cai luong, at open-air venues outside.
While never exactly notorious, Khanh was certainly known and admired for her open strength of character—and desired for her penchant for unembarrassed costume. “I was different from the other girls modeling at the time,” she remembers. “They liked to be very sweet, very girly, but I was strong and sporty. The way I wore clothes was so different—the other girls preferred the princess look with their loose, conservative party dresses, but I liked sporty clothes and tight, sexy, curvy outfits.” Even in traditional Vietnam, something about her candid nature meant that she was rarely criticized: “Actually, they liked it,” she laughs, “but I do remember once when I was on the Duyen Dang Viet Nam show—I wore a very sexy dress, made with a see-through material, it was black and had two red embroidered flowers on the front, another one down a bit, and one at the back too; it was like, ‘wear but not wear’! It was just too sexy at that time; people were shocked to see it. I even won the trai coc xanh prize for the worst dress. But I was so young, you know, I didn’t do that on purpose, I just thought it was a very nice, beautiful and sexy dress.”
Nowadays, Khanh has toned things down a little. She’s currently focusing on directing, and working on scripts for her own productions, intending primarily to develop documentaries about societal issues she feels strongly about—such as child cancer, HIV, LGBT equality, and the sexual abuse of children. “I’m really attracted to these subjects,” she says. “I’m working on the kids with cancer project at the moment. I’m still finding the sponsors, it’s a big project. I want to run it on TV once a week to tell the stories of kids under 15 who have cancer. Vietnam has the second highest rate of child cancer in Asia, and 90 percent of kids with cancer will soon die. So my project is that I want to make a short documentary about each of them. I’m trying to connect with some US charity organizations; still waiting for their responses. The documentary will be more about keeping up the kids’ dreams, giving them a normal, happy life, classes to study even while they’re in treatment. I’ll focus on living with cancer over dying from cancer, how to give them hope, how to fight the sickness, which treatments work well, how to discover cancer early, and so on. Through the shows and the stories, I want to bring hope, an eagerness to live, and a reason to feel optimistic to the kids.”
The child abuse project will be more personal, based on the experiences of her 60-year-old neighbor who as a child had been forced to perform sexual acts on an uncle since the age of six. “It’s not an easy subject to do in Vietnam,” she sighs, “because people are still scared to accuse and condemn”.
For now, with less of a constant public presence, Khanh remains happy with her situation regardless of marital status and the trappings of the entertainment industry. “I think I’m quite shy,” she says to anyone gullible enough to believe her. “I’m not open-minded,” she insists. “I’m very traditional, I’m very hard, I’m old-minded—that’s why I’m not married yet. I’m very hard on my boyfriend. In love, I’m different, although it also depends on who, but with my friends, I’m very easy. They say I’m very open, like a party girl, but while it may look like that, it’s not like that really. I still keep up the old traditions, and I still like cai luong.”