Playing Dress-up

So our incredible, gorgeous, wonderful friend Julie came all the way to Cambodia to visit us. We had an amazing time visiting temples at Angkor, fist-pumping in Phnom Penh, shopping in the markets, mani-pedi-ing up a storm and climbing a particularly cumbersome mountain on a particularly rough morning. One of the highlights however was when Julie and I joined my Cambo pal Miranda and her mate Rachel from London to get all dolled-up, Khmer wedding style, and photograph the evidence. This was the result, as published in last Friday’s Phnom Penh Post

Our before shots...

...and then after.

Yesterday I got poked in the eye, stabbed in the back and pulled by the hair. And I paid for the pleasure. No, I didn’t join a fight club, I got dolled up; Khmer wedding style.

For a foreigner living in Cambodia, the Khmer wedding is a mystifying phenomenon, from the pink traffic-blocking marquees and the early morning chanting, to the never-ending supply of Angkor beer and the generosity of envelope-stuffing gift-givers.

But the thing that enthrals me most is the bride. Her 3am start make-up ritual, the powder, the lashes, the lipstick, that hair. The reams of costume changes, pinks, oranges, yellows and blues, and then the crowning glory (quite literally in some cases), the bling; gilded sashes, heavy belts, earrings, necklaces, bangles, bracelets and tiaras. More is most definitely more.

So it was with this fascination and genuine curiosity that I and three of my friends decided to join the latest sweep of tourists and expats who go to photo-studios to get Khmer-style makeovers.

But we didn’t do it to make fun of the Khmer way of doing things. If anything we did it to learn and understand more about it, to check out the ritual first-hand and see how the heck they wear so much make-up without looking like a melted candle.

As we entered the dressing room the first thing that caught my eye was a silver tin foil-like dress Lady Gaga would struggle to pull off. I was afraid.

Me with Miss Tennessee 1994...who was pale enough not to need the talc-to-the-face treatment.

But before we could choose our outfits it was time to sit in the make-up chair. First came the foundation. My eight months in Cambodia have given me a sun-kissed tint I’m rather chuffed with, but that was gone within minutes under a layer of thick white powder. It’s not the most pleasant experience to be caked in powder while simultaneously breaking into a sweat.

I went to scratch my nose, but was swiftly scolded by my makeover magician.

Next came the rouge cheeks, the pink eyes and the brown lipstick. Every make-up tip I’ve ever read in a beauty magazine was banished with the swish of a make-up brush. Heavy liner was applied to my eyes and then came the spidery false lashes followed by several licks of mascara.

I looked up and before me was a person that resembled someone who maybe sort-of used to look like me. While my friends had more complementary shades, I think my reddish hue hair had thrown the heavy-handed make-up artist, so she’d decided to just have fun with my face as a palette instead. The worst was yet to come.

While a stunning Khmer girl beside us had her hair back-combed, crimped and clipped for her real pre-wedding shoot, we, as barangs, understandably received a swifter treatment. Fake hair was applied. Out came all manner of pieces, from giant buns to curly ponies. The blond and brown curly one was mine. Like I said, I had reddish hair, and it’s straight too. A quiff was coiffed, a wig clipped and a tiara, rather painfully, stuck to my head.

Myself and the gorgeous Princess Miranda

Back we went to the Lady Gaga dream dressing room. The silver dress was surrounded by an array of fabulously crafted, jewel encrusted gowns and bodices in every colour imaginable. We were asked to select a corset-style top; I went for blue but was daunted by the size. I don’t think I had a waist that small for my real communion, and I’ve little hope of having it for my fake wedding.

Luckily with a little pin pricking and a lot of pulling, the bodice went on, though not before the girl had a squeeze of my comparably ample chest and said “La-aw na”: very good. The beautiful matching sarong took a while to put together and I was really mesmerised by the skill involved in tying it and creating a ruffle effect on the front.

Then came the best part for my inner magpie; the blingification. I already had a tiara, but more hair accessories were added. Then came a whopper neck piece, an upper-arm adornment (not flattering for those of us with bingo wings),
Apsara-style wrist bracelets, and chunky gold, jewelled sash and belt. Rap superstars don’t rock this much ice.

Here we are rocking some wicked witch footwear

Up I tottered in my pointy shoes and after an hour later of preening, I was ready for my close up.

Now my close friends would tell you that I’m incredibly particular about my clothes. I don’t like having my make-up done and I am terribly fussy about people being at my hair. So up until this point I was really surprising myself.

But what my close friends would also tell you, is that, more than all of this, I don’t like getting my picture taken. Especially when it’s in a posed studio session, and especially when I can’t look at the screen and choose to either press delete or make it my Facebook profile pic. I’m a self-conscious person: stick me in front of a camera with an unflattering dress, and I’m unlikely to shine.

All my mam's "sit up straight" badgering finally came in handy.

We were moulded into various poses by the pedantic photographer who cocked our heads awkwardly and positioned our hands just-so, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing, sometimes holding urns or each other. It didn’t matter that I
wasn’t loose for the camera. In fact in this case, the stiffer the better. A slight giggle and it was camera down, while our poses were twisted and altered again.

Standing in a line, with my pals lined up in a pretty row, I felt more drag queen than beauty queen. Ever seen that show Toddlers and Tiaras? Well I looked like that, gone wrong.

The Duchess, The Princess, The Beauty Queen and Me, the eh, Drag Queen.

All in all we had a great time playing dolls for the afternoon. In two days I’ll get the pictures, the grey screen will be replaced by a beach or maybe a palace and the photo-shopping will blast me beyond recognition. I also have a new-found respect for Cambodian wedding parties, the changing, the make-up, the heat. Prancing around in the big white gown now seems a dawdle and I’ll never moan about being a bog standard one-dress bridesmaid again.

I jest, I moan and I guffaw in the mirror, but in truth it was fun, enlightening and painless. Well, aside from the eye poking, back stabbing and hair pulling of course.

This one has to be my favourite.


Media Bashing

I’m having a bit of a love/hate relationship with my chosen profession lately. From the Leveson Enquiry in the UK to the Kate Fitzgerald scandal and “Magda” mess in Ireland, media bashing has become something of an international sport, and justifiably so.

At a time when citizen journalism is on the rise, websites like Storyful and obviously Twitter are creating news faster than journalists can open a word doc, old media is becoming somewhat redundant. Of course there’s still a place for traditional media – this isn’t another one of those debates – online content is often churned out, unsubstantiated and biased (and with frequent spelling mistakes and shady editing if this blog and my Twitter feed are anything to go by). But going by recent revelations, newspaper articles are often churned out, unsubstantiated and biased too. Old media, if it wants to keep it’s tagline as the “writer of history”, needs to tell people more than they can be told from a Google search or hashtag. Twitter, Facebook and the internet in general are fantastic news sources, for journalists as well as media consumers, but the journalists are obliged to go a little further.

The thing I’ve always loved most about being a journalist (aside from the occasional freebies, and being able to show my Mam what I did at work, rather like a five-year-old coming home from school with a painting) is that is gives me a licence to knock on doors. To call people up and say “Hey, what’s going on.”

I don’t mean this in the brash-hack-calling-to-the-door-of-a-murder-victim’s-family kind of calling, I mean when there’s an event, a new business, an interesting organisation or a fascinating person, my job requires I dig a little deeper. I always liked knowing things first, I always liked finding out more and I always liked spreading the word, all traits that come in pretty handy with this line of work. This week for example, I spent a morning with a women who changes the lives of impoverished children yet counts royalty among her friends, I also got to root around a rice mill, and see how rice can be sustainably created to protect wildlife. Citizen journalists can tell the story as it appears from out front, journalists are often given a key to look inside – of course, many do a bit of pilfering while they’re in there.

I recently felt the brunt of the media-bashing contingent. I was the bashee if you will. I wrote a story, which I still stand over, about the Siem Reap Expats and Locals Facebook page. Trivial content you may think, but in a small town, where everyone knows each other, people are understandably protective of how they are perceived. I had led the story with the topical issue of a 1000 Member Party the page was hosting. As a balance to that, I wrote about how the page often took nasty turns, frequent spats were becoming increasingly personal, a page that’s very essence was community spirit, seemed to be somewhat lacking. I sent the story off, and it was chosen for the cover of the magazine – my first cover – so far so wonderful.

The day the paper came out, the words “Anti-Social Network” were emblazoned on the cover, “Facebook Face-Off” was the headline. The spat was played up, the party played down. None of the story was false or inaccurate, but it was certainly less diplomatic than I would have presented it myself. I like to write positive angled stories, but I know, they’re not always the most interesting. The piece got a lot of buzz, more than anything I’ve written about the new businesses and fascinating people here in town.

I understood why some people got annoyed. I got why the people involved in the story were let down. But others were so nasty (ahem* thus proving the point of the story) that I literally spent a weekend in hiding, mortified that my name was being bandied about as some kind of unqualified, inexperienced intern who was under the thumb of the editor and didn’t have a clue what my job was about.

The problem was, they didn’t have a clue what my job was about. Everyone was talking about the nasty online arguments, yet they figured the newspaper shouldn’t have relayed that chatter in print, that it should have a higher brow than the people reading it. Needless to say it was character building. My editor gave me a pep talk. I’m not here to write what people want me to write, my job is to write what’s actually happening, what people are talking about, he told me.

But you see, I’m the kind of person who likes people to like me. People-pleasing I know, isn’t the most appealing of traits, I’d rather be a feisty individual who didn’t care what people thought about me, but my spine is rather lacking in that department.

So I’m torn on what to write about, torn between pleasing readers, interviewees, my editor and myself.

In this instance, people were quick to jump on the media bashing bandwagon. It’s an umbrella excuse for people who don’t agree with what they’re reading. The media needs to be accountable, but people also have to read between the lines and consume critically. While much media is advertiser driven, and management (mogul) driven, they also give the public what they want – there’s a reason why the Daily Mail is the world’s most popular news site.

People call for something that’s well-edited, articulate and accountable, yet they’re consuming the sensationalism, the news with mass appeal. I have a great want to tell “real” stories, to write about about “real” people. The thing is I’m not sure there’s a huge market.

I sent pitches to no less than 15 newspapers when Cambodia was flooded, Bangkok was making headlines, why weren’t we? Every single one that responded asked me about the Irish death-toll, whether Western industry was effected; no one would care until perhaps the factories in Phnom Penh could no longer ship their H&M jumpers, maybe then we’d have a problem.

This has turned into a rather long-winded, round-about, thought-hashing post, and despite all my years of training in writing structure, I’m not quite sure it has an ending. I blame Siem Reap and it’s dang paradoxical nature. On one hand there’s art galleries and cocktails, long brunches and quirky boutiques. Then on the other there’s incredible people doing amazing things, and inspirational survivors working with wonderful organisations. Living in Siem Reap has made me both enjoy the good life and crave a little more sophistication yet feel a severe obligation to rough it, to tell these harrowing or uplifting tales. Do I comply with the tabloidisation, or be a radical gonzo?

It’s kind of like that job meme that’s doing the rounds right now – anyone else the the journo one is crap? – except the differing perspectives are mostly just my own.

I’m currently in a semi-disillusioned, semi-zealous limbo, caught between knowing what I want to write about and not being sure how, but enjoying the licence I have to knock on doors and be nosey until I find out.

(Pic from here)

Artistic Impression

Just a quick link to a piece I wrote last week in the Phnom Penh Post on a Khmer artist named Oeur Sokunteavy, or Tevy for short; almost everyone in Cambodia has shortened names, Oeur is actually her surname, I haven’t worked out why yet, but over here the second name is written first.

Tevy (photo by Claire Byrne)

Anywho, Tevy was the first “artist” in the traditional sense of the word that I’ve ever interviewed (though I did do a photojournalism piece on my artist friend Trish once in college) and I found it really challenging. Firstly because I hadn’t seen much of her work as it was ahead of her Love, Death, Dreams exhibition launch, and secondly I know absolutely nothing about art.

What was great about Tevy though was how frank and honest she was, she wasn’t lofty or abstract, she told me exactly what her paintings were about, how she painted them, that she didn’t really have a particular muse, or inspiration, she just painted what came into her head.

But boy does that girl have some crazy stuff going on in her head. I went along to the exhibition launch two days later and for someone so straight-talking, her paintings were beyond tripy. Not what I would have expected from a Khmer artist, but Tevy’s style and content, is incredibly gutsy for Cambodia.

Next Life I by OEUR Sokunteavy

House Spirit by OEUR Sokunteavy

I’ll let you judge for yourself, because as I said, I’m no {insert name of famous art expert here}, but I have to say I like them. The colours are awesome, the ideas really interesting – I just don’t know if I’d sleep too well at night with one of these staring at me from across the room.

Robert Fisk eat your heart out…

So I’ve moved to Cambodia. More about that later. First I thought I’d stick up a somewhat lazy post – more of a link really, to my first piece of international reportage. It featured in last Friday’s Phnom Penh Post and it’s on a really cool tour company that’s just set up shop in Siem Reap.

I’ve wanted to be a foreign correspondent for so long* that I have to say, being published in another country is a bit of a thrill. I may not be called into any Al-Qaeda lairs just yet ala one of my journalistic idols, Robert Fisk, but hey, it’s a start.

I’m going to be writing regularly for the 7 Days magazine each Friday in the Post. A cool little supplement, which reminds me of The Ticket in Ireland, covering lifestyle and events in Siem Reap and around Cambodia. While might seem like a cushy cop out for someone who wants to get embedded with soldiers, and share human injustice with the world, for me, working on an up-and-coming magazine, in an up-and-coming city, in an up-and-coming country is pretty exciting.

Cambodia, and more specifically Siem Reap is changing every day – at least three new restaurants have opened in the last six weeks – so it’s a great time to be soaking it all in – let alone getting paid for the pleasure.

Wars, revolutions and political scandals will have to go on without me for a little while, just now I’m happy to conquering this little town armed with my new Canon (more on that later too) and my new bike Ribbon Dazzler. Who needs 4x4s or tanks eh?

Spot the frog?

Pimped so I could tell it apart from the hundreds of others about town

*(despite frequently mis-spelling the word “correspondent” one of my Achilles’ Heel Words, see also; necessarily and embarrassed)