Yuko Maskay sits down with Ma Htet, a popular transgender make-up artist, at her salon to talk about her work, passion and internal and external transformation.
As I enter the small salon, what catches my eye is a poster of a model posing in a tight–fitting, sparkly, white-laced dress, her cleavage gracefully protruding out of her v-neck, her red lips voluptuous, skin flawless and brushed with make-up.
“That’s Ma Htet, the woman you are interviewing today,” says the translator pointing to the poster, as the real Ma Htet enters with a traditional greeting of “Mingalabar,” her voice husky, yet high-pitched. She tells us that she would not be able to talk out loud because she just had surgery, pointing to a tiny scar on her Adam’s apple.
Born a male, Oakar Htet, 33 (now fondly called Ma Htet), is a transgender who has made her mark as a popular make-up artist to the stars. Today, she is wearing a one-piece skirt that hugs her hips, coloured big-eye contact lenses, a hit among Asian girls and subtle make-up.
Hints of her past are visible through her somewhat strong jaw-line, not quite perfected vocals and large bone structure. Other than that, nothing about her cries masculine and she seems to have mastered the art of being feminine – she crosses one knee over the other, periodically flips her long, brown hair and speaks in a soft tone of voice.
As a child, like many transgenders, Ma Htet knew she wasn’t like the other boys. She preferred staying indoors and avoided sports, choosing instead to draw her eyebrows, apply lipstick and wear dresses. When she was 14, she realised she liked boys and finally at 26, admitted to her family that she was gay, but they “didn’t take it well at all” and to this day, she doesn’t really have a good relationship with them.
At 29, she walked out on the streets for the first time dressed as a woman in a mini-skirt and t-shirt. “I felt shy and was scared of people judging me,” she says, but after a month, she felt more comfortable and didn’t care about other people’s perception of her.
“I get a lot of haters and I used to feel offended, but I focus all my energy on my work,” she says, and believes that it speaks for itself.
She doesn’t quite know how she became popular since she never really marketed her skills, but she credits Facebook, where she has two personal profiles to accommodate her growing popularity. With over 4,500 friends, one of her accounts has exceeded the number of friends allowed; her celebrity page is followed by 200,775 people with over 44,000 likes and her personal page alone has over 11,000 followers.
“Young gays and lesbians tell me I’m an inspiration to them,” she says, “but what I always tell them is to just be themselves and to do their best at whatever they decide to do.”Her personal Facebook profile is filled with selfies, some showing off her fashion sense and others flaunting her bikini body in sexy poses. On average, she has over 1,500-2,000 likes on a post. Her celebrity page boasts over 20,000 likes on posts where she showcases her work and poses with other celebrities. Fan comments are full of support with heart emoticons, pro-pride quotes and smiley faces.
Her clients include big-name celebrities like Aung Ye Lin, Ni Khin Zaw and Wint Yamone Hlaing, and she has worked at pageant shows such as the Golden Land Myanmar two years in a row. What do they like about her? “They like my technique and say that it’s different from other make-up artists and not mundane,” she says, and many seek her out to be their personal make-up artist.
In a country where the word transgender doesn’t exist and instead is replaced with the derogatory form A Chaw (fag), where sexual activities among homosexuals carry a penalty of up to a life sentence (not enforced), where people believe that gay people choose to be gay and that it’s a curse from their past lives, Ma Htet has obviously been through a lot mentally.
Physically, she has had a nose job, breast implants two years ago, hormone replacement therapy for three years and recently surgery of her vocal chords to sound like a woman.
“Many think I’ve had a lip job but big lips run in my family,” she clarifies. Next year, she plans to undergo sex change which will require six months to a year of being immobile so she needs to do it at an opportune time.
I ask her if it’s difficult to be who she is. It must take a toll? She surprises me with a firm, “No,” in English, adding that it was harder to pretend to be a guy and she feels more at home in her body now.
So, how has the transition been? Emotionally there has been no change because she always wanted to be a woman, but physically, as she transformed, people thought she was a tomboy. “Veins on my arms disappeared, my skin became fairer, clearer and my face became more feminine,” she recalls.
How did it feel to have breasts for the first time? “I was worried that I’ll feel heavy on the chest and that it’ll be awkward, but now they’re very comfortable,” she says.
She recently joined the bandwagon and added a rainbow layer to her Facebook profile page in support of US legalising gay marriages in all of its states and I ask her thoughts. “It doesn’t really apply to me,” she says and besides, she doesn’t place a high value on marriage or relationships.
“Even if I like a straight man, once they find out I’m a transgender, they would lose interest and eventually leave because I can’t bear children,” she says.
She currently has a boyfriend with whom she has an open relationship, although she doesn’t stray. Like most girls in a conventional relationship, she likes being with one man and has a strong motherly instinct. If she had a choice, she would have had a family, but chooses not to because she doesn’t want society to look down on her children for having a transgender mother.
Her dream is to open a nursery. “I can’t have children so I want to be surrounded by them,” she says.
Without any family support in a society that condemns homosexuals, I wonder where she gets her resolve. “If I stay true to myself and do my own work, I don’t have to worry about what other people think,” she says.
She looks up to Khin San Win and Moguk Pauk, two famous local transgender make-up artists and she wants to be like them. “A lot of transgender people flirt with straight men and have bad reputations because they put themselves out there,” she says and doesn’t want to be involved with that type of crowd.
Her other big dream is to open a senior home for gay people. “We live in a world where gay people are scrutinised. They are shunned and at an old age, abandoned.”
Perhaps she is worried about her own future? “Not really,” she says, “I’ll deal with whatever the world throws at me.” In this senior home, she envisions a future where gay people could come together and support each other.
As the country opens up to gay pride events and as gay rights associations become stronger, she says she feels safer, although legally, the country has a long way to go. In terms of career choices, she thinks there will be more opportunities for homosexuals in the future other than in the beauty industry.
What’s next for her? She’s venturing out into the world of fashion and designing wedding dresses, which she says has received good reviews for having a “different look, different taste and different style” – which seems to be her signature.
Any advice for others like her? “Because we’re different, we have to work twice as hard to impress others. Stand on your own two feet and walk your own path,” she says.