We are deep into the second episode: the intrigue is tangible and the spectacle is bizarre to say the least. Zawgyi has performed a memorable duet with zego bird, dragon, tiger and alien have repeatedly medlied, and Phoe Wa Yote’s performances have been as perky as his mythical character. A raucous exchange of jokes and questions from the judges and it is decided that the tiger’s journey is over. The slender man dressed from head to toe as a silky feline stalks carefully to center stage. After an eternity of teasing, he lifts his hood to uncover a plume of perfectly coiffured long dark hair. Everyone in attendance goes absolutely berserk as Myanmar’s biggest heartthrob reveals himself.

We are watching the country’s latest hit television show, Channel ME’s The Mask Singer, and I am sat with its host, Paing Zay Ye Tun.

“I really am extremely proud of Paing Takhon. What he has done for Myanmar in other countries is amazing.” The enthusiastic outburst in reference to The Mask Singer’s first revealed star – the tiger, model Paing Takhon – is Paing Zay’s first in fluent English. Through his careful and famously handsome gaze bursts a serious glow: no doubt he sees much of his younger self in this rising star.

The Mask Singer is a light-hearted spectacle celebrating New Myanmar’s love of joshing around, singing, and celebrity. It is also host to the latest incarnation of Paing Zay Ye Tun, one of the most publicly discussed Burmese celebrities of the past twenty five years. Adapted from the much loved American format featuring Robin Thicke, Nicole Scherzinger and co., the Myanmar version similarly sees judges and audience vote on the singing abilities of outrageously costumed celebrities, then guess their identities before each is eliminated. The Myanmar version is, in keeping with the whims of the nation, more offbeat, light hearted and humorous than its American counterpart. Charismatic and charming, Paing Zay keeps the energy going with a star studded line-up of judges that includes eminent comedian Ah Yine, hugely popular actress Khine Thin Kyi, singer-actor Tun Tun, and youthful starlet Yadanar My.

Myanmar Celebrity

The franchised show is incredibly well-suited for Myanmar, a country which equally cherishes and villifies celebrity status, and one which lives for a song and a joke. Paing Zay Ye – the Phoenix-like sportsman, actor, host, and businessman – typifies this particularly Burmese phenomenon of ‘cele’ more than most. No matter what career path he has followed, fame, success, and public attention have never been far behind. Now, at forty-two, over half of his life has been lived under this spotlight.

“My career has not been linear, and although I always see myself succeeding, I am never sure what comes next,” says Paing Zay. “It has been a story of luck, and of being in the right place at the right time and of making the right connections,” he adds, humbly. Indeed, the host’s is a tale of survival, of accidental fame in an uncertain period for Myanmar celebrities.

Fighting Fame

Despite the razzamataz and glitz of The Mask Singer, and its host’s smooth as velvet persona, Paing Zay Ye Tun was a born scrapper – determined, gritty, and realistic from the go. Growing up in a rural area within which his father, a soldier, was posted, his circumstances changed dramatically when the family breadwinner lost a leg after an incident in the unrest of the late 1980s, forcing a relocation to Yangon and leaving the young Paing Zay to fight for his place in the city. His father’s role in providing for their family in the face of disability instilled morals which have defined the actor’s career; tenacity, integrity and family.

At nine years old, Paing Zay found an outlet for his competitive nature and sporting abilities, discovering his early passion, Taekwondo. “After competing in Taekwondo for only eight months, I entered my very first contest. I won and received a Sony cassette player as a prize. I was so happy and proud. From that moment I always tried harder to be a champion.”

From here, the young Paing Zay rose to become Myanmar’s preeminent Taekwondo competitor. By his mid-teens he was defeating all challengers en route to the Chiang Mai SEA Games of 1992. Then fate played its hand. “In the Chiang Mai tournament I broke my leg. I was about seventeen years old and, since then, my life was never the same.”

The broken leg proved a crossroads in his life. Always practical, this injury convinced him that he could never make a living as an athlete in Myanmar. Fortunately, he was not allowed to dwell on his misfortune for too long. In his Taekwondo class was a young Naing Lu (now an actor, famed for his villainous roles). Naing Lu was adamant that his own future lay in showbiz, particularly modelling. Whilst Paing Zay was working as a clerk at No.1 Ministry of Industry – for 1600 Kyats per month – He escorted Naing Lu to an audition. Yet, instead of the chubby Naing Lu, it was Paing who was talent scouted. The accidental model accepted the job on the proviso that he was paid ten thousand kyats – “I didn’t even know what a model did, but this was a huge pay increase!” Paing Zay’s famous career in front of the camera began through pure circumstance.

Paing Zay’s second break came in his first modelling pageant – the “Biggest Show in Myanmar” – held at the old Trader’s Hotel. From here, the Sinma Furniture Company approached him to be the face of their brand on television. The accidental model became the accidental actor and, soon after, actress Kyi Lai Lai Oo signed him for more television work. “From here, the work just flowed.” remembers Paing Zay, “I had no intention to be famous, and I had no idea if I would enjoy it or not. I was doing it to make a living, and it relied on my good luck.” 

After achieving huge popularity with the ‘Great Wall’ traditional medicine commercials, the big time beckoned; “In 1997 I signed a contract with a production house to commit to between eighty and one hundred and eighty movies” – a huge number for a young star. “However, in these days there was no support and no training schools. I had nobody to guide me and I was still young and a bit wild. I reneged on the contract after a few years – I had become an actor by chance and was not really committed to it at this stage.” 

Regardless, the few films that Paing Zay managed to star in became huge successes with urban audiences. “A film I made twenty years ago was recently recreated by the same director. After it aired, he called me and said ‘Paing Zay Ye Tun – you played it better!’ – this meant a lot to me especially as the director, Maung Thi, was my childhood hero, Lwin Moe’s brother.” During this period he also put out a film which he considers his favourite work: the comedy Swal Sarr Pa Lite Tot (“Just Do It”) – which also gained significant urban acclaim. All of this stardom, he says modestly, was a result of luck and not natural talent.

Comparing his story to those young celebrity talents exhibited on Myanmar’s new range of television shows, he is full of both praise and caution. “I came up in the last generation of Burmese celebrities – and many of those are no longer on the scene. The notable exceptions would be people like Nine Nine and Sai Sai Kham Leng. We are self-taught and tough. These new Myanmar stars are trained from birth. Even in shows like Myanmar Idol, those that come out on top are natural talents that have been nurtured a lot more than my generation… however, many do not seem to have the same kind of originality or longevity as before, and maybe that is a symptom of the new system.”

A Very Public Romance

Dropping into a discussion of celebrity lifestyles, Paing Zay reflects: “People like Sai Sai did well because they had a great PR team and never married. They were focused on their image and chasing this career.” This contrasts with a crucial theme in his story, and at this point the actor begins discussing his own high profile marriage to Zin Thae Naing. The outward displays of wealth and affection between the two put them firmly amongst the most publicly influential couples in the New Myanmar. 

“When I became famous, every single person in Myanmar wanted to know who I was going to marry. At the time, Thae Thae was young – she was 18 and I was 28 – so we eloped. She always supported me – especially my acting career – despite me not being entirely convinced. Even in the dark times, times when I made unforgivable mistakes, she forgave me. She is everything to me.” In this vain, the couples’ romantic social media exchanges are, predictably, extremely popular with the public. 

Photo: Facebook.

Renewed public interest after his marriage once again thrust Paing Zay into the celebrity spotlight: “After marriage we quickly had two children. After our children were born, the focus came back to us and producers once again wanted to make a contract. I signed it, returned to the screen, made a few movies, and left the industry once again.”

By the late 2000s, Paing Zay Ye Tun was once again one of Myanmar’s most loved celebrities, yet acting was no longer his priority. “I am lucky that my fans have always had great affection for me as a celebrity. I don’t make movies continuously and there’s always a time gap between my movies, yet the audience always remembers me and I’m still treated as an experienced actor. However, I have always wanted to prioritise other sides of my career. Being a CEO or MD has always been most rewarding to me – I was never a party boy, I was fond of sport – of health, wealth, and family.”

Paing Zay Ye Tun, CEO

Business success and wealth for his family has always been the endgame for Paing Zay Ye Tun. He and his wife have successfully begun the transition from celebrity to notables in Myanmar’s business community, but this has not always been a smooth road – largely thanks to the critical eyes of the general public. 

Five years back, Paing Zay took a call from Phoe La Pyae – grandson of U Than Shwe, singer, and great supporter of the art and pop culture scene in Myanmar. This led to him accepting the lead roles in Phoe La Pyae’s early music videos – many of which were covers of Enrique Inglasias numbers. “Phoe La Pyae called and said I was one of his favourite actors. From then on we became like brothers. Even now he is the landlord of the building from which I operate my business.”

Around the same time, Paing Zay’s wife established the successful gem and jewellery company, Julia’s Collection Gems. Last year, the export arm – Art and J Myanmar – began operations. Paing Zay himself is director of a portfolio of companies including real estate and automobile ventures and his new event planning businesses Channel 39 and Mega 39.

However, the rise of his entrepreneurial family has not come without a degree of unwarranted scrutiny. In a country where celebrities are at once very close to the public yet are also elevated above them, the pervasive role of social media is a huge double-edged sword.

“When I was younger, the media attention was absolutely unbearable. There were not many famous actors back then, and every single time I left my house the paparazzi would hound me – they had very little news to write about and needed to find something juicy. It is better now, as social media creates all kinds of news on a huge number of celebrities – it is easier to be yourself these days if you keep a low profile on social media.”

Despite this, the family found themselves subjects of an intrusive nationwide witchhunt a few months ago, with massive speculation being generated by the chattering netizens of Myanmar concerning business affairs and Paing Zay’s family. “People put a lot on facebook without even thinking… anything really. So news spreads fast. My wife and I refuse to post anything on Facebook except posts that are not controversial. Three of four months ago my wider family got drawn into a public debate on Facebook – but it’s all exaggerated fake news.” He reflects. He makes a point of saying that throughout his career it has been imperative to uphold his dignity whilst followers of celebrity consistently hunt out weak points and slip-ups. 

Cele: Generation Next

The Myanmar public’s intense interest in celebrity is typified in the new wave of show of which The Mask Singer is one prime example. Myanmar Idol, MasterChef, Model Academy, and Myanmar’s Got Talent thrive on people’s incessant interest in the career trajectories and stories of those participating. Paing Zay says that it is a relatively new phenomenon – with one notable exception; “I did enjoy Myanmar Idol, but I think it is more crafted and produced than previous Myanmar talent shows. The decade old “Melody World” was my favourite. Talents like Ni Ni Khin Zaw have lasted the test of time, and I believe are more authentic. However, Aung Htet, winner of Eain Mat Sone Yar has really convinced me of his great talent since releasing an original album. In this respect, it pleases me that Myanmar is now developing the systems to nourish and hone the talents of these young stars – it is different to how it used to be.”

And, with this new raft of celebrities coming through, what is next for Paing Zay Ye Tun? “When I was young, I wanted to be successful in my career so I greatly desired other people’s attention. As I have matured, I have tried to keep a lower profile – tried not to affect people with my actions as a celebrity, or to be affected by harsh words against me – and to focus on my businesses. When I was younger, sport was my fun. As I grew up, fame was a necessity that got me to where I am today. Now I am older, my businesses are what will provide for the future of my family – my wife, my children and my parents.”  

Expect to see Paing Zay Ye Tun continue to host upcoming seasons of The Mask Singer. However, in his own words, it will be his last TV show. Crucially, prepare to see him adopt the mask of ‘businessman’ more often in this next phase of his glittering career.

Translation: Hus Myat Lin Naing

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