“I don’t call Miss Universe a beauty pageant anymore,” says Anne Jakapong Jakrajutatip. “I call it a women’s empowerment competition.”
A 43-year-old billionaire, based in Thailand, Jakapong Jakrajutatip is the new — and sole — owner of The Miss Universe Organization, which, in addition to the Miss Universe pageant, also operates Miss USA and Miss Teen USA. Her company, JKN Global Group, one of Asia’s largest content management services, purchased the pageant in October 2022 from Endeavor, who, in turn, had bought it from Donald Trump, the owner for well over a decade.
The irony here is truly sweet, given the former President’s horrific, bigoted rants against the transgender community, particularly in his rallies. Why? Because Anne Jakapong Jakrajutatip is transgender.
To say that the pageant, which Jakapong Jakrajutatip wants to see literally transformed into an enterprise for women’s empowerment, is in good hands is an understatement. And still, the road ahead for the new owner is a long one, as she works to reshape the perception of the brand, which has, for several years, been a target of criticism and derision.
One of her most significant sweeping changes has been to eliminate adjunct prizes for the most photogenic and best swimwear. She has, instead, introduced the concept of a “cape,” a hand-crafted artistic representation by each contestant that captures an aspect of their host nation’s society and culture.
“They represent the country through the painting on a cape when they come out,” Jakapong Jakrajutatip says. “They will represent their own country by painting the pictures. They can paint by themselves or they can have national artists paint for them. And they represent a country in that cape. It’s going to be more cultural, more beautiful, more classy. I think people will appreciate the change.”
The 71st annual pageant, broadcast live from New Orleans on Saturday, January 14, for free on ROKU (and available for streaming on Roku for a time after the pageant), will feature a headline performance by the gay, gender-nonconforming diva Big Freedia, who will also serve on the final judging panel.
During a Zoom interview, Jakapong Jakrajutatip, sporting a plush, white dressing gown, her own stunning beauty positively glowing, is relaxed and forthcoming. A single question evokes an almost nonstop response that takes its own unique trajectory through her history, her feelings, and her innermost thought processes.
She constantly loops back to her personal mantra of empowerment and transformation, seeing herself as a model for all women — and transgender women, in particular. She embraces the idea that success in an often hostile, male-dominated world is achievable if one removes the negative mindset and focuses instead on positivity.
She is noticeably alarmed by the rise in anti-transgender rhetoric and lawmaking in the United States in recent years.
“I thought that you are the number one superpower in the world,” she says, raising her hands in a “what the hell” manner. “So I’m very surprised that you still have the ongoing bullying or anti-trans [sentiment]. I’m very surprised. I thought that you are the country that we can look up to. So my question is why is it happening in the United States, when you have to be the role model country to the rest of the world.”
She notes, by contrast, that Thailand is not transphobic and that “we really celebrate trans people,” singling out trans men in particular.
“They want me to become the prime minister,” she says. “They have the vote. They want me to become the first trans woman prime minister in Thailand, which means in the world.”
But is politics an arena Jakapong Jakrajutatip is keen to enter?
“I will do anything for my own country, but I don’t like politics,” she says. “I don’t like to play dirty games because I’m a very positive-mindset person. So I don’t want to [be around] negative mindset people.”
She smiles coyly. “But maybe. Let’s see. Let’s see.”
METRO WEEKLY: I’d like to start with your personal history.
ANNE JAKAPONG JAKRAJUTATIP: Well, I’m a trans woman. When I was five years old, I knew straight away that I was a girl who was trapped in the wrong body. I tried to overcome the obstacles, and I got bullied a lot. I got sexually harassed by my own teacher. It was a very tough time.
I grew up in Thailand, which we still call Third World, and at that time, they did not embrace the differences. So I lead a double life. In school, I was one thing. Come back home, for family, I needed to be a boy in front of my mom and dad. They had little computer shop. Never had a golden spoon in my mouth. The only thing that I needed to do was to convince people that we are intelligent enough, we are smart, and can be successful. So I determined to be the best version of myself by being someone that people could recognize in the school.
After I got sexually harassed by my own teacher, I gained my own strength that I needed to empower myself to become a public speaker. I saw an article in one of the largest newspapers in Thailand, and I read about Oprah Winfrey. At that time, 35 years ago, it was about her being raped. And she became so successful, became a number one talk show host.
I thought to myself, “I want to be her, then.” Because I cannot fight. I cannot [play] football. I cannot do anything like other young men can do. So I became the captain of the school [debate team]. Amazing, right? Went to the debate show on national TV, and we won the championship that year. After that, I quit school.
MW: How old were you at the time?
ANNE: Sixteen years old. I quit school because I thought, “I really have to be better and become more successful.” I think outside the box. I went to Sydney to study English and also political science. My major was international relations. Came back home at the age of 21 and [worked in the] home video business with my mom and dad. I thought, “This is not the business anymore. We sell the content. The content is actually the actual business inside a home video shop.” I mean, VHS, that is of a time, yeah? You used to have Blockbusters. Right now, no more.
I came to [understand] that content is actually the real business, the core competence of the business. Therefore, I became a global content distributor company. I set up a company of my own. My mom and dad at that time were divorced. So I did a business of my own until the age of 36.
I told my mom that I became successful in my own right. I had money and I just needed to become myself. So I said to her, “I needed to become myself, really, Mom. I’m a woman. And you’ve known it from when I was young. It’s the elephant in the room. We never talk about it. Right now, I just want to confront you. This particular issue has to be revealed.”
MW: How did she react?
ANNE: She couldn’t accept it. Then, I went to my dad, and he said, “Are you sure?” “Yes,” I said, “Super sure. I just kept it in the closet for a long time because I didn’t want to disappoint you, and I paid so much attention to being successful, and how to convince all the people around me in society that I have a brain. So, now, let me become myself.” This is part of the culture in Thailand and in Asian countries actually — we respect parents, and we have gratitude over them. I could have chosen not to tell them and lived my own life, but I chose to care about them. At that time, I was like 36 already, you know?
MW: It was time.
ANNE: Yeah. It was just too long.
MW: I want to go back a little bit. Do you recall what it was in you that made you know at age five that “This is not who I’m supposed to be?”
ANNE: You know it straight away — “This is not a body that I belong [in].” I liked to put makeup on. I liked to try high heels. I loved playing with my younger sister and I actually tried on her dresses. [Laughs.] And I appreciate the beauty in front of me. When women dress in a gown, wear good makeup, beautiful makeup, I love them all. So it’s me, actually. And I love straight men.
MW: Did you say you love straight men?
ANNE: Yeah. I was never gay. Never. When I was young, people, at that time, in Thailand, didn’t know about the definition of being a trans woman or trans man. They assumed everyone to be queer, therefore they call gay. That’s all. But I thought to myself that “No, I’m not, because I love straight men.” I cannot have sex with gay men.
So I came to the full [realization] that I’m a girl, actually, but trapped in the wrong body. Later on, I learned a word in Sydney — “Oh, this is called a ‘trans woman.'” I worked in a petrol station at that time. I had long hair. I started to do makeup, I started to put on high heels. I had a great time in Sydney. I had a great time being myself. I had to come back to Thailand to work in the family business, so you know what? I lead a double life again. I cut my hair short and started to do business and focused on success by representing myself as a man until the age of 36. I could not bear that anymore.
MW: How difficult was that for you emotionally?
ANNE: Difficult. But you know what? I turned pain into power. I was born as a trans woman, and it meant to be actually for you to learn, to live life, to lead and to teach, and also to inspire other people later on how to transform themselves, overcome obstacles, and make the success for your own. If you want to be successful, you need to move up. You need to keep on going, keep moving. Being a trans woman and not being accepted by society, you needed to survive. I’m talking about me, about myself.
So it was painful that people could not embrace me, but you have to learn once again that everything is possible when you believe in yourself. I did everything that I could do.
At 36, I ran away from home — I used to stay with my parents. I just said, “This is enough, I need to be myself.” I came out two years later, at the age of 38. I listed my company into the stock market and I became the first trans woman billionaire of Asia. Forbes magazine listed me as the richest trans woman in Asia. I did speak out a lot for the trans community so that we can be successful once again. We can choose our life, we can be whoever we want to be. That is the message that I would love to send across the whole world — don’t give up.
You just really have to love yourself, value yourself, and connect the dots of what God tried to tell you. You have to embrace life lessons. Become tougher in life, keep learning every day, turn pain into power, as I told you before, and make yourself become stronger, gain your own strengths. Look up to someone that you always want to be. In my case, I looked up to Oprah Winfrey all the time, and I said to myself that everything is possible when you believe in yourself.
I just want to emphasize this. Being trans, you are gifted. You are special. People say we are different. No. We are special — special in the way that we need to learn how to transform our lives. We are born with the word transformation, and transforming or keep changing or keep improving is always in it. You have to convince other people that they are wrong if they put you down.
Never let anyone put you down or bring you down. This is the manifestation of your life, and you can be better by not listening to them. You don’t care about what they say. You really have to focus on yourself. This is the message I want to tell all the people.
When I became the first trans woman billionaire of Asia at the age of 38, one month later, I flew to the United States. I came to Los Angeles, actually, and I did what we call a sperm bank. So I put my sperm in the bank at that time, and a doctor did surrogacy for me. He used my sperm to inject into surrogate women. Two of them. I got my first son, his name is Andrew, which was my name before. After I had him, I transferred my name — Andrew — to him, and called myself Anne. The second one is a daughter, Angelica. Just turned three years old on the 3rd of January. So both of them, they’re half-Thai, half-American, and they’re both American citizens.
When I finished my sperm bank process, I came back to Thailand. I went back to my hometown, and I started to take the first hormone pills ever in my life. I had never taken it before that time. Why? Because I thought to myself at the time that I always wanted to become a mother, but I don’t have a womb. Basically, I need to keep my sperm as healthy as possible. I did not jeopardize any part of my body, so I just dressed up as a woman at that time, but I never took hormones. I took the hormone, the first pill after I made sure that my son will be born. Six months after I took the hormone, I had a gender reassignment straight away.
MW: I need to ask: has your mother come around?
ANNE: Yes. After I became a billionaire and I did not talk to my mom for three years, I went to apologize to her, and said, “Can you please accept me?”
She cried and said, “Please accept my apology instead. I knew you from the media. You gave so many interviews about your life, and are just so inspiring to other people right now. Right now, you became so successful in business, and also you became the mother of two.”
My mother was the one who sent me into the operating room. And she said, “All my life, I never regret anything more than saying no to you at that time. And I just would love to apologize to you one more time, would love to have your forgiveness, and I’m with you today because I know that it’s your special day. You’ve been waiting for this day for your whole life. For your entire life, you would love to become a woman. You are 39 years old now and I’m your mom. I will take you into the operating room and I’m going to be so proud the next day when you wake up. I’m going to be the first person that you can proudly tell, ‘I’m a woman.’ I’m going to be with you.”
I got a photo with her in the operating room. And the next morning, yes, I saw her holding my hand, and I became a woman by September 1st, 2018.
MW: Let’s move to Miss Universe. This was once owned by Donald Trump, who has made notoriously transphobic remarks, especially in recent years. What made you decide, “I want to buy Miss Universe?”
ANNE: I have my own personal mission. I would love to use my personality to serve the true calling of my soul. I really feel like everyone should know their own life purpose. I was born as a trans woman. There must be some purpose when you connect the dots. So I learned to live my life, to teach, to lead, and to inspire people on how to transform. I own Peacock in Thailand, also CNBC and I own Home Shopping Network with Hyundai, the number one Korean company. So I have three channels in Thailand, plus I’m the biggest global content distributor in Thailand and Southeast Asia.
I have output deals with BBC Discovery, National Geographic History Channel, Warner Brothers, Fox, Disney. Every one of them has been working with me for 20 years now. So, that is the origin of my success, and I have a platform where I can express myself. I can have the news every day about what my perspective is. So, I’m one of the most influential people in Thailand and that’s it. I have money, I have children, I’m a woman. I just have everything. Just like a lot of successful people, they think like, “What’s next?”
MW: But why Miss Universe?
ANNE: Because that is my next level. I wanted to have a global women’s empowerment platform. I wanted the platform not just in Thailand — I have everything in my life already in Thailand. I don’t need to work. I just can enjoy myself, enjoy my life. But I’m workaholic and I just really am grateful every day that I was born as a trans woman. This is important. A lot of them, they just blame themselves, blame society, keep being negative on themselves. No. You have to be positive. You are special. So I thought to myself that I came this far. If I don’t give anything back to the world, it means nothing, my life will be useless. That’s why I thought like, okay, I needed to have the platform on the global stage. What should be the most suitable for me as a trans woman to do so?
MW: Hence, Miss Universe.
ANNE: Actually, a lot of companies. Because I also own Miss USA and Miss Teen USA. I don’t see them as beauty competitions. I see them as a platform to raise up the voices of women and give them the stage to advocate for good — they can be a force for good. That’s why I thought this is the right timing for me — now or never. I’m the sole owner as of October 27, I think. I have been the owner for I think two and a half months.
MW: This weekend’s event is your first pageant. How’s it going?
ANNE: [Laughs.] Challenging. In two and a half months, I’ve learned a lot. So I respect Paula Shugart [president of the Miss Universe Organization]. I respect everyone that’s been working for more than twenty years now. In fact, they had been working with Mr. Trump for a long time and were all transferred under me. They are like the best class. They are very good. So I listen to them, I respect what they do.
Actually, I’m not the boss, even though I pay the salary, I never thought like that. I stayed humble and said, “Paula and the team, everyone, you have anything to teach me, to tell me, just guide me. I need to learn from you guys.” Because my personal mission here is that I just would love to have the global women’s empowerment platform, that’s all.
And I did accept the policy of having married women, trans women, and also pregnant women to be able to come into the competition, because I do believe in social inclusion. Therefore I would love to encourage all women to have the privilege of having the same qualification to be able to come into the competition. Whether they win or not — that’s up to the judges — but I just allow them in. So that is the first part, my contribution. I would love to include everyone, for all women to be able to perform on the stage and talk about what they think, how they want to advocate a particular campaign, or the changes that they would love to do or contribute to the whole world.
So it’s a learning process for me, but it’s never been difficult. As long as you have the determination and you have to believe in yourself that you can do it. I’m so positive that this one is going to be the global stage for women — the voice of women right now, it’s time for women to shine. We encourage all the [contestants] to become the best version of themself to express themselves.
MW: It sounds like you’re trying to transform the perception of the beauty pageant industry.
ANNE: We never objectify women for Miss Universe. I cannot answer on behalf of other beauty pageant competitions — there are many beauty competitions that do it the way that they do. We have what we call the same content, but a different kind of context. I encourage women to be leaders.
This year, I introduced the mindset of “transformational leadership.” I would love to have them as leaders, to be iconic women of their own countries. When they go home, right after the competition, they can become the inspiration that people — and I mean the whole nation that they represent — can look up to.
MW: Somebody is going to be crowned a winner. What, to you, defines a Miss Universe winner?
ANNE: Transformational leadership. She must have it. I would love to see leadership in women, particularly the winner. The winner must be able to become the iconic woman that the whole world can look up to. She must become the inspiration.
MW: This is probably an unfair question, but is there a country you’d secretly like to see win?
ANNE: No, I don’t have that kind of power — and I don’t want to have that kind of power.
MW: I don’t mean that. I mean, is there a country that you secretly hope will be the winner?
ANNE: No, I wish them all the best. I don’t have favoritism, really, to be honest. I look at them as sisters, all of them, and I wish them all the best. Yesterday I met them, and I talked to them, took photos with them, and it was a happy time. Whoever makes the preparation in terms of answering the questions well — the interview is tough this year — and has leadership charisma, I think that person will win.
MW: So my final question is: if you were competing in Miss Universe, do you think you could win?
ANNE: [Laughs.] I’m too old. No, no, no! I would rather mentor them. Competing is not what I’m looking for. I let them shine on the stage to be iconic women. And that is my service to the world — to make the platform for all women be confidently beautiful and beautifully confident.
The Miss Universe Pageant streams live, for free, on Saturday, Jan. 14, at 7 p.m. on ROKU. It will be available on demand for free after the live pageant as well. The show will also be simulcast in Spanish on Telemundo. Visit www.therokuchannel.com or www.telemundo.com.
To learn more about the Miss Universe Organization, visit www.missuniverse.com.
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