What Happened to MTV VJ Utt?

The veteran VJ talks about his MTV Asia days, becoming a monk, and knowing when to say next.

16 December 2021, 7:37am

Utt Panichkul knew when it was time to quit. After 13 years on MTV, he said that it was probably somewhere between the rise of reality shows on the channel and the newer, and much younger, bosses coming in. 

To Panichkul, the MTV host well-known to many millennials in the region as simply VJ Utt, and presenter of beloved shows like MTV Asia Hitlist, MTV Most Wanted, and Bangkok Jam, that was the end of an era—The MTV era which defined generations, set trends, and transformed the music industry. Heck, even his VJ title had “become obsolete” by the time his final sign off aired in 2011, Panichkul said. 

“The old bosses, the ones who launched MTV across Asia, had left and were being replaced by new management—some of them were even younger than I was,” he told VICE during a recent interview in Bangkok. “But it was apparent that they were on a mission to revive and rebrand MTV for a different crowd and wanted to re-establish me again for a newer audience, and none of that made any sense to me, at all. I mean, I was around for a long time.” 

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By then, his former colleagues, fellow VJs like Donita Rose from the Philippines and Sonia Couling, also from Thailand, had all left. 

“MTV used to mean something,” he said. “It was a huge chapter of my life and I was there from its heyday in the late 90s and early 2000s, and I saw the painful progression of where it was going. That’s when I knew the magic was gone.” 

Following years of success in the United States and Europe pioneering music video airplay, MTV set its sights on Asia in 1991, when it officially launched a music channel for the region. What it did in the U.S. for its hosts like Carson Daly, Jenny McCarthy, La La Anthony, and Quddus (who would end up becoming household names and stars in their own right), it would also do for its early batches of VJs in Asia. 

“I was part of the ‘OG’ VJs,” Panichkul, who first appeared on MTV in 1998, said, referring to the early line-up of MTV Asia VJs that included Nadya Hutagalung, Mike Kasem, and Jamie Aditya. “MTV was very, very particular about who they wanted as their VJs in Asia. To them, the Asian identity was crucial, and so they picked faces and personalities who [they felt] would be able to cross regional markets and transcend screens in any city—whether it was Bangkok or Singapore, Manila or Jakarta,” Panichkul said. 

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Looking back, he says it was probably all part of a global marketing and expansion strategy. “It took me a while to realize that I was part of that template and process, and I was someone who they felt would be able to represent Southeast Asia as a whole.”

Reading out our music video requests with fellow Thai MTV VJ Sonia Couling. Photo: Courtesy of Utt Panichkul

Contrary to popular assumptions, Panichkul isn’t of mixed ancestry. He may have been born in Los Angeles but both his parents are Thai. “My blood is Thai,” he clarified. “Lots of people think that I have Caucasian ancestry somewhere but I don’t, I really don’t.”  

And he grew up watching MTV. “We obviously didn’t have social media apps like we do today and MTV was everything. It was new. It was exciting. I loved the visuals and, most of all, I loved music and watching music videos, and I think that was what did it for me,” he said. “I knew early on back then that I wanted to be an MTV VJ. And I badly wanted them to start in Asia.”

“I knew early on back then that I wanted to be an MTV VJ. And I badly wanted them to start in Asia.”

But his journey towards VJ stardom meant leaving the U.S. for Thailand where MTV was holding casting calls. “That was my chance,” Panichkul said. And it would turn out to become the biggest competition of his life. In Bangkok, he went up against over 200 other hopefuls from across Thailand. “You either had it or you didn’t.” And after six gruelling rounds of auditions, Panichkul was shortlisted and flown to Singapore where he was thrown in with other hosts on live TV. “Then I got the call and the rest is history.” 

The popularity of VJ Utt peaked across Southeast Asia in the early 2000s, winning him fans not just in Thailand but also in Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines, where he appeared in magazines and on billboards. “It was incredible representing Southeast Asia,” Panichkul said. “Kids back then would rush home from school to turn on MTV and wait for music videos from their favorite bands. I loved that part, knowing that I played a part promoting music from [the TV set] in someone’s living room or bedroom.”

VJ Utt. Photo: Courtesy of Utt Panichkul

But he would soon learn that life in front of the camera came with pressures, and how that meant “eyes were on you at all times.” “It was just something that came with the territory,” he said. He had to learn how to navigate cultural sensitivities, considering how diverse Southeast Asia is as a region, and was made to worry about his image at all times.

“I was also told that male VJs had a shorter lifespan on MTV, a few years maximum, as compared to female VJs… but I think I’ve proven my longevity,” he said with a laugh. 

Interviewing Canadian pop punk band Simple Plan at the 2004 MTV Asia Awards. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui, Getty Images

After more than a decade of shuffling music videos and counting down weekly hit charts, Panichkul was finding it harder and harder to remain focused and fulfilled in his job as a VJ. “I really felt like I wasn’t growing as an artist and I wanted to do more,” he said, explaining how he planned to transition into a more behind-the-scenes role, like American Idol host-turned-producer Ryan Seacrest. “I mean, look at his success—he went on to produce Keeping Up with the Kardashians. But sadly that [path] just didn’t happen for me, and it is what it is.” 

VJ Utt with Lady Gaga. Photo: Courtesy of Utt Panichkul

At the time, reality shows were coming in fast and piling on MTV. Instead of music videos, teens seemed to care more about the latest drama on shows like The Hills. And for Panichkul, that spelled the beginning of the end. “I started having doubts in my head. Was Utt still relevant? Was he growing too old? It was clear that I was moving into a generation that I didn’t sync with anymore and that was the tail end of my days with MTV,” he said. 

In 2011, he left the channel—and Singapore where MTV was broadcast from—returning to Thailand where he spent time soul-searching. “I had to work on myself, and it took me a long time reconnecting,” he said. “I undervalued myself massively. I was an introvert whose asset was being a public persona, and I needed to find the right balance of being Utt again, not losing sleep over things I couldn’t control.” 

“I was an introvert whose asset was being a public persona, and I needed to find the right balance of being Utt again.”

He then entered a Buddhist monastery where he embraced his spiritual side and was ordained as a monk. “It was a natural rite of passage for me,” he said. “I held it off for so long because of MTV and I knew that when I returned to Thailand, it was what I had to do. The time was right.” 

Chilling at home with his many rescued dogs. Photo: Courtesy of Utt Panichkul

He has since returned to the screen, starring in the Thai movie Fathers in 2016, about a gay couple that adopts a child, and has taken on other professional and personal projects like heading a talent management agency, dabbling in the hospitality industry, planning music festivals, and even going on to host red carpet interviews at the Academy Awards. 

He was still with MTV in the early 2000s when he hosted a mini horror anthology series for eight seasons called Incredible Tales, which he revealed could see a new season as soon as next year. 

“I wasn’t used to hosting something that was non-music related but this spoke to me because of my personal interest in Southeast Asian horror,” Panichkul said, describing how having a third eye and psychic supernatural senses informed this role. “I am actually very sensitive to energy and can sense and see things like spirits. Most of my friends know this and that’s why no one likes traveling with me.” 

“I was once in Phuket for a shoot with MTV, and my producer and I ended up in a motel that looked like a scene out of a Thai horror movie. When we wrapped up filming and got to bed at around 3 a.m., the lights in the rooms started to flicker. I walked out to the hallway and heard a woman screaming. My producer freaked out and said that was the last time she was fucking going anywhere with me.” 

Utt today. Photo: Courtesy of Utt Panichkul

He’s been living in Bangkok since the pandemic hit. These days, he’s no longer VJ Utt. Now in the corporate world, he’s back to using his English name, Greg, as a senior communications advisor at a Bangkok start-up, delving into all things crypto: NFTs, Dogecoin, and Shiba Inu tokens, and the cryptoverse. Music still follows him everywhere, though. Panichkul said that at one point, he was approached by social media and streaming platforms to join their teams to lead influencers, but he declined. 

“The landscape’s definitely changed, but it’s still exciting and in some way, it’s like I’ve come full circle.”

Follow Heather Chen on Twitter

Tagged:

Music, MTV, POP CULTURE, Nostalgia, Whatever Happened To, mtv vjs

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