"Should I remove the cover-up?" Myanmar model Nang Mwe San asked during a recent shoot to advertise a male enhancement capsule.
The pink sarong was wrapped around her waist. She removed it, walked down to the shallow end of a pool, faced the camera, and smiled while posing for photographs.
“We’ve had other sexy models for ads … but Nang Mwe San’s name trumps all of them,” Moe Kyaw, the distributor of the pills, told VICE World News. “People are more interested in the products when she’s the one endorsing them.”
Little known outside her country, the 30-year-old trained physician is famous in Myanmar, where her story from doctor working in conflict zones to on-camera performer has been met with fascination, anger, and shock in a country where few women would talk so openly about their sexuality.
It started about two years ago, when she began posting provocative photos of herself on Facebook, where she now has 1.7 million followers. The photos gained an audience and caught the attention of the medical establishment, which took her license away in 2019, arguing that her images were inappropriate and “not in line with Myanmar culture.”
She found herself in a dilemma. Should she fight to get her license back and fulfill her parents’ wishes of being a doctor, or should she follow her other passion and become a full-time model? She soon resigned from her job working as a medical officer for an NGO.
“I enjoyed posting sexy photos on social media. The organization I was working with at that time didn’t like it,” she said.
“Revoking my medical license was a huge push for me to become a full-time model.”
After shrugging off the public censure she doubled down and signed up to OnlyFans. The subscription-based content platform has made cult celebrities out of sex workers and adult performers around the world. But in conservative Myanmar, the career shift did not go over well.
Nang Mwe San said she was criticized by relatives, friends, and people on social media, but that she did her best to ignore destructive feedback and instead focus on her passion. “I do not even check the negative comments under the social media accounts,” she said.
She is right not to. A quick perusal of her page shows sexually abusive comments and insults to her character.
Since her early days as a doctor, however, Nang Mwe San has always had something of an independent streak, wanting to go to places others might shy away from. She was drawn to medical work in conflict zones, and for a time worked for an NGO in Shan, Kachin, and Rakhine States, including in displaced camps for the Rohingya Muslim minority.
“While other fresh graduates were not willing to serve in the countryside and tried to get postings in cities like Yangon, I wanted to go to such places,” she said, adding that her parents were constantly worried about her safety.
But she had long nurtured an interest in modeling, one discouraged by her parents, both of whom are doctors. She ended up studying education in college instead, then went on to enter medical school. But she never really lost her interest in being in front of a camera and posing for an audience.
“I was looking at [actresses] like Mila Kunis, Megan Fox, and posing for photos like them,” she said. “I am very passionate about modeling. When my passion became my job, the feeling was incredible.”
She posted her first photo in a bikini on Instagram in 2018, an experience that made her feel “awkward” because of a lack of confidence.
But after amassing a following, and after the story about her losing her license went viral in Myanmar, her confidence was no longer a problem. Last year, she became the fourth highest trending individual in Myanmar, according to Google. She joined OnlyFans in September, right in the middle of the pandemic, after getting requests from fans. She believes she is the first model from Myanmar active on the platform. Though she posts provocative photos and videos, she said she doesn’t have sex on camera.
“Some of [my fans] wanted me to be a hot porn star, but I can't do it,” she said.
But they are still willing to pay up to $25 every month for exclusive content. She said she has earned over $20,000 since starting, a windfall in a country hit hard by the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.
One subscriber who did not want to give his name for privacy reasons said: “I think it's fair to pay such amount of subscription fee to see her sexy photos and the activities.”
Emphasizing the line between her work as a sexy model and traditional pornography has helped ease the stigma of her career choice in a country where little distinction is made between the two. It also helped members of her family, who were initially reluctant.
“At first, I was not pleased to see her posting these kinds of photos on social media, but I became okay with it when I noticed that she knows how to control herself,” her mother, Kyu Kyu Swe told VICE World News, alluding to the boundaries her daughter has established.
She now accompanies her daughter during more mainstream commercial shoots, helping prepare her outfits and giving some suggestions.
“No parent in Myanmar would like to see their daughter posing for sexy photos. But as I am an adult, they don't want to control me anymore,” Nang Mwe San said, adding that she hopes her example will encourage other women to do what they want and be independent.
“Women in this country shouldn’t feel bad about what they are doing. Anything you are doing can also be a promotion for the country, then other people will notice your country.”
“For me, I don’t really care about the negative comments anymore. I tried to ignore them,” she said. “Then I can focus on what I am doing and what I am going to do in the future.”