The book Knockout is a no-holds-barred biography that covers Mia Kang, her difficult childhood, bullying and toxic relationships, as well as her ascendance in modelling, travels around the world, and the eating disorders and drug addiction that followed. That’s all before she found Muay Thai and a path to wellness.
When Kang won the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Search Competition in 2016, it catapulted her to global superstardom. But ultimately, hers is a story of self- redemption and, through Muay Thai, lessons that are physically and mentally learned. Kang has turned her own contemporary evolution into a force for empowering women everywhere, while championing a new consciousness in fashion and fame.
Through shaking off toxic behaviours and healing old wounds, Kang redefined her own perceptions of her body, beauty and life goals. Since then, she’s emerged as a powerful diversity activist in her field, gracing the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. She’s landed campaigns such as Guess and the cover of Self magazine, as well as TV appearances on Megyn Kelly Today, Nick Cannon’s Wild ’N Out and a role as host of Bravo’s Spy Games show.
Here, she talks candidly from Thailand about her journey, sports and modelling, continuing anxieties and the power and pitfalls of social media.
What’s your favourite thing about your body? What would pre-Muay Thai and post-Muay Thai Mia say?
Its strength. My body is my home and (though it took me a long time to realise this) it deserves nothing other than honour. It carries me all over the world, gains and loses weight, gets sick sometimes, goes through all my emotions with me, exercises and kicks ass. It’s really amazing to explore just what our bodies are capable of, especially when we treat them with love and respect. Pre-Muay Thai Mia probably would have tried to say something like “my height”, to try and conceal the fact that she hated almost everything about her body.
If there were one thing you could tell 13-year-old Mia, what would it be?
To not waste your energy trying to fit in. It’s OK to be different. You’re unique. I wish that I’d used the energy I spent trying so hard to fit in on just being myself, and being confident with who I am as a person.
What lessons did you learn growing up in Hong Kong?
So many – there’s nowhere else I’d have rather grown up. First of all, to work hard – Hong Kong is small, and success and all the things that come with it are dangled right in front of you … Whenever people ask me where I’m from, I say, “Hong Kong.” I’ve always felt that that was the case having been born and raised there, and that’s where I have family. At the same time, I’ve always felt like a foreigner because I’m not Chinese and I don’t speak Cantonese. The city is also a melting pot of people from all over the world. Growing up there I learned to be open-minded and inquisitive, and multicultural became “normal”.
Your Sports Illustrated win and magazine shoot is seen as a huge career milestone. How was it life-changing?
Never having lived in America, I don’t think I realised just how significantly Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition was a part of American popular culture. Being selected to work with them, I definitely saw opportunities within the fashion and entertainment industry open up for me. A lot of respect is attached to the brand.
On a personal note, I think it gave me validation. As it was the largest “stage” I’d ever stepped on, I think it made me realise that there were no limits to what I could do. It was the first job I’d booked when I moved to the US. The first year it really kind of validated my appearance and opinions of myself as a model. The second year, I appeared in the magazine after I’d decided I was going to recover from my eating disorders – it really helped me with my own validation of myself as a woman and a person. The magazine was one of the first clients to hire me regardless of my weight gain, which really helped me in my recovery and gave me the confidence to go forward on the rest of my journey.
How well has the international fashion and modelling industry faced up to issues of diversity and representation?
Thanks to models like Ashley Graham, Precious Lee and Paloma Elsesser, we’re now seeing size-diversity in the mainstream media, which is a huge accomplishment. But, having a couple of plus-size girls in a runway show
of dozens, or six sample-size models and one plus-size model on a magazine cover isn’t diversity in my opinion. We should be aiming to represent women of all sizes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a massive improvement, but we still have a really long way to go in terms of not only size, but also race, gender, age and ability.
“I feel like I got a chance to start again. I reset myself, my mentality and my ways to be the woman I always wanted to be”Mia Kang
Which markets are the most and least progressive?
I think the US is definitely pioneering this fight for diversity and inclusion, Europe is behind and Asia even further behind. In my professional experience, Asia’s beauty standards are by far the most narrow and inflexible … I think that within Asia we’ve quite a lot of work to do in thinking about how we represent our own women. The women of Asia are so incredibly diverse and yet all the media representation seems to say thinner and whiter is more beautiful.
What are your favourite clothing and beauty labels and why?
2020 was a year of reflecting on consumption for me. My industry and, therefore, income was drastically affected and so suddenly all the latest, hottest, trendiest clothes, shoes, bags and watches I thought I needed,
I suddenly didn’t need. Staples and classics over trends. So many small businesses, brands and labels have been struggling and it really also made me realise the value of my dollar and the importance of where I place it.
You’re Eurasian and your modelling career spanned Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea before you went Stateside. What’s your view on Asian beauty standards?
Recently I think there’s been a slight improvement in Asia. The conversation on diversity has been brought up, but by no means is it being discussed enough. Since I’m no longer “sample size”, I’ve made appearances in Asian publications in Hong Kong and Korean Vogue, and I’ve worked for a handful of Asian brands like Thailand’s Pomelo, but in no way is diversity seen regularly or in the mainstream. It’s very much still a rarity. The perception of femininity is almost culturally engrained, so when you don’t fit that box the pressures can be felt so immensely.
And what rule would you put in place in the industry if you could?
No measurements of any kind. Models are booked for their aesthetic and representation, and the clothes are made to fit the person and not the other way round.
In Knockout you expose all your demons, from eating disorders to drug abuse and toxic familial and romantic relationships. Was it tough to share so much in public?
Yes, it was tough on many levels. There’s so much permanence to writing a book. I frequently second-guessed myself whether I really wanted to share all that I did, because maybe that would change people’s perceptions of me. There’s so much in the book that even my family don’t know, and I feared them changing their opinions of me.
I was scared my parents would be upset, and I realised that, because of the cultural differences, my mum might never understand why I wrote my book. I had to consistently remind myself that I had nothing to be ashamed of. The taboos that I grew up learning, I unlearned. This is my truth, and everybody is entitled to their truth.
What mental and psychological impact has Muay Thai had on you?
Initially, I think I really loved how I was seen and treated. As a model you’re treated so preciously, almost like a doll. When I stepped into a Muay Thai gym, it didn’t matter what I did or how I looked. Everything’s just about hard work, heart, skill and knowledge. You find out a lot about yourself when you practise Muay Thai, and I believe this is true of all martial arts. You’re in a continuous dialogue with yourself, because there’s no one else accountable for your progress and your mistakes.
It’s constantly humbling, because you can never know everything – all practitioners are on the same learning curve, learning from one another. You have to put aside your ego in order to access real confidence. Every time I step on the mats I feel like I grow and learn something that I can apply to my everyday life.
How did it feel right after your first real Muay Thai fight, and are you game for another one?
When the fight was over, I instantly felt happy and accomplished, but soon after I was flooded with incredible disappointment. Weirdly enough, I wasn’t proud or happy that I won – the only thing I was thinking was that I could have done better. It was my first fight, it was so emotional and there was so much adrenaline. I wasn’t able to think clearly and perform to what I believe is my potential.
My trainers always tell me that if you know 50 moves and you do five in the fight, that would be awesome. So I felt like I knew 50 but did one! I’d absolutely love to fight again – and I probably will.
Is it still a struggle to stay on a positive path of self-love and not fall into old habits?
One hundred percent. I’m still human, I have bad days, I have insecurities. I still have moments of total self- doubt, I still have days when I feel ugly, I still have intrusive thoughts and deeply ingrained insecurities about my body that I’m working on trying to overcome. My brain spent so long programmed a certain way, it’s going to take time to get rid of old thought patterns completely, if I ever will at all. I’ve accepted the fact that I may spend the rest of my life recovering from eating disorders, and I’m OK with that. I know that I deserve health and happiness, and that’s what I wake up choosing every day.
You’re a big activist on social media, with almost 300,000 Instagram followers. What are your most important causes and do these shift depending on the stage you’re at or how your followers
It completely changes depending on what I’m going through. I try to be genuine with my social media, I post about things that are affecting me at the time. If I post about anxiety or depression, body-image, eating-disorder recovery or feminism, it’s because I’m learning and finding these things useful and applicable to myself … Sometimes, I post out of passion – maybe I noticed in this season’s runway shows there was very minimal diversity, so I’ll post about that. Throughout 2020 I was posting a lot about the racism and xenophobia developing towards Asians because of Covid-19, as I experienced it myself. I try not to think about “likes”, other people’s reactions and approval … Social media is a weird place. The second you start posting for other people, I think you lose your authentic voice.
Instagram never fails to show me hate and negativity that I just don’t see in real, day-to-day life. I mean, you’d never walk past a complete stranger in the street and insult their appearance, say something racist, or tell them what they’re saying is garbage – well, I hope you wouldn’t – but this stuff happens on social media all the time. And as much as you try and not let it affect you, it slowly chips away at you for sure. People definitely don’t like their belief patterns challenged, even if it’s for the better.
If you hadn’t chosen this career, what would you be doing now?
I’d probably be working in finance and living in Asia.
There’s plenty of change afoot in the worlds of fashion and beauty; what’s the most encouraging thing you see?
I feel as if people are becoming more conscious, which is amazing. Sustainability is now a huge conversation in fashion and beauty, and I think that’s amazing! It gives me a lot of hope for the future. People are also listening to people. Social media has become a great way to hear
what people are saying and brands can shift pretty quickly accordingly. Fashion and beauty brands are no longer simply dictating to us what’s going on. Public input is more valid than ever.
The theme of this issue of Prestige is renewal. Do you feel renewed as a person?
Absolutely. I feel like I got a chance to start again. I reset myself, my mentality and my ways to be the woman that I always wanted to be. I never wanted to be an insecure woman who was trying to look how people wanted her to look, who hated the skin she was in, who wasn’t confident with herself and who didn’t respect herself.
I remember watching The Oprah Winfrey Show on Star TV after school in Hong Kong and I’d sit there in absolute awe of Oprah, thinking, “One day, I want to be strong, smart, successful and independent.” There came a point where I realised I wasn’t anywhere close to being that woman, even though that’s maybe what it looked like from the outside. It took me a whole load of wrong turns and hitting rock bottom to get there, but I hope people realise that every day is a chance to reset and renew and take one step closer to being your authentic self and who you want to be.
(Hero Shot: Tania Quintaniall)