Photographs + Story by: Matt Hunt
Since appearing on the first season of the singing reality TV show Academy Fantasia in 2004, Aof Pongsak’s (อ๊อฟ ปองศักดิ์) work has grown above and beyond the traditional entertainment career path that many talented and successful Thai artists before him have taken, a track that most can’t avoid.
It is common for singers and actors in Thailand to have five-to-ten-year on-camera careers. Then poof, there they are, standing next to you at the outdoor market on a Tuesday, being a totally ordinary person just like you.
It’s also typical to see Thai entertainers as entrepreneurs selling sweet baked goods, spices, or cosmetic products they launch with the audience they built as performers.
Many that have worked in the Thai entertainment industry face the reality that to stay working, they must maintain a very specific, somewhat “traditional,” public image to remain relevant and marketable.
If a Thai entertainer doesn’t stick to the prescribed role of being subdued in speaking about their beliefs or if they show too much of who they really are on a personal level, they risk losing work for going against longstanding cultural norms, like voicing their political opinions. More often than not, they get what they can and exit to pursue other ventures.
Aof Pongsak, however, is different.
From his first TV appearance to the current day, Aof has been able to be himself in the “old school” media of the past and grow with the modern fame of the internet. Although he didn’t win the competition, his appearance on the 24/7 surveillance-style show allowed him to introduce himself to a Thai audience by being loud and proud about who he is as a singer and gay man. Aof was just 16 years old at the time.
The person viewers were intrigued by—”Mother Aof,” as his friends and fans often call him—was unlike anyone they had seen. His authenticity resonated, building loyalty and trust with the viewers that quickly became his fans.
It was Aof’s initial offering of authenticity that has allowed him to remain true to himself, his fans, and his art- propelling him forward into his now 20-year career.
Aof was, and still is, a safe bet. His music has no expiration date; he adapts to change and stands out by pushing boundaries. He’s rarely been vocal about politics, and he doesn’t believe it’s necessary to imagine what could stand in his way for the future of his career. Instead, he stays tuned in to what is essential in making his career timeless: his relationship with his process and the resulting connection it builds between him and his audience.
Videos of his performances and television appearances have amassed hundreds of millions of views on YouTube, a compliment to the many millions of followers he has chiming into his personal social media pages daily to see what he’s up to, who he’s wearing, and where he’ll be performing next.
For months, I’ve interviewed Pongsak Rattanapong, as a friend, an entertainer, and a constantly evolving artist. I set out to learn what makes him tick, what it’s like to be a career entertainer, and what sets him apart from other artists in his industry.
The following is the first part of a documentary portrait series, which took place on June 9, 2022. I sat down with Aof while he was preparing to perform during Pride Month in drag, which he had only done twice before.
His stage presence commands attention, but Aof is nervous with pre-show jitters before every performance he does, in drag or otherwise. He regularly works through anxiety by breathing and thinking back to the times he has performed in front of his mother. The shows with his mom in attendance are amongst his most treasured moments as an artist.
Regardless of whether or not he’s performing at an arena or in front of just a few people, Aof strives for people to feel connected to what he is doing. This, in part, is why he didn’t often perform online during the worst of the COVID-19 lockdowns. For Aof to be able to provide the connection people have to his work, it is important for him to be amongst them, which he doesn’t feel as strongly when he is streaming.
Laughter, like connection, is an important motivation for Aof as an artist, but also as a leader. Though his greatest hits are heartbreak anthems, Aof is not often heartbroken himself. With a strong focus on his spirituality and laughter as his preferred medicine, the morale of his team mirrors the regular energy of laughter in the rooms he occupies.
Many turn to Aof’s music when feeling sad or perhaps mending a broken heart, yet he does the opposite. When he’s feeling down, he doesn’t listen to his own music or any music at all. Instead, as with other things, he stays grounded with spirituality and in the company of other people who are doing what they love. He believes that staying surrounded by people that are doing what they love enables him to continue to do the same.
Aof gains strength and happiness from the accomplishments and energy of the people around him. He is certainly proud of what he has accomplished over the last two decades, but he is far from being his own biggest fan. His desire to connect with his fans means making sure that he is approachable, something that he maintains by being humble about his own achievements.
Breathing and breath work are routine matters of focus for Aof, both for relaxing but also for being able to sing in the way he does. When asked about how he is able to maintain his vocal talent after so many years of singing at the top of his lungs, Aof insists that he is not actually yelling or straining at all when he is performing. He attributes his vocal range entirely to his understanding of how to breathe in a way that enables him to hit high notes without damaging his vocal cords or feeling like he is exerting extra energy to do it. He “just knows how to breathe,” which is a skill that he says regularly changes and develops as time goes on.
He has fully transformed his look for this show, but Aof is certain that his fans know exactly who he is, and most importantly, how he feels about the issues that matter most. This is, in part, why he hasn’t often been involved in online discussions related to politics. His ability to showcase himself authentically since the beginning of his career makes him feel like people “just know who he is.”
Aof takes a few deep breaths and says a prayer behind a curtain, just a moment before walking out to a fully-booked venue waiting for his arrival. Many in the audience have likely never seen him perform in drag, but they’ve already begun singing along to music from his band.
For more from behind-the-scenes with Aof, view the extended cut of the album here: