It’s been nearly a year since singer Lam Chi Khanh appeared after an abrupt 3-year absence from the local music scene.
A photo featuring the singer, born as Huynh Phuong Khanh, posing with a cai luong (traditional southern opera) artist was leaked online and took many people by surprise.
Previously known as a male singer, Khanh had suddenly made a comeback as a woman. It was a trip to Thailand that did it. She was immediately in the limelight amid waves of criticism and sang only rarely.
The sex change grabbed local headlines and people called Khanh all kinds of nasty names when she discussed having sex before and after the transition.
She also wore a VND7 billion (US$350,000) ring, which critics said was just a way to show off her family’s wealth.
She was also skewered for what many described as arrogant statements proclaiming how beautiful she was.
Khanh, who calls herself “princess,” had immediately become the most scandalous public icon of the year.
However, as she unbosomed herself to Vietweek in her parents’ home at a cul-de-sac in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 4, Khanh came across as much more modest, feminine and beautiful than the media has reported.
In person, she’s highly likable. The house is less sizable and not nearly as fabulous as a rich family’s home could be. Khanh says it’s where she spent her childhood and also where her and her husband are now raising their adopted son as the singer recovers from the surgery that has kept her weak for most of the year.
Her parents live in a mansion in District 9, and Khanh took a lot of heat for “showing off” when she posted pictures of the house online.
“That’s so ridiculous,” she says with a smile. “Well, being a girl as well as celebrity is too difficult.”
Between love and hate
Khanh says she is still happy with her fame, even though she’s sometimes overwhelmed by the negative comments and even insults in the media.
“‘Ignore’ is my keyword,” she says.
“I know I’m doing the right thing. If they really hate me, they wouldn’t spend so much time reading about me. They can overlook me and pay attention to someone else. I found out that many people enjoy insulting other people as a hobby... many other artists are also being judged and insulted by people described as ‘netizens.’”
Khanh says she lets it roll off her back.
“‘I’m never mad at them, I just hope that they can think twice before they bad-mouth somebody. They do not have the right to do that. I need audiences, as any artist does, but they need to respect us as well.”
Khanh is particularly happy that after the announcement of her sex change, she’s gained a much larger fan-base: male & female, gay & lesbian, and transgendered.
“I am not photogenic, but I am totally satisfied with my beauty. Many people criticized me even before they meet me. I’d love to meet them once; I think I can persuade them to respect not only me but other artists as well.”
Staging a ‘comeback’
On December 12, Khanh held a live “comeback” show called “Neu em duoc chon lua” (If I had a choice), which was promoted as the “show of a lifetime,” with special performances by two famous Thai transgender singers: Bell Nantita and model Nong Poy.
Thousands of fans attended the concert, but local reporters called it “not impressive” and overhyped. The flamboyant costumes, dragging content and tame performances by the Thai artists were the most criticized parts of the show.
Nong Poy, who won Miss Tiffany’s Universe and Miss International Queen – both beauty contests for transgendered people – in 2004, only appeared to offer flowers to Khanh at the end of the event.
Khanh says that she had tried her best to make the show unique with an investment of VND4 billion ($200,000).
“My health is in poor condition after the transition, as is common with many transgender people. But I still wanted to do this show as a tribute to the fans that have supported me since I was a male artist.”
She says Nong Poy was scheduled to perform in the show, but her manager submitted the paperwork too late and authorities didn’t grant her permission.
“It was a great pity, as I had prepared a special co-performance,” Khanh says.
Despite the money she lost on the show, Khanh is proud that two-thirds of the tickets were sold and she didn’t have to beef-up attendance by offering complimentary tickets.
The high tickets prices – VND3 million for the best seats – were also criticized, but Khanh still plans to bring the show to Vinh and Hanoi early next year, which costs her VND6 billion ($300,000) more.
She says she will make two other shows in HCMC, with more affordable price.
Artist or publicity creation?
Her detractors also say Khanh hasn’t contributed as much as a musical artist as she has as a scandal artist.
But she’s quick to point out her acclaimed role on ‘Tro ve’ (Return), a television series by renowned actress-turned-director Viet Trinh.
Khanh also intends to release a memoir featuring the details of her fringe experience. She says that like previous showbiz memoirs by singer Long Nhat and transgendered make-up artist Le Huy, her book will make a “splash.”
“I will not follow in anybody’s footprints. It will not be released online, but only in official publication. The memoirs will also be issued as a photo-book and will be accompanied by a film,” she says. Then she smiles: “It will cost a fortune, but I am preparing for it, and maybe I’ll wait until I’m 40 to collect more interesting ‘untold’ stories.”