Paula Taylor, Thailand’s most successful model and Geoff Heydt, a talent representative, explain how to make a face very famous
Five sets of false eyelashes winked from a clear plastic box. A large shoulder bag stuffed with spray cans, brushes, clips and enough chemicals to blow up a city was splayed open on the table beside huge palettes of makeup and mink hair brushes. A man and a woman poked and prodded a quiet female in a chair who was serenely sending messages on a Blackberry.
The person at the centre of these ministrations was Paula Taylor, a woman whose face has beamed from countless billboards, magazine covers, televisions and movie screens in Thailand and several other Southeast Asian countries for well over a decade.
The product of a Thai mother and English father and raised in Australia, Taylor has evolved from a cute but unknown teenage model into a self-managed widely recognised brand. At the age of 26 – positively ancient in Asian model terms – she has just completed a year where she had the perhaps dubious honour of appearing on more Thai magazine covers than any other famous face.
“But I’m not a model,” Taylor insists. And while it may sound like wishful thinking coming from someone who makes most of her money vamping for cameras, she does have a point. She also appears in TV commercials for Lay’s, Canon and other international products; as a VJ for Channel V; as an actress in a recently cancelled Thai sitcom; she has endorsement deals with Kenny Rogers’ Roasters and Colgate in the Philippines; and has just finished filming a good-sized role in the upcoming Hollywood film “Shadows”, which also features William Hurt.
Unlike sports figures, singers or actors who parlay the recognition of their talents into endorsements, Taylor is now famous for being famous, a brand in her own right, with herself – or a common perception of herself – as her primary product.
The concept of branding as a keystone of marketing has received increasing attention over the last decade or so, with plenty of pundits happily explaining what exactly a brand is.
According to Kirk Bentham, Managing Director of TMD, a branding agency with offices in Thailand, Japan and Cambodia, “Brands are designed to build relationships and create emotional connections between products and people. Brands make promises and good brands consistently deliver. Take McDonalds for example. You can travel the world over and find a consistency that transcends cultures and geography. Like the food or hate it, the brand experience is so well crafted that you can be 100% certain you will get exactly what you expect. That’s good branding.”
“She is definitely a strong brand, and one that I think can be developed much further,” says Geoff Heydt, a Thailand-based talent representative formerly with entertainment giant IMG, who has performed freelance work for Taylor, including scoring the recent movie deal.
He was also the business development consultant and management for singer Tata Young for a time and currently works in association with the sports division of the LA-based Creative Artists Agency, which represents heartthrob footballer David Beckham, tennis player Andy Murray and skateboarder Tony Hawk among others. With CAA Sports Heydt is dealing with Paradorn Srichaphan and seeking out up and coming regional tennis talent.
“Paula has very good instincts, a great work ethic and appeals to a broad demographic – she has a friendly non-threatening image that appeals to young guys for obvious reasons, young women who want to emulate her, older people who see her like a sweet sister or daughter,” Heydt says. “But she needs to take these assets to the next level to achieve more international recognition.”
Best known for her beaming smile, lithe figure and a wholesome sexiness, Taylor is indeed an eye catcher. But in a country teeming with beautiful women, long-term success must require more than that. Managing her own career since the age of 18, Taylor has swum her way through the shark-infested lagoon that is Southeast Asia’s celebrity business, with few teeth marks to show for it.
So how does someone with the image of a mindlessly sunny sweetheart survive and prosper in such a cutthroat environment? Surely anyone that happy can’t possibly know what is really going on.
Meeting her one on one, she is polite, sweet, constantly smiling, down to earth and even leaves an impression of vulnerability. She has a certain presence, even without makeup or being blown up six metres tall. Unless she is a phony to the core of her being, Taylor appears to be pretty much what she is to the public – she is what she does.
“A celebrity can be whoever they want in person,” Heydt says, “whereas out there they have to design their own personality. But it had better be something close to their own, or it is going to be tough to live with it. The personas they create are necessarily different from them to some extent though. Tata Young for example is quite different from the public perception. She comes across like the strong, tough woman, but she likes to hang out at home and watch movies and read books. Paula on the other hand is very much what you see is what you get, and it works for her. She is the girl next door.”
When pressed to pigeonhole herself, Taylor says, “Paula is Paula. If I had to be any other way, I don’t know if I would appeal… I really don’t know how to be any other way.”
As far as to how she has managed that image and turned it into piles of money, it is difficult to get a straight answer. Taylor is not particularly outspoken or even very verbal – at least in interviews. “I’ve got it all in my head, I just don’t know how to get it out,” she explains.
She claims much of it was luck. “It just happened. I kept getting phone call after phone call. I picked up the phone and did my own deals. At first I had no idea what I was doing, so I asked questions and learned from other people and my mistakes – it was trial and error. The main thing is that you have to ask, ‘What do I get and what do you get?’”
Heydt believes that more long term planning is in order for Taylor to achieve her full earning potential: “She is a really strange case because she has done it on her own. A lot of those who start young have a parent who ends up standing in their way. But at some point in any celebrity’s career they have to hand over the management if they want to move up a level. In her case, she needs to find four regional clients – products with synergies, but no conflicts – to earn between $1.5m to $2m per year, and then work on side projects – acting lessons, for example and open new avenues for her future.
“It’s quality over quantity – you know, sometimes the best deal you make is the one you don’t make. If I am going to do an endorsement deal with several countries it takes time – you talk for eight months. With Tata Young it took a year to get Ford to agree to use her as a brand ambassador. I meet a marketing guy at an event, I call him up, he sends me to his company’s ad agency and then the agency voices their concerns about how appropriate the star’s image is for their product, and then I go back and argue with the marketing guy to get him to listen to me instead of his own agency… it takes time.
“The endorsement business is all about finding the right fit. You take the image of the star and match it with a product that people actually believe they might use… Tiger Woods and Titleist makes sense, but Tiger being a spokesman for Buick is a bit strange. [Tiger Woods’ main ride is a Porsche Carrera GT.] I’ll hang out with the person and see what they buy, what they wear, who they are, and then I know what products they can be matched with. Becoming a spokesperson for Seiko and then showing up on TV wearing a Rolex doesn’t make advertisers very happy.
“The celebrity has to play the game and support the product. Paula is very good at this. She is loyal to the brands she represents. She goes to the parties, talks to the people she needs to talk to – she shows her face and does her job. She has deals mainly in Thailand and the Philippines now and she is running around a lot to keep up… when she could be making much more with less work.”
Taylor points out: “With endorsements, you have to do things to keep those people happy. I don’t really like doing TV dramas, but it keeps up my visibility, which is important to them – and it keeps fans happy as well. It gives them something to follow – otherwise they can lose interest.”
But the business in Thailand has its own style, as one might expect. According to Heydt, depending on the level of the star and what their image is worth to the client, they get from $30k-$250k per year on a two-year contract, depending on what they have to do. “Say they take some photos for point of sale stuff and shoot a TV commercial, they might get $50k-$100k, but they may also have to do special events and press conferences and this pays more… It’s calculated like an hourly rate, really. But there aren’t many multinationals that pay this sort of money.”
The industry people based in Thailand mostly have the performers where they want them, Heydt says. “I’ve had nasty phone calls and SMS messages accusing me of ruining the business here because I am trying to get a fair price for my client – like I shouldn’t be screwing up their prerogative to rip off the talent.”
Thai stars are underpaid by global standards. “In Thailand, $300k per year is huge for a Thai star, which is peanuts, really.” Heydt says. “That’s why they need to look outside of Thailand… If you do too many brands in a single market, the overexposure hurts in the long run. It can build a sort of resentment and fan fatigue… But here a celebrity has the Thai ‘uniform’ – the Mercedes, the clubs and restaurants, the fawning attention, and it’s hard to step out of that comfort zone, so many are reluctant to go ‘inter’.”
Paula is indeed going inter, but one country at a time, with separate sponsors in individual countries. “I’m in expansion mode. My goal is Asia – all of it if I can. I’m making my base stronger, like building a house,” she says.
However inefficient this tactic may be compared to the approach that Heydt advocates, it is certainly yielding a comfortable living that Taylor could be understandably reluctant to abandon. Though she falls silent when asked for specific figures, it would be a safe guess that all in all, she is earning upwards of half a million dollars annually and has a sideline in collecting high-end properties.
Taylor’s method, which at first looks like no method, is to field the offers that come in, and trust her gut instincts: “You come to recognise the patterns, so I know more clearly what I need to do. And you take up things that sometimes don’t pay much because they could bring other opportunities.” Hence the recent part in the Hollywood movie.
“That was an experience, doing the film, but I’m not going to pack up my bags and move to LA. If it resulted in another good offer, I’d take it. But for now the plan is Asia – though that can always change. I’ve always been flexible and willing to change direction when the right opportunity comes along.” This is probably Taylor’s strongest talent.
“Early on in my career, I almost went the cheesecake bikini shot route but I really didn’t feel right about it, and nobody gave me a good enough reason to do it, so I didn’t. I held out and better things came along. But if I had done that, my career would have probably been very short. Go too far down the wrong path and you can’t find your way back.”
How much further can Brand Paula rise (or “broaden”, as she prefers it)? It will require a combination of planning and responsiveness, perhaps working smarter instead of harder, a bit of luck, and developing her talents, the limits of which are as yet unknown. Is there any more to her than a pretty face, a beaming smile and a cuddly demeanour? You can do all the branding and positioning you want, but like a mobile phone, a music player or a model of car, a product has to evolve to retain its market.
But it does seem that sooner or later Paula Taylor gets what Paula Taylor wants – and when the right opportunity comes, she’ll be the one calling the shots.