By: Ann Creevey. Pictures by : Nathan Dexter ( November, 2001 Volume 1 No.6 )

Phnom Penh might seem like the last place you would expect to find a modeling school. Cambodia, although developing fast, is still one of the world's poorer countries, with only a fledgling advertising industry, few fashion shows and even fewer designers. A respected model might only earn US$20 for a day's work. But Sapor Rendall is a success story in this unlikely industry. Centrally located in plush offices in the Hong Kong Center on Sisowath Boulevard, Phnom Penh, Sapors Modeling is going from strength to strength. The formula is simple teaching ordinary people how to feel like models. Sapor trains models in the arts of manners and beauty. She has about 40 on her books. But she also trains housewives and waitresses. She came a long way to be able to start the business in early 1997.
"When I was a little girl, my mother gave me away to another family. I had two brothers and two sisters and she just couldn't afford to feed me," the 29-year-old says. She struggled to stay alive through the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime (1975 to 1979). Her natural father starved to death and she lost a brother.

In 1990, after the boat carrying her to a new life in a new country almost sank, she finally made it to an Australian refugee camp where she would spend four years. In Australia her life changed in two ways. She met her husband, lawyer Matthew Rendall, while in the camp, and she discovered modeling. "I went to a modeling class sort of by accident, because I didn't like the way I looked. I didn't like my posture. My teacher taught me how to walk and I found I really liked it. It felt nice, gentle, beautiful." So when she and husband returned to Cambodia in 1994, she was ambitious to continue working in the field that had given her so much satisfaction and a new self-image. "I found work with a Khmer-American woman who was running a modeling agency here." But years of war had taken their toll on the kingdom. Even Cambodia's models, beautiful as they were, had never learned the manners people expect of the perfectly groomed and aristocratic. Escorting the models around events, Sapor watched in dismay as beautiful women lost their poise in a flurry of fingers and inappropriate silverware when the after-show meal appeared. Worse, some hung back and refused to socialize after appearances, embarrassed by their lack of knowledge of social graces. Sapor thought about solutions to this for a long time. When her former employer left Cambodia, Ms Rendall set up her own agency, with her own twist. "I made sure my models understood everything dinner table etiquette, make-up, everything because when they go out they represent me and my agency. Then I opened up the courses to teach other Cambodian women these basic things that we don't know about here because of all the years of war." There were obstacles to overcome. One was the way traditional Khmers view models and because of that Sapor's business.

"Traditionally, people equate models with prostitutes. I was accused of that a lot - dressing women up and making them more likely to become sex workers. It's a strange way of seeing it, but in Cambodia, people are very conservative," she said. "I just struggled on, and I think now, at least in the city, people see that it just isn't like that. Girls just want to look modern and beautiful." Despite this, word of Sapor's modeling courses spread, and people began to ask Sapor if she could teach them. As Cambodia expanded, so did the middle class, and more and more people needed to learn how to fit in at business dinners and lunches with potential foreign customers. The agency's hairstyling and makeup courses are also very popular with Khmer women of all ages and walks of life. "These skills give them confidence. A lot of people here never got to learn these things. It's true that Cambodian women until very recently were more familiar with guns than makeup techniques," Sapor says.
"When they first come in, I'd have to say a lot of them walk like ducks. As far as makeup, I see women with lipstick around the outsides of their lips and white powder packed onto their faces. They don't know. They have never been taught. "Then I teach them how to do it properly. The change is amazing not just how they look, but also in how they feel about themselves. They gain confidence, and I think that's a really valuable thing." Sapor uses tried and tested techniques. Women walk up and down the office's large main room, books or magazines balanced on their heads, a-la-Pygmalion, as Sapor offers encouragement and tips on how to improve their walk and posture. Courses are flexible, ranging in length from a weeklong crash course to six months, with average courses of between one month and three. It costs about US$100 per month for makeup, hairstyling and related courses. There are also more traditional courses, such as fruit carving. She takes about 20 people per class and classes are usually full. She employs up to seven staff. Recently she branched out even further, providing a range of new courses in areas such as office skills, communication skills and "professional behavior". These cost about US$200 a month. "Modeling includes everything about someone, not just how they look. Most of my customers come here to please themselves or their husbands, or to make themselves more employable. They will never be models, but they still want to learn how to feel like models," Ms Rendall says.