Anne Jakrajutatip, 43, has a story unlike many of the world’s media moguls. Growing up in Bangkok, the child of shop owners, she felt that she was trapped in the wrong body. At school, she faced constant bullying and stigma. She tried to carefully manage her identity, showing what she believed to be her true self in front of friends, and acting as a good son in front of her parents. She experienced sexual harassment while still a child.
It was reading a local newspaper article about Oprah Winfrey, a survivor of child abuse, that led Jakrajutatip to want a career in the media and to become a TV chatshow host. A microphone seemed like a powerful weapon.
Achieving fame or business clout was the only escape to find acceptance as a transgender person, she said. “Because you are seen as the weird person. They don’t embrace the differences,” she recalled. “In order to gain respect, you need to have success.”
Jakrajutatip has since become one of Thailand’s most recognisable media tycoons, a reality TV star and advocate for trans rights. Most recently, she made headlines for buying the Miss Universe Organization for $20m (£16.6m). In its 71-year history it has been owned by a succession of men, including Donald Trump – who was accused of weight-shaming and sexually harassing contestants.
Jakrajutatip is the first woman to own the company, which has recently widened its entry rules, allowing married and divorced women to participate. Trans women were already allowed to take part.
For many, Miss Universe is an inherently sexist institution – and such tweaks to its entrance rules appear bizarrely antiquated. But the pageant continues to be broadcast in 165 countries and retains a loyal international fanbase. Women and the LGBTQ+ community make up between 70-80% of the audience, said Jakrajutatip, with many based in Latin America and south-east Asia.
Jakrajutatip declined to comment on allegations relating to Trump’s past treatment of contestants, adding that these were made a long time ago. But she said women who participate under her leadership must be treated with integrity. “I am a woman so I have to protect women and all the contestants,” she said. “All the people, particularly the team behind the scene, people … no matter who you are – men, women, LGBTQ – verbally, physically, this kind of harassment or allegation [of harassment] should never happen at all in my era.”
If allegations do surface, they must be investigated truthfully and transparently, she added.
Jakrajutatip rejects the idea that the competition objectifies women, saying it is instead “uplifting people, empowering women” by raising their voices and that contestants have “brain and beauty”. Competitions that involved contestants wearing swimsuits were intended to show “how you look after yourself”, she added, and is only one aspect alongside other costumes. During her era, she hopes to see leadership and an ability to overcome adversity among contestants.
“The platform [is] to encourage, to inspire them, all the women, to be able to overcome life struggle, and to become the global, iconic woman,” she said. “You can have the success of your own when you believe in yourself. You can build everything by yourself, like I have done before … I started the business from scratch. I never had a golden spoon in my mouth.”
Jakrajutatip’s career took off when, working at her parents’ video rental shop, she spotted the BBC documentary Walking With Dinosaurs and approached the BBC offering to distribute the series in Thailand. She sold a million copies, she said, and expanded to distribute content produced in South Korea, Japan and the US. Alongside her business, JKN Global Group, she launched the foundation Life Inspired for Thailand (LIFT), which offers scholarships to LGBTQ+ people and women.
Jakrajutatip has spoken frankly about her own experiences as a trans woman, including the sexual harassment she survived as a child, and her experience of transitioning and becoming a mother to two children.
Attitudes towards trans people have improved hugely during her lifetime, she said, although laws in Thailand still lag behind some other countries.
There is no equal marriage for same-sex couples and there is no legal route for trans people to change their gender identity. Jakrajutatip’s ID still describes her as male, even though she has had sexual reassignment surgery, making foreign travel complicated and in some cases impossible. She is famous, she added, so it is possible to use Google to explain her background to officials but there are certain countries she cannot visit, which limits business opportunities. “You can imagine some other trans women or trans men, they will face difficulties for sure. You don’t want people to mistreat you, [to] disrespect you.”
Jakrajutatip is advocating for change to the laws in Thailand, but said reforms were unlikely in the short term, especially with Thailand due to hold elections early next year.
She points to Thai media and the entertainment industry, where trans people have a strong presence, as areas helping to drive greater acceptance, and hopes she can use her role to promote change and inspire others.
“I think Thailand is a friendly country for LGBTQ. We are entertainers. They love us a lot … I’m so lucky to be born in this country,” she said.