From Sports Illustrated Model to professional Muay Thai fighter, we speak to Mia Kang on shifting priorities, changing values and finding true strength in the ring.
At the height of her career, model Mia Kang graced the covers of glossy magazines and billboards, led campaigns for Guess, Triumph and Maxfactor, among many others. Standing at 5 foot 10, a size two and surviving on a diet of cigarettes and black coffee, she was asked to do a ‘routine’ 10 day liquid only fast to prepare for a shoot. On the brink of emotional and physical collapse Mia walked away from the glittering heights and lights of New York for a break in Thailand. By chance she walked into a roadside Gym that she now credits for saving her life. After a decade in the modelling industry leaving her riddled with body image issues, depression and exhaustion, Muay Thai had inspired a new awakening. The model spent 9 months living and breathing the fighters life before returning to New York reforged a professional Muay Thai fighter.
Now, training 6 hours daily, we catch the model between sessions to talk the human cost of modelling, the real value of strength and how through, professional boxing the model-fighter re-made herself in her own image.
I was always too “something”.
The Bod Edit: Can you share your journey into modelling?
Mia Kang: I was actually overweight and really bullied, I never thought that I would be a model, I’d never aspired to be a model. But when I was 13, I fell into eating disorders and I lost a whole bunch of weight very quickly, and immediately got scouted as a model. From the day that I walked into an agency I booked my first job like 3 days later. So it all happened pretty quickly.
Modelling is one of those things that success is really out of your hands, all you can do is show up and walk into rooms and the rest is based on other people’s decisions. I was very lucky, I always had success and always worked. I think for me, being different and being unique has worked in my favour because I knew that I was a one of a kind product on the market but also it worked against me because I didn’t look like anyone else and I never quite fit in like everyone else.
You’re just a commodity and they fit you into boxes, you’re a product and they place you into different markets.
What do you mean by never quite fitting in?
My heritage, my body … I wasn’t naturally that thin and I was a little too short or a little too something. I was always ‘too something’, I was not quite high fashion enough but for a commercial market I wasn’t quite commercial enough. I didn’t fit into a box because that’s what modelling is, you’re just a commodity and they fit you into boxes, you’re a product and they place you into different markets. I kind of fitted into several and none at the same time and I think it ultimately worked in my favour. It wasn’t easy, but the most difficult part about it is that fact that you are treated like a commodity. You have to be so thick skinned, and you have to be so self aware – your flaws are constantly pointed out to you. You can’t really be that mad at it because it’s the nature of the industry and what you signed up for. So, it’s been and still is an amazing journey of personal growth. You do have this extremely heightened sense of self awareness, you have too.
…this time when I got that call I just burst into tears. I just thought I can’t do this anymore.
Can you tell us about how you transitioned from modelling into Muay Thai fighting?
About two years ago in 2016 I had a complete meltdown. I was physically and mentally so exhausted, I think that my body had had enough of eating disorders, of addictions, of all kinds of things. My brain had had enough of the state of constant depression and anxiety that I was living in. I was so completely ridden with insecurities to the point I was non functional. I got to the point of real depression. I had isolated myself, I didn’t have a social life because I didn’t want to be around food and drinks because that was what I acquainted with socialising. I just isolated myself and smoked cigarettes, took laxatives, and drank black coffee. I think everybody wanted me to look like how I looked when I was 17 and I was 27. My body was physically saying we can’t do this anymore.
I forgot about everything, I forgot about the fact that I was a model, I just lived like a human being.
Then it was one job that I had, it was a big American campaign and the photographer said ‘liquids for ten days before the shoot because we really need you to shrink down as much as possible’. This happens a lot in the industry and I’m very used to it, I had always done it in the past with no problem but this time when I got that call I just burst into tears. I just thought I can’t do this anymore. This is the last time I am doing this. I did it and then I asked for a vacation to go to Thailand for ten days off and I drove past a Muay Thai gym. I asked if I could try it and I immediately loved it. I went back everyday, and I started going back twice a day, then I ended up moving in and living there.
I ditched my amazing 5 bedroom villa with an infinity pool, and moved into this roadside Thai gym with a bunch of Thai fighters that didn’t even speak English and lived there for 9 months. Over the course of the 9 months I thoroughly immersed myself in the sport, I forgot about everything. I forgot about the fact that I was a model, I just lived like a human being, I learned how to eat meals, as crazy as that sounds, because I went from being obese from one extreme, to being anorexic, the other extreme. I never learned about nourishment, about the fact that food is fuel for your body, it taught me so much. I didn’t know how much it was going to teach me.
Falling in love with the sport made me access this strength.
I frequently go back and do stints there because I learn so much. I learned to respect myself and my body. Falling in love with the sport made me access this strength. This physical strength that I never knew that I had, I never knew that I was capable of it, which led to a mental strength, which then led to strength in every aspect of my life.
The best thing that it taught me is the separation of ego and self confidence.
You said there that you weren’t a model anymore, that you were human. Do you think that modelling is inhumane?
Well it’s just really narcissistic. It’s extremely inward facing and you’re constantly thinking about what you look like and your life revolves around that. That’s society in general, it’s like that, people exercise for the wrong reasons. You exercise because you want to look good, you wanna get toned, you’re constantly thinking about how you look and what people think of you. But when I was there, and when I am there, every time I practice even at the gym, or when I step into the ring, I completely forget about that. The best thing that it taught me was the separation of ego and self confidence. So when you step in front of an opponent you have to have 100% self confidence but 0% ego. You have to be able to the thrown around a ring and to stand back up, dust yourself off, and give your opponent a hug and say ‘thank you so much, you’re better than me, thank you for teaching me’. That is very hard to do. In such a narcissistic industry and society, it was the best thing that I’ve ever learned. Now I think that I can’t live without it.
I didn’t know that I could do that, but it all came from my mind.
What has been the biggest challenge that you faced from going from model to fighter?
The mental. I mean it’s gruelling physically, it’s the hardest physical thing I’ve ever had to go through. But I think it’s your mental state that makes you able to do them, so I think the mental journey was far more difficult.
Even things like I could never do a push up before, or running a mile I had never done before, but they were little things. It was breaking through those boundaries and realising ‘hold on I can do this’. I literally when from a size 0, frail, weak girl to a professional fighter, I didn’t know that I could do that but it all came from my mind.
Physically, the biggest challenges that I had to deal with were the physical changes. It was really tough for me to watch my body change and to let that go. These things that I instilled in my brain, this standard of beauty I had in my brain since I was 13 years old… to watch my body change was the hardest thing and the most rewarding thing that has ever happen to me. I have had to become completely comfortable with myself and know myself from the inside out. For me now, my body is constantly changing and to be ok with that, to let that happen, took incredible mental strength but this is still a new body for me. Being a size 8/ 10 US this is new for me, I’m still adjusting and I’m still learning to love myself everyday. It’s a process.
You’ve talked about the process being humbling, do you think we need to be broken down to be able to build ourselves back up?
It’s about the separation of the ego, you need to break down those mental barriers to better yourself.
I’m so at peace with myself and comfortable in my own skin that these don’t seem like daring options for me to talk about.
Do you feel that physical strength has given you the mental and emotional strength to speak about your challenges?
Absolutely. I think it all kind of packaged together and now I speak up. People are always saying ‘good on you for speaking up about things it takes bravery, it takes courage, other people are speaking about this’. But for me, maybe it’s because I have this found confidence within myself. I’m so secure with who I am as a woman, I’m so at peace with myself and comfortable in my own skin that these don’t seem like daring options for me to talk about. I feel confident with myself, if anyone tries to come back at me with anything, I feel so confident in what I’m saying and with myself, that I’m completely unfazed. I feel strong, it’s this strength from every direction.
I was the girl in the magazines and I was the girl on the billboards and I can’t imagine how all the other women out there feel.
You were at the pinnacle of your career, a Sports Illustrated model and gracing covers and billboards, but what did that mean to you?
I hated myself. I was the most insecure and sad that I’ve ever been. For 27 years of my life, I can honestly say I woke up everyday and when I looked in the mirror, I hated what I saw. It blew my mind knowing that women look through magazines, they look at adverts, at billboards and feel shit about themselves because they can’t help but compare.
I was the girl in the magazines and I was the girl on the billboards and I can’t imagine how all the other women out there feel. If I feel this shit and I feel this insecure about myself, I can not imagine how everyone else feels, and I have contributed to that. This was a big machine that I felt… when I came back to New York and got back to work, I felt like I had a duty and responsibility to try and make a difference here, to try to change this.
I think now, more than ever, insecurity is an epidemic.
How do feel that social media plays a part in our beauty standards and current attitudes?
Before, when you turned on the TV, when you drove passed a billboard, when you opened a magazine, or walked into a store you saw ‘beauty’. Now, it’s everywhere you go – it’s on your phone, it’s constantly there and constantly following us. I think now, more than ever, insecurity is an epidemic. It’s so saturated into our daily lives but at the same time, thanks to social media, it allows you to have your platform. I wish that more people would be more conscious of what they’re putting out there.
Honestly, how I try and run my social media, I am putting imagery out there that I wish I saw as an impressionable, insecure adolescent or young teenage girl. I am putting out there what I wish I saw. Encouraging women to not give a fuck, encouraging women to be unapologetically yourself, encouraging women to be healthy, to have an opinion, to have a voice, be who you want to be, be multi-dimensional. That’s how I think to run my social media, even though it’s hard because it’s really easy to post and do what people like, what gets the most likes, but you know it’s not what it’s about.
I believe that life is not about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself.
Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight
What life philosophy do you subscribe to?
I believe that life is not about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself. I remember imagining the woman that I wanted to be, even as a little girl. I wanted to be this independent, strong woman living in New York City and so I became that. Even now, self awareness is key. It’s about continuously trying to be a better version of yourself and taking steps towards the person that you want to be.
What does success look like to you?
In life? Happiness, that’s success. Fulfilment, to get that real true feeling of happiness and fulfilment, that’s difficult.
Do have any regrets?
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
My education is definitely the thing that I’m most proud of about myself. The fact that I could have very, very easily got carried away with modelling. I could have easily let my feet leave the ground, have my head in the clouds and my ego massively inflated, but I didn’t. Having an education really grounded me and I’m really proud that’s naturally instilled in me. I always wanted to reach my potential. I wanted to explore my intelligence. I think that’s why I love fighting because I wanted to explore my potential physically. Same thing with the mental, the emotional and with every aspect of my life. I just want to try and reach my potential. I’m definitely not done.
I just want to try and reach my potential. I’m definitely not done.