Dubbed “Myanmar’s Lady Gaga” for her outlandish costumes and onstage antics, Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein is not your average pop star. The 31-year-old vocalist, who has been in the music business for nearly a decade, is also a fully qualified medical doctor. If that isn’t remarkable enough, she is also secretary of the Myanmar Music Association and an ambassador for a UK charity that fights human trafficking. Her latest album, “A Girl is Broken-hearted,” reached the top of the charts and remains in the top 10 three months after its release. The Irrawaddy correspondent Kyaw Phyo Tha recently asked her about her career and her exceptional success.
Which do you prefer—being a doctor or a pop star?
To be a doctor, you need intelligence and hard work. To be an artist, you have to have talent and sensitivity. Most people think they’re contradictory. It’s a rare combination, and I’m proud to be one of the few who fit both descriptions. But for the moment, I think of myself mostly as a professional singer.
So you don’t think your years in medical school were a waste of time?
Of course not! It’s not like I spent six or seven years on drugs or going to parties. Anyone who thinks that being a doctor-turned-vocalist is a waste of human resources should go talk to the Ministry of Health.
What do you think about being called “Myanmar’s Lady Gaga”?
Well, it’s flattering to be compared to an internally famous pop star, but she and I are from completely different worlds. Besides, I’ve been known for my “unusual” performances since I first started my act in 2003, when Myanmar was still a closed country, and long before Lady Gaga made headlines.
Why do you dress in such elaborate costumes?
Because I like them. My sister is my designer. They’re full of color and fit with our Myanmar culture. They’re really nothing new, because traditional performers have dressed this way for a long time. We just have to adapt them to today’s fashions. But I always dress in a culturally appropriate way, without being too revealing.
What do you say to critics of your live performances?
I think that by international standards, they’re not so extraordinary. But Myanmar was a closed country for a long time, and some people still have closed minds. You have to accept that you will face criticism if you try to be creative. But really, it’s just a few people. Even after being cut off from the outside world for decades, most Myanmars can still appreciate the value of art.
Will the end of censorship make a big difference?
I’ve had some bad experiences with censorship, so I think it’s good if we don’t have to face such restrictions. But artists still need to have a sense of responsibility.
As the secretary of the Myanmar Music Association, what are your thoughts on the rampant music piracy in this country?
This is the biggest difference between Lady Gaga from the first world and Phyu Pyu Kyaw Thein from the third. In Myanmar, piracy is seen as a just another way to make a living. MMA tries to educate people that piracy is a crime, punishable by a short prison term or a fine of up to 500,000 kyat (US $625). Our aim is to amend the law and make it effective. Law-enforcement officials need to be honest and transparent. In short, what we need is the rule of law.
Tell us about your involvement in MTV EXIT, a UK charity campaigning to raise awareness of human trafficking.
I have been the campaign’s Celebrity Ambassador for Myanmar since 2008. I hosted a Myanmar-language documentary called “Traffic” and in 2008 I also took part in the MTV EXIT music concerts in Bangkok to raise awareness of trafficking. I will also join another concert this year.
This story first appeared in the December 2012 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.