“Beer Pretty” is the name commonly given to the women, usually dressed in suggestive, tight skirts, who encourage customers to buy their brand of beer in restaurants throughout Thailand. But who are these women? Guest contributor Teresa Montanero takes a peek into the lives of beer pretties and shows there’s more to them than just selling beer.

Guest contribution by Teresa Montanero

Economics homework. Responding to her crush’s text message. Selling enough beers by the end of the night to make the monthly payment on her car. These are the daily stressors in Tukta’s life.

At 21 years of age, Tukta spends her days from morning to the afternoon in a classroom, studying the intricacies of business management. Never one to raise her hand and participate, she pours over her notebook, her long black hair falling over her eyes as she diligently takes notes. At her classmates’ outbursts and shouts in response to the question her professor posed, she rolls her eyes and neatly scribbles the correct answer onto her page.

After the end of her last class for the day, she pulls into the parking lot where she works, clutching a large, navy blue, polka-dotted tote bag. In this bag, Tukta has all the tools she needs to use in the hour she has to transform.

At 6 p.m., Tukta clocks into a restaurant on the edges of Khon Kaen University, greeting the restaurant manager and a pair of local customers.

Tukta, 21, transforms from a university student of business management to a “beer pretty” marketing one of Thailand’s most popular beer brands.

Shuffling out of one of the two, cramped, smelly restaurant restroom stalls, Tukta has now replaced her university uniform with a tighter, more revealing, green one-piece dress. Written across the right breast in gold script is the name of one of Thailand’s top selling beer brands. She is followed by her coworker Bee, a slightly older woman, who also goes through the same transformation process to emerge from the one of the unisex restrooms in the red dress of a rival beer brand.

Both women work at the same late-night food joint with friendly camaraderie rather than adopting the competition of their employers: “At the end of the day the customers are going to drink whatever they want to drink,” Tukta said.

Together, the women work every night to promote the sale of their respective beers. If they can cajole the customer to order beer by the “pro”–short for a promotion of three large bottles–and a bucket of ice, they’re off to a flying start. They sell alcohol through the promise of pleasant, fleeting interactions with their youthful beauty.

Beer pretties and pretty culture

For Tukta and Bee, there is a clear reason for why they should work as beer pretties–there is a high demand for them.

According to a 2007 study by Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Medicine, the estimated cost of alcohol consumption across the province was described as “enormous.” Most respondents drank for social activities, mainly with friends and relatives. The average cost in 2007 was 975 baht per drinker, with the estimated overall cost of alcohol consumption in Khon Kaen at around 691 million baht.

“I was able to afford this car within the first year of working,” Tukta says– a financial move that would have been impossible without her job as a Beer Pretty.

Bee is quick to point out that, strictly speaking, their roles in the restaurant are not as “beer pretties,” but rather as “Promotional Beer Girls” (PG). The difference, she emphasizes, is that the term, “beer pretties” implies that they are a subset of a greater “Pretty” industry that has become a staple of the marketing toolbox.

“Pretties” are women in their late teens to early twenties hired by event organizers to attend an event, stand about in provocative clothing, and lure in potential customers by flirting and taking photographs with them, operating under the idea that sex and fantasies of beauty sell.

Relatively good pay and attractive networking opportunities are among the most popular reasons why one might seek employment as a promotional girl. This is particularly true for students.

Venue owners can request specific promotional girls who are good at driving business while venues may be more convenient or lucrative for the women.

Tutka applies heavier eye makeup behind the restaurant counter before starting her shift.

But with the financial and networking benefits for these positions come significant drawbacks as well. Reports of sexual harassment and persistent inappropriate behavior are not uncommon. Emboldened clients flirt, grope, and request sex from these workers regularly.

For Tukta, experiencing sexual harassment is part of the job. While it bothers her, she has developed her own method of dealing with customers who try to touch too much.

“I can tell the difference between general horseplay or a cheeky pat on the arm, and when someone’s getting too touchy-feely. If it’s too much, I just shake them off and walk away,” she says. “Most of the time, I don’t see the point in making a big deal about it. They’ve had a bit to drink, so their judgement is impaired. They just can’t think clearly. It’s not worth stooping to that level, getting mad and getting down in the dirt with them. I’d rather just sell beer and go home.”

When asking a restaurant manager about the measures taken to prevent these behaviors, Assada Maliwan, 42, shrugs it off, saying, “The customers are drunk and the women are beautiful. It’s uncomfortable but we can’t confront the client or we’ll lose money. If a beer pretty is touched, we’ll keep her and the client separated for the rest of the night.”

Paying for her studies

Tukta’s part-time work nets her around 14,000 baht per month ($460 USD), with an additional 1,000 baht a week in tips on average.

“I get tipped every night. Some nights just 20 baht, some nights more,” she says.

Tukta’s income depends on her sales numbers. The less time she spends at the restaurant, the less beers she sells. Despite the little time she has between her commitments, Tukta’s initial attraction to the job was the flexibility in scheduling it allowed her.

“I’m in class every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., taking three business seminar classes. On weekends, I work the front desk at a music school in Central Plaza Mall. Tuesday is my only day off during the week. My only other truly free time is when classes get cancelled or during designated ‘study’ periods. I needed a job that would allow me to work during the free time I have left,” Tukta explains.

With tips, Tukta makes as much as 20,000 baht per month as beer promoter in a local bar in an area outside Khon Kaen University.

Tukta’s financial background also contributed heavily to her decision to work as a beer pretty. Her mother works in a fish-net factory, whereas her father is a carpenter who makes furniture to order. In her words “we have always had enough to eat, but we still have to work hard.”

Tukta works to support herself while she studies, paying for her own materials, meals, housing–and even a brand new Toyota Yaris. She was able to make the down payment after her first year working as a promotional girl.

“You’re probably wondering what my family thinks about where I get so much money from. They know. I told them I work in a restaurant as a PG. At first they were concerned. They looked sideways at the dress but they came around when I pointed out the beer logo and explained that I would be working directly for the brewery and not the restaurant. My mother even came to visit me at the restaurant once and after that she was cool about it. Now they don’t care at all. It’s just a job to them. But they are worried about how I balance everything. They don’t want me to be stressed. But I don’t want them to worry about my school spending and I try to send money home when I can.”

For her line of work, she faces some stigma from older generations. Criticism, she says, is expected, “but overall it’s becoming more accepted. No one really cares about what you do.”

She adds thoughtfully, “If people sense that you’re ashamed, they’re going to use that against you. If you are proud, they can’t bother you. My reasons for doing this are professional. I’m trying to achieve my goals.”

Bee’s experience is even more remarkable than Tukta’s.It was Bee’s mother who alerted her to the job opening on Facebook, and continued to “annoy and bother” Bee until she completed an application. Bee believes that opinions on her work are less defined by age and rather by one’s ignorance due to how close or far removed they are from women who serve at their local bars and restaurants.

Getting the job

Securing the position did not come easily. Because of the flexible schedule and high student competition in the area, Tukta admits she had applied directly at the beer brand’s production company four times before being hired. Even then, Tukta had a slight advantage as she had personal references from acquaintances who were already working as PGs and vouched for her past waitressing experience.

And while she is grateful for her position, she admits that it’s not a glamorous lifestyle. Working nights and weekends has left Tukta stretched thin. Tukta considers it a success that she is able to organize a regular six hours of sleep for herself each night. She knows that among her taut string of commitments, her studies are the priority. Failing to stay awake and concentrate during her early classes would defeat the point of all this effort. On top of that, she refuses to take a passive role in her work, knowing that meeting and surpassing her company’s sales quota is what will make the difference between staying afloat and rising up the career ladder.

“I have a plan. This is just one phase of that plan,” she says. “The day that I graduate is the day that I’m done with PG work.”

When it comes to rude, derogatory, or annoying customers, Tukta maintains her charm, keeping her sales goals in mind. “Even though I see many customers each night, it can be quite lonely watching others spend time with their friends.”

In greater context

Tukta’s earlier remarks are echoed by larger conflicting outsider views who may be quick to pass judgement on Promotional Girls as empowered or exploited.

“The truth is, the more people that complain about pretties being a bad thing for society or being exploited, just means that more people will begin to see women as bad people again,” says Liz Hilton from Empower Foundation, a Chiang Mai-based pro-commerical sex work foundation lobbying for legalization of the sex industry.

On the other hand, there are outsiders who continue to view work in the promotional field as derogatory and exploitative. “So many times women claim they are liberated and are free to make their own decisions, but they fail to see that they are exploiting themselves without knowing it,” says Romyen Kosaikanont, a lecturer in Social Innovation at Mae Fah Luang University. “A lot of these girls see the money and ignore the fact that they are self-objectifying themselves.”

But can self-exploitation also be self-preservation? While Romyen argues that women are blindly and incorrectly degrading themselves for money, her statements fail to recognize the context of these choices. The institutional wealth and gender gaps have created significant barriers for women to improve their social capital in Thailand, particularly those of lesser financial means. By participating in these highly gendered and sexualized working environments, they are inevitably shaping the narrative around these roles and what it looks like for themselves and future generations.

Equally important to consider is how these options are readily available for younger women whose employment as beer pretties are necessary to the growing expenses of young adults and university life.

Alternative job opportunities for young women seeking to balance their academic workload and increasing financial responsibilities are few and far in between.

“I didn’t even bother to search for any other kind of work,” Tukta says. “Waitressing or PG work are really the only options I had to make this kind of money while studying full-time.”

For her, it is obvious that a 18,000-baht-a-month job, open and compatible with full-time college students with no previous experience in any other field, is hard to come by in Khon Kaen.

While these representational opportunities offer networking and personal brand marketing opportunities, the reality is that these opportunities come with the potential for significant drawbacks, such as social stigma and sexual and interpersonal harassment.

As diametrical as Hilton and Romyen’s views are, only by looking further into these women’s lives can one begin to better understand how these women operate in a highly sexualized environment to achieve their personal and professional goals whilst navigating the highly social drinking culture that permeates Khon Kaen and greater Thailand.

Teresa Montanero majors in Anthropology at Georgetown University and studied about development and human rights issues in the Northeast in spring 2019.