FASHION: FALSE FRIENDS

These models are fakes, albeit extremely stylish ones - and this being Thailand, so are their handbags. Alix Sharkey reports on the glamour of the unreal
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The Independent Culture
hen it comes to feminine elegance and effortless chic, the Thai kateoy displays rather more savoir-faire than her Western counterpart. Despite the fact that her breasts are about as genuine as her Gucci handbag, this beautiful and utterly surreal creature can fool all but the most sophisticated traveller. She often calls herself something fabulously banal - like Joy, Pleasure Girl or Tamara - though she is particularly adept at guessing a tourist's nationality and re- naming herself appropriately. And usually it is not until she talks, in a voice a couple of octaves lower than expected, that the tourist's creeping sense of unease finally solidifies into a shudder of realisation.

Ladyboys, or kateoys, are Thailand's third sex. Ultra-femme, they love make-up and, of course, their counterfeit handbags, which can be found in most street markets for a fraction of the price of the genuine article. Like their owners, these are often devilishly difficult to discern from the real thing. And when the photographer Mirco Taliercio asked a selection of kateoys to pose with their bags, they grabbed the chance to show off their personal symbols of duplicitous glamour and femininity.

Kateoys are most common in tourist spots like Phu Ket and Koh Samui, where they often double as cabaret dancers-cum-prostitutes. Most of them will have run away from rural poverty to make a relative fortune in the big city, and though they might dream of earning their living in the theatre, they usually end up selling their bodies in order to make ends meet.

Like most prostitutes, they live in fear of their pimps; in this case, Thai gangsters who control their charges with ferocious brutality. The pimps choose the clientele, set the price, and keep all the money; the kateoys are allowed to keep the "tip" - providing they get one in the first place, of course. Few dare to protest, disobey, or try to make money on the side. The penalty would almost certainly be death. So while the kateoys bat their eyelids and content themselves with faux Chanel, their pimps drive real BMWs (gold is a favourite colour), and pluck authentic platinum Amex cards from their Louis Vuitton wallets. Genuine, of course.

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