Saturday 19 December 2020

Interview with Eirin Grinde Tunheim

Monika: Today I am taking you to Tromsø, a city in northern Norway, which is a major cultural hub above the Arctic Circle. This is the town of Eirin Grinde Tunheim, a young Thai-born girl from Norway, beauty pageant queen with university degrees in dentistry and economics. In 2019, Eirin competed in the Norwegian edition of the Miss Universe Pageant to become the first transgender woman in the history of this competition. She speaks five languages, and I am happy that one of them is English, so I can share her amazing story with you all. Hello Eirin!
Eirin: Hello, Monika. Thank you for inviting me for the interview.
Monika: You were born in Thailand. When in 2006 you came to Norway with your whole family, what did you expect to see and achieve in the country that is so different from Thailand?
Eirin: Back then, my mom told us that Norway is a country where the weather is very cold with less sunlight. My siblings and I watched the Narnia movie and tried to have that expectation. However, we did expect to live in a country with a good education, health system, and quality of life. I grew up with my grandparents and father, therefore I always wished to live with my mom wherever she lived.

"My mom told us that Norway is a country where
the weather is very cold with less sunlight."

Monika: You came to Norway as Grin Tuai-Tun, and from the legal point of view you were regarded as a 13-year-old boy but your parents were aware that you were a transgender girl?
Eirin: My mom always knew that I was a transgender girl. It started when I was a kid. I never tried to hide my true identity. People at school and in my community in Thailand knew it. I had more freedom to express myself at school with my friends.
I did join the football cup at age 8-12 (just for fun with classmates) and played with both boys and girls. I did great at school, for example, I got selected as a class president. But at the age of 4-5, I hated to play football.
Generally, I hated going to school. My grandma tried her best to change my mindset. When I arrived in Norway in April 2006, my mom told me that she was scared that I would get bullied at school and would not want to go to school because I wanted to wear make-up and get long hair. But I was brave. I told her that I would take that risk and started wearing make-up from August 2006 and so on.
As she said, I got bullied every day. I only played and hung around with girls. Boys at my school used to call me “gay”. I didn’t feel any worse. For me getting attention was like being a celebrity. I listened to Beyoncé, watched Tyra Banks and Oprah Winfrey, and I got inspired by American Next Top Model.
I also competed in Norwegian Championship and got silver and bronze in cheerleading and cheer dance. The bullying did not affect me that much. At 14, I told my mom and stepfather that I wanted to get a male-to-female surgery. Of course, they got confused and wondered how I learned and read about this. I have to say thank you to my Thai-Norwegian teacher who gave me a book about Nok Yollada, a famous transwoman, who is now an LGBTQ activist in Thailand. I also read about Poy Trichada on Google, also a famous transwoman in Thailand. 
So this is how I got inspired to become a woman. I showed their pictures to my mother. But things became more serious once I wrote about my sex surgery dream in a Norwegian essay at school and my teacher at school sent me further to a school nursery where they invited my parents to talk about me, and they sent me to a local psychologist afterwards. So I ended up at Rikshospitalet in Oslo in a psychiatric department.

"When we are young we can fail
many times, raise up and move again."

Monika: For all transgender women, Thailand is a very special place where we are respected and treated as women. I assume your first impressions in Norway were totally different, I guess.
Eirin: In Thailand, the society was very open in Pattaya, Phuket, Silom, Bangkok back then. But in a local village there were still people who disliked the LGBTQ community because they thought that if you are a transgender, you have to stay alone until the end of your life and die alone. There were also transgender people who got HIV and died. At school, I rarely got bullied. But as for human rights, transgender people did not have the same rights as cis men and women.
On the other hand, in Norway, we do have human rights, same-sex marriages, right to change gender from male to female in official documents. I got more bullied as a kid at elementary school only in the 8th and 9th grades. In the 10th grade, people who used to bully me already graduated, and I already looked like a girl. People outside school didn’t notice me. In high school, people knew my identity, but no one bullied me. I went to a top-ranked school in my province. First I went to a dance school (almost a school for girls) and later changed to natural science.
Monika: Was the Miss Universe your first pageant? Why did you decide to take part in it? 
Eirin: Back in 2014 in Thailand, I joined a small pageant competition arranged for transgender but I did not qualify for the top final. MUN was my first national competition. 
During my 3rd year at University, I got depressed because of the dark time in winter and school. No one in my class knew my true identity, a few knew that but they never told anyone. I had a feeling that I want to express my true self more and talked freely about myself. I decided to join this competition to tell my friends and support LGBTQ people out there and to be proud of ourselves. I also use this platform to fight for human rights in other places in the world, as far as my message reaches out.
Monika: How did you prepare yourself for it? Who helped you to prepare your dresses, make-up, and hair?
Eirin: I did all myself: a dress, make-up, and hair. I just discussed a little bit with my sister friend who is my make-up artist and stylist when I’m in Thailand. When I was younger I always wore heels and dresses and imagined myself as a princess. When I was already 3-4 years old I wore my mother’s shoes and walked around my house. When I moved to Norway I wore high heels and did a catwalk every day in front of the mirror. Don’t forget I got inspired by Tyra Banks and also Naomi Campbell! :)

Her promo photo. Available via YouTube.

Monika: Did you have any sponsors or friends that supported your participation in the pageant?
Eirin: I got one sponsor (I sent an email to more than 300 companies). Getting a sponsor was a requirement to reach the semi-final. Finally “Yo-Thai restaurant in Drammen” was my sponsor, as they know my family, and my brother usually helps them if something is broken. 
Monika: What was the atmosphere among the pageant contestants? Did you have a chance to make friends with some of them?
Eirin: I made many friends and I am still friends with many of them. One of them is Nina, a half-Thai girl.
Monika: Were you disappointed when you did not win the competition? You were the third runner-up, right?
Eirin: Of course, when we compete, we expect to win. But I move on very fast, maybe because earlier in life I did a lot of competition as an athlete. We either win or lose. The most important thing is what we learned from that. Why did I lose, what can I improve? I got to know myself more, not about myself but also about what I realize who did support me and who doesn’t. What people I should rely on and what type of people I should avoid.
Monika: You also represented Norway in Miss International Queen in Thailand.
Eirin: Yes, I did it in March 2020. I reached the top 12. It was more fun at MIQ2020, as we became very close; I became friends with all of the contestants. It was so different from MUN2019, not sure why maybe because we felt more comfortable and did not have to wear masks. But I didn’t feel any different. As long as I do my best, I’m happy. When we are young we can fail many times, raise up and move again. Personally, I grew stronger and can handle challenges better in the future.
Monika: The top 3 finalists of the Miss International Queen 2020 were: Valentina Fluchaire - winner (Mexico), Ruethaipreeya Nuanglee (Thailand) - 1st runner-up, and Ariella Moura (Brazil) - 2nd-runner-up. Who was your favorite?
Eirin: All of them were my favorites. Actually, all of the contestants could have won. For me, all the girls were so unique. So many ladies with talent and beauty. The top three girls were the most beautiful based on the beauty standard. On the other hand, the remaining ones had their own beauty too. I was closer to Miss Thailand because we spoke the same language. Today we still keep in contact.

"I want to work more to become
an artist and performer. "

Monika: The pageant had a couple of categories: National Costume, Evening Gown, Talent, and Swimsuit. Which category did you enjoy most?
Eirin: I enjoyed the evening gown. I didn’t have that much money to spend on all of the costumes. I brought with me my mom's dress, which she made for herself, but it is similar to a Norwegian costume. It was useful. For me, a swimsuit shouldn’t be a part of the pageant. I personally don’t like to show my skin. I want people to focus more on personality rather than look, maybe I don’t fit into a beauty competition that much, haha. The evening gown was a performance where we could look like a princess. I got one designer to make a gown for me. I was so thankful. I made many dresses for Miss Universe Thailand and Miss Tiffany contestants as well.
Monika: The Miss International Queen is famous for the whole world. Did you feel the pressure while being on the catwalk? Did your family watch the event on TV or they were among the pageant audience?
Eirin: I didn’t feel any pressure, as I love walking on the catwalk. I practiced almost every day as a kid. My family watched me live on Facebook but the show was 2 hours delayed. They already knew the results. I always tell myself to do my best. Win or lose doesn’t mean that much to me. It is a stage where I can practice many skills, walking, talking, and challenges. I will bring those lessons with me to the next level in life. Different competition, different knowledge, different lessons. Everything that happens in my life is useful to develop my personality.


All the photos: courtesy of Eirin Grinde Tunheim.
© 2020 - Monika Kowalska

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