Mia Kang is a triple threat. You might recognize the Hong Kong-born, half-Korean, half-British model from Sports Illustrated’s annual Swimsuit Issue—she landed a coveted spot in the magazine in 2017. But the 28-year-old is also a professional Muay Thai fighter, who has a master’s degree in finance and financial law to boot.
After making her professional debut in the sport in 2016, her Muay Thai career has been gaining major traction. And meanwhile, she continues to enjoy success in modeling.
But things weren’t always so easy for Kang.
“I never aspired to be a model,” she reminisces. “I grew up very overweight and bullied, so actually, it was never even on my radar.”
So how did someone who struggled through “every eating disorder you could imagine” fight her way to becoming a wellness warrior—and an advocate for a body-positive movement?
After experiencing major weight loss at age 13—“I almost halved my weight”—Kang was encouraged by her dance teacher to try modeling. “I went [to the agency] and had no idea what I was doing. Three days later, I booked my first job.”
Kang says she spent the next 15 years battling anorexia and bulimia, as well as a smoking addiction and reliance on “narcotics, laxatives, health supplements and diuretics”.
The exposure that followed wasn’t necessarily a positive. “Hong Kong media have a very warped perception of beauty. Women must be tiny, pale, with no definition or muscles. And the word ‘slim’ is thrown around everywhere.”
Looking back, she remembers always being told she was “too fat”. “I spent my life hating myself and trying to fight it, because of the Hong Kong standard of beauty.”
On a more positive note, Kang found role models in her father and brothers while growing up. “They showed me everything they know, and wanted me to thrive in life,” she explains. “They taught me everything—from skills like catching, gutting, scaling and cooking a live fish, to being fearless, and skydiving out of an airplane.”
“I was raised in such a way that I believe I will never need a man, because I am self-sufficient. Whether I want one is a different story.”
Muay Thai beginnings
For a time in her 20s, Kang quit modeling and began a career in finance. “Working as a commodities trader, I was one of only two women in the office and experienced sexism day in, day out.”
She made the decision to try her hand at modeling again—given that it’s a “short-lived career”. “I decided to make the most of [modeling] while there is still demand.” She also admits that, at the time, breaking away and being different was a hard thing to do.
Fast forward to age 27, and Kang had moved to New York to further pursue modeling.
Once again she was under huge pressure from the industry to change the way she looked. “I was being asked [to do] things like to go on 10-day liquid-only diets before a shoot.”
Eventually, it all came to a head. “My body and my mind had had enough, so I asked for a 10-day vacation.”
This much-needed break, in Thailand, would prove to be a game-changer. “I found myself falling in love with Muay Thai. For nine months, I moved into a training camp to live, eat, breathe and sleep Muay Thai,” she says. “Over the course of that, I gained my health and sanity back—and most importantly, my happiness.”
“I had … rid myself of the insecurities that had weighed me down for as long as I could remember.”
Kang returned with newfound strength and confidence. “I came back to New York and said: ‘I am finally happy, healthy and confident—this is me, take it or leave it’.”
“I said: this is the type of woman that we need in our magazines, billboards, and movies. We need role models. We need a standard of beauty that is realistic, attainable—and promotes health.”
Since then, she has been a vocal advocate for a more accurate standard of beauty that represents size, diversity, and health. “Don’t spend your life trying to conform to standards, or fit into boxes,” she advises. “Be yourself, and be proud of it.” “Be unapologetically yourself,” she adds. “If you love yourself, nothing else matters. No one’s opinion matters—and no judgment matters.”
And what of the Nühanzi philosophy, in embracing strength and independence?
“I am just me—I am who I want to be,” she says. “I always wanted to be a strong and independent woman, so I became one.”
“Women are powerful—we can do everything and anything. If I want to be an academic, a sex symbol, an actress, an athlete, a mother, an entrepreneur, or whatever it is I want to be—then I can.”