When her online debut happened on Friday, the newly minted SI star had already finished a full day of Muay Thai training, to prepare for her first professional fight in a few months, in which she’ll likely be elbowed in the eyebrow and kicked in the jaw. You know, normal model stuff.
“I need to plan about a month of not working afterwards,” she laughs, given the hazards.
While boxing workouts have become the most stylish way to sweat among models, Kang—who won SI’s 2016 Swimsuit Model Search, has a master’s degree in finance, and grew up in Hong Kong—stands alone. Instead of punching a bag to look pretty, she’s determined to become a fighter, and to apply the empowerment she finds in the ring to her work in an image-driven industry. “It should be about strength, confidence, empowerment, breaking boundaries of what a model should be,” she says.
Read on for a Q&A with the model-turned-pro athlete, who says the sport has taught her how to be comfortable in her body for the first time.
How did you first get into Muay Thai?
I initially did it for fitness; I tried classes here and there. Then, last year, I needed a break from work, and I went on a 10-day vacation to Thailand. I kept driving by this gym where these little Thai boys would train. Finally, I asked if I could train, and they said sure, and it turns out I wasn’t too bad. They asked if I wanted to take it a little more seriously and move in and train with the fighters. Now, I come back as often as I can to keep learning.
What’s the actual training like and what do you love about it?
It’s about five hours a day. It starts with a run in the morning at 7, then we train from 8 to 10, then we eat and sleep and then train again in the afternoon, from 4 to 7. It’s full-on training like an athlete, all day every day. It’s like a full-time job.
What really appeals to me is that there’s so much discipline involved. Fighting is not so much the physical; it’s a complete mind game.
it’s an unbelievable full-body workout, but I think what really appeals to me is that there’s so much discipline involved. Fighting is not so much the physical; it’s a complete mind game. It’s about reflexes and training your body and mind and finding opportunities and thinking in the second. You forget everything around you and completely rely on your instincts. That really appealed to me, especially in the industry I’m in, where it can be very narcissistic and self-centered. It was amazing to come here and just live this life and no one knew I was a model, and I never thought about how I looked.
Speaking of the industry, you throw around a lot of words like “empowerment” and “healthy body image.” How are you making those things a part of your work?
There’s the modeling industry of size zeros and 2’s in the fashion world, and then there’s the plus-size models, and there’s nothing in between. I grew up as an obese child, but I’ve also been a size zero, and I hated myself at both extremes.
I grew up as an obese child, but I’ve also been a size zero, and I hated myself at both extremes.
Now, because of fitness, I have self-confidence and I’m comfortable in my own skin and healthy and happy. I’m a size 4 or 6. There’s not a place for me in the industry; a lot of the media doesn’t represent anything in the middle. Why are we teaching women that beauty only exists in the extremes? What’s great about Sports Illustrated is the diversity of sizes they represent. The magazine is really evolving…Even this year, the range of women from all different backgrounds and countries, of all different sizes, ethnicities, I’m so proud to be a part of that. I think that should be portrayed more. We should celebrate our differences.
How does your image as a fighter play into that?
I try and share as much of my Muay Thai training as I can. It really did transform my body. I changed a lot when I started training on an athlete level. I gained a lot muscle, went up a size. I’m eating to fuel my body, now. Things changed for me, and for the first time in my life I was happy and secure.
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