Mia Kang is already having one hell of a 2017. In March, the model made her debut in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, and earned the coveted Rookie of the Year award. Now, she's is chasing after a new dream: the 28-year-old is heading to Thailand to make her professional Muay Thai fighting debut, and her experience will be the subject of an upcoming documentary produced by SI.
Beautiful and badass—Kang's journey from supermodel to professional fighter is one to watch. That's especially true when you consider what she's been through to get to this point in her career. Kang openly admits she struggled with anorexia and bulimia for much of her life. Growing up in Hong Kong, Kang says she was overweight and bullied as a kid, and when her parents and doctor told she needed to lose weight for her health, she took control the only way she knew how: alternating between starving herself and purging. "I've been through every eating disorder you could imagine," Kang tells Health. "I even abused laxatives." The model and fighter says she halved her weight during her teenage years.
Newly slim, teenage Kang began attracting attention from both boys and modeling scouts. "It was confusing because all the boys who used to make fun of me and called me fat were now wanting to date me and take me to homecoming," she says. Modeling didn't provide the confidence boost she needed to put her eating disorder behind her, though. In fact, Kang says the industry contributed to her illness because her body was constantly being critiqued.
It wasn't until last year when she was vacationing in Thailand that Kang reached a turning point. "I would drive by this Thai boxing gym every day and it intrigued me, so one day I went in to check it out," she says. "It turned out I was good at the sport and I decided to spend nine months in the boxing camp there."
That's right: Kang took time off from her modeling career to take a deep dive into the world of Muy Thai. Every day for nine months, she spent five to six hours training with other martial artists. As she perfected her skills and watched her body build muscle definition, Kang's mental state also shifted. "The sport is about improvisation with your fighting partner and it requires 100% mental capacity and concentration," Kang says. Unless you have total confidence in yourself, she says, you will lose your fight.
Kang gained weight during training, but as her body transformed, she embraced the changes. "In Asia, the ideal body type is slim with no muscle whatsoever," she explains. "But in Thailand, I was completely okay with it because I've never been fitter, happier, or healthier." She says her time in the camp also changed her relationship with food. Kang learned to eat to fuel her body for sport, rather than abuse it into being a size and shape that her industry and culture considered ideal.
After attending many other Muy Thai fights, Kang hit a crossroads. "Something switched in me where I went and watched fights and thought You know what? I can do this." She would've gone professional sooner, but still had to shoot the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in Mexico.
Balancing her career as a model and her dreams of being a pro athlete hasn't been easy, she says. "The two worlds don't collide at all," she explains. But she refuses to give up her love of Muy Thai. "I need this sport for my sanity and wellbeing," she says.
Besides using the sport to care for herself, Kang hopes her ascent to the big leagues inspires other women struggling with eating disorders and body confidence. "I haven't been able to fit into one box my whole life," she says. "I've been too fat, too athletic looking to be a model, not Asian enough, not white enough. But those boxes shouldn't matter. We can and should be multi-dimensional."