Three decades ago Bui Porntip Nakhirunkanok, as she was then known, made a nation proud when she took home the 1988 Miss Universe crown. In doing so the 20-year-old became the second Thai to win the world’s most prominent international beauty pageant.
As if it were yesterday, Bui Simon—as she is now known—still recalls the overwhelming surge of emotions she experienced that night in Taipei. “It was a mixture of utter shock, excitement and joy,” she says. “Being crowned Miss Universe is a triumph but one that comes with great responsibility. I don’t know what I did to deserve such an honour, but I knew the second the crown was placed on my head that I had a duty to represent and serve the Miss Universe organisation and my country with as much respect and integrity as I could muster.”
Time flies and while 30 years have come and gone Bui still looks as radiant as ever. Even now, her gracious demeanour and the eloquent way in which she expresses herself encapsulate the kind of grooming she would have been given on receiving the Miss Universe crown. But what has she been up to all this time? A philanthropist at heart, the Pepperdine University psychology graduate (who has a place on the Board of Regents at her alma mater) has always felt a profound calling to give back to society. Despite having been raised in the United States, where she spends most of her time nowadays, the Bangkok-born former beauty queen has never forgotten the poverty that persists in Thailand, particularly in rural areas, and the plight of underprivileged children across the country.
Following her 1988 Miss Universe victory, Bui became a United Nations goodwill ambassador and a passionate advocate of the organisation’s Rights of the Child bill, particularly as it applied to destitute children in Thailand. In 1989 she even addressed the UN General Assembly on the subject of children’s rights and, driven by her aspirations to make a difference, went on to establish a charitable fund for the provision of all sorts of supplies to Thai schools and orphanages.
However, it soon became apparent that there was a need for something more structured and long-term in scope and so in 2002 Bui created her own not-for-profit organisation, the Angels Wings Foundation International. Under her direction it not only provides vital donations for healthcare, it also promotes education as an empowering tool. In fact, since its inception, education has been at the heart of the foundation’s framework and today numerous platforms have been cultivated to support school development in an effort to increase educational opportunities for aspiring Thai youngsters, including scholarship programmes and the construction of schools. In recognition of her work with the needy children of Thailand, His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej conferred on her the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant decoration. A few years later Bui received further recognition when she was granted the Most Noble Order of the Crown of Thailand.
Based in California, she admits she doesn’t get to travel back to her native land as much as she would like. That said, she visits whenever she can to oversee her various ongoing projects—as recently as July she was in the kingdom to award 30 academically promising students from Bangkok and rural communities with Angels Wings College scholarships. Bui has also been busy with the expansion of the foundation’s framework to include the inaugural Angels Wings Thai Scholarship of Los Angeles programme, which offers higher education opportunities to Thai youths residing in LA.
“We have scholarships that were instituted over a decade ago in Thailand and I didn’t see why we couldn’t do the same in the United States,” Bui explains. “There’s an extremely large Thai community in LA for one thing. We took on our first scholars there last year. I like to think that no matter what strata of society they come from, through our scholarship programmes educationally ambitious Thai children in America and Thailand can dream of a better future. Ultimately, I hope that what we are doing comes full circle—that with better futures, ones with decent careers and life choices resulting from a good education, our students will grow to become useful individuals in their communities and the next generation of teachers and ambassadors for education.”
Happily married to Herbert Simon, real estate tycoon and owner of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers basketball team, Bui’s sense of purpose where the improvement of underprivileged children’s lives is concerned knows no bounds. She is also a devoted mother to five children aged between 22 and eight, three of whom were adopted after the passing of her sister. So how does she balance being a mum with a full-time job? “I didn’t want to compromise my time with the kids and I didn’t want to compromise the projects that are so dear to my heart,” she explains. “So I ended up making time by getting up early every day.” That may involve a regular wake-up call at five am but the early bird admits that the first half an hour is ‘me time’. “That’s when I cram in a few minutes of meditation to prepare myself for the day ahead.”
When it comes to personal luxuries she also admits to being easily pleased. Once a week, usually on the weekend, she likes to sleep in, waking up at nine to enjoy breakfast in bed. It’s the small things in life that bring her joy and in her free time she likes to take long strolls, watch movies and go on bicycle rides with her younger children. Each family has its own dynamic but if there is one irrevocable consensus in her household, it is that Bui is the boss. “I am the CEO of my domestic affairs and the empress to my children,” she laughs. “That is what they call me.” As a mother, one of the most important things she tries to teach her children is respect. “Respect is not an option in our home,” she says firmly. “We respect others so that we may learn to respect ourselves and we treat others as we want to be treated.”
The grounded lady cites her mother as her source of inspiration, saying she was a role model because of her humble nature and strong work ethic, attributes that have strongly influenced the way in which Bui has led her life. Looking ahead, in addition to growing the reach of the Angels Wings Foundation, she hopes to find the time to go back to school to study for a doctorate.
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