Fashionista and writer Plaaastic frankly discusses life and death, mental disorders and her loyal fanbase of misfits.
When we finally meet at a quiet café near Hanoi's Old Quarter, the multi-talented Plaaastic has just survived her third suicide attempt.
She is slim, about the size of a typical Vietnamese teenager. But there's nothing typical about her: bindi piercings, dark ombré red lipstick and a black backless, tie-waist mini dress.
The young woman insists I call her by her intimate nickname G, not the famous name tied to her public persona.
“It’s human instinct to be afraid of death. I’m born lacking that, so it’s an error,” she says with astonishing calm.
The matter-of-fact answer draws a few ears and eyes toward our table. But G keeps her eyes focused, her deep voice loud and clear. Once in a while, she laughs.
G has a bright, warm smile. The social media emo queen, known for her poker face poses, is radiant and upbeat throughout our conversation.
Humor also runs through her new book, "Error 404," an autobiography detailing 15 years of struggling with depression and other mental disorders. Unusually provocative and uneasily personal, "Error 404" sold over 2,000 copies within a month, a great feat in the country's small and cautious publishing industry.
During a book fair, her fans queued from 6 to 8 a.m. and battled for all of 150 autographed editions in just a few minutes.
In Vietnam, where depressive disorders affect 4 percent of population but remain a personal, discreet issue, Plaaastic raises an important existential voice pioneered elsewhere by Sylvia Plath and Melissa Broder, the women who shed light on the darker side of the human mind.
Merry F*cking Christmas, Mass Media is a Weapon, Trust Yourself are typical slogans on G’s T-shirts in hundreds of lookbooks that feature everything, from Satan and death to neo-futurism and fluffy, dolly bondage fantasies. G’s first messages to the world didn’t start with words, but punk-rock, gothic, dolly clothes, make-up and concepts.
“I dress the way I feel. I’m a very expressive person,” G says. Plaaastic!, the fashion brand she launched in 2012, is loaded with sarcastic pop culture reference. Not just Aqua’s summer hit "Barbie Girl", but also the glamorous tribe from the chick-flick "Mean Girls".
“I liked to discuss feminism back then, I still do, but I was especially fond of messing with social beauty standards," G says, blowing up a thick cloud of smoke.
G, then a 17-year-old high school student in Singapore, like many Asian youngsters, knew she needed affordable outfits that still allowed her to be defiant enough to be confident in herself: "It’s OK to be different."
"How are you a Vietnamese? You are way too weird,” skeptical minds overwhelmed by G’s weirdness have questioned.
For her, being weird is conveniently commercial. It's also innate and inescapable.
Labeling or describing her is like trying to define the color black (her favorite) with words. Fashion designer, blogger, ballet dancer, photographer, bulimic, self-harmer, manic depressive and psychotic.
During her high school years, binging and purging corroded her teeth and left her wailing with stomach pain. Self-harm, depression and anxiety followed. Then after two failed suicide attempts and the deaths of two close friends, psychosis hit.
In Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, G believed she had reached the final stage: acceptance.
Then in April this year, after a whirlwind romance and one year of happy marriage, G found out her husband had been cheating.
The event left her devastated and led to another suicide attempt. But again, she survived and concluded the tough month with a sentence, both to her readers and herself: “Don’t give up, OK? I won’t either.”
Talking about suicide has always been difficult. While personal stories are encouraged to be shared so that suicide and mental health issues in general are no longer treated as taboos, there's a fine line to walk when discussing suicide, without appearing to glamorize it or treat it lightly. The recent controversy surrounding teen drama "13 Reasons Why" has shown that it's never an easy topic.
In Vietnam, where the deepest of feelings and thoughts are often heavily guarded and family issues are traditionally kept behind closed doors, personal yet public tales like G's are extremely rare.
But she doesn't just talk about her own problems. Ever since G raised her voice on social media, she has assigned herself the mission of encouraging and inspiring her fans.
“It’s ironic. I feel like it’s my responsibility to be the one to speak up, to let young people know what they might not know.” G says, half smiling.
“I used to ask a lot of embarrassing questions when I was a teen, and who knows if I hadn’t asked those questions, I would forever stay dumb.”
Around 2013, at the peak of her commercial success with her fashion brand and among some 30 solo trips to Las Vegas, Bangkok, Taiwan and other cities, G closed the store to dedicate all her time to the new cyber armor: blogging.
Before midnight, G would sit in front of her laptop, extracting all her memories, her struggles with mental illnesses, her extreme bad luck and her rage at social norms.
Even after over three years of blogging, G still has something new to confess every day.
Since 2016, the blogger has been writing on two more Vietnamese Facebook pages, the most popular, Plaaastic, has over 50,000 followers.
On Plaaastic and Do Con Cuu (You the Lamb), she frankly discusses identity crisis, gives long, overly frank relationship advice, calls out slut-shaming, defends sex workers, or talks about how happy or sad she is at the time.
Plaaastic walks around the Old Quarter, Hanoi in 2016
“I’m frank and I won’t hesitate to say what I think is true.” G says. “Even if it ruins faces or relationships.”
G’s earliest memory of depression dates back to 2000.
One night when she had just turned seven, she was wiping her runny nose, teary eyes and catching her breath with one nostril blocked.
“I remember being beaten nearly to death, literally, by mom, for some reason I can’t remember,” she writes in her autobiography. “It was the first time I wanted to die.”
Talking about family, G becomes more reserved. She left home in 2013, vowing never to speak to her parents after a fight over her choice of friends.
Now family is less of a bitter subject.
“We have sat down together again, slowly, carefully, with great respect for each other, like adults.” G says. “Though my parents still don’t ask what I’m doing or know what I’m famous for.”
In her childhood, her parents were popular and rich. Her dad was indifferent and always absent, even when the school called. Her mom, left with all the power, took literally the old saying: “Spare the rod, spoil the child”.
G says, at the age of nine, she was sexually abused for the first time by an acquaintance of her parents. He returned again and again.
At the age of 15, G was excelling at school, passionate about ballet and popping, and never had to worry about money. Most people were baffled by her sadness under the false impression that depression only strikes those who haven't tried hard enough.
Ngo Hoang Nam, 22, one of G’s five closest friends, said it took him time to get his own head together before he was able to help care for her during high school.
“Everybody has their own truth. G lives for her friends, and given what she has been through, we always understand,” Nam says.
“There are a lot of people out there who are suffering more than you. For example, children in Africa,” G quotes one of the many things people have told her over the years.
“People want to help and I don’t blame them.” G says.
“Everyone else is keen to give advice while the depressed one just needs love and care.”
After many turning points, G is now battling several mental disorders.
“I’ve literally been my own doctor ever since I moved to Vietnam. It’s difficult to find a psychiatrist who’s able to prescribe and review the treatment to suit the changes of my mental disorders.” G says, the upbeat smile returning.
These days, G is designing clothes for a street wear brand, takes Uber between photoshoots and her dark room, and occasionally, posts updates on the upcoming English version of "Error 404" and its sequel.
Fans flood her Facebook inbox with hundreds of messages every day. “You are my light when I'm down honestly. Please stay strong,” one of her followers wrote.
The majority of them say they also have depressive disorders and see G as an idol. Her fanbase stretches from teenagers to grown women; from Vietnam to Singapore, the U.S., Brazil and Russia.
“Many have hygiene problems due to purging or self-harm. I tell them it’s their attitude that counts. Medicine can have a bad side and you can become ill if you abuse them.”
With over 500,000 followers on Instagram and 70,000 followers on two Facebook pages, no amount of online or real-life bashing is a major burden for G anymore.
“My fans are the reason I keep speaking out," she says. “They reaffirm my belief that the better you are, the more likely people leave you alone.”
Hate speech and attention-seeking accusations sometimes slip through, only to face hundreds of fans jumping to her defense.
“People used to question whether I have done my best. Now it’s my fans who can answer the question.”
At the end of her book, G explains her so-called error again. “I hate my life but I don’t hate life. I don’t have any hope for my life, but I’m always full of trust in others.”
Photos and video courtesy of Plaaastic