HA NOI — It is hard to imagine the small statured Amazin Lethi as a world-renowned bodybuilder, a sport she has pursued since the age of 6.
|Amazin Lethi plays with children at an orphanage in Ha Noi during a recent trip. She's hoping to use her profile for campaigning across the globe in the fight against HIV/AIDS among Asian communities, especially in Viet Nam. — Photo courtersy of Amazin Lethi Foundation
Over the years, her name has become well known among fitness fanatics in Asian communities across Australia and the US. During her career, she has trained Olympic athletes to special force soldiers and celebrities.
Lethi has also appeared in a variety of TV shows and commercials around the world as well as in numerous Hollywood movies while authoring several best-selling books about strength training, especially for women.
She is considered the first Asian bodybuilder of Vietnamese origin to have successfully crossed over into the entertainment industry on a global scale.
"When I started body-building as a child and teenager, there was no Vietnamese people doing the same," she said during a recent interview. "A young Asian female bodybuilder will always stand out in a crowd. I certainly didn't fit the stereotype of the norm."
In 2007, the Vietnamese American National Gala Award was handed to Lethi, acknowledging her contribution to the entertainment and fitness industry.
She was also the first Asian celebrity guest of Vietnamese background to appear and support the Liveright fundraising initiative as part of Stanford University's Asian Liver Centre, which raises awareness on liver cancer and hepatitis B in the Asian American community.
Now, she is hoping to use her profile for campaigning across the globe in the fight against HIV/AIDS, particularly Viet Nam, the first country in which the Amazin Lethi Foundation started implementation of its HIV initiative under the AsiaLife Project.
Launched in March this year, the Amazin Lethi Foundation focuses on HIV and LGBT communities and engages individuals via education and media initiatives. Lethi said she wants to become an activist and break the stigma and discrimination connected to HIV-positive people because, unlike other communities, "we tend not to talk about this issue."
"I have met HIV-positive people along the way and I've seen how they suffer in their communities. I would like to help them amplify their voices," she said. "HIV is a silent epidemic in our community and the less we speak about it, the worse it gets."
Besides Viet Nam, the foundation would also target neighbouring countries and those in the west that have a high percentage of Asians, such as Canada, the USA and Australia. The idea is to support programmes through collaborating with local communities and individuals.
For example, in Viet Nam, HIV-activist Pham Thi Hue has been nothing short of inspirational, acting as one of the most vocal and active people fighting for the rights of people living with HIV and AIDS in the country. Lethi met Hue at an UN volunteer conference in 2006.
"She told me how she obtained HIV and how her community had rejected her," Lethi said. "She eventually started speaking out, which was both brave and inspiring. When one person speaks, it tells people they're not alone."
Starting in the northern port city of Hai Phong, considered as having one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the country at nearly 1.2 per cent of the population, the foundation will support Hue's ongoing programmes, such as providing education, recreation, nutrition to 300 children affected by HIV, including organizing soccer summer camps, and assisting in vocational training.
The foundation has also provided refurbished computers to HIV-positive teenagers at an orphanage in northern Ha Nam Province.
"I think Amazin is very passionate about supporting HIV-related programmes. She always makes sure that the information she gets reflects the situation on the ground by talking to beneficiaries directly," Hue said.
Though it is only the beginning, Lethi said she hopes the foundation would take its initiative to other provinces, through partnerships with organizations such as UNAIDS and Viet Nam Relief Services, while setting up programmes that raise awareness on HIV through music, art and fashion.
Other areas it would soon tackle include human trafficking and Agent Orange, whilst keeping its focus on HIV as a central problem among sex slavery/trafficking victims.
In the long term, plans also include the construction of sports academies across Viet Nam.
Lethi said she considers her story different from other overseas Vietnamese who constantly return to the country to do charity work.
Hailing from an orphanage in former Sai Gon, engaging in an unusual career path for Asian women and was adopted to Australia, Lethi said she would have likely ended up similar to the victims she aspires to help. "I was fortunate to get out of it."
With her foundation up and running in Viet Nam, her trips back home are becoming more frequent, not only due to the pressures of work, but also to the search for her biological mother. — VNS