BANGKOK, Thailand – The one-time sex tycoon who would be governor wants to clean up this sprawling, gritty city where he grew rich overseeing an empire of flesh. But weeks of shaking hands and giving speeches have left him longing for the days of massage girls and hot tubs.
"Politics is so dirty, so ugly," Chuwit Kamolvisit sighs. "I would rather sit tight in the nightclub, surrounded by girls, smoking cigars, drinking brandy, champagne. That was the perfect life."
But that life ended, thanks to a series of scandals that made him a celebrity. Now, Chuwit is an underdog candidate in Bangkok's governor race, financing his own campaign to take on what he sees as the hypocrisy and deceit rotting Thai politics.
Who better to wipe out bribes, he argues, than the former king of sleaze who got rich paying them?
"I tell the truth," Chuwit, 47, said in an interview, reeling off a list of issues from graft to traffic to unemployment. "If you want to listen to the truth, you listen to me."
Judging from recent polls, however, most people are not impressed by what they hear. Chuwit is running a distant second, trailing the leading candidate by as much as 30 percentage points. Chuwit, who now owns a boutique Bangkok hotel, gets attention wherever he goes, but few expect him to garner enough votes to win on Oct. 5.
On Thursday, three days ahead of the vote, Chuwit elbowed a newscaster in the face and then kicked him when he fell to the ground. Chuwit was being interviewed by the Channel 3 reporter in the network's studio and erupted after the taping ended, saying the reporter made him look bad by asking confrontational questions.
"A man like me, you can kill him but you can't insult him," he said during a press conference following the incident. "I apologized for what I did ... but I had to do it. I haven't done anything like this in over 30 years."
Before Chuwit became a crusader against corruption, he employed some 1,300 women in a string of brothels thinly disguised as massage parlors named Victoria's Secret, Emmanuelle and Honolulu. Prostitution is illegal in Thailand but widespread and rarely prosecuted.
He became a local hero in 2004 when he exposed corruption in the unpopular police force by listing the bribes he paid to senior officers — Rolex watches, free services and, he said recently, "money in a garbage bag because it was too much for an envelope."
He says he made one million baht — the equivalent of $30,000 — each night from the massage parlors and he went public only because the police failed to protect him when he ran into his own legal troubles.
Chuwit sold the parlors and rode his popularity to a strong but unsuccessful finish in the last governor's race. This year, farther from the scandal and tougher from the political loss, he is pouring his personal fortune into a new and, he says, final bid for governor.
The front-runner is Apirak Kosayodhin, a former mobile phone executive running for re-election after completing a four-year term last month.
Apirak has few signature accomplishments from his first term, but he is the kind of well-educated, competent professional usually favored by Bangkok voters and is backed by the well-established Democrat Party.
The election's big issues are familiar ones in this city of more than 6 million: traffic, pollution, schools. They're tough to tackle from City Hall because the governor — the official title of the city's top elected post — has restricted power as the central government controls the funds needed for most essential services.
A tireless man with a thin mustache and a square jaw, Chuwit, always quick with one-liners, is honest about his limitations: "I cannot fix the traffic. Nobody can fix the traffic."
But he promises to fight government stasis and instead of kissing babies he has adopted an angry man persona. His campy posters show him glowering over a pair of binoculars meant to suggest a penetrating gaze.
Analysts admire his showman bravado but are skeptical about his chances as Thailand seeks to recover from a turbulent national political crisis.
"Chuwit's aggressive campaign has caught public attention, but I'm not sure voters would like to see more conflict," said Panithan Wattanayagorn, a political analyst from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
Around Bangkok's main business district, some voters said they disliked Chuwit because of his controversial past, but others said he fit well in the dirty business of Thai politics.
"I believe that no Thai politician is clean," said Tam Sompon, 40, browsing through golf clubs at a sport shop. "A good background doesn't guarantee that a candidate won't be corrupt in office. I will vote for Chuwit because he can work for us swiftly and aggressively."
There are concerns that Chuwit is perhaps too comfortable in the economy's "gray areas" to trust with a seat like the governor's but Chuwit says his years as a marketer of sleaze were successful enough that he doesn't need to become a sleazy politician.
As for those who disapprove of his years in the hot tubs, Chuwit shrugs.
"The sex business is not a problem," he said. "If you don't have sex, that's a problem."