Get Inspired by Maria Poonlertlarp's Environmental Advocacy

Five years after being crowned Miss Universe Thailand, Maria Poonlertlarp is still going strong championing the causes she believes in

[This story originally appeared in Koktail Magazine issue 2.]


Maria Lynn Ehren, known professionally as Maria Poonlertlarp, is no vanity project. Crowned Miss Universe Thailand in 2017 and a top-five finalist on the world stage, this gorgeous, casual-cool personality defies pageantry stigmas by illustrating a new perspective on beauty queens, passionately walking the talk even after her high- profile reign. As a devoted environment advocate, Maria is a modern-day representation of what an “influencer” really means. She’s an effortless role model—one we found such pleasure catching up with via Google Meet on a Saturday morning.

We’ve seen such a huge and wholesome transformation from when you were titled Miss Universe Thailand in 2017! What was your advocacy then and what is it now?

In 2017, I was more focused on issues surrounding teenage pregnancy—working with young mums and talking to them about assurance and standing up for themselves. While that message still sticks with me today, there has been a shift from a personal to a more environmental approach after exploring the concept of self-love and respect. I believe that at the end of the day, everything is interconnected. Taking care of the environment is also about taking care of yourself.

As an avid environmentalist, what has been the most important milestone for you?

My own personal growth. I think it’s very hard to see your own flaws. Once I was able to put down my ego and become a more conscious consumer, I realised that I hadn’t been a real environmentalist and that I had been doing so many things that were negatively impacting what I care about. It’s important to walk the talk. What’s really amazing is how my family and close friends are starting to change their behaviours and thinking twice about their daily consumption because of what I’m doing.

The biggest change has been be my diet. I’m not vegan, but I’ve cut out almost all animal products. I think that’s the biggest impact we can make from an individual perspective.

What prompted that decision?

It wasn’t so much an environmental choice but an ethical one. It came after I saw and learned more about what the meat industry is doing. I then asked myself what my values are and how I would align them to how I live my life. We vote with our money on how animals are treated. Realising that I can choose how I spend my money was a gamechanger.

Tell us about SOS Earth.

One of my best friends and I started SOS Earth in 2019 after noticing that there aren’t many platforms that have good information on environmental causes. For our first activity, we went to OurLand in Kanchanaburi, Thailand’s first privately managed wildlife reserve. I feel that bringing people to the forest is one of the best ways to build environment advocates because they form a connection with nature and learn how the ecosystem works. But since Covid-19 hit, we had to move most things online. One of our first social media campaigns was the Trash Me challenge where we asked people to keep their own waste for at least two weeks so that they could learn what kind of consumers they are.

We also collaborated with the European Union and gathered to clear trash from Khlong Lad Prao as a sample of how our rivers are totally trashed. The focus was on how every one of us is, unfortunately, a contributor to this matter but also how we can slowly reduce our trash footprint. Up north, we are raising funds to get air filters installed in Chiang Mai nurseries as the haze pollution will get very bad. From these activities, we realised that the individual aspect is necessary but slow, and that we have to push more on the policy level. We’ve recently joined forces with the Thailand Clean Air Network to help push and create awareness around Thailand's latest Clean Air Act.

What are some other campaigns you’re currently involved in?

I’ve just joined WildAid Thailand’s Chalong Mai Chalarm (Celebrate Without Shark Fin) project. It’s surprising to me how many Thais still consume shark fin soup, especially at ceremonies like weddings. I am also an ambassador of Food Systems for World Animal Protection Thailand. Right now we're focusing on Change for Chickens. With them, I got to see first-hand the difference between how chickens are being treated in organic versus factory farms. Even though the ideal scenario is for animals to be freed completely, the reality is that people are still going to consume meat. I love that the organisation really cares about the welfare of these little creatures. Together, we’re pushing to end factory farming.

What do you think is the root of all these problems in Thailand?

Education. I think that the understanding of why we must care about the environment is still incredibly surface level. In Thailand, we hear a lot about how using tote bags will help slow down global warming—that’s a very far- fetched claim to make and they actually have a higher carbon footprint than plastic bags. Knowledge is power, and if people are more aware of their consumption, it could very well lead to a sustainable change.

As if you’re not busy enough, we see that you’re also importing the insect-based Yora Pet Foods from the UK!

Yes! My friend Jessie and I both have dogs, and we’ve realised that most of the products in the market are very meat-heavy and environmentally impactful. He has been feeding his dog Yora for a while now. We’ve been very intrigued about how beneficial insect protein is and believe that it is the protein of the future, so we decided to import the brand. We’re also hoping to push production in Thailand to lower the carbon footprint.

Now to our mandatory question. If you were to answer this question again, today, what do you think is the most important social movement of your generation?

This is something I go back and forth on a lot because it’s really difficult to pick the most important social movement. I would say the shift towards and the need for truth. I believe that we all want to be “good”, but sometimes the choices given to us do not make that so easy. If we really are aware of our actions and what the options we have really mean, we can make better decisions and make our lives more fulfilling and meaningful.

You were very much into politics at one point—what has changed?

I still hold the same values. But if we’re talking about the ongoing protests, I feel that the message and focus have changed, whereas in the beginning, it was more inclusive. In terms of politics, I’m still standing for me, my family, my community as a whole and the environment. When I feel that there is something that needs to be said or could be done, I do my part. Today, if I were to call something out, it would be in a positive light and grounded upon solution-based initiatives.

There’s been a more unique perspective on what it means to be a beauty queen in Thailand. Do you think this change is here to stay and that we’re genuinely looking for more passionate women to represent the country?

Definitely. I think our society is asking more questions and trying to find more meaning in social matters, and it’s being reflected in the pageant world.

How would you describe your ideal, modern-day beauty queen?

For me, a beauty queen is someone who makes you feel important no matter who you are. Especially with Nong Ann (Anchilee Scott-Kemmis) reigning this year and the conversations she has initiated, I feel that the beauty queens of today and tomorrow should inspire you and encourage you to contribute to society.

The terms “influencer” and “key opinion leader” are now more meaningful than ever. What are you hoping to influence or inspire?

I’m still on a journey myself and gradually learning about the causes I’m supporting. I don’t feel like I know better than anyone, but I merely want to share my passions with my followers and the people I meet along the way. That being said, the environment is certainly the top topic I hope to have an influence on. It’s such a huge subject to grasp and I’m all over the place as well, but I’d like to invite people to join the journey and learn with me.

What is one misconception about you?

I think after seeing me all glammed up as Miss Universe Thailand, people are generally surprised when they see what I wear on a daily basis. Maybe I’m more relaxed and chill than most would expect. I’m also actually very introverted for someone in show biz.

What would you say is your 'ikigai'?

PePersonal development. I started doing yoga at the beginning of the pandemic, and it was very hard. But seeing the little progressions—holding a certain move longer or being able to stretch a little more—are meaningful triumphs to me. I strive to be more calm and confident, and I’d like to be able to live my life more in line with my values.

Being able to support my family also brings me joy. It’s been very difficult since Covid-19 happened, and I’ve been taking more jobs in the entertainment industry. Seeing that come into fruition, like being able to bring my mum on vacation, really makes a difference. My parents are getting older, and it’s nice to be able to step up and take care of them more.