Outspoken DJ Nana, Sovathana Neang, has captured the imagination of a generation of young Cambodians through her bold agony aunt-esque radio show and strong Facebook presence. Editor Marissa Carruthers meets the media personality. Photography by Lucas Veuve

How did your radio career start?
After high school, I started working for a German NGO and it was while I was there, in 2009, that I heard about a radio station looking for someone to do a show. It [Lovely Night on Sakira FM] was a counselling programme, and I was interested because it was very different to other entertainment programmes. For a while, I was working at the NGO during the day, studying in the evenings and doing the radio show at night. It got popular very quickly but there were challenges. A lot of people doubted me because I am young, and what do I know?

Tell us more about the show?
It’s a counselling show where listeners call in with questions and I discuss different topics. When we started off, the majority of people calling – young Cambodians – wanted advice on relationships, love, friendships and family. People started to trust me more and they started calling about sex, violence, employment. I also talk about issues, such as sex before marriage, having relationships at school and divorce. Some people living in the countryside don’t have access to the internet so this was a way for them to ask questions confidentially.

Why did you resonate with your listeners so quickly?
Other radio shows have counselling programmes but they tend to be with older men; I’m different. I was 22 then so I am younger, and female. I’m exactly like the majority of listeners, and I talk openly. I talk about “controversial” issues, such as sex, and I don’t just follow tradition or rules. Some people hate me for that, others like me for that. Many women in Cambodia are scared to express how they feel because they have pressure from their family to behave in a certain way, and the way women should dress and what they should say. I say exactly what I think, what I say is not scientific and I make it clear I am not a professional psychologist. I question these traditions, without making judgements. For example, why is a woman’s virginity more highly regarded than a man’s?

What role has Facebook played?
Facebook has been incredible, and grew out of the [Sakira] radio show. I have more than 313,000 followers on my DJ Nana Tips page, which are all organic. It coincides with the radio programme too, and we have a live feed during the show so Cambodians living abroad can listen to it. I also post tips, comments and photos regularly. It’s a great way to communicate with people, and is really popular – a random recent post got 2,000 comments. It grew so quickly, and I wasn’t expecting that. I have a lot of [Cambodian] fans from outside the country as well, who often ask me for advice because they are lonely or whatever, so it is good for that.

How do you deal with your haters?
For the first six months it hurt me when people were nasty and I would delete some of the posts. Now, I have no problem with negative responses, I look at them and laugh. Also, the whole idea is to start a discussion and debate, and not everyone is going to agree with me. Some people are very sensitive about what I say, and it’s right to feel on edge when someone is questioning your traditions. Some people say I will start a revolution. I will not. A revolution cannot be started by one person. I am talking about what many young women are scared to confront, if they share my views that is not my fault.

Why do you dare to say what many others don’t?
I was born into a very different family to many others. They allowed me to be who I am now. Many girls have much tougher parents and are scared to challenge them. They tell them what job to have, who to marry. Women have a habit of living for their parents but it is a weakness to live your life to please someone else. I constantly challenged my parents as I grew up and I know it is tough but I want others to try because freedom is often not given to you; you have to fight for it.

You recently won the Cambodia Youth Champion Award. Tell us about that.
I was contacted by the UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund] asking if I would receive the award, which of course I said yes. It honours people who have a positive impact on other people’s lives and they wanted to give it to me because I boost young people’s confidence, especially girls and women who confide in me about sex, relationships – even rape.

What other work are you involved in?
I now have a radio show on Radio 94 every weekday from 9pm to 10pm and am involved in a few TV shows for PNN. In one I talk to businessmen about their success, another reality TV show, and I have just finished filming Make it Beautiful. I’m also in talks about a new project on the Khmer Rouge Tribunals so it is a very exciting time for me.

What advice would you give to young women?
I’d say to be strong, follow what you believe in and stand up for what you want. We have to empower ourselves.