Sreng Sokanda, mostly known by her stage name Srey Knhong, was a popular comedian, a regular fixture on TV who garnered nearly 1 million followers on Facebook.
Part of comedy troupe Peakmi, she was on air on CTN every week for around a decade.
More recently, she began to use her fame to market health supplement products under the celebrity-endorsed brand Coosea, promising a cure to myriad ills. Singers Sokun Nysa and Meas Soksophea, and comedian Kroeun, are among celebrities peddling its wares through a stream of social media videos. Through a widening network, many ordinary people also work as sellers for the brand.
Srey Knhong this year wrote online about one product, Coosea Neary: “Good stuff. No more problems. Look at the maiden queen,” she wrote, referring to herself alongside a provocative selfie. “The maiden queen eats, tight like a maiden. No. 1 for gynecology.”
Another advertisement promotes pills to help with stomach pain, stress, diabetes, high blood pressure and nausea for $33 a bottle.
She borrowed money for business ventures, while expensive car and house purchases weighed on her finances, she said in a video this week. The supplements business couldn’t meet her repayment obligations. She borrowed from one place to pay off another — a crescendo of borrowing that put her $572,000 in debt and finally brought her to Chinese lenders.
They were a last resort, offering her $5,000 for a month as long as she paid back an additional $2,500 in interest, she said in the video. Her creditors had threatened her, and she needed “quick money.”
The spiraling descent exploded into public view this week when Srey Knhong took a new tack to solve her problem: file for bankruptcy to escape all the debt, then ask her fans to donate money to bring her back to riches.
The tearful pleadings and explanations began on Monday, and in turns they went from asking for money to asking for forgiveness.
On Monday, Srey Knhong appeared in a video with Nuon Sunnary, one of Coosea’s upper echelons. In it, Sunnary said Srey Knhong had collected $126,800 in revenue from the sellers below her, but then used that money to pay for her debts.
“When people have difficulties, they come to me and I help them,” Sunnary said, but added that she would not just help any branch distributor. “I help this time and it is the last time.”
Srey Knhong said in the same video that she had known Sunnary for around three years, and she had now lent her $200,000 without interest.
“The Chinese [lenders] warned they would burn my house, and they made all kinds of threats,” she said.
Meanwhile, Srey Knhong told reporters outside court that she had filed for bankruptcy. Her debt began around three years ago and slowly accumulated, she said.
She borrowed money to expand her business, but she earned little. She was now staring down at the possibility of prison, she said.
“I would like to appeal to all brothers and sisters who like me or don’t like me, and charitable donors who I’ve made laugh, and who love and support me, help me: Donate $1 for food for my children before I have a problem.”
By Wednesday morning, she had received $56,533, she said online.
In a Wednesday video, the tides of public opinion appeared to have turned against her. She said in the video that the debt stemmed from buying a car and house and not being able to afford her mortgage. She didn’t expect an economic downturn, and she couldn’t earn as much as she expected.
“I don’t believe you,” one Facebook user wrote as she spoke. “Stop the show,” said another.
She added that a “teacher” had recommended the bankruptcy and public appeal. She had paid him $10,000 for the advice, she said.
But it “caused people to hate me. … It caused hundreds of thousands to hate me. I was ready to do anything to clear the debt and you should not have pushed to hurt me like this. I looked to you for help,” she said.
The teacher, Siev Sophal, responded online with congratulations. “I am happy that I had an idea that made her escape the debt. We used this strategy.”
Srey Knhong, meanwhile, said she would donate half of her public donations to the Kantha Bopha children’s hospital.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the date of Srey Knhong’s video with Nuon Sunnary and misspelled Siev Sophal’s name.