At one time in Asia, pageant winners were considered role models on the fast track to stardom. Today, the word “beauty queen” is mired in sexy scandals that have left conservatives aghast. How has pageant culture changed -- and will the tiaras continue to sparkle through this century?
As TV pageant ratings hit the floor, the dirt around the contestants piles up
No bikinis please, we’re Asian
Svelte young women have been strutting on local stages since the early 20th century -- early examples include a 1934 Miss Siam pageant to promote Constitution Day. Thailand, India and Japan have been sending representatives to international contests, such as Miss World and Miss Universe, since the 1950s.
Asian pageants follow the familiar format -- evening gown, swimsuit, talent, interview -- but with a conservative twist. Japan culture blogger Neil Duckett attended the invite-only 2008 Miss Nippon competition. He observes, “Japanese contests are much more refined and not as ‘sexually orientated’ as Western ones. The categories consisted of Evening Wear, Bikini and Traditional, where each girl would perform a tea ceremony.”
Some parts of Asia are so reserved that the mere act of wearing a swimsuit causes controversy. Since debuting in 2002, the Miss Tibet contest has been scorned for showing skin in a country where women wear clothing to their ankles.
The beauty queen dethroned
Until the mid-1990s, a pageant crown was a stepping stone to a high-profile career. Many of Bollywood’s reigning actresses debuted at Femina Miss India, including Aishwarya Rai, Lara Dutta, Priyanka Chopra and Sushmita Sen. Some queens, such as Imelda Marcos, became political heavyweights.
Miss Universe Japan Emiri Miyasaka's kimono plus hot pink panties combo caused a bit of a stir.
But in recent years, contestants have only been making headlines in the tabloids.
Last August, Japan’s Miss Universe finalist Emiri Miyasaka caused a public outcry over her costume, a black kimono so short that it revealed her hot-pink underwear.
In November, 2008 Miss Japan Universe Hiroko Mima was thought to star in a sex tape with Miss Trinidad and Tobago and her boyfriend. The third party turned out to be a lookalike, but the accusations tarnished her image and made it onto CNNGo’s list of top 5 sex scandals.
More than a few Miss Philippines and Miss Hong Kongs are suspected of being “kept women,” or mistresses to rich Chinese businessmen. In January, 2003 Miss Hong Kong Kate Tsui raised eyebrows with her extravagant shopping sprees and new HK$20 million home. Although she only had HK$1,000 income per month, 2005 winner Tracy Ip managed to buy two mansions, claiming she got the money from playing the stock market.
Singapore’s queens took the cake for bad behavior. 2009 Miss Singapore Universe Rachel Kum lied about her plastic surgery and posed for racy photos -- including one where she gave a birthday cake fellatio. Ris Low lost her 2009 Miss Singapore World crown when the press discovered she was convicted of credit card fraud and sentenced to two years probation. She is now a condom spokesperson.
Why is pageant culture plummeting?
Teo Ser Lee, winner of three Singapore beauty pageants, explains, “Singapore pageants are more badly organized by the year. There are insufficient sponsors and poor media exposure, hence lower quality candidates. We used to look up to the winners as role models, but not any more.”
Prasert Joemjutithum, a Thai archivist of beauty queen photos, adds that pageants have lost their prestige. “Values have changed and we now have modelling agencies, talent shows and, most important of all, reality TV, as bridges towards a career in showbiz.”
Some contests, such as Miss Singapore Universe, have given up on TV broadcasts and are banking on live events at resorts. Others rely on novelties, such as Thailand’s Miss Jumbo Queen (for plus-sized beauties) and Mr Gay Hong Kong.
According to Lee, none of these efforts will counter the fading public interest in pageants. “In the 1980s, we used to sit around the TV, pore over every report about the contestants and even join contests to guess the winner. Nowadays, nobody really remembers who the past or current winners are.” She laments that today’s contests are set up to attract “all brawn and no brains” misses. “With this trend, we will never be able to remove the stigma attached to beauty queens.”