Thai beauty queens break the mould

If imitation is flattery, Miss Universe contestants should feel properly buttered-up in Thailand, where people find occasions year-round to award a crown and a sash to queens who sometimes break the mould.

Or the moulding, as was the case when parts of the stage knocked loose during a sports-themed dance sequence at the Miss Jumbo Queen pageant for women 80kg and over.

The annual pageant, held earlier this month at an elephant park outside Bangkok and broadcast nationally, gave a special Miss Jumbo Universe crown to their heaviest contestant this year, in a nod to the international pageant set for May 31.

Thanchanok Mekkeaw, a 25-year-old political-science student, took the Jumbo Universe honour after being weighed on stage at 182kg.

The other contestants, whose “sporty” dance theme proved too much for the crown moulding lining the stage, were judged by more standard beauty pageant criteria—talent and interview segments, though no swimsuit competition.

Miss Tiffany, which crowns Thailand’s most beautiful “ladyboy” transsexual, also added “Universe” to the title of its crown, awarded on national television just as the 81 contestants for the international pageant were arriving in Bangkok.

Perhaps not to hurt their country’s chances of taking the big tiara, newspapers this year held off on comparing Miss Tiffany to Miss Thailand, who often fares poorly in reviews against her rival who was born a man.

“Invariably, the one born the male is more beautiful by female standards. It’s one of those amusing things in Thailand that Thais themselves find amusing,” says Philip Cornwel-Smith, an author who writes about Thai pop culture.

The two unlikely high-profile pageants held in the run-up to Miss Universe are just a small slice of a year-round fascination with beauty queens in Thailand.

“Anytime we have a festival, beauty pageants seem to be an attraction to draw the crowds,” says Seri Wongmonta, a business-school marketing professor who helps put on Miss Tiffany.

“Once they organise all these festivals, the girls see the opportunity to earn some money,” he says.

Emerging backlash

Thailand’s abundance of festivals, often celebrating local produce or even pets, means young girls compete for somewhat dubious titles such as Lychee Queen, Miss Banana, Miss King Cobra or Miss Durian (after the prickly and smelly fruit).

There’s room for the not-so-young as well, with single women 28 or older eligible to compete for Miss Spinster.

Thailand’s fascination with beauty has grown along with its economy, and the proof is on store shelves.
Thais spent about $695-million on cosmetics in 2003, a figure expected to grow by 18% last year.

Three of the country’s four bestselling magazines focus on women’s beauty, and the nation has built a reputation as one of the world’s top destinations for spa holidays.

“The beauty orientation in Thailand is very high. People use a lot of beauty creams and different products,” Seri notes.

But long before the age of Elle magazine, beautiful people were sought out as dancers and performers in the royal court, as well as for processions at religious festivals, experts say.

“Because of the belief in karma, how you turn out in this life is viewed as an expression of your merit in a previous life,” Cornwel-Smith says.

Beautiful people “are to some extent viewed as being the result of good merit in the past”.

But like elsewhere in the world, Thailand is experiencing a small but growing backlash against the pageants by people who say they force women into stereotypical roles.

Several women’s rights advocates in Thailand say the pageants encourage girls to rely on their looks rather than their brains to get by in life.

“They should concentrate on succeeding in their studies, finding a good job and other important things in life that are more important than looking after their bodies and winning beauty competitions,” says Supensri Puengkoksoong, who heads the Women’s Rights Protection and Friends of Women Foundation.

Suteera Vichitranonda, who heads the Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women, says the pageants encourage women to use their bodies to achieve their goals.

“It’s quite worrisome for girls looking for instant success,” she says.

Winners of Thai pageants do often end up with careers in show business.

Sukanya Tabonglek, who was Miss Jumbo Queen 2002, says the crown changed her life.

“Ever since winning, I have been on television. I got jobs on sitcoms,” she says.

Two Thai women have won the Miss Universe crown, and both have gone on to fame and fortune. Winners of smaller pageants often land modelling or acting contracts, which motivate more young girls to compete, Seri says.

All that aside, Cornwel-Smith says the search for beauty has simply become part of the culture.

“Thais just love to celebrate beauty,” he says.—Sapa-AFP

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