Crowning Glory

The makings of a modern beauty queen.
Story Daniella Sorrentino

The tuxedoed and sequined audience members watch as ten young, beautiful women await the judges’ decision. The audience erupts with excitement as the glamorous emcee smiles and coyly waves her all-important envelope. The girls stand in a row, their perfect poise and demure smiles camouflage the fact they have been on their feet and under pressure since early that morning. The contents of the envelope will reveal which contestant has successfully exemplified the modern Chinese woman in Vancouver. The traditional beauty pageant has almost become an anachronism in modern times. In an era of flagging interest, what makes the Miss Chinese Vancouver pageant so popular, and so successful?

crowning_glory_2
Kayi Cheung.

The 2005 pageant marked the 11th year that Fairchild Television of Vancouver has produced the show. Pageant organizer Vivian Louie believes the success of the Miss Chinese Vancouver pageant is due to its organization, its role as a charity fundraiser and its reputation within Vancouver’s Chinese community. The 1,000 audience members each pay $300 to attend the gala fundraising dinner and pageant, one of most anticipated parties on the Chinese social calendar. This year, the pageant will be aired live on the Internet to accommodate growing international interest. Together with a local television audience of about 150,000, the pageant is not lacking in people interested in the outcome of the glitzy event. The excitement doesn’t end after this one-night gala, as the newly crowned Miss Chinese Vancouver then competes for the Miss Chinese International crown. “The event has a solid background within the community because we have won four international titles [in the last five years]. Everybody has great expectations for the event and for the winner,” says Louie.

In Search Of The Perfect Blend Of East Meets West

The Miss Chinese Vancouver Pageant looks for contestants that preserve the icon of the idealized Asian woman, but with a western twist. “The ideal Miss Chinese Vancouver must be modern but embody Chinese culture and what the Chinese culture is all about,” says Louie. She explains that “traditional Chinese women are more subtle, more reserved.” Miss Chinese Vancouver must maintain this traditional image but also accommodate western cultural values. “She will be confident, know what she wants, but innately understand her part within Chinese culture. She is in Vancouver. It is east meets west. She must be both.” The young women, some as young as 18, enter the pageant with a wide variety of backgrounds and expectations, but the pageant producers demand the same level of professionalism from everyone. “At the beginning, we show them the packed calendar…and the complexity of the production,” explains Louie. “A lot enter just to have fun and then they see how much they have to learn.” Fairchild Television has a lot invested in the winner of the event. The winner signs a professional management contract, which requires her to attend public events and charity dinners to represent the pageant. More than a beauty queen, she becomes an ambassador for the producers, the Vancouver Chinese community, and potentially for the worldwide Chinese community.

crowning_glory_3
Karen Liu.

“At this level, all the girls are beautiful. It would be too hard to judge on beauty.”

It is seductive to imagine that behind the scenes, the ten exquisite contestants fall from the grace they exhibit on stage with jealousy, sabotage and cutthroat competition. But the girls attest that the pageant is a far cry from another episode of the popular TV show America’s Next Top Model. “You are concentrating so hard on not making a mistake that you don’t really think about yourself,” says 23-year-old Crystal Li. “It feels more like you are a part of team creating a show.” Performers, stage technicians, choreographers and the contestants all spend hundreds of hours preparing for the one night of the pageant. In order for the team to create a successful show, the contestants make many personal sacrifices. Contestant Katy Fan says it is not unusual for them to train 60 to 70 hours a week. “I have given up everything for this,” says Fan, “my school, my job – everything.”

Training And Time

Li agrees that one of the biggest sacrifices is time. “It requires a big time commitment, you give up a lot… you need to push yourself [as it is] physically demanding.” Susan Wong, another crown hopeful, believes the catwalk training is the most challenging, sometimes requiring the contestants to stand for hours in cold rooms, wearing only light dresses and high-heeled shoes. The intensive training prepares them for more than just the pageant. Lessons in public speaking, stage presence and personal communication provide the contestants with valuable skills that will assist them whether they walk away with the crown or not. “You’d be amazed at the transformation from when they first started,” says Louie. “They are so different now, their appearance, as well as personality. They have a lot more confidence now.” With hours of training in hair, make-up application and poise, Crystal Li notices that people on the street respond to her differently. As well, Li says her experience in the pageant helped her “communicate in different environments and be appropriate at all times.”

crowning_glory_1
Crystal Li.

Both the contestants and organizers disagree with claims that the pageant is all about physical beauty. “At this level, all the girls are beautiful. It would be too hard to judge on beauty,” says Li. What is equally as important, she explains, is “how you present yourself, how [clearly] you communicate, how comfortable you are and how sincerely you answer questions.” Louie confirms that the contest is not intended to be all about beauty. “I would like more people to understand the pageant better,” she says. “The pageant here [in Vancouver] has a very healthy image. Other pageants talk more about which girl is the most sexy, but here it is so much healthier.” After months of preparation and sacrifice, is participating in the pageant worth it? “Definitely,” says Li. “If any girl asked me, I would say ‘go for it.’ You do have to commit a lot of time, but you get so much out of it.” On the lavish stage, Crystal Li still has not moved, standing with one hand on her hip, the other held gracefully at her side. “The new Miss Chinese Vancouver for 2005 is…Number Ten, Crystal Li.” In the eyes of the pageant judges, Crystal Li is a perfectly beautiful combination of east meets west.