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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Bikinis and TED Talks: Can This All-Asian Competition Truly Disrupt Beauty Pageants?

Kathy Zhou never considered herself the type of woman who would enter a beauty pageant. But this May, the Pinterest engineer found herself among a cluster of young professionals in a San Francisco coworking space, ready to be converted to the gospel of pageantry.

They had gathered for an Imagine Talks forum, one of the TED-style leadership panels organized by the Miss Asian Global and Miss Asian America pageant—a competition that hopes to remake the rules of pageantry into a culturally rewarding, even feminist, event.

By offering workshops on subjects like women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship, MAG, as the pageant is often called, aims to transform the beauty pageant into a useful platform for its participants; by including only Asian women, the organizers say, it’s helping contestants think about their ethnicity as something to be celebrated. This talk, for instance, was themed around the subject “girl boss” and included an all-Asian panel of women: a sex-toy mogul, a skin-care specialist, a community activist, a marketer, and two former beauty queens.

“When in doubt, think like a mediocre white man,” the sex-toy mogul, Ti Chang, encouraged the audience. Laughs erupted when Nisha Baxi, a director of marketing at Salesforce, mimicked her father’s Indian accent to note his wisdom: “Fake it till you make it, beta.” Wearing bright, Barbie-doll-pink heels, Crystal Lee—a Stanford graduate, cofounder of a Dropbox-like online vault, and the first runner-up to Miss America 2014—spoke of how her male colleagues told her to omit her pageant experience from LinkedIn. “It doesn’t look good,” she recalled them saying.

The directors of MAG, however, hope their pageant can serve as a résumé builder. Held in the Bay Area for the last 33 years, MAG is structured like an ordinary beauty pageant—contestants compete on an optional talent, cultural attire, evening gowns, a Q&A round called “Platform and Poise,” and a swimsuit division bearing the moniker “Form and Fitness.” Organizers and participants argue that MAG disrupts the sexy standard of Miss USA or Miss Universe, combining instead the wholesome goodness of Miss America with professional achievement, which organizers say is important for them to be taken seriously.

But, yes, there’s still a swimsuit competition. And looks matter. The organizers screen head shots and body shots along with résumés, platform statements, and an optional video showcasing talent, to see who can “deliver ROI,” as Francis Kong, one of the pageant’s advisers, told me, adding that MAG girls are the “prettiest smart girls,” or the “smartest pretty girls.” In the weeks leading up to the pageant, volunteers train the "delegates," MAG’s preferred term for contestants, in the right and wrong ways to approach investors who sponsor their participation. This system is designed to reinforce contestants’ networking skills and, above all, field “good” representatives—women who can stand for themselves as well as for an entire continent. That’s why, instead of calling itself a beauty pageant, MAG prefers the term "cultural pageant."

Crowning women with visibility and responsibility, MAG organizers hope to prepare its entrants to navigate the challenges of their professional lives. Asians and Asian-Americans are ubiquitous within tech companies, their food is appreciated by white CEOs, their homelands replicated by ethnoburbs like South San Francisco, Fremont, and Daly City. And yet their career trajectory is limited. According to a 2017 report, Asians are the least likely racial group to be promoted for leadership and management positions in Silicon Valley, a phenomenon nicknamed the “bamboo ceiling.” The report also found that race, more than gender, remained a more significant factor when it came to career advancement. By providing a place where women are celebrated for the things that might be a hindrance in Silicon Valley—their femaleness, their Asianness, and yes, maybe also their beauty—MAG organizers believe they are cultivating a cohort that is empowered to break into leadership.

But in the era of #MeToo—when Miss America has decided to eliminate its swimsuit competition, and Donald Trump’s 19-year reign over the Miss Universe empire remains linked to his sexual-assault allegations—beauty pageants remain a familiar event with a dubious aim: parading women’s bodies, even if in tandem with their minds, for judgment. Though MAG supporters argue their event is different, if only by the nature of the ethnicities it celebrates, the question remains whether an event based on the most patriarchal trope—the beauty pageant—can truly offer something close to the buzzy empowerment it proselytizes.

At the panel, at least one woman was convinced: “How do you talk openly about self-doubt? How do you overcome it?” The questions came from Zhou, the Pinterest engineer. She had already submitted her application to this year’s pageant, the first one she had ever considered joining.

It was Rose Chung’s love of pageants that lead her to found Miss Asian Global. Growing up, Chung dreamed of being crowned Miss Chinatown in the annual pageant hosted by San Francisco’s Chinese Chamber of Commerce. To Chung, the honor affirmed intelligence, culture, and leadership potential. Winning, which she did in 1981, ushered Chung into a world of previously inaccessible community events and the great networks of family associations in San Francisco’s Chinatown. She grew up there with an immigrant widow mother who didn’t vocally support Chung’s pageantry, but nevertheless gossiped about her daughter’s success with fellow seamstress workers. As Chung participated in and organized more pageants and events, she became a fixture in the Chinatown community.

In 1985, an acquaintance requested that Chung produce a pageant for an Asian arts festival to be held in Santa Clara. The demographics of the Bay Area were changing, and he wanted to spread his business to Asian-Americans beyond Chinatown. A pan-Asian arts festival would be a chance to unite different ethnicities, he believed, and the activities around the pageant—signing up sponsors, selling tickets—would attract the broader market.

That year, Chung created the first Miss Asian California pageant at the Santa Clara County fairgrounds. By 1991—around the time other pan-ethnic pageants like Miss Black USA in Washington, DC, and Miss US Latina in Miami were emerging—it had a new name: Miss Asian America. As the years went on, interest in competing grew outside the US, in places like Vietnam, Hong Kong, Canada, and China. (The pageant officially rebranded itself Miss Asian Global and Miss Asian America in 2012, to expand the pageant’s market outside the country and offer non-US citizens living in the US a chance to enter the pageant.)

Pageants for communities of color have existed since the 1930s, says Afia Ofori-Mensa, a professor at Oberlin College who teaches the popular course How to Win a Beauty Pageant. They emerged as vehicles for immigrant communities of varying backgrounds to celebrate a unified vision of their heritage. The pageants would also draw local business and—for the Chinese-American community in particular—quell Cold War anxiety by displaying a pointedly feminine version of Chinese-ness. “Because femininity is considered to be nonthreatening when it comes to gender, beauty pageants have proven, in many cases, to be a way that people perform identity,” Ofori-Mensa says.

But from its start, onlookers viewed beauty contests with a critical eye, even as some tried to subvert the tradition. In the 1880s, when P. T. Barnum would put on beauty contests alongside traveling circus shows, “respectable” white women shunned the spectacle of being judged in public, a process that too closely resembled a slave auction. By the 1900s, as women agitated for the right to vote, pageantry—performative public displays of sketches and processions, complete with sashes and titles—became ways to showcase the values of the suffragists. By the 1960s, the birth of a new technology—television—had boosted a once-small pageant called Miss America to the top of our cultural conversation. Viewership skyrocketed as TV sets became a household staple.

And angst was brewing. On the night of the 1968 Miss America pageant, a group of women gathered on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. They threw their bras, girdles, false eyelashes, and other items they considered physical manifestations of the patriarchy into a “freedom trash can”—to protest what they saw as the pageant’s inherent misogyny and objectification of women. They didn’t actually burn their bras (they didn’t have a fire permit), but many consider this “bra-burning” event as the kickoff of the second wave of feminism.

That same night on the boardwalk, a group of local NAACP chapters put on the first Miss Black America pageant. It was their own protest—against the prevailing whiteness of pageants. Though Miss America had dropped its rule that contestants must be “of good health and of the white race” in 1940, it would take three decades before a black woman even competed. To this day, the Miss America pageant has crowned only nine black women and two Asian women as its beauty queen.

Though Asian pageants don’t have the reach of national events like Miss America, the attention accorded to MAG winners enhances their reputation. Every competition produces a court of winners, including Miss Asian America, Miss Asian Global, Miss Asian STEM, Miss Asian Talent, Miss Asian Social Media, and Miss Asian Imagine Talks—the latter crown for a woman who raises at least $10,000 in sponsoring and advertising. The winners are expected to appear at a slew of community events, often designed to draw attention to Asian-operated businesses and nonprofits in Asian neighborhoods in the Bay Area.

But the Bay Area is not known for being a pageant hub like Los Angeles, Dallas, and Atlanta. And as the years go on, MAG delegates are becoming a bit less pageanty. In recent years, half to two-thirds of them have no prior pageant experience, Kong says. These women are not necessarily trying to get on the pageant circuit; they’re searching for something else.

“Over here, over here!” Flashes of DSLRs and smartphones popped all over the room.

The banquet hall of the Filipino restaurant in South San Francisco was buzzing as local media waited for the presentation of this year’s delegates. Not all the photographers at the press conference appeared professional—a few men brought their cameras to MAG as a hobby; several women tell me they have a code to communicate any discomfort to pageant organizers, should it arise. But the delegates were focused on adapting to their new way of life, where every moment begets a photo opportunity.

The delegates were also eager to network. Eranthe Mitome, who owns a milk tea shop in San Jose, wanted exposure to reach future customers. Jaclyn Mariano, who had lost a parent to the war in Iraq, wanted to publicize the nonprofit Gold Star Families. Lily Li wanted to level up her public speaking, in anticipation of a future as a politician. Darae Jun, a PhD candidate in microbiology at UC Berkeley, wanted connections for her future startup.

Though pageants are supposedly about beauty, behind the scenes, delegates say physical appearance is only one aspect of a broader package: It’s about confidence, capital (the financial and social kind), and connections. Alongside weeks of training in how to walk and talk, contestants are expected to find sponsors to offset entry fees, attend pageant-related events, and meet friends of friends of friends and business contacts. For some of these women, these ethnic circles serve as a valuable line of support.

Betty Hsu, a well-regarded pageant coach based in the Bay Area, tells me many of her clients want help with the glamorous aspects of pageantry because they don’t have a chance to play up their beauty in their work life, where they might be judged as incompetent. The other soft skills she teaches often translate directly to her other clients in the business world. Hsu also consults for engineers turned VCs and people who do corporate finance work. “They need to utilize the life skills that, all the time, we do in the beauty pageant,” she says, like how to walk into a room, how to negotiate with clients, and how to get people to like you.

During the press conference, the delegates were called to the stage to introduce themselves. Standing in a line, their collective image was dizzyingly uniform: short scarlet-red cocktail dresses and 4-inch-high nude heels. Although MAG is pan-Asian, most of its contestants throughout the years, including this year, have been East Asian—mostly Chinese.

They each came to the mic and presented themselves. Many of them matched their dresses with a bold red lip. After that, the women stepped off the platform and arranged themselves on the dance floor. Meghan Trainor’s song “No Excuses” started to play from the speakers, and they began to move in sync, swaying their arms and sashaying their hips in a choreographed routine.

“Have you lost your mind? / Open up your eyes. Huh! /
(Someone else) You must have confused me, confused me with (someone else) /
You must have confused me, confused me with (someone else) /
There ain’t no excuses, excuses, babe …

Most of them were aware, to some degree, that with the way they were dolled up and dancing they were playing into the stereotype of the playful pageant girl and the routine fetishization of Asian women. But they weren’t focused on these stereotypes as they danced; they were trying to remember the moves.

Sophia Ng, a licensed therapist, told me the caliber of her pageant sisters upended her view that pageants attract ditzes. She had never imagined she would enter a beauty pageant but had heard of erotic capital, a controversial theory popularized by sociologist Catherine Hakim that states that women can gain an advantage over men by using a combination of their looks, liveliness, sex appeal, and social skills to network and get ahead. “If it is my face and how I look that gets my foot in the door, as long as I don’t compromise my values, that’s OK with me,” Ng said.

“In any industry, pageant or no pageant, there is a system in place, and there is a way to play the game,” she added.

Asian pageants often perpetuate additional stereotypes, according to Nhi Lieu, a scholar who has studied Asian pageants. The woman who wins is almost always defined by her professional and educational qualifications, Lieu says. “It has an element of built-in model-minority success.”

To qualify for the pageant, delegates must have been born a female, be between the ages of 17 and 28, claim at least a quarter Asian ancestry, and have never married or given birth. (Only about half of the applicants are invited to compete.) This year’s entrants paid registration fees of either $1,000 (if they were local) or $800 (if nonlocal). All the money goes back to the pageant: renting the theater for the show, booking the women’s hotel during pageant week (they stay together for the last week of rehearsals and speaker visits), and ordering food.

To pay these fees, each delegate is encouraged to find individuals or businesses as sponsors. To make these connections, MAG emphasizes approaching people you know. But only half of this year’s delegates have sponsors; many tell me this is because, as working professionals, it’s easier to sponsor themselves. Still, MAG organizers teach that the process of signing up sponsors has direct applications outside the pageant world, especially in Silicon Valley.

It’s a strategy roughly four years in the making, since Chung drafted two men, Vincent Ma and Francis Kong, to join the pageant’s board. She tasked them with making the pageant more professionally oriented and relevant. The Bay Area was changing, and Chung was wary of the negative national conversation surrounding beauty pageants.

Ma, a 14-year volunteer at MAG, became president; Kong, a medical professional who also runs a mentoring agency, Edge Interns, became the mentorship adviser. MAG’s board established the Asian America Foundation, a nonprofit, to support the organization of events like Imagine Talks—which Edge Interns sponsors along with the foundation.

At the judges’ reception at a hotel in South San Francisco, just a few days before pageant night, eight judges—four men and four women—posed for photos with the delegates in a sunlit conference room. This time, the women wore white cocktail dresses with their nude heels and performed to Meghan Trainor like pros. The routine was becoming a little tiring, but their mastery of the choreography was essential; this will be their dance for the swimsuit competition.

The delegates ducked out of the room as reception attendees indulged in jackfruit, coconut, and ube ice creams supplied by one of the sponsors. Many of them traded their dresses for athleisure, including matching thin, blue hoodies the color of Twitter’s logo. These gifts are the same hoodies they wore on field trips earlier this week—one a tour of a local news station, ABC 7 News, another of Facebook. Thanks to her ties to the company, Miss Asian Global 2017, Trisha Bantigue, was able to help coordinate their Facebook visit, even though large groups are typically difficult to bring to campus.

Bantigue, a recruiter at Facebook, had first made inroads for her job when she found herself on the company’s float at this year’s Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco. She was invited to sit on the float because of her MAG win.

At Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, where the pageant was held on the evening of August 4, a wave of applause announces the proceedings as the women parade onstage in their cultural costumes. Personal twists on traditional dress are en vogue. Lexy Anderson splays open her Japanese tunic to reveal an American-style gown, an homage to her mixed heritage. Kimberly Tom dons a warriorlike costume reminiscent of Wonder Woman; she brandishes wide yellow fans with it to represent her Chinese ancestry. Kim Huynh explains her sleeveless, sparkling evening gown, which matches a face-framing wide-brimmed hat: “Tonight, I am so proud to represent the Vietnamese-American community of the Bay Area, with a bit of old Hollywood glamour.”

A double major in music and statistics from UC Berkeley, Vanessa Guo introduces herself by demonstrating her vocal range. She reveals that she is now pursuing a master's degree in finance at MIT. The audience gasps and murmurs in approval.

The kitschy display of some of these entrances can be forgiven; the delegates are proud of their distinctive identities. After getting to know many of the women, I too feel excited for them.

The rest of the show is more obviously Western. The delegates clap their hands and bounce to Meghan Trainor’s song at the start of the swimsuit competition. Sarongs circle their bellies, but they strip off this modesty as they walk briskly across the stage, their swimsuits secured with butt glue. Most of them are thin. The thicker, curvier ones among them are far from fat. Ever since the press conference two-and-a-half weeks earlier, many appear to have toned up or slimmed down.

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Jessica ChouDelegates and past winners get ready backstage before the Miss Asian Global pageant.

Some of the women who competed for the first time tell me they never thought they could wear a bikini in front of hundreds of people, including their families. If they can conquer the swimsuit fear, the theory goes, they can do anything.

The rest of the public spectacle masks the personal transformation the women insist they’ve experienced; onstage, the effortlessness of some of the performances conceals their hard work. The talents showcase a number of classical piano and singing performances—including one in Cantonese—as well as hip hop and jazz dance routines. A former dancer for the San Francisco 49ers offers a cheerleader-inspired performance. One woman plays the piano in the same dress she wore to propose to her boyfriend—yet you would only know that if she told you.

As the the judges announce the winners, I feel anticipation within myself—I’m nervous, sad, and a little angry that many of the women striving to prove how special they are will lose, even if they universally acclaim MAG. Several women are crowned various titles: Miss Asian Talent, Miss Asian Congeniality, Miss Asian Second Princess, Miss Asian Third Princess, Miss Asian Entrepreneurship, Miss Asian Imagine Talks, and so on. They pose for pictures with the departing queens and, when applicable, their sponsors.

The two women announced as Miss Asian America and Miss Asian Global are the cohort’s two tallest and most forthright onstage. Sophia Ng stared straight at the audience when speaking of her own experience with suicidal depression, to emphasize destigmatizing mental health issues within the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community. When she was asked what men can learn from women, Uchka Jimsee responded in a tone suggesting the answer was blindingly obvious: “They can learn how to think?” The audience roared.

Ng, crowned Miss Asian America, says MAG is her first and last pageant. At 17, Jimsee, Miss Asian Global, is MAG’s youngest-ever winner. Her mother had entered her into MAG without Jimsee knowing, but she now thinks she may compete in more pageants.

After the crowning, the crowd filters out of its seats—some to take more photos of the women, others to the Chinese banquet after-party at a restaurant on San Francisco’s Clement Street. There, karaoke enthusiasts will serenade the crowd with renditions of “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Pretty Woman,” and “My Girl.” Some in the audience will recount the outcome of the pageant; they feel some contestants were cheated. “It’s always the tall girls who win,” one attendee tells me. A losing contestant remarks that as long as swimsuit and evening gown competitions are ranked with the same weight as an interview, there will always be a certain kind of winner.

At the Herbst Theatre, one audience member—a 26-year-old user-experience designer from Beijing named Grace Xiong—sees a woman wearing a green sequined qipao and long white gloves standing behind her. The beautiful woman is Jasmine Lee, the reigning Miss Chinatown, who also competed in MAG in 2012.

When she learns that Lee is a software engineer, Xiong warms to the conversation. Sometimes she gets so exhausted with the hustle of Silicon Valley, but it’s important to network with women like yourself. When Xiong is feeling low or needs a pick-me-up, she wears a tiara she purchased online. She’s wearing it tonight, and after watching the pageant and talking with Lee, she’s now considering competing next year. “Every woman should have the chance to feel like a princess,” she says.

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