Finalists of the 36th Miss Bikini International World Contest pose for a photo at a beach in Qingdao, a coastal city of East China`s Shandong province, Sept 22, 2011. [Photo/China News Service]
Beauty pageants were once taboo, but they are now being embraced by local governments as a way to attract attention to local charms, report Raymond Zhou and Cheng Shuying.
Beauty may be only skin deep, but it can stimulate an economy. Or so say some local officials and pundits. Sanya, a city on the southern tip of Hainan Island, has hosted five Miss World pageants, as well as all of the New Silk Road model competitions in the new millennium. It has been reported that Sanya paid large sums for the rights to hold these events, but some say it was worth it: The resort hotel where the Miss World pageants took place brought in 100 million yuan ($15.6 million) in revenue during the first year and took the lead in both room rates and occupancy rates among the elbow-to-elbow luxury properties that line Yalong Bay. Foreign tourists have been swarming in.
It may be the same rationale that prompted the Southern Media Group to buy the license last year to organize Miss China pageants for the next five years, feeding winners to the Miss World event.
"The so-called beauty economy is a platform for generating attention because we have attracted a lot of eyeballs, which, if handled properly, can be transferred elsewhere where they can create value," said Wang Dong, secretary-general of the Committee of Miss World China Pageant 2011.
Wang revealed that wherever they stage events, local officials greet them with open arms.
"Local governments are aware of the power of cultural activities to boost their image," he said. "They have realized that the girls are not only gorgeous, but talented, and they are more willing to be involved."
This was a far cry from a few years ago when China toyed with the "bourgeois" game that focused on physical beauty.
In the 1980s, Guangzhou, the southern metropolis most receptive to Hong Kong influence, made two attempts to launch a beauty pageant. The first, in 1985, attracted 550 participants, who were put through an audition and a written test that included questions such as "Who is the current US president?" and "Who wrote Hamlet?"
Physical appearance accounted for only 15 percent of the score. Beauticians from Hong Kong were hired to "touch up" the crowd, who were unaware how much they were frowned upon by the establishment. In the end, press coverage was allowed only on the condition no images would appear.
Three years later, a local TV station took another stab this time televising the contests. There was a swimsuit segment, which was so controversial it caused a backlash. In the end, four contestants from the military had to be pulled out for the show to go on. One of the top winners - the beauty king - suffered such discrimination even one of his classmates wrote him a letter to express his disapproval and contempt.
To deflect criticism, the early pageants always included male participants even though nobody paid them much attention. Another strategy was to call the contests anything but beauty pageants. Sometimes it was to select fashion models or television personalities.
The 1990s saw beauty contests gradually accepted as long as they adopted an alias. The criticisms that they objectified women still lingered. The All-China Women`s Federation issued a rare non-endorsement, and a Peking University female student stood up against "treating women as ornaments and designing every standard from the aesthetic perspective of the male".
By the new millennium, beauty pageants no longer aroused grimaces among college students. Even women from top schools would jump at chances to become fashion models, some with so much bravado that it would make their predecessors blush. By 2003, the year Miss World descended on Sanya for its final rounds, the word "beauty pageant" had lost its connotation of decadence.
In 2007, when Zhang Zilin became the first Chinese to win an international beauty competition - Miss World in this case - nobody showed any displeasure. As a matter of fact, she was later called on to star in a national image campaign that included a starry roster of government-sanctioned celebrities.
Milestones in China`s path toward beauty pageants:
While Miss Hong Kong could well be the benchmark in star-making power of beauty pageants across China, not to say clout and sleaze, China has slowly gone from denying any interest to finally falling head over heels.
1946: Miss Hong Kong contest started. TVB took over in 1973 and turned it into a television behemoth.
1985: Guangzhou Communist League Committee launched a competition euphemistically named "Youthful Beauty in Goat City".
1989: Guangzhou Television Station initiated "Beauty in Flower City", outwardly to select candidates for commercials and advertisements. (Goat City and Flower City are nicknames for Guangzhou, capital of Guangzhou province.)
1989: New Silk Road model contest was started. It was called a costume performance but patterned after Hong Kong-based Miss Asia Pageant, and later it evolved into China`s best-known and most prestigious event for professional fashion models.
1993: College student Gao Jing wrote an article titled "Peking University girls reject beauty contests", which was published on the front page of Beijing Youth Daily.
1994: All-China Women`s Federation issued an official stance: it does not support, endorse, organize or participate in beauty contests.
1994: Pan Tao, then 22 and winner of a city-level contest, overcame great difficulties and traveled to South Africa to compete for Miss World. She had only two sets of formal wear with her.
2001: Li Bing became the first to be formally entered in a world competition. She finished fourth in Miss World.
2003: Miss World was held in China. The word "beauty pageant" eased into official usage.
2007: Zhang Zilin, a professional model, was crowned Miss World, the first ever Chinese to win such a title on a global stage.
2010: Zhang Zilin appeared in the nation`s image advertising spot, signaling a further acceptance of beauty pageants by the government.
Contestants of the China finals of the 61st Miss World pageant during a sports skills test in Wuxi city, East China`s Jiangsu province, Aug 31, 2011. [Photo by Zhan Denggui / For China Daily]
It is not that the current crop of contestants are not aware of their role when judged by others, but that they are more focused on the positive outcomes of their winning.
Liu Chen, champion of this year`s China final of the 61st Miss World pageant, is not afraid she may be perceived as a wallflower.
"It starts with physical appearance, which is what both men and women will first notice in you, but then they will find out whether you are loving and smart," she says.
Yu Weiwei, second runner-up, is more blunt: "I don`t see it as men cherry-picking women. This is not like emperors selecting concubines. If you don`t know what you want, you may feel hurt being culled and winnowed. But if you know, you`re your own master. And if you adopt a feminist view, there is always Mr. World."
According to Wang Dong, the audience for beauty pageants has a male-female ratio of 54-46, which means women have a lot of say in the affair and therefore would not allow potential beauty queens to toe the male chauvinist line.
Yu says she wants to help others, such as hungry children. She comes from a poor village and raised 300,000 yuan to help victims of a mudslide in her hometown.
"After I took part in the pageant, I turned my looks from an adjective into a verb because there are so many things I can do now."
Even though she did not get the crown, what she did learn through the process was enough to benefit her for life, she said.
"Whenever I appear in public, I`ll watch how I sit and speak. I suggest every girl try it once, it doesn`t matter if you win or not. Even an ugly duckling can transform into a swan."
Liu Chen feels she is closer to her career goal of becoming a performer in musical theater now that she was crowned a beauty queen.
The 25-year-old started entering pageants at the age of 17.
"Both my parents and my teachers encouraged me. I learned how to have poise and how to use makeup, but the biggest thing I learned is that my biggest opponent is myself."
"Liu Chen combines traditional Chinese grace with a global vision," said Wang Dong. "She specializes in musical theater, which infuses her with Western culture."
But the overlapping of model contests and beauty pageants is coming to an end.
"Beauty pageants are designed to spruce up a city`s image and boost its tourism while model contests are the best way for talent scouting for the fashion industry," said Li Xiaobai, chairman of the board for China New Silk Road Models Organization.
In the same spirit, Wang Dong wants to extract beauty shows from model contests by de-emphasizing height and put a spotlight on talent. Those are the qualities that can be conveyed by the television camera.
"Pageants have become homogenized and few contestants can leave a lasting impression. But talent and personality can differentiate one from another," he says.
And the more people are glued to the screen, the more economic value will ultimately materialize from it. That`s when beauty is not only visually glitzy, but financially gratifying.
Second runner-up Yu Weiwei (L) and runner-up Li Dong`e (R) pose for photos at the China final of the 61st Miss World pageant in Wuxi city, East China`s Jiangsu province, Sept 10, 2011. [Photo provided to China Daily]
Now that the selection of pretty unmarried women has become the norm, other forms of beauty pageants have also emerged, some which have been blessed by the public, while others have encountered varying degrees of disapproval similar to what regular pageants went through.
In 2010, Shanghai unveiled China`s first pregnant women`s beauty contest. Women with a growing tummy were traditionally not considered elegant and were often hidden from public view, but the new generation of expectant mothers are so proud of their anticipated status they often flaunt their expectant images online. These elicit waves of hoorays and more photos of proud pregnancies.
Fudan University professor Gu Xiaoming regards the acceptance of the pregnant body as an indication of progress and "awe for life itself".
A contest for senior citizens was started in 2004 by the China National Committee on Ageing in partnership with CCTV, the national television network. It drew 6,000 contestants from all walks of life, ranging in age from 55 to 91. They were tested on health knowledge and performance talent.
Children`s contests are popular with many parents but reproached by most educators for the competitive atmosphere and tinges of commercialism. Unlike adults` pageants, they almost always showcase talent in singing, dancing and speech, and imitating star singers and comedians gets the most applause. Critics call it "the stifling of innocence", but phrases such as "You`re eliminated" are banned to protect children.
A 12-year-old Uyghur boy named Alfa has won numerous titles at such events since 2003 and is now a frequent guest star on children`s shows. He is known for his cute looks and multiple talents.
Xiao Dai is the first Mr. Gay China. But he did not win the title, rather it was conferred on the 25-year-old Xinjiang man last year. The contest, which was to be a small party with a dozen participants, was called off when an unexpected media blitz brought unwanted official attention. An HIV/AIDS prevention activist attributed this to a lack of consistency in government policy towards homosexuality. Xiao Dai entered the Mr. Gay World competition in Oslo, Norway, and finished fourth.