Catwalking to self-discovery

Updated: 2013-09-06 12:09

By Liu Lian (China Daily)

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Beauty pageants can fit all the stereotypes that the media and movies have made them out to be, but many of the 14 finalists in the Miss Chinese New York contest found otherwise, reports Liu Lian from New York.

When Jennifer Sun, 18, a high school senior, signed up for the Miss Chinese New York beauty pageant in April, she had never worn high heels.

"Now, not only can she move down a runway in heels, she can wear a bikini in public and present herself well like a lady," teased Michelle Kaszuba, 24, who was a fellow finalist in the pageant and who recently graduated from Hunter College with a double major in psychology and theater.

"Pageant was not really my thing," Sun said with a smile. "It's my mom's idea. She thought it would help me become more social and outgoing."

She's not alone.

 Catwalking to self-discovery

Maggie Zhang, winner of the 2013 Miss New York Chinese Beauty Pageant, is crowned by Cynthia Zhang, winner of the 2010 contest. Xie Wei / for China Daily

Many of the other 13 finalists in the 3 1/2 month-long pageant that ended on Aug 17 at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut said in interviews that beyond the makeup sessions and the never-ending rehearsals, the pageant was a journey of self-discovery and transformation.

"The pageant taught me to be more confident and made me more aware of who I really am," said Nina Zhang, 24, a Columbia University graduate who works as a business consultant. "Growing up in a Chinese family, we all have our own version of tiger moms. We often do things to please our parents, but this time I am doing something to improve myself and to make myself happy."

"It's about being confident in your own skin," said Maggie Zhang, 21, an economics and sociology major at Vassar College. "We learned how to sit like a lady. We also learned how to be a better communicator and how to present ourselves more effectively. These qualities would be tremendously useful for me in the future."

As the pageant moved closer to that final night at the casino's ballroom, Crystal Zhang, 17, the youngest finalist, recalled what Jason Kong, this year's executive director, said:

"He said that he would now officially call us ladies. Beforehand we were only girls, beautiful girls."

Opening number

An audience of 2,500 people, mostly Chinese, some of whom had traveled by bus from New York City and Boston, gathered at 1 am in the 38,000 square-foot ballroom at the casino in the foothills of southeastern Connecticut in Uncasville, 130 miles east of New York, to cheer on the finalists.

The lights were dimmed when all the contestants performed their opening dance, Fire. In red bikini tops and short hula skirts in red, yellow and blue stripes, they swayed forward, backward and sideways, mimicking the image of fire that was projected on three screens at the rear of the stage.

"The opening number is not just about dancing, it's about confidence," said Kim Wang, the pageant's producer. "It's a collaborated effort to strike a first impression in front of the judges. You want everyone to look equally good."

Michelle Sor, who was in charge of training sessions for the finalists, agreed.

"I often told the girls that nobody is perfect in every aspect. A beauty pageant does not only judge contestants on beauty. It's the entire package including the teamwork in their presentation," Sor said.

Two and one-half months prior to that opening dance number, the names of the 14 finalists were announced at the semi-final contest on May 31. Then came intensive training with instructors on striding the cat walk, dancing and singing at the Sheraton La Guardia East Hotel, one of the pageant's sponsors, in Flushing, Queens, home of the second-largest Chinatown in New York City.

Catwalking to self-discovery

"We started five days a week, four to five hours each night, but later on the camp became daily," said Sor. "All the girls called me 'Mom Michelle' as we spent so much time together, in smiles and tears."

Most of the finalists at the camp were students, but Nina Zhang did not have school holidays to focus solely on training.

"I had to leave early from my office in Midtown every day and take the train to Flushing for training. Usually I wouldn't be able to come back to my apartment in Stuyvesant town until midnight," said Zhang. "It was strenuous but worth every bit of it."

Friendship was an often mentioned word among many of the finalists when they recalled the camp.

"I definitely made a lot of friends throughout the process and some of them, I believe, would last for a life time," said Kaszuba.

"I had imagined the competition among girls can be catty," said Maggie Zhang, "but the whole process was rather friendly and supportive. We learned so much from each other going through months of intensive drillings."

As portrayed in the media and films, catfights can be the nitty-gritty of beauty pageants. Have they been part of the Miss New York Chinese beauty pageant?

"Yes and no," said Wang, who has been the producer of the pageant for more than a decade. "It happened in the past that one girl stained another's bikini top to make her look bad on stage; one intentionally stepped onto another's toes. Nothing like that happened this year."

Sor recalled when the training started.

"In the beginning, quite a few of them were often late or absent for sessions, and they didn't think it was a big deal," she said. "They are kids born in the '80s and '90s, very spoiled by their parents. As a mom myself, I found them very messy and disorganized. Some didn't want to talk to others at all, and some were rather cocky. They would say that they came for competition, not to make friends."

It took a lot of pep talks and individual attention to make the girls realize that they were not competing on physical appearance, but on the scope of one's knowledge, ability, interest and education, said Sor.

"I have done a fair amount of scolding and encouragement, like a mom," said she, "I told them that the winners are only a few, but the experience of the pageant and the friendship you make will be with you for the rest of your life. Interpersonal skills are very important to your personal growth, which will be beneficial in the long run."

Toward the end of the training camp, the girls really changed, said Sor. "They showed up on time and treated others with respect."

'Team bonding'

In early July, the 14 finalists suspended their training and went to China, spending two weeks in three cities, Xi'an, Chongqing and Hefei, where they attended game shows and sports entertainment competitions at local TV channels. In Chongqing, the girls played swamp soccer, a spin-off of the television series Sasuke, with the team of the 2013 Miss Chongqing beauty pageant.

"It's like two kids, if you leave them alone in one room, they will fight. But when a common opponent shows up, they will become allies," said William Yip, chairman of the 2013 pageant and one of the three shareholders of the pageant until this year. He sold his shares to Everlyn Ho who owns beauty salons and a make-up school. "So we sent them out to China and let them compete against local pageant teams."

"When one fell to the ground, another would come in quickly to help her get up or fill in her place to go on with the game. I thought our girls played really hard, tough, and aggressive, demonstrating their strengths as a team," said Yip. "It was a pivotal moment for the team bonding."

Sherly Chen, 18, said it was her first overseas trip without her mother.

"The first day when we were in China, I cried a lot, probably also due to jet lag," she said. "I missed my mom a lot, saying I want to quit and go back home. I became better the second day. I thought I would not give up easily, so I went on and had fun with other girls. The trip has made me more independent. "

Yip said over the 10 years of the pageant, organizers became aware of the jealousy factor among some contestants, and they have tried to incorporate different programs to contain it.

"But we are not professional pageant organizers who dedicate full time to managing the event," he said. "Also as the pageant is held once a year, it took us a few years to figure out the right formula."

"The beginning was rough," explained Sherly Chen. "I didn't get along with some of the girls. I thought it's a competition. I went to compete, not to make friends." And then she added: "By the end, I felt I'd gained 13 sisters. "

The Miss New York Chinese Beauty Pageant started in 1993. Three partners took over the pageant's contract from another firm in 2002. The partners were Yip, who owns a ground transportation business, Jason Kong, a mobile service business owner, and Eric Yuen, the owner of Cypress Advertising.

"There were many pageants in the Chinese community around the time when we started," said Yip, "but we proved to be the most serious and the fairest. The first year alone we spent $300,000, most of which was self-financed. The community took notice, and within the next two or three years, most of the other Chinese pageants faded out. The expense of the pageant got balanced out in the third year through sponsorship and advertising, but it's never been our intention to make money. The three of us have our own businesses."

China trip

The pageant has five parts: initial screening, the semi-final, the visit to China, the talent competition and the final.

Contestants paid $150 to enter, $450 if they made it to the semi-final, and $3,000 for the final. The $3,000 final entry fee primarily paid for the trip to China, including airfares, dinning and accommodations. The training camp was complimentary and its costs were offset by sponsors like the Mohegan Sun Casino.

The pageant selects New York City's representative to the Miss Chinese International Beauty Pageant held in Hong Kong each year, the winner of which lands a contract with TVB. Some of the past winners of the Miss New York Chinese beauty pageant have gone on to pursue successful entertainment careers, notably Michelle Ye and Fala Chen.

Yip said the pageant started sending the finalists to China in 2011, and it was an immediate success.

"Chinese local TV channels greeted them like celebrities," said Yip. "The trip also gave exposure to the finalists and provided more outlets for them to perform in front of cameras. We have recommended our finalists in the past to commercials or TV shows, and some of them landed roles. More exposure adds more opportunities. In the end, the titles do matter but not that much; every girl is a champion."

Seven of this year's 14 finalists were born overseas with Mandarin or Chinese dialect only spoken at home.

"It was my first time to go to the three Chinese cities," said Sun who was born in Canada, "the trip definitely opened my eyes. I saw the differences between me and my peers growing up in China, but I saw more of what we share in common."

Not every girl is aspiring to become a star, said Sor, adding, "They are very practical about their goals."

Tracy Li, 21, for example, is very shy and quiet, and does not enjoy talking, said Sor. "She told me that she knew very well her weaknesses. Growing up, she was never the girl in the spotlight. She does not sing well, nor can she dance well. She never thought she would win the pageant but signed up nonetheless, because she wanted to improve on her weak points by pushing her boundaries."

"Sometimes we saw her in tears in the middle of her performance," recalled Sor. "So tender-hearted as she is, she was afraid she was not doing well enough that she would disappoint us. But we were so moved by how hard she tried."

Parental support

Li's mom met with the pageant's organizers recently, said C.K. Tong, media director of the contest, and thanked everyone for how much the competition and the training camp had affected her daughter. "'Tracy has become much more open and lively, the mom contended,'" Tong said.

For Maggie Zhang, total parental support for entering the pageant was not there.

"Mom has always been supportive," she said, "but my dad was skeptical. He constantly warned me that outer beauty does not last, which I agree with. But why do we have to pit beauty against intelligence? We can achieve both."

She said he eventually warmed to her point of view.

"He called often about my progress once he was convinced that my point on beauty is not blinded to one side," said Zhang, "sometimes he felt more anxious about winning or losing than I did."

Zhang's father was in Shanghai on the Saturday night of the final judging.

She said he called her the next morning and asked the results of the pageant.

"I won the title," she told him.

Disbelieving what he had heard, she said he then asked: "Is the pageant legit?"

Then he congratulated her: "I am happy that you are happy. I congratulate you with great respect that you are after what you want."

She said he reminded her that she is a full time student, "that he expects good grades from school, that I should be aware of my duty and responsibility as a student."

And then she said he added:

"Don't let this go to your head."

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 Catwalking to self-discovery

Maggie Zhang, center, is congratulated by other finalists after being crowned during the Miss New York Chinese Beauty Pageant at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut. Liu Lian / China Daily

(China Daily USA 09/06/2013 page20)