This story first appeared in Danwei on August 28, 2011, and is republished here, with slight edits, with permission. This year’s Miss Universe contest will air live from Las Vegas this Sunday, November 26. China will be represented by Roxette Qiu 邱蔷.
The band was playing “Cocaine” as the small entourage entered, but it was doubtful that any of them would ever touch the stuff: These were international representatives of China, “athletes” in a land of luxury, competing for fresh spoils.
After years of half-organized humiliations, the country is determined to seize an unusual prize this September: Miss Universe, a controversial trophy offered by a U.S. organization headed by the failed presidential candidate and China-basher, Donald Trump. [Editor’s Note: It was a very different time in 2011.]
The stiffly embossed invitations to the after-party offered the opportunity to “mingle with stars, celebrities, and Beijing’s elite,” but despite the dozens desperate for a moment, or ideally a picture, next to one, none of those at the center of this civilized scrum was remotely famous (yet). They were finalists from this year’s Miss Universe China, and the grand pageant — an impressively well organized if dutifully dull event in Beijing’s MasterCard Center [now called the Cadillac Arena] — had just finished.
For a country that regards itself as traditional and conservative, China has beauty contests seemingly every month: Miss World is now regularly held in Sanya, a seaside city on the island province of Hainan, which is also home to the local government’s Bikini Beauty Contest every July. Shanghai has its Miss Bikini of the Universe contest, while Chengdu is due to host this year’s Miss International Beauty Pageant.
And there are countless more flesh parades at lesser-known provincial venues. Most are corrupt, casting-couch affairs, organized for nefarious reasons, such as PR for a provincial official’s new (illegal) golf course in unglamorous Shanxi Province, in the case of one described to me recently. Others are not so welcome: Mr. Gay China was treated to an embarrassing police raid in front of world media in 2009, and the competition hasn’t been heard from since.
But if televised extravaganzas such as the 2008 Olympics demonstrate how the Chinese state is able to orchestrate world events to its exact specifications, Miss Universe can be viewed as the private sector’s ambition to do the same — albeit with government approval, on a smaller scale, and with a blizzard of confetti replacing the climactic fireworks.
The cast list at Miss Universe China 2011 was eclectic, unusual, and — as the invitation curtly reminded — “elite.” We had judge Tony Li, flamboyant TV star, stylist, and owner of salon chain Tony Studios, non-coincidentally also one of the sponsors. There, prowling the cocktail circuit like Steppenwolf, was judge Zhang Huan, a performance artist who divides his time between New York and Shanghai. Earlier, we saw arrive on the red carpet the tall, slender supermodel known simply as Du Juan, Vogue’s first Asian cover star.
Leading them all was Miss Universe’s national director, Yue-Sai Kan (靳羽西), the cosmetics queen of China, who helped change the faces of women in the 1980s by introducing them to makeup — her makeup, Yue-Sai Cosmetics, to be precise. After 1989, so the story goes, the government pretty much made “Madam” Kan responsible for turning women away from the drably sexless look of the Mao era, and putting them back in front of their vanity units. The owner of Yue-Sai Cosmetics is now one of several women sometimes tritely called “China’s Oprah Winfrey.”
Lingering at the outskirts of this contingent alongside Emma, my Chinese-Australian photographer, and me were the aging members of Beijing’s Eurotrash contingent: Bernie Madoff look-alikes with much younger Chinese companions — who were they, one wondered, and, in a city where smog forever obscures the sun, where did they get their magnificent tans?
From France, perhaps: Chateaux Margaux, the prestige label that now sees much of its premier cru knocked back or knocked off by China’s emergent upper-middle classes, has put its general manager, Paul Pontallier, at Miss Universe’s disposal. Thanking the contestants, Pontallier described his initial perplexity at Margaux being called a “feminine wine,” claiming he now finally understood the appellation.
“It’s about beauty, elegance, subtlety, sensuality, charm…and power…we must never forget how powerful these women are,” uttered Pontallier, who’d flown in from Paris that day with a script of Gallic gratitude that clung close to parody. “This is the result of gifts from nature…from genes.”
“These women are dangerous!” exclaimed Madam Kan.
Prior to the foundation of the People’s Republic, private “beauty contests” took place in brothels — or for the benefit of emperors — on a regular basis. Mao’s takeover in 1949 initially seemed quite a positive thing, at least for women’s civil rights. Prostitution was outlawed, makeup and other bourgeoisie influences were condemned as capitalist, and women went to work next to men in factories and farms. Both genders were clad in the sexless “Mao suits” that characterized the period until 1978; women even sewed patches onto their clothes to make them look older.
After Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, the old vices and iniquities reappeared almost immediately. Prostitution returned with a vengeance — as well as its more innocent counterparts. “In fact, beauty contests in China during the 1980s were even more popularized than today,” said Fang Gang, director of the Institute of Sexuality and Gender Studies at the Beijing Forestry University, and author of Beauty Contests in China.
For a country that regards itself as traditional and conservative, China has beauty contests seemingly every month.
Initially, China’s Confucian streak revolted against the phenomenon. Leading the charge was the All-China Women’s Federation, which pressured lawmakers to uphold traditional values, forbid any official involvement in contests, and limit media reporting on them. In 1988, Beijing Television attempted to hold the first televised competition, which was eventually canceled; as late as 2002, police interrupted a bathing-suit pageant in southern China, saying it was against “regulations.”
By then, the horse had long bolted from the stable and was in the process of being groomed for international recognition. The state first got properly involved in 1991, sending a contestant to the Elite Model Look contest. The reasoning was perfectly simple: Officials were persuaded it would boost the country’s textile and fashion industry. “The power behind [them] is still economic benefit,” said Fang, explaining what’s known as the 美女 (měinǚ) industry — the hottie economy. “A beauty contest is fundamentally a business event. Just look at the amount of sponsorships it claims.”
The turning point came when the State Tourism Administration and the Foreign Ministry approved the first government-sponsored contest on the mainland, held in Shandong Province — the birthplace of Confucius, whose school of scholars frowned on femininity. “Women should have nothing to do with public affairs / And stick to spinning their silk,” as one poet sourly observes in the Confucian Book of Odes. But Beijing’s involvement politicized the contest, whether contestants liked it or not. Reporting on the growing popularity of pageants at China’s first Miss Universe heat in 2003, news agency Xinhua spoke to Li Fangran, a female clerk at Beijing Agricultural Bank. “Showing your beauty and slim figure in public is the freedom and right of women,” Li affirmed. “It has nothing to do with moral standards.”
Miss Universe is not a competition in the usual sense: a clash between rival abilities. It’s more a spot-the-difference contest, where the girl who makes one wins. Think of a Miss California heat; the audience at the MasterCard Center final didn’t have to: a montage of weepy, white former Miss Universes was screened on a loop throughout the ceremony, a soft-focus parade of near-identikit blondes, brunettes, and in-betweens, all boasting sun-kissed skin, smiles, and gleaming platitudes.
“They all look the same,” said Emma — observing the Beijing version. This was the bikini round, where every model wore blue and looked tall, taut, and toned. Then again, we were in the front row, which afforded the best possible view, as well as frat house commentary from a trio of suited businessmen seated behind us. “She’s such a babe,” the CEO of the Chinese arm of a major American investment bank panted. “That’s the one with the ass,” his friend affirmed. The banker asked for Emma’s number, clocked her press badge, and shifted in his seat. “Don’t you think this is utterly degrading to women?” he wondered, before requesting anonymity. It was a question I would later put to Madam Kan, to near-disastrous effect.
Back then, though, my thoughts were with one of the models: I’d interviewed Aliya, a 21-year-old from Xinjiang Province, studying preventative medicine at Fudan University, earlier that week. Articulate and thoughtful, Aliya was not particularly concerned about winning (“It’s a game for me. I try…but the result isn’t very important,” she shrugged) and defied the feminist cliché of the docile beauty queen, a dupe of the male gaze.
Beauty contests are intrinsically linked to national, ethnic, and, particularly, gender identity. The political demarcations of feminine beauty are undeniable…
Aliya is also a Uyghur and Muslim in a country that, despite (often) boasting 56 nationalities, is both officially atheist and ethnically Han: black hair, yellow skin, proudly homogenous. “Most Muslims don’t want girls to join these competitions,” she began. That’s a serious understatement: Nigerian fundamentalists ran riot before the Miss World finals in 2002 in Abuja, leaving 200 dead and 500 injured. “It’s a big problem for me… I don’t want to talk about it,” she added.
I was rooting for Aliya, partly because I’d met her, partly because I actually recognized her onstage, and partly because, as a minority, she was an underdog, despite her looks. Beauty contests are intrinsically linked to national, ethnic, and, particularly, gender identity. The political demarcations of feminine beauty are undeniable when China protests and meddles in events such as Miss Tibet and Miss Taiwan. I doubted Aliya would be able to escape the taint of her troubled province.
“I didn’t want to join at first because, maybe, they [the judges, presumably] don’t think I’m like Chinese because I’m a minority,” Aliya admitted. “But why can’t I represent my country? I am part of it and I am a different look. I can represent a different Chinese girl.” Despite her noble intentions, Aliya didn’t place in the top 10, though when I mentioned her name to Yue-Sai Kan, the cosmetics queen responded in rapturous terms: “Delicious, like an ice cream!”
So what were “they,” the judges, looking for, exactly? What does Miss Shanxi — slim, tall, black hair — have over the slender, long-legged, flaxen Miss Shanghai? Zhang Huan, the artist-cum-judge, dressed with the casual confidence that only comes from success (or self-delusion), like a chic migrant worker or Brother Sharp. His ideal was “a post-natural…combination of future and nature, [where] nature, umm, refers to the concept of inner beauty…a beautiful person should have an unsophisticated sort of quality, which should be futuristic at the same time, so that it surpasses the traditional concept of simplicity.”
How did he expect someone to measure up to this? “I didn’t find a beauty that met my standard today,” he said, sighing. Could anyone, though? “Oh, I’ve never thought about that, actually…although I’m sure there must be someone!”
Whoever Zhang’s someone was, China won’t be sending her to the final. The artist seemed fairly disappointed by the board’s chosen winner, Luo Zilin. She “cannot represent Chinese women today,” he expressed. “She’s too Westernized, her body, her feeling, her temperament — it’s all too Westernized.”
As for China’s dreams of winning: “No chance.”
Back in 2003, many were worried about the effect that beauty contests would have on society; there were particular fears that women would turn to cosmetic surgery, lengthening legs and widening eyes, in order to meet Western ideals. These worries turned out to be correct: In 2004, China saw its first Miss Plastic Surgery competition, which required a doctor’s certificate proving the work. The winner got 50,000 yuan ($6,000), about the cost of a nose job and breast implants.
But today, Madam Kan thinks Chinese women have mostly caught up with their foreign peers and are less disadvantaged from them in almost every way, barring education. “Today’s Chinese girls…in many ways are very much like a woman in Hong Kong, Taiwan, or, in some instances, America even, because they’ve been exposed to the same thing,” she told me. “A lot of them wear almost the same clothes…listen to the same music…but actually, when you really get down a little bit, they’re actually lacking a lot of the worldview.”
A woman of waning fame and influence, Madam Kan had nevertheless been courteous enough to keep me waiting only half an hour to speak to her. Fresh from interviews with Japanese media, she obligingly retold the story — for what must have been the thousandth time for her — of how she’d built her brand.
Despite her own personal success story, the imbalance of power between the sexes in China is almost institutionalized, especially in rural areas. In Wuhan, Hubei Province, in June, a creepier type of contest had recently taken place that neatly formalized the disparity: Wealthy, single businessmen had paid 99,999 yuan (US$15,435) for a daylong “dating convention” to meet potential girlfriends. Sixty women were chosen based on their looks. Most wore swimsuits; the men wore suits. The organizers didn’t bother to defend that, arguing that women were specifically judging their male clients by material prospects, not appearances.
They were right, of course: In a “socialist” capitalist society, beauty, like athleticism or a high net worth, is simply a value to be traded. “It’s like the Olympics,” Madam Kan mused. “Of course it is! How many things [do] you know where the contestant can actually wear the name of Miss China, with a crown. How many competitions are there on an international scale? Is there any difference?”
Beauty contests are no different than sports events, she argued; even if the event seems to be show jumping. If athletes are celebrated for their physical prowess — selling their bodies to sport, so to speak — why should her stable of starlets be treated any differently?
In order to prepare what she referred to as her “athletes” for the task, all 32 were sent on an intensive training course — “Booty Camp,” as a friend neatly put it — where, under Kan’s oversight, they woke at seven and worked till eleven, learning the rigors of deportment, spoken English, posing, and applying cosmetics (“Their makeup was perfect — they all used Yue-Sai cosmetics!” she noted delightedly).
The determination to regain face for the country, after so many years of failures, was evident everywhere. The competition’s patriotic slogan proclaims “Celebrating Chinese women, bringing glory to China”; only the first part is translated into English. If the winner goes on to win the worldwide final in September, it will add another medal to China’s growing collection of gold.
“Like, if an athlete gets a gold medal, what’s so bad about that? She’s an athlete, too, we train her like a horse…what’s so demeaning about that?” Madam Kan’s sudden defensive manner was the result of my asking, after some polite preamble, how she would have replied to the banker from the pageant, who’d suggested that the contest was degrading.
The atmosphere got slightly less cozy. “Who said that?” she demanded. “I don’t know how this idiot could have said something like that!” She went on to list the charitable achievements of Riyo Mori, the Japanese winner of Miss Universe 2007, who was one of this year’s judges in China, along with Petra Nemcova, another judge and model, whose experience of the 2004 Asian tsunami inspired her to establish the children’s charity Happy Hearts Fund. “There may be other events that are demeaning to women, but I guarantee you, that night, I would say that 99 percent of people would say we elevate women to a very high point,” Madam Kan said.
Judge Zhang Huan, too, was adamant that the images on display were nothing but positive for his country: “I think it represented the modern Chinese people’s hopes and dreams for women, especially young women. I think it did.”
“I didn’t find a beauty that met my standard today,” Zhang Huan said, sighing. Could anyone, though? “Oh, I’ve never thought about that, actually…”
“These beauty contests are reflections of the traditional societal gender system,” Fang Gang, the sociologist, said. “Whatever pretty name is used, they can’t cover their nature of treating women as commodities to consume and enjoy.”
The accusation of exploitation didn’t go away, and it seemed surprising, given the cheesy reputation of Miss Universe — run since 2002 by Donald Trump, of all people — that it should have offended Kan so much. [Editor’s note: Trump sold his Miss Universe Organization to the talent agency WME-IMG in September 2015 for an undisclosed amount.] Was her indignation merely a front — or are Chinese values of femininity (and feminism) simply different?
The two most prevailing stereotypes of Chinese women — in the West, at least — are the “dragon lady,” the kind of no-nonsense power madam recently given a new lease of life by the “tiger mother,” and the courtesan, once epitomized by Suzy Wong and the culture of concubines. Madam Kan was certainly capable of breathing a little fire (“That man deserves to be punched!”), but was otherwise very amiable. Her contestants may have smiled passively onstage, but, like Aliya from Xinjiang, were perfectly capable of holding their own outside the spotlight.
Perhaps one difference is a sense of pragmatism over lofty idealism. “There are lots of so-called feminist women who don’t do anything,” noted Kan scornfully. “Yet Miss Universe this year raised something like…68 million dollars for [good causes]…what’s wrong with that?”
Is Kan a feminist herself? “Yes, but…in a different kind of sense. Everything I have done is pioneering and my success did not come because…my father is some kind of Chinese leader…everything came from zero. But I believe women should be feminine.” Here she referred to a kind of traditional, Confucian ideal, instilled by her mother, where women behave demurely, deferring to men perhaps in public but getting things done privately — such as building up a business empire or running global brands like Miss Universe.
“That’s why that comment was very offensive to me and it is not even correct,” Madam Kan remarked, still slightly fuming as we finished up. “From the get-go, that is the last thing we had in mind… How can we celebrate Chinese women if we demean Chinese women?”
On the subject of pragmatism and material values: Miss Universe is one of those shows where nobody goes home empty-handed. Thirty-one of the contestants may not make it to Sao Paolo, Brazil, for the big autumn final, but they still got plenty of prizes: cameras, shoes, clothing, makeup (no prizes for guessing whose), hi-fi equipment, dental treatment, and English lessons. Include the trip to Beijing and the whirlwind of promotions, and it’s not such a bad return for a girl from the provinces for a bit of bikini modeling.
The winner, Luo Zilin 罗紫琳, also receives a yearlong contract with YSK Promotions, which includes a “personal chaperone,” plus the trip to Brazil. And Luo gets to keep her Lukfook crown, valued (by the jeweler, at least) at 2.8 million yuan, or just under $450,000.
We also got to keep a little something. Back home, I unpacked the party’s goodie bag. Among the usual promotional materials (a heavy brochure from Mercedes, straight to recycling) were a large bottle of expensive foreign perfume, some lingerie, a free dental checkup at a Beijing clinic, and vouchers for a women’s boutique. Altogether, not a bad haul, which is what Miss Universe is supposed to be about: beauty as commodity, packaged and exported, and thoroughly modern.
“It’s definitely not progressive,” argued gender expert Fang. “But I wouldn’t say it’s devolving, either, because there just is no ‘progressive’ sex equality or sex recognition in China. I would say it’s a reflection of diversity. Personally, I think even something that is academically criticized should be able to exist. Everyone has the right to choose his or her own lifestyle…which includes being appreciated, consumed, or even purchased.”
UPDATE, 11/24/17: 2011 Miss China Luo Zilin placed fifth — or “fourth runner-up,” in pageant-speak — at the Miss Universe pageant in Brazil. She later competed in the American reality TV show The Face.