Copyright The Financial Times
The beauty pageant, once the west’s symbol of oppression of women, has become the east’s champion of opportunity, writes Alexandra Harney
Wang Yaoyao strode to centre stage in a packed Beijing theatre wearing a slinky black cocktail dress: “Beautiful faces also have beautiful dreams,” she told a row of judges seated in the crowd. “My wish is that everyone can realise their own dreams.” A 21-year-old native of the central Chinese province of Hubei, Wang had already paraded before the audience in a royal blue swimsuit. But few people had come to hear her speak or see her walk across the stage. At the first annual Miss Artificial Beauty contest, the real focus was on what Wang’s plastic surgeon had given her: a nose job, double eyelids, a smaller chin, thicker lips and a tummy tuck.
“Even if you’re smart and good at what you do, nobody will listen to what you have to say if you’re ugly. But if you’re beautiful, people want to be close to you immediately. Then you can talk to them and get your message across,” Wang, an advertising executive, told me later.
Like at least one other contestant, Wang had struck a deal under which she agreed to promote the hospital that performed her plastic surgery in exchange for getting the work for free.
Beauty pageants have become big business in China. In the past year, the country has hosted Miss World for the second time, reaching an estimated 200m television viewers across the country, while Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, held a Miss Intercontinental competition, and south-western Sichuan province hosted its own Miss Universe-China pageant. Then there was Miss Tourism Queen International in the eastern city of Hangzhou and Miss International in Beijing.
Not to mention the Top Model of the World pageant, the China International Stewardess Beauty Pageant, and the Zhen’ao Cup National Contest of the Beauty of the Gray-Headed Group, open only to those aged over 55.
By January of this year, mini-beauty pageants had become so popular in Chinese schools, at both primary and high school age, that the Ministry of Education saw fit to ban them.
China’s new found passion for beauty pageantry reflects a sea-change from the days of the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, when Chinese women were forced to wear drab blue dresses, cut their hair short and forgo make-up. Looking overly feminine was considered bourgeois, a view encapsulated in Mao Zedong’s aphorism: aphorism: “Times have changed, men and women are the same”.
In 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available, Chinese women bought Rmb75bn (Dollars 9bn) of beauty products, according to the China Association of Fragrance, Flavour and Cosmetics Industry.
The plastic surgery business, which sponsored Miss Artificial Beauty, is booming.
There are now so many beauty contests in China that people in the industry are starting to complain of saturation.
As an American in China, I am fascinated by the popularity of these pageants. Growing up in a suburb of Washington, DC, in the 1970s and 1980s, not long after feminists dumped their high heels and girdles in a “freedom trash can” outside the 1968 Miss America contest, had watched beauty pageants with amused disdain.
Where I come from, no matter how fervently the contestants expressed their desire for world peace, no matter how expertly they performed their baton routines, all anyone ever really talked about was how they looked in the swimsuit competition.
Miss Artificial Beauty, though, turned the traditional beauty contest on its head by celebrating the superficiality and pecuniary motives of pageantry. Had China, with its characteristic swift pace of social and economic change, already hurtled past several decades of Western thinking on these issues to come to its own, unique conclusions? In search of an answer, I paid a visit to Ning Xiaozhou. A heavyset, jovial man who looks younger than his 49 years, Ning helped create one of China’s first beauty pageants as an executive at Guangzhou Television in the southern province of Guangdong in the late 1980s.
As a newly established station with a mandate to generate cash from advertising rather than rely on government funding, Guangzhou TV was strapped for cash.
Ning and his colleagues cast around for new sources of advertising revenue. They settled on a TV drama and a beauty contest, though Mr Ning admits that he had never seen a pageant.
The contest was controversial from the start. Although Beijing had, since the late 1970s, considered Guangdong a petri dish for experimentation with reform, beauty contests tested the limits of official tolerance.
They were, after all, a cultural import from the capitalist west.
Guangzhou TV tried to head off complaints from government officials by naming naming the contest Mei zai hua cheng, or City Beauty, to brand it as a local event rather than a bikini parade.
“If we called it a beauty contest, the authorities wouldn’t have given us permission to hold it,” Ning said. The station even recruited male as well as female contestants.
But, come pageant day in May 1988, public opinion was still mixed.
Nearly two decades later, Chinese people may have forgotten their reservations about beauty contests but the government has not. Chen Ci, mayor of Sanya, the resort town on the southern island of Hainan that hosted Miss World in 2003 and 2004 and will host it again next month, admits winning official approval for the competition wasn’t easy.
“We tried to convince our colleagues in Beijing and other people that it’s not simply a beauty contest. It’s not simply a demonstration of women’s bodies,” he told me just before last December’s Miss World.
“We just said it’s good for tourism and it’s not against the socialist spiritual civilisation. They didn’t say no.” What intrigues me is that while beauty pageants were once portrayed as a manifestation of the oppression of women in the US, in China they are seen as evidence of social and economic development. “The Chinese government thinks that if they have these kind of contests, people will think we are an open country,” Wang Ning, professor at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, said.
And, in some ways, the Chinese government is right. For all the irony implicit in flying 107 beautiful women, their designer gowns, curlers and make-up to an island as poor and backward as Hainan, Miss World has brought with it a modicum of economic improvement.
Chen, wearing a “Blue Canyon Country Club – Phuket” shirt, ticks off the benefits in fluent English: tax income and land prices are up sharply, in no small part because of the exposure the contest brings the island.
More tourists are coming to Sanya – Japanese, South Koreans, Russians, and especially Germans. Then there are the intangible benefits.
“When the contestants came last year, I was proud to see that our teenagers behaved well, with warmth and openness. They were also able to communicate with (the contestants) in English.” says Li Boqing, deputy director of Sanya’s tourism bureau.
“Their behaviour was completely different from when we had similar events here seven or eight years ago, when the children were inarticulate.
Money can’t buy what we’ve gained from this pageant.” Which is fortunate, because Sanya invested heavily in luring Miss World. Li says the city paved roads, built a theatre tailored for the contest called the “Beautycrown” and paid the Miss World Organisation Dollars 4m for the licence to host the pageant before it had received Beijing’s approval.
I asked Ma Yong, an executive at the Southern Metropolis Daily, one of China’s most progressive and popular newspapers with a reputation for investigative reporting, what his newspaper wanted to gain from its sponsorship of the Miss Shenzhen contest and the publication of a thick insert filled with pictures of, and interviews with, young women.
“We had two aims: to build our brand and to make money,” said Ma frankly, as he sat in an office in the newspaper’s Shenzhen bureau flanked by former Miss Shenzhen contestants.
In 2002, the first year Southern Metropolis held Miss Shenzhen, it generated revenues of Rmb2m. By last year, the figure had tripled to Rmb6m.
Most of this money comes from sponsors, not all of them Chinese. City Beauty, the contest Ning helped start, counts as its largest sponsor Procter & Gamble, the US consumer goods group.
Volvo, the carmaker, Clarks, the UK shoe company, and Malaysia Airlines also chip in. The contest receives about Rmb25m in sponsorship.
Contestants pay Rmb100 to register for the contest and another Rmb900 for the beauty boot camp that precedes the pageant. City Beauty’s two- month training course covers everything from how to walk and talk during the show to handling the humiliation of losing.
These courses have given China’s beauty queens an eerie confidence and polished fluency familiar to fans of the rotating cuppedhand “Miss America wave”.
When asked a question, they don’t hesitate but answer swiftly, and in complete sentences.
“Why are beauty pageants so popular in China?” I asked Li Jinling, who was elected Most Popular at the 2004 City Beauty competition, her first beauty pageant.
“I don’t think this contest is purely a beauty pageant.
It is helping to improve the quality of our generation,” she replied with a smile.
Pageants are also improving the profits of a generation of businessmen, who are not shy about admitting their motivation in making money from parading women around in bathing suits.
“Pageants are new to China, and people like to follow fads,” said Lu Junqing, Junqing, chairman of Tianjiu Media, which organised Miss Artificial Beauty, Miss Universe- China, Miss Intercontinental and Miss International Super Model.
Lu created Miss Artificial Beauty after Yang Yuan, then 18 years old, was thrown out of the Miss Beijing round of Miss Intercontinental because she had had plastic surgery. A Beijing court refused to hear a lawsuit against Lu’s company, filed by Yang, who spent Rmb110,000 surgically improving her looks before the pageant.
Lu, like others I spoke to, warned that too many people were trying to cash in on the beauty contest fad. “People have come to accept beauty pageants but, at the same time, some people have said that there are too many.” It’s a common story line in Chinese business these days: someone hits on a good idea, his rivals pile into the same market, competition drives prices down, and all of a sudden, nobody is making any money any more.
“I believe contests like Miss Old Lady or Miss Universe, or the model contests won’t last long in China,” said Ning. “They might last two or three years but not more than four because their sponsors won’t be cheated twice . . . their only goal is to make money.” It took a while to find someone in China who saw pageants in the same way as my forebears protesting outside the Miss America pageant.
Most of the coverage in the Chinese media focuses on the contestants and the occasional ejection of a transsexual or a person with plastic surgery from one of the international pageants.
But Wang Hongwei, a professor at Guangzhou’s South China Normal University has given a great deal of thought to the social implications of what she calls China’s “beauty economy”.
Over a salad and fruit juice at her university canteen, she told me that she worried pageants are narrowing the standard for what Chinese people consider beautiful. Pageants are part of a trend, Wang said, of elevating beauty’s importance in society to a point where less attractive women would have trouble finding a husband or a job.
“When I ask my male students what they dream of, they say owning a car and being with a beautiful woman. They never used to talk like that,” she said.
Even this description struck me as evidence of the type of tectonic shift that Chinese people see so frequently these days that they no longer appear dramatic.
Chinese women’s dreams of instant wealth or overnight celebrity are no different from those of many in the West, as the hit TV programmes American Idol and Survivor illustrate. The popularity of these dreams in China testifies to how the lives of its people have changed, in a few decades.
During the Cultural Revolution, state propaganda promoted the “Iron Woman”, the strapping tractor-driving, oil-drilling female. Today, women in Chinese advertisements recline on sofas in their new homes and wonder at their sleek shampooed hair.
Meanwhile, real Chinese women, like young women in small towns across the US, line up for pageant after pageant.
Of course, most cannot afford the extravagance of a beauty pageant, much less the homes in those advertisements: about 800m of the country’s 1.3bn people still live in poverty.
I saw this contrast in the beauty queens I met, who embodied the contradictions that China’s explosive economic growth is creating.
They journey to and from pageants on the country’s ageing, crowded rail network but they crave Dior cosmetics and Burberry perfume.
They dream of travelling abroad but are good daughters in the traditional Chinese sense. Li Yang, who won last year’s City Beauty contest, gave the Rmb150,000 prize money together with the new Honda car she won to her mother.
And yet, the pageants do seem to represent a widening of the band of economic opportunity for women.
“Everyone comes to these contests with their own purpose,” Dai Xuan, who competed in last December’s Miss Shenzhen, told me at Southern Metropolis Daily’s office. “The contestants get what they want, and the public gets entertained.” She is right: China’s beauty queens do have an agenda. Feng Qian won Miss Artificial Beauty in no small part because she told the judges she was studying to be a plastic surgeon. Many of the judges were representatives from the plastic surgery industry. Contestants from other pageants told me they hoped to use the contest to launch acting or modelling careers.
After Miss Artificial Beauty, a colleague and I boarded a coach with the contestants bound for a dingy Chinese restaurant in a corner of Beijing. I wanted to know what the contestants planned to do after their careers in pageants.
Wang, the advertising account executive, told me that this would be her last contest. She wasn’t going to win every pageant, she reasoned.
Instead, she was planning to focus more on her job, to improve her relationships with clients. And then later she’d like to be a freelance writer, so she could work at home. “I’d like that kind of freedom,” she said.
It occurred to me that that was exactly the kind of thing an American girl her age might say.
ALEXANDRA HARNEY – The Financial Times
Copyright The Financial Times