Her hair is jet black and curly, her figure trim, her face free of wrinkles. Liu Yulan looks at least a decade younger than her 62 years — thanks to four visits to a cosmetic surgeon.
Liu is one of 19 finalists in China’s first beauty pageant for women who have undergone plastic surgery, part of the country’s increasingly fevered pursuit of beauty as the economy soars and people spend more money and time on their looks.
The government says the country’s fast-growing cosmetic surgery industry rakes in $2.4 billion a year as patients rush to go under the knife to widen eyes, narrow faces and fill out lips and breasts, emerging as “renzao meinu” — manmade beauties.
“Before, I couldn’t imagine that it was possible to have places where the old could become young and the ugly could become beautiful,” said Liu, who attributes her youthful looks to facelifts and surgery on her eyelids.
Wearing a formfitting carmine Mandarin-collar dress with silver beading, she joined contestants Sunday as they waved and posed for reporters, parading on stage in glittering gowns and plunging necklines minutes after a team of experts brushed, spritzed and teased their hair.
The finalists, aged 18 to 62, will vie for the top prize next Saturday after a week of rehearsals. Other individual prizes will also be awarded for best figure, biggest change and best stage demeanor.
“This contest shows women’s strong pursuit of beauty,” said Han Wei, an organizer. “We would like to use it to unveil the mystery of manmade beauty and let society have a complete understanding of every aspect.”
Highlighting benefits of plastic surgery
More than 90 people from other countries applied, including women from the United States and Japan, but she said none was chosen because they either weren’t serious about the contest or had language or scheduling problems. Applicants also had to show certificates to prove they had plastic surgery.
The idea for the competition took shape shortly after an 18-year-old woman was disqualified from a Chinese beauty pageant earlier this year because she had plastic surgery. She sued for emotional damage — and lost.
Organizers say they want to emphasize the upside of plastic surgery.
“Manmade beauty is a trend in China,” said Xia Lingsheng, who heads one of the companies in charge of the event. “We want people — especially young people — to understand that they should not blindly seek manmade beauty. They need to understand it.”
The quest for beauty has been part of Chinese culture for centuries. But after the 1949 Communist takeover, and especially during Mao’s 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, the norm changed. Women were recruited for all jobs. Clothes became unisex as most donned army uniforms or shapeless blue or gray Mao suits and cotton shoes.
In the 1980s, as China engaged the international community, Hong Kong and Japan — and, later, the United States — provided inspiration for women’s body images.
By 2001, Chinese were buying $5 billion worth of cosmetics products a year, according to the Web site of the China Hair and Beauty Association.
China has also hosted the Miss World beauty pageant two years in a row and will take on the role again next year.
Liu Xiaojing, a 21-year-old from the northeastern city of Harbin, was a man three years ago but doesn’t feel that undermines her chances in the contest.
“Becoming beautiful is everyone’s wish,” said Liu, who was wearing a strapless turquoise dress. “I am now legally a woman, and this contest is my first formal step toward womanhood.”
Liu didn’t tell organizers she was a transsexual, and they didn’t ask. On Sunday, she revealed in front of reporters that she used to be a man. Han said no decision had been made on whether she still qualified as a contestant.
“If they disqualify me, I will use legal means to seek fairness,” said Liu, who has also had work done on her eyebrows, nose, chin and facial shape. “This is a turning point in my life.”
Liu, the retiree from northern Hebei province, said winning wasn’t her goal. Instead, she wanted to prove a point — to herself as much as those around her.
“I want to show my attitude of my heart, my self-confidence,” she said, tapping her chest. “I’m fantastic!”