Robertha Budy heard the insult when she was a little girl, and now, even at Georgia State University in Atlanta, she still hears it. "You're Liberian? Isn't that in Africa? You don't look like it. You're pretty."
She put the negative thought out of her mind while winning the Miss Liberia USA pageant last year, calming her nerves for the judges the way she did while facing students.
"I said I was going to keep on smiling," said Budy, 21, a dead ringer for the singer/actress Brandy. "There wasn't a moment when I felt defeated."
In recent years, ethnic immigrant women of a wide range of hues have been flocking to nationalist pageants that ramp up their confidence and that of their communities by embracing their distinctive features. The proliferation of these pageants also reflects the reality of an America more ethnically diverse than ever.
Miss Vietnam USA, a pageant that is only three years old, crowned its 2006 winner, Virginia Nguyen, this summer in Costa Mesa, Calif. Miss Ethiopia North America crowned its first queen, Medhanite Tekle, in Crystal City in September. And Budy handed over her Miss Liberia USA 2004 crown to this year's queen, Delcontee Glekiah, at a ceremony in Philadelphia.
Also crowned this past summer were Miss India USA in Tampa; Miss Asian America, in San Francisco; Miss Latina U.S., at the Barcelo Maya Beach Resort in Mexico; and Miss Haiti in New York City, to name a few. Few of the pageants date back more than a decade.
'Their looks are validated'
The shows are "a validation of beauty and culture that's not seen in the American mainstream," said Shilpa Dav, an assistant professor of American studies at Brandeis University.
"It gives a lot of confidence to women because they are seeing other women who look like them, and their looks are validated," said Dav, who helped produce a 1997 documentary of the Miss India Georgia pageant.
The contests, which are growing in popularity even as traditional beauty contests are losing their allure, are patterned after the Miss America pageant, yet include colorful twists that recall tradition. Young, often brainy contestants wear an Ethiopian Absha Kamise or similar culture-specific outfits that their mothers and great-grandmothers would have worn.
At immigrant pageants, beauty has a browner, more worldly tinge. Noses are wider and eyes are a gooey chocolate brown, framed in various almond-like contours. Hips sway more in talent segments, such as an adaptation of a Bollywood performance at Miss India or a belly dance at Miss Liberia.
"It's just as important as Miss America, if not more," said Reshoo Pande, 22, Miss India USA 2004, who brought down the house by dancing like her Bollywood idol, actress Madhuri Dixit. "This is not our homeland. We get to share our common experiences, our beliefs, our confusion about living here. It's good knowing your culture is appreciated."
Age-old split resurfaces
But the pageants also bring intense debates within these ethnic communities -- discussions that reflect the age-old split among immigrants over assimilation and retaining cultural mores.
Some, especially feminists, believe the pageants are more about assimilation than heritage.
"In Little Tokyo beauty contests in the '90s, the women who were selected turned out to have more Caucasian features," said Kyeyoung Park, an associate professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. "They tended to select more mixed-race people."
Dav said the disconnect might reflect tension between old-world immigrant parents and their Americanized children, many of whom intermarry.
"The first generation wants to see in their children a continuity of the place from which they came," she said. "The second generation has to deal with being a minority among people who don't understand their home, and that's the dichotomy."
Cosmetic surgery is another touchy subject. Like white Americans, ethnic immigrants and their American-born progeny seek out plastic surgeons. But because many Asian Americans are prone to change their eyelids and enlarge their chests, and some black people streamline their broad noses, they are accused of trying to look white.
Nguyen is a natural beauty with no surgical touch-ups. But she did engage in another pageant hot-button practice, showing skin in a yellow bikini.
"Part of being in a public crowd . . . is you have to be comfortable in your own skin," said Nguyen, a medical student who is svelte and fit. "Whether I'm fat or whatever, I have to love myself."
Miss India organizers would have no part of such displays, a cultural taboo. And conservative-minded Ethiopians, said Tekle of Alexandria, would rather not.
"If it is a competition to show skin, then it's not a competition worth having," said Tekle, who grinned and bared it for a cause. "The ultimate goal is to represent your country."
For many contestants, instilling pride
The goal at Miss Liberia was simple: instill pride in Liberian women, said Agnes Donaldson, a pageant organizer.
Days before the contest, two teenage girls approached Miss Liberia in Pennsylvania. "You're so pretty," Donaldson recalled one girl's comment. "You don't look African."
It was an echo of the remarks Budy heard all her life from black Americans and white Americans, and now they were coming from two Liberians.
The media stereotype of barely dressed Africans, living Tarzan-like in the jungle, was alive in their minds, Donaldson said.
"In America, Liberian women hide their identity," she said. "What we want to do with the pageant is say, 'Yes, you're Liberian. Yes, you're beautiful. And yes, you're different.' These girls' complexions are darker, and we want them to appreciate that and themselves, to know that they're as beautiful as anyone."
Guy Hua, co-founder of Miss Vietnam USA, echoed that, saying the pageant was formed because "we have a lot of beautiful Vietnamese women. We want them to go out and represent the community."
To entice participants, Hua and his partners stage an elaborate show, costing $300,000 this year, down from a half-million in 2004.
In its three-year history, about 1,000 women have competed each year. The grand prize, $10,000 and a new Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan valued at more than $35,000, provided a strong incentive.
"This is one pageant that unites us," Hua said. "It brings tears to your eyes. The Vietnamese people here, we're stuck together because we got kicked out of the country. We have no one but ourselves."
Nguyen, of Newark, Calif., used the money to pay for school and said the car rides smoother than her old Honda Civic. But she had to work hard to get it, because with so much loot on the line, the competition got fierce.
"When I started to win . . . some of the girls wouldn't talk to me," she said. "My whole motto was, 'If I'm going to be Miss Vietnam USA, I'm going to be an ambassador for Vietnamese women.' If other girls didn't like me, it really didn't matter."
Contestants either have that type of take-charge confidence or they lose, said Miltonia Warner, Miss Liberia Virginia, who lost to Budy in the national contest. When Budy took the stage, she glowed.
"If you come out there, and you feel that you are confident, you know that you are," Warner said. "You smile more, you swing your hips a little more because you know that you have it."
Pande said the Miss India pageant made her a more complete person.
"I don't believe I was the prettiest one or the most talented," she said. But she worked the judges with moxie and a smile that lit the stage. Studying Indian culture gave her a winning edge.
"After they asked the questions about culture, I had a good feeling about it," she said. "I knew what the judges wanted."