Catherine Hui, a contestant in the Miss NY Chinese Beauty Pageant 2014, has makeup applied before the show at the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn. In its 13th year, MNYCBP has become one of the most influential Chinese events in the U.S., while providing a major platform for American Chinese girls to enter the entertainment industry in China. The pageant accentuates the girls’ eyes to look bigger and doll like. “I have a mono lid…I love my Oriental eyes because they make me different,” said Alice Zhang. “But they (pageant team) always change it to give me the double eye lid.” The girls are taught to use double eye lid tape, enlarging eye contacts, Dolly Wink eye lashes, a lot of sun block and bright pink make up to achieve a wholesome and innocent look. “The Chinese beauty aesthetic is similar to Anime—super flawless,” said contestant Stephanie Hau.
Image consultant Danni Wang, left, talks before the show with Michelle Kaszuba, the pageant's 1st runner up in 2013, who will present the 2014 runner up with a tiara. MNYCBP’s 2013 First Runner Up, Michelle Sun, said, “The biggest thing this pageant has helped me with is my confidence. I’ve seen many girls go through the same transformation."
Tracy Liu has makeup applied before the start of the pageant. “It’s always been a life long dream of mine to join a pageant,” said Liu. “I admired seeing the transformation regular girls showed having been through the MNYCBP process and the elegance, brains and beauty they possessed.”
Nicole Chen and Carson AM style the hair of Michelle Li, a dancer at the pageant. MNYCBP "is an academy to improve the girls in many aspects, including self-confidence, etiquette and talent,” said President Evelyn Ho. The top 14 contestants entered intense training where they were taught to do their make up, to cat walk, to dance, to sit properly, and to be respectful. The girls described the pageant as a transformative process to challenge themselves and bring out their best.
Contestants Stephanie Hau and Lili Wat practice their catwalk technique with two mirrors backstage before the start of the pageant. Chinese culture teaches people to be more reserved, while America prides itself on freedom of speech. “In the Chinese culture, you don’t get to speak your mind too much. If we don’t have anything important to say, we are asked to sit and smile at all times during sponsor visits,” said contestant Alice Zhang. “There is a Chinese proverb, ‘The gun shoots the bird that first flies out of the tree,’” said contestant Xiren Wang. “Knowing my parameters for the duration of this pageant—and also in other environments—is key to surviving.”
Judges Danni Wang, Bethany Seidel, Linda Sun, Deng Long and Robert So wait at their table for the pageant to start.
Xiren Wang, Lili Wat, and Sitong Chen join the pageant’s opening routine, dancing to “The Boys,” a song by K-Pop group Girls’ Generation. While the women come from a range of professional backgrounds – including economics, nursing, and acting – every contestant is looking for her big break into the entertainment industry. Most contestants said they would prefer to have a career in the U.S. but would go wherever the opportunity lies. Wang views the pageant as a pathway to grow her stature as an entertainer, so she can ultimately bring about humanitarian change. “I’ve always aspired to be a cultural ambassador, and the pageant provides a path that embodies the very essence of this,” she said. Wang previously used music therapy to work with traumatized children in the Balkans, refugees in the Middle East, and orphans in Tibet and Haiti.
Members of the audience watch contestants take individual spins on the catwalk. “There is a lot of media attention on us for the pageant. As an actress who works in show biz, I want to be able to meet people and work with them,” said Xiren Wang. The pageant works closely with TV and film production companies in mainland China and Hong Kong, helping many pageant girls obtain contracts after the competition. Presently, careers are developed mostly in China since the girls have an advantage over their domestic peers by being bi-lingual and bi-cultural. In addition, China has a huge market for Asian entertainers whereas the U.S. has limited roles for Asian Americans.
Yixuan Feng stands on stage in her bathing suit for the Question and Answer segment of the evening. Roughly half of the contestants spoke in Chinese, and the rest in English. The hosts' questions addressed diverse subjects including: preferred supernatural ability, response to discovering a cheating partner and suitable beneficiaries of philanthropy. “The Q&A portion in our bikinis is the most awkward part because everyone is staring at you,” said Alice Zhang, “but it has taught us to be more confident in our own skin.” Charis Chu adds, “We celebrate everyone being comfortable in their body shape. Even though I’m not perfect, I’m confident—that’s what beautiful women carry.”
Sitong Chen performs a traditional dance during the talent portion of the competition. The pageant promotes the preservation of Chinese culture while preparing the contestants for careers in an international environment. “With globalization, the mesh of cultures is increasing,” said Xiren Wang. The pageant contestants say they seek to be the bridge between the rapidly growing Asian community in the U.S. and China.
Contestants for Miss NY Chinese Beauty Pageant 2014 gather on stage for the announcement of the overall winner along with other prizes for congeniality, fitness and photogenic appeal. “I remember watching Hong Kong's beauty pageant competitions every year growing up and I have always imagined myself as one of the girls on stage,” said Lili Wat. “Now as one of the top 14 contestants, my dream have finally come true.”
Charis Chu receives two ribbons near the end of the pageant, for Miss Internet Favorite and for Miss Photogenic. Chu hopes to become a film director one day so that she can create more opportunities for Asian Americans. “There are very limited roles for Asian Americans…when you go into an audition room for an Asian role, people start judging each other,” said Chu. “That’s why I want to get into filmmaking because I will have more creative control. Instead of judging each other for the same role, we can all rise together in the film industry.”
Catherine Hui’s jaw drops at the news that she’s won the 2014 Miss NY Chinese crown. Embracing her is first runner up Sitong Chen. Contestants say although the pageant emphasizes physical beauty, they felt they learned much more through the experience. “The pageant brings out the best in everyone, training you to be a better person,” said Lili Wat. “Behind the scenes, everyone is themselves. On camera and on stage, they teach us to be another character, but that hasn’t changed us.”
Audience members react to the crowning of Miss NY Chinese 2014 at the end of the show. “Going through the pageant made me realize that it’s okay to not conform,” said contestant Charis Chu. “We’re all different, we’re all imperfect. As long as we are confident and have a good heart, then we are beautiful.”