Ethnic Pageants Restyle the American Beauty Contest

Washington Post

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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.

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.”

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